I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As I set out to the House in my statement last week, in order for the UK Government to uphold their commitments to govern in the interests of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland, a series of steps are now required to safeguard public services and finances. This Bill represents the first of those steps, with further legislation scheduled to follow tomorrow. I should say at the outset that I take these measures with the greatest reluctance; I have deferred action here until it was clear that it would not be possible for a restored Executive to take this legislation forward. But as we approach the end of the financial year, it is important that we proceed now to give certainty as the Northern Ireland civil service looks to continue to protect and preserve public services.
Last year, the UK Government had to step in to ask Parliament to legislate for a 2017-18 budget for Northern Ireland. Again, that was not a step we wanted to take, but it gave the Northern Ireland civil service the clear legal basis required to manage resources and perform the important work it continues to do in the absence of an Executive. The legislation we passed, the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017, did not set out any direction for how spending decisions should be made; instead it set out in law departmental spending allocations, within which permanent secretaries could deliver on their respective responsibilities. That Act was passed in November, and since then the Northern Ireland civil service has continued to assess where pressures lie across the system and has reallocated resources, as required. In addition, the UK Government committed in November to providing £50 million of support arising from the financial annex to the confidence and supply agreement, to address immediate health and education pressures. Of that, at the request of the Northern Ireland civil service, we agreed that £20 million would be made available in 2017-18, with the remainder to form part of the resource totals available in 2018-19. That additional funding was confirmed in the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2018, which received Royal Assent last week.
As we approach the end of the financial year, those changes must now be reflected in the legal spending authority provided to the Northern Ireland administration, and that is what this Bill does. In addition, it would provide for a vote on account for the early months of next year, to give legal authority for managing day-to-day spending in the run-up to that estimates process. Right hon. and hon. Members may recall that there was no such action this year, with no budget legislation for Northern Ireland before November. This meant that the Northern Ireland civil service had to rely on section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and section 7 of the Government Resources and Accounts Act (Northern Ireland) 2001 to issue cash and resources. Those are emergency powers, intended to be used only in the absence of more orthodox legal authority. As we take forward legislation to formalise the budget for last year, I do not consider it would be appropriate if we did not provide the usual vote on account facility to the NICS—a facility we had provided to UK Government Departments through our own spring supplementary estimates process.
To be clear, this is not a budget for the year ahead. The Bill does not seek to set out in legislation the departmental allocations I outlined in my written statement on
Instead, this Bill looks back to confirm spending totals for 2017-18, to ensure that the NICS has a secure legal basis for its spending in the past year. As such, it formally allocates the £20 million of confidence and supply funding already committed for 2017-18; it is not concerned with any of the £410 million set out in my budget statement, which will be a matter for the UK estimates in the summer, and for a Northern Ireland budget Bill thereafter. Taken as a whole, it therefore represents the minimum necessary intervention to secure public finances at this juncture.
I will turn briefly to the contents of the Bill, as this will largely rehearse the discussion that my predecessor, my right hon. Friend James Brokenshire, whom I know will be with us when he has finished dealing with a piece of secondary legislation he is involved with upstairs—[Interruption.] He is here—good. This will rehearse the discussion he had when bringing the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017 before this House. I am delighted to see him here and I know he will contribute later when he has served on the secondary legislation Committee upstairs.
In short, the Bill authorises Northern Ireland Departments and certain other bodies to incur expenditure and use resources for the financial year ending on
Clause 4 does not have a parallel in that Act. It sets out the power for the NICS to issue out of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund some £7.35 billion in cash for the forthcoming financial year. This is the vote on account provision I have already outlined. It is linked to clause 6, which does the same in terms of resources. The value is set, as is standard, at about 45% of the sums available in both regards in the previous financial year. Schedules 3 and 4 operate on the same basis, with each departmental allocation simply set at 45% of the previous year’s. Clause 5 permits some temporary borrowing powers for cash management purposes. As I have already noted, these sums relate to those which have already been voted by Parliament, together with revenue generated locally within Northern Ireland. There is no new money contained within this Bill; there is simply the explicit authority to spend in full the moneys that have already been allocated.
The Secretary of State will be well aware that under the allocation to the Executive Office, the detail in the Bill refers expressly to
“actions associated with the preparation and implementation of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry Report and Findings”— the Hart report. What exactly is going to be implemented and done? It is long overdue—what is going to happen in Northern Ireland as a result of this Bill?
The hon. Lady and I have discussed this matter in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and in the House. As I have said, the Bill agrees the money that has already been spent in respect of the Hart inquiry. That inquiry was set up by the Executive, so it is quite right that the Bill agrees that the money that has already been spent has been properly and lawfully spent.
On the treatment of the victims of historical abuse, the hon. Lady will know that we all want those victims to get the justice that they so rightly deserve. She will also know that the inquiry was set up by the Executive, so the recommendations should rightly be dealt with by the Executive. It is a great shame that we do not have an Executive to deal with these things, but it would be constitutionally inappropriate for this House to determine the actions that should be taken in respect of those recommendations, because this House did not set up the inquiry; it was set up by the Executive, which is the right place for the recommendations to be considered and for the decisions about those recommendations to be taken. I am well aware of the hon. Lady’s point, though, and we will continue to discuss it.
