Northern Ireland Finances

– in the House of Commons at 6:20 pm on 12th March 2018.

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Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 6:20 pm, 12th March 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Northern Ireland finances.

Last week, I made a written statement in which I explained that the pressures on public services meant that it was imperative for the Government to take steps to provide clarity to enable planning in Northern Ireland for 2018-19. With great reluctance and in spite of my strong preference for a new Executive to set a budget, I set out in that statement the resource and capital allocations that I considered to be the most balanced and appropriate settlement for Northern Ireland Departments. I did this following intensive engagement with the Northern Ireland civil service and consultation with all the main Northern Ireland parties. In the continued absence of an Executive, I have an obligation to take these and any other measures that are necessary to keep Northern Ireland functioning, but I will only take such measures where they are essential, limited in nature and part of a clear and consistent approach by the Government.

This approach is based on a number of principles. First, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the Belfast agreement; all that we do will be with the purpose of protecting and fulfilling the agreement. But, secondly, we will take those decisions that are necessary to provide good governance and political stability for Northern Ireland, consistent always with restoring the Executive and local decision making at the earliest possible opportunity. Thirdly, we will continue to implement our obligations under the agreement and its successors where possible, always working for the good of the community as a whole. Finally, we will continue to work with all the Northern Ireland parties—and with the Irish Government as appropriate—to remove the barriers to restoring the Executive and a fully functioning Assembly.

The principles at the core of the agreement, and the political institutions that it establishes, continue to have our full and unreserved support. We will uphold the principle of consent, consistent with this Government’s support for Northern Ireland’s place within the Union and while maintaining the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. We believe in devolution and the imperative for local decision making by local politicians. We support power sharing on a cross-community basis, based on mutual respect and recognition. We will continue to support and facilitate north-south co-operation, including as we leave the EU, while always preserving the economic integrity of the United Kingdom. We will continue to work closely with the Irish Government in full accordance with the three-stranded approach. And we will continue to act fairly and govern in the interests of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland.

The necessary steps that I have taken and will continue to take are consistent with all these commitments. In addition to the steps I set out last week, there are several associated measures required to further secure public finances, which I will be taking forward. As well as cutting costs, securing efficiencies and beginning to take the steps to transform public services, it is right to look at how income can be increased to protect the public services on which the people of Northern Ireland depend. So I will introduce legislation to set a regional rate, which will increase domestic rates by 3% above inflation. This will make an important contribution to sustainable finances in the long run, with the additional funding addressing urgent pressures in health and education.

I intend to act to extend the cost-capping of the current renewable heat incentive scheme in Northern Ireland, which the Assembly had put in place over a year ago. It would not be acceptable to put finances at risk by simply allowing that cap to lapse. I therefore propose to extend it for a further year from 1 April, the minimal possible step to protect the public purse. I will also confirm the final spending totals for the Northern Ireland Departments for the 2017-18 financial year in legislation, to set supplementary estimates.

I believe that the time is right to address the ongoing public concern about MLA pay in the absence of a functioning Assembly. I thank Trevor Reaney, who was instructed by my predecessor to produce an independent view and recommended a 27.5% reduction to MLA pay. I will seek to introduce legislation to take a power to vary MLA pay. Further to that, I am minded to reduce pay in line with the Reaney review recommendation, but I would welcome full and final representations from the Northern Ireland parties before I make a final decision.

These measures—which I take reluctantly, but which are necessary in the absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly—will deliver the stability and the decisions to enable forward planning for the financial year ahead. But I am clear that they cannot provide the local input and fundamental decisions that are needed to secure a more sustainable future for Northern Ireland. My powers as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are limited. The scope of this House to pass legislation on the devolved issues that matter for Northern Ireland is limited. This rightly reflects the devolution settlement that is in place and to which this Government are committed. But in the continuing absence of an Executive, there are fundamental decisions in Northern Ireland that cannot be taken, scrutinised and implemented as they should be.

That has been the situation for 14 months already, and in the continued absence of an Executive, it would be irresponsible for us not to consider how we might provide for different arrangements until such time as the devolved institutions are back up and running. Alongside this, I continue to keep under review my statutory obligation to call an Assembly election. I would welcome the views and proposals of the Northern Ireland parties and others on how such arrangements—providing for local decision making and scrutiny on a cross-community basis—might be achieved in the continued absence of an Executive and how any such arrangements might work alongside the other institutions of the agreement.

Let me be clear that this in no way affects my commitment to the Belfast agreement, or my commitment to work to remove the barriers to the restoration of devolution. As the 20th anniversary of the Belfast agreement approaches, I am clearer than ever that Northern Ireland needs strong political leadership from a locally elected and accountable devolved Government, and that remains my firm goal. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 6:27 pm, 12th March 2018

May I begin by wishing the Secretary of State a very happy birthday for today? I thank her for advance sight of her statement. Of course, we saw most of it last week when the Government effectively published the budget for Northern Ireland in a written statement that came out at 5 o’clock on a Thursday evening, and I have to say that I think that is an unsatisfactory state of affairs; it is a bit discourteous to this House and, more importantly, the people of Northern Ireland to announce what is a £10.5 billion budget affecting key services for 1.8 million citizens in such a manner, with no opportunity for this House to question, challenge or, certainly, to amend those allocations, and in the absence of any accountable devolved Government in Northern Ireland. I am sure the Secretary of State would not think that was a suitable way to set a budget for her constituents in Staffordshire or mine in Pontypridd, and I hope she will explain to the House why the Government felt they needed to do it in that fashion.

Dare I suggest, Mr Speaker, that the real reason for this slightly stealthy announcement is that the Government are a bit embarrassed that just days before the Conservative party is going to vote through the latest rounds of cuts for public services affecting citizens in England, Wales and Scotland, the £1 billion partnership with the Democratic Unionist party means that Northern Ireland alone is being spared? We absolutely welcome that investment in Northern Ireland, but we also need to see investment in health and education and other key public services in every part of the UK, not just the bit where the Tories need DUP votes.

Turning to the substance of the budget, the Secretary of State said last week and repeated a moment ago that, in the absence of an Assembly and with decisions being taken by wholly unaccountable permanent secretaries, some fundamental decisions cannot be addressed. We agree, but it seems to me that some pretty fundamental decisions were taken last week by the Secretary of State, and I wonder whether she might answer some questions about them today.

First, on the decision to put up taxes in Northern Ireland through the regional rate, can the Secretary of State confirm whether that was discussed in detail and agreed with any or all of the parties in Northern Ireland? Secondly, in respect of the decision to significantly increase the budgets for some individual Departments, can she explain to the House the reasons for an increase for the Department of Justice of £36 million, or 70%, on last year, an increase for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs of £40 million, or 110%, on last year’s budget, or the increase for the Department for Communities of £38 million, or 30%, on last year? I am sure that there are good reasons for all those increases and for the significant cuts that are made to some of the administrative Departments elsewhere, but the House and the people of Northern Ireland deserve some explanation why the decisions were made and by whom.

As I said, I welcome the extra resources for Northern Ireland, including the extra £80 million for health and education and the extra £100 million to transform the health service in line with the Bengoa report, but will the Secretary of State spell out how that £80 million on health and education will be divided? Who will make the decision about the appropriate allocation? Is that something that the DUP co-ordination committee will be discussing with the Conservative Government, or has it already been discussed?

The Secretary of State talks about big health reforms, and she will be aware that some of the reforms mentioned in Bengoa and other health plans related to hospital closures and other changes to the configuration of health services. Does she imagine that such big decisions could be taken by civil servants? If not, what exactly is the £100 million to be spent on?

The gravity of the issues at hand and the scale of the decisions being taken merely serve to underline the grave crisis that we face in Northern Ireland 14 months after the Executive collapsed and power sharing ended. I welcome the Secretary of State reiterating her commitment to the Belfast agreement and the principles of consent and power sharing that underpin it, especially in the light of recent attempts by some to undermine the agreement. However, we need more than more tireless activity; we need to see some success in the forthcoming negotiations if we are to get to next month’s 20th anniversary with a real sense of optimism about the future of the agreement and of power sharing.