Ordinarily, the Bill would have been taken through the Assembly. As such, there are a series of adaptations in clause 7 that ensure that, once the Bill is approved by both Houses in Westminster, it will be treated as though it were an Assembly budget Act, enabling Northern Ireland public finances to continue to function, notwithstanding the absence of an Executive.
Alongside the Bill itself, I have laid before the House as a Command Paper a set of supplementary estimates for the Departments and bodies covered by the budget Bill. The estimates, which have been prepared by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance, set out the breakdown of the resource allocation in greater detail. As hon. and right hon. Members may note, the process is different from that which we might ordinarily see for estimates at Westminster, where the estimates document precedes the formal Budget legislation and is separately approved. That would also be the case at the Assembly, but as was the case in November, the Bill provides that the laying of the Command Paper takes the place of an estimates document laid and approved before the Assembly—again, to enable public finances to flow smoothly.
Assuming an Executive is reconstituted at some stage during the year—perhaps, say, in six months’ time—would members of that Executive have any ability to fiddle, change or adjust the budget that my right hon. Friend is proposing, or is it set for the year?
My hon. and gallant Friend is correct that members of the Executive would have the power to change the allocations set out in the budget and to change the decisions that have been taken. He will know that, as I set out in my statement last week, what I did was the bare minimum required to allow the NICS to continue to function and deliver public services. Of course, there are many political decisions that it would not be appropriate to take in this place because we do not have the executive power to do that. The Executive would have that power, so I urge Members of the Assembly to do what they can to come back to Stormont so that they can take Executive decision-making powers there.
I hope hon. and right hon. Members will agree that this is very much a technical step that we are taking as we approach the end of the financial year. It looks backwards rather than forwards, although it does avoid the use of emergency powers for the forthcoming financial year.
I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing me to move on to a completely different topic: the Independent Reporting Commission. Given the sad and most regrettable rise of loyalist paramilitary activity in North Down, I am curious to know what exactly the Independent Reporting Commission, which was set up a previous very distinguished Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, who was in the Chamber earlier but is not present at the moment, does for its money. Paramilitary activity seems to be increasing instead of decreasing, which was its remit when it was set up.
I had the privilege of meeting Mitchell Reiss when I was in the United States last week, and I think several Opposition Members may also have had the chance to meet him. I expect the Independent Reporting Commission to report its interim findings shortly. Its members will be visiting Northern Ireland shortly, at which point I expect to have a meeting with them. I am well aware of the point that the hon. Lady mentions—it was something I discussed with Mr Reiss in the United States.
Funding that is apparently destined for the implementation of the recommendations of the Hart report is quite correctly covered in schedule 2, but it is also covered in schedule 3, which seems to conflict slightly with the point made earlier. Will my right hon. Friend clarify the situation? Schedule 3 appears to anticipate spend on the Hart inquiry, which we would all welcome, but she has not said this explicitly.
I thank my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee for that point. As I said earlier, the forward-looking expenditure is merely to approve, in the way we would do in the normal Budget process in this House, 45% of spending. We have done exactly the same allocations as in the previous year to enable the moneys to be spent, but the Bill does not give decision-making power to say how the money should be spent; it merely gives approval for money to be spent by those Departments so that they can continue to function. I appreciate that it is not an entirely satisfactory situation, but it is what is required to enable the Departments to continue to function and provide public services. In summer we will of course come through with the full budget process, which I hope will be done by a restored Executive at Stormont. If not, it will have to be done in this House.
The Secretary of State will know my interest in making sure that it is the perpetrator who pays and is punished, not the taxpayer. Will she ensure that if there is not an Assembly in six months’ time, it will be the institutions that perpetrated those false and indeed horrible, pernicious attacks on innocent individuals that are made to pay, and that it will not be the taxpayer picking up the bill?
The hon. Gentleman’s comments indicate to the House that there is perhaps not universal support for every recommendation from the Hart inquiry. That is why it is important that we have a restored Executive in Stormont that can make the decisions about those recommendations and enable justice to be delivered.
The Secretary of State confirmed the legal position of the Bill and what it purports to do and will do, if passed. Will she confirm that, in respect of the written ministerial statement that allocated £410 million of the confidence and supply money, Government Departments in Northern Ireland will be able to plan on spending that money as of the start of the financial year?
Then right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The statement sets out the departmental allocations; the Bill gives parliamentary approval for Departments to start to spend that money. That is what is required to enable that spending to start at the start of the financial year, but it does not set the final allocations; it merely gives approval such that Departments can start to spend. In effect, Parliament is saying that the money can now be spent so that public services can be delivered. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the £410 million from the confidence and supply agreement that is allocated for 2018-19 is in the allocations set out in the written ministerial statement, and the Departments can work on the basis that they can start to spend that money.