The Secretary of State was at pains to point out that she does not anticipate any failure in the negotiations, but the House and the country will have been struck by the acknowledgement that she thinks that she may need to consider alternative means of keeping the agreement and political accountability alive in the absence of an Executive. That raises important questions about feasibility, given that some parties will not want to take part in a shadow or other form of Assembly, and about the form of any alternative. It also raises a significant risk, of which I hope she will take particular note. Moving to an alternative form of Assembly would take pressure off the parties to come to an agreement that allows them to re-engage in meaningful power sharing. Does she acknowledge that risk in any shift away from the agreement?

Finally, I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that this is the last time we push through a budget using this unsatisfactory process and the last time that a budget is set by this House and not Stormont, where it ought to be set.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about my birthday. I was not expecting to spend it making a budget statement, but there we go. I join him by saying that I hope that this is the last time that I have to stand at the Dispatch Box having taken such action, because we all agree that such decisions should be taken by locally elected politicians. The people who elected their politicians in Northern Ireland want them to take such decisions. I genuinely believe that those politicians want to take those decisions. There are, as he knows and as we have discussed previously, some issues on which the parties cannot agree, but I believe that we can get to a point at which a devolved Government can get up and running. That is what I am determined to achieve. Everything that I have done and set out today is in line with that aim. I want to see a devolved Government back in Stormont. The decisions that have been taken, while difficult, are those that needed to be taken for the public services, but I have taken them in the light of the fact that I do not want to undermine the constitutional arrangements and devolution settlement in Northern Ireland.

As for timing, the hon. Gentleman will recall that I committed to lay a budget by last week when I appeared in front of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee the week before last. That is why it was important to get the written statement out last week, and I am here at the earliest opportunity to explain things to the House and to take questions from right hon. and hon. Members. However, it is important to put it on the record that I did not publish the statement until I had had the chance to show it to all the mains parties represented at Stormont and until they had had the opportunity to see the allocations. My fervent hope is that they will actually deliver the budget, which is why it is important that they were all consulted on the work that had been done.

I pay tribute to my officials and the civil servants of the Northern Ireland civil service. They have worked incredibly hard and selflessly to help to deliver the budget in a way that is uncomfortable for many. They want political direction from politicians, and it is difficult for them to do without it. They have gone above and beyond anything that we would expect of civil servants.

As for the decisions on the allocations, I looked at the key Departments. The hon. Gentleman asks about Justice, and I wanted to ensure that there was money to protect the policing budget, which he will recognise is very important. He asked about the £100 million from the confidence and supply arrangement for health transformation. That was money that the Government recognised and agreed needed to be spent in Northern Ireland because of its unique circumstances. I actually visited the hospital in Derry/Londonderry only last Monday and met consultants and managers, and it was clear to me that health transformation is a priority and that we need to ensure that the money is spent. I have taken legal advice to ensure that the money goes towards the priorities on which it is designed to be spent.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the alternative approaches, and he will know that many have suggested ways to arrange some form of functioning Assembly or scrutiny at Stormont. I am considering all the suggestions, a number of which have been made by the parties, and I would welcome further suggestions. I am taking legal advice on them all, because I do not want to do anything that undermines what we have achieved in the 20 years since the Belfast agreement. However, if there is a way of getting ourselves back on the road to a functioning devolved Government in Stormont, with scrutiny being applied by locally elected politicians, we should endeavour to try to find that route.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

Order. This is the second of four ministerial statements to the House today. Notwithstanding its immense importance, and in the interests of accommodating subsequent business, I appeal to colleagues not to preface their questions with mini-speeches, but simply to ask a pithy question.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Nevertheless, Mr Speaker, I hope that you will allow me to add my best wishes to the Secretary of State on her birthday. I welcome the statement, particularly the bit in which she invites comments about how we might close the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has many helpful suggestions, and we will certainly be sending them to her.

I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the written ministerial statement made on Thursday and the bit in which she says:

“Permanent Secretaries cannot… take the full range of decisions that would be available to Ministers”—[Official Report, 8 March 2018;
Vol. 637, c. 20WS.], which is, of course, perfectly correct. She goes on to say that Ministers will be helpful in offering guidance. May I press her on exactly what form that guidance will take? She has set out departmental expenditure limits, but there is little granularity—certainly in the public domain—about what actually constitutes those DELs.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, for his good wishes, for his question and for the Committee’s work in looking at devolution in Northern Ireland. I was pleased to give evidence to the inquiry, and I know that the Committee has visited several institutions and other places in Northern Ireland to consider what might be done. I look forward to the Committee’s recommendations.

In the absence of ministerial direction from Stormont, my hon. Friend is right that there is concern about the work that civil servants can do. We have worked closely with them, ensuring that legal advice is received at all points, so that they have the support they need to take decisions based on those that were previously taken by the Executive or that the Executive had indicated would have been taken. I have written to the permanent secretaries to set out my view and to provide guidance on how any money, such as the health transformation money, should be spent in line with the Bengoa recommendations.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of her statement, and I join the House in wishing her a very happy birthday. I will begin by making absolutely clear my view that while money needs to be allocated for the continued funding of public services in Northern Ireland, those matters should more properly be addressed by locally elected representatives. The decision to increase rates, for example, is a policy decision that reverses a key Stormont policy.

I am sure that none of us wants to be here again, but here we are, in order that the behind-the-scenes machinery of government that keeps the lights on and keeps people’s wages being paid can continue. We must at all times, however, keep in mind the fact that the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland is the principal aim. I was pleased that the Secretary of State continued to welcome the views and proposals of the Northern Irish parties and others on how local decision making and scrutiny on a cross-community basis might be achieved. Would she tell us a little bit more about how those views and proposals might be canvassed more transparently and shared with Northern Irish citizens?

With regard to confidence and supply agreement moneys, while of course no one ever begrudges extra money spent on health or education, the sum of more than £400 million is part of the £1 billion that the Democratic Unionist party extracted from the Conservatives to prop up the Government. In view of the considerable concerns about the deal and, indeed, recent concerns about the transparency of the political donations process in Northern Ireland, when can we expect further details about what the extra money will be spent on? Will the Secretary of State explain the destination of the money before the House separately from the allocation of funds required to continue funding public services? It is worrying that we appear to be stepping into a zone where money is allocated without close ministerial direction, and we have not yet seen any criteria for how that money will be spent. Will the Secretary of State commit to providing much greater transparency on the spending of the DUP deal money and lay the full details before the House?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Again, I thank the hon. Lady—I feel that I may be thanking everyone for their good wishes—for her kindness. She asked about alternative approaches. I invite any parties with suggestions about how this could function and how we might have some form of Assembly functioning with scrutiny in Stormont, but I will have to take legal advice on everything that is proposed. If a suggestion gathers cross-party support, we would want to talk about that with others so that we ensured that we could deliver something that everyone was confident would put us back on the route to devolution, not away from it. That is my key priority.

The hon. Lady also asked about the money for the confidence and supply arrangement. She will know that the agreement is on the internet, and is available for everyone to see and download. She should also recognise that these are important changes, particularly to infrastructure. The York Street interchange, for example, is something that anyone in Belfast will know is crying out for investment and change. That is why the Government want to make sure that money is spent on the things on which it needs to be spent, including health transformation, in line with the Bengoa recommendations.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Does my right hon. Friend think that the allocations in the budget largely suggested by the Northern Irish civil service, which is pretty canny, would be very different if the same civil service was advising a Northern Irish Executive, which is obviously not working at the moment?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Clearly, my hon. and gallant Friend is right that those are conversations that the Northern Ireland civil service has had with the parties as well as with the UK Government. It has been incredibly professional in ensuring that it looks at both the decisions made by the Executive before they collapsed and their programme for government. It reflects the priorities of the UK Government in ensuring that health, education and policing are protected.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Reform and Constitutional Issues), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit), DUP Westminster Leader

May I join hon. Members in wishing the Secretary of State every best wish on this momentous occasion? May I thank her for early sight of the statement and for the Government’s clear support in that statement once again for Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom? That is very welcome.

I welcome the budget statement and the £410 million extra for Northern Ireland as a result of the confidence and supply agreement. It will be spent on infrastructure, health and education, and will go to deprived communities, to mental health, to east and west, urban and rural, nationalist and Unionist—everyone benefits. That is a good news story for Northern Ireland, and it has been welcomed across Northern Ireland.

May I also welcome the fact that the Secretary of State said in the statement that she would take a series of decisions—the Government were beginning to take those decisions—for the good government of Northern Ireland? That is long overdue, and I welcome the series of measures that she has announced. I warmly welcome her willingness to look at arrangements that provide for local decision making and scrutiny on a cross-community basis in the meantime. She can be assured of our full support and engagement in that process. We want devolution up and running—she knows that we would form the Executive tomorrow on the basis of the agreed programme for government with Sinn Féin, and we welcome all efforts to return proper decision making to Northern Ireland.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his good wishes and for his comments. I thank the DUP for the role that it played, along with all the other parties, in working with the Government to deliver the budget and ensure that we were able to reflect the priorities of the parties of Northern Ireland.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that the confidence and supply arrangement money that we have released will absolutely be spent on a cross-community basis, for all communities, and for all parts of Northern Ireland, dealing with issues that have perhaps been underfunded in the past or, particularly in the case of infrastructure arrangements, very much need funding today. I thank him for his kind words.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I welcome the review by the Secretary of State of pay for Members of the Legislative Assembly. On a separate matter, does she think it is unsustainable for hon. Members who do not take their seats in Parliament to continue to receive representative money for political campaigning?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Clearly, the matter to which my hon. Friend refers is a matter for the House, and I know that there are hon. Members who are well versed in the procedures needed for such matters. The issue of MLA pay is something I need to look at as a result of the review by Trevor Reaney, and I would welcome representations from all about that matter.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

May I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement? The measures that she has brought to the House are to be supported. It is sad but inevitable that it should have to happen this way, but all that we are doing is treating the symptoms, not the underlying disease.

The Secretary of State will have seen the recent comments of the chairperson of the Policing Board about the need for proper accountability of policing in Northern Ireland. The fact that the Police Service of Northern Ireland spends £125,000 a day on overtime demonstrates that the chairperson of the Policing Board is right, and is that not something else that needs to be tackled?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The right hon. Gentleman makes a point that demonstrates once again why we need devolved government in Stormont. I have met the chair of the Policing Board, and I have also spoken to the Chief Constable about this matter. They are both keen that political representation on the Policing Board should be restored as soon as possible so that there is proper governance. I will be in Washington at the end of the week for the St Patrick’s day events there, and I believe that the chair of the Policing Board will be there too, and I hope to catch up with her and discuss how we might make that a reality.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

My constituents in Kettering were under the clear impression that the main purpose in life of Sinn Féin was to avoid at all costs direct rule from Westminster. Is it not clear but ironic that by refusing to reach an agreement with the DUP Sinn Féin has brought about exactly the thing that it has always campaigned to avoid?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I do not want to get into the whys and wherefores of what happened in the talks process. All I know is that all parties have given me a very strong commitment that they want to go back into devolved government, and I am seeking to find ways to make that a reality.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s statement and noted that she was decisive in announcing an increase in rates in Northern Ireland. I was extremely disappointed, to put it mildly, that she continues to dither about cutting the salaries of MLAs. Does she not recognise and accept that it is morally indefensible that MLAs should continue to receive their full salary in the absence of a functioning Assembly for 14 months?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Lady sums up the comments that have been made to me by members of the public across Northern Ireland, but I do want to make sure that everybody has the chance to make representations on this matter, so that the power we can legislate for in Westminster is used appropriately. I also want to say, as I have said to her at the Select Committee, that, although there are good grounds to look at the pay of MLAs, I do not think the pay for staff should be affected. I think we would all agree that our staff do fantastic work and they need to be properly remunerated for the great work they do for the constituents of the MLAs.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

I welcome the statement, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the fact that this year, unlike with the previous budget, she has had to take some decisions that could not have been thought through by the Executive before they fell means that today we are several steps further towards direct rule than we were a couple of weeks ago?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I do not agree with my hon. Friend. A budget needed to be balanced. These steps were taken to balance it. I have done so while being consistently mindful of the need to make sure we maintain the position of restoring devolved government wherever possible.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

In welcoming the statement, I concur with others in wishing the Secretary of State a happy birthday. Going out to consultation on the MLA salary issue and the office costs allowances is a good move. Does she agree that it would be intolerable to move on that if the House were not also to move on the issue of MPs from Sinn Féin? They deliberately boycott this House, whereas MLAs are prevented from doing their full job.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. He will know that the matter he raises is one for the House, but the House will have heard the strong words from both sides on the matter.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Conservative, Charnwood

May I start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend and her predecessor for their tireless work to try to restore devolved government to Northern Ireland? Will she reaffirm that her clear commitment to working for that restoration of devolved government goes hand in hand with her clear commitment to ensuring that, while that work goes on, through this budget the people of Northern Ireland continue to receive the services and investment they need?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He seems to have a frog in his throat and he did well to deliver his question without starting to cough too much. I agree that it would just not be tolerable for the UK Government to not do what was necessary to enable public services to continue to be delivered. The people I have met in Northern Ireland have been very dedicated public servants and they do deserve that, so that they can continue to deliver the schools, hospitals and policing, and all other manner of public services, that the people of Northern Ireland need.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall

The Secretary of State has said that some fundamental decisions cannot be taken in Northern Ireland at the moment. How long will she go on accepting that before she decides that we have to go further and appoint Ministers? Will she make a decision in the next month, please, on the Commonwealth youth games, which are to be held in Northern Ireland in 2021? If a decision is not taken by the end of this month, we will lose those games.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Lady, who was a great sports Minister, knows exactly what the problem is, and I remember it from my previous brief. Belfast has been awarded the 2021 Commonwealth games but the absence of an Executive and Ministers to sign the appropriate documentation and contractual information means that there is great difficulty. I am looking at how we can resolve many of these issues, and that one is certainly on my table at the moment.

Photo of Paul Masterton Paul Masterton Conservative, East Renfrewshire

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, particularly the long overdue announcement that some action will be taken on MLAs’ pay. She said in her statement that she is looking for full and final representations from the Northern Irish parties. Will she also be seeking further representations from voluntary sector, third sector and community groups, many of which have had to fill the gap left by MLAs? Not only are they not carrying out parliamentary duties, but many of them have been completely absent in their constituencies.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I would welcome representations from all. Trevor Reaney’s work and recommendations, for which I thank him, are very valuable and helpful, but it would also be helpful to hear the views of all parties and all sides on this matter.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

We welcome the fact that the Government have now announced a budget for Northern Ireland. Does the Secretary of State recognise that hundreds of decisions about how that money is spent require some input from a Minister? Will she give a commitment that those issues will be addressed by the promises she has made to the House today to look at further measures?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

On the budget I have spoken about today, I am confident that the direction is there for civil servants to deliver as required and as wanted by all parties. The right hon. Gentleman is right that many decisions are awaited. It is frustrating for all of us, as it is for him, that in the absence of devolved administration in Northern Ireland some of those decisions have not yet been taken.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is deeply regrettable that she has had to take the actions set out today in regard to a budget for Northern Ireland, which are no substitute for local Ministers on the ground making decisions. Will she assure the House that she will do everything to prevent any return to direct rule?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

My priority is to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland. For the good of the Union and for the good of the people of Northern Ireland, that is the right thing to do. It is also worth putting on the record that that is the primary aim of the Irish Government as well. I want to put on the record my thanks for their support in the talks process, and I know that they are committed to restoring devolved government, as we are.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

Could the Minister set a timetable for her consideration of a halfway house on some of the scrutiny issues that have been mentioned by Members across the House? She would have support on allowing MLAs to table questions, to meet as committees and to scrutinise decisions. As a direct rule Minister, I know there were hundreds and hundreds of decisions taken every day by Ministers that are now not being taken. There needs to be scrutiny of those taking those decisions.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I know the right hon. Gentleman served as a direct rule Minister, in 2004-05 or around then. He was distinguished in doing so—

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

It doesn’t happen very often.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

It always happens.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that these decisions do need to be taken. We do want to see devolved government. We want decisions and scrutiny to be undertaken in Stormont. That is the right place for those things to happen. I am not going to put a timeframe on it because we need to find something that has consent. As he will know, under the Belfast agreement, for constitutional changes in Northern Ireland, we would need the consent of all communities. Therefore, I do need to work through all the suggestions that have been put to me, but I would welcome suggestions from him, given his extensive experience of doing the job.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

I would not really welcome this statement, but it is the right thing to do and it is the right approach, given the pressures to deliver public services. We would much rather these decisions were being taken back in Stormont, where they should be taken. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is not just about financial management and about getting the Assembly going again? It is also about the range of decisions that need to be delivered, based on an agreed programme of government—not just relying on the UK Government to step in when they absolutely have to.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I agree. My hon. Friend sums the situation up very well.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Will she outline for the House what actions she intends to take on efficiencies within the different Departments, which she mentioned in her statement?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Northern Ireland civil service had started work on efficiencies before the Executive collapsed. Those things had been talked about within ministries while there were Ministers in place at Stormont, so this is about working forward from the programme of government to deliver those efficiencies, which Ministers had previously been looking at. I recognise that this is all terribly difficult to explain, but we are working within the boundaries of what we can.

Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Labour, Bristol South

I very much welcome the strong commitment in the statement to the Belfast Good Friday agreement. There is no doubt that Northern Ireland needs the funding—indeed, an end to austerity would be welcome in Bristol South and the rest of the United Kingdom—but in tying up the money for confidence and supply, the strength of that case is undermined. What impact assessment has the Secretary of State done on the confidence and supply money?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

As I have said, the agreement on the confidence and supply money is publicly available on the internet. It recognised the priorities and the issues that needed support and additional funding. This process has not been easy—balancing a budget is never easy—but we have done it while mindful of the commitments made in the confidence and supply arrangements and the previous work that had been done.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that not all political parties—for instance, the Social Democratic and Labour party—were consulted on the actual content of the budget? Will she outline who made the political decisions in relation to the budget?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

As the UK Government, we have had to take those decisions. I ensured that all parties saw the statement and the allocations and were allowed input into them, not only before last Thursday, when I got the final figures, but during that period, to ensure that they were all able to contribute to the work that we were doing.

Photo of Emma Little Pengelly Emma Little Pengelly Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Trade)

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and welcome the budget, but key decisions are urgently required, such as on the support for the victims of historical institutional abuse and on legacy. Will the Secretary of State confirm that she has been informed by Departments that, unless key decisions are made, and made urgently, they will not be able to balance the budgets in those Departments for the next year?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

That is not the advice that I have had from permanent secretaries. The hon. Lady is right to refer to two additional issues: the concerns about legacy and about the victims of institutional abuse. On legacy, the UK Government are committed to consulting on the Stormont House agreement and to setting up the relevant bodies. On historical abuse, the Hart inquiry was set up by the Executive before it collapsed, so it is constitutionally very difficult for any other party or Government to consider its recommendations; it was not a review instigated by the UK Parliament or UK Government. The hon. Lady absolutely describes the tension of the situation we are operating within.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I thank the Secretary of State for the statement and wish her many happy returns. It is interesting to note that the message that we are receiving from civil servants and permanent secretaries is that they cannot move on and make decisions as to where money should be spent. In the absence of an Assembly, and given that there is unlikely to be one for the foreseeable future, it is vital that we have Ministers making decisions—if not the Secretary of State, it should be other Ministers. When is that going to happen?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I have attempted to deliver in the budget the financial certainty that is needed to enable the public services to continue. If devolved government were up and running in Stormont, Ministers in Stormont would be able to amend the way in which the budget operates, but I have done what I had to do to enable public services to continue and for public servants to have some certainty, within the restrictions of what is possible for me as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

I wish the Secretary of State many happy returns; she has had cross-party agreement on that. I understand her caution, concern and reluctance to advance issues of direct rule but, on the statement and on providing a soft landing for that perpetual glide path that we have had for the past 14 months, may I encourage her to be bold and to provide the political opportunities for decision making for the benefits and interests of all the people in Northern Ireland, and to do so with confidence?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. I am committed to the Belfast agreement and the institutions that were set up under it. I want things to be in such a position that those institutions can be up and running and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland, with the politicians they elected delivering for them. That is what I am determined to do and I do not want to undermine that in any way. That is the very difficult balancing act that I have been operating under. I wanted to make sure that civil servants have the certainty and money that they need, but without undermining anything. I would welcome any suggestions from the hon. Gentleman and others about the sort of constitutional arrangements that could be put in place to get us back to devolved government.