The Bill provides a secure legal footing for the Northern Ireland civil service. It is on that platform that my budget statement last week sought to build. That statement will need to be the subject of formal legislation in the summer as a further Northern Ireland budget Bill. As I have already said, that is a Bill that I sincerely hope will be taken forward by a restored Executive. If required, though, that is something that we as the UK Government would be prepared to progress with, as we uphold our responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland. In the meantime, it is those allocations that provide the basis for the NICS to plan and prepare to take decisions for the year ahead.
We all, of course, want to see the Executive restored, but, in the absence of that in the medium term, does the Secretary of State agree that the way in which we are bringing this process forward, while not satisfactory, is at least progress? However, we need to see further progress in how that money is spent on the ground on much needed services.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I agree that we all want to see devolution restored. As I have said, I am doing this reluctantly, but I am doing what is required to enable public spending to continue and public services to be delivered. I pay tribute to the civil servants and other public servants who have worked tirelessly for the past 14 months doing exactly that work, and I want to make sure that they can continue to do so.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. I am probably being thick, but can she explain the difference between schedules 3 and 4 —that is to say the difference between “resources authorised” and “sums granted” for the year ending
I suspect that that is a deeply technical point. It would probably be helpful to the members of the Select Committee if I wrote to my hon. Friend and set out exactly what the difference was. However, I want to assure him that we are approving the start of spending, but we are not approving final numbers or how that spending happens as part of the process for 2018-19. What we are approving today is the moneys that have already been spent and making sure that those moneys that have been spent are on a proper statutory footing so that the finances of Northern Ireland and the NICS can be properly dealt with.
As I conclude, I will set out once again a point that I have made several times before: the UK Government are steadfastly committed to the Belfast agreement, and we are completely committed to working to remove the barriers to the restoration of devolution. That is because Northern Ireland needs strong political leadership from a locally elected and accountable devolved Government and that remains my firm goal. However, in its absence, this Bill is a reminder that the UK Government will always uphold their responsibilities for political stability and good governance, and I commend it to the House.
This is, as the Secretary of State has said, a technical step today. For instant clarity, let me say that we will, of course, support these technical measures and the provisions in the Bill.
I wish to begin by remembering, on behalf of us all in the House, Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry who lost their lives in the IRA atrocity at Warrington 25 years ago today. There has been a commemoration in Warrington today where they are being honoured along with the 54 men, women and children who were injured on that day. I wanted to do that to mark their tragic death and to remind us all of the terrible cost of the troubles and to remind us, too, of the need to complete the journey to reconciliation between communities and to get to a true point of political stability in Northern Ireland. That is something that we should be reminded of today.
May I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his words? I wish to put it on the record that I add my condolences and thoughts to his. He is absolutely right to reflect that today marks the 25th anniversary of a shocking event that none of us who lived through that time will forget, and it is a stark reminder of how far we have come.
I welcome those words. I was sure that the Secretary of State would reflect on those events.
The Bill does in itself reflect the instability in Northern Ireland and the fact that reconciliation is required. We should remind ourselves, too, that it is actually the seventh year of suspension in the 18 years of the Assembly. It is a measure of some of the problems that we face that we are still in suspension now after 14 months. Other recent comments that have been made in respect of commemorations remind us, too, of the desperate need that we still have for true reconciliation between communities. Although the peace is robust—I know that we all feel that—the reconciliation is still all too fragile.
Notwithstanding the fact that we are discussing a set of technical measures today—it is not formally a budget, as the Secretary of State has explained to us—there are lots of questions to be asked. I hope to pose some of them, including questions about the form of the Bill—what is in it, what is not in it and what should be in it—reflecting some of the comments that have already been made by right hon. and hon. Members.
The first is about the form of the Bill. The Secretary of State said, “We have done something different this year.” She has not done what her predecessor did, which is rely on section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to provide 95% of budgets. We have moved to what is in effect a version of the budget and the estimates process that we have for the rest of the United Kingdom at traditional points in the year. The Secretary of State has partially explained why she has done that—because it is an emergency measure—but I still do not completely understand why we have gone down that route. That prompts the question whether this is a further staging post on that famous glide path to direct rule. If that was in the Government’s mind when they went down this route, I urge them to think harder about how they redouble their efforts to try to get things back up and running.
If we are not dealing with a straightforward budget today and if these measures are allocating only 45% of the spending for 2018-19, we will have to have, as the Secretary of State has said, another budget Bill before the summer, which equally makes the point that this is a pretty poor substitute for the sort of scrutiny, intelligence and direction that we would have if we had a Stormont Executive and Assembly setting and scrutinising a budget. Some of the confusion that we have heard about today over the differences between allocations and appropriations and schedules 3 and 4 and about whether we are allowing for spending on the historical institutional abuse inquiry this year is because, effectively, what we have is a piece of cut and paste legislation here. If we read the schedule, it is pretty much exactly, word for word, the same schedule with the same description of the objectives and tasks facing the individual Departments in Northern Ireland as we had in the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017.
Does the shadow Secretary of State agree that the lists in that document cover the scope of each Department—the vires of the Department. Therefore, we will not see any significant change in that year by year, because that is the scope, the limits and the vires of those Departments where they can spend. That does not change in this document.
That is precisely right; that is the point that I was coming on to. I was going to say that this is a poor substitute for a proper budget process. What we do not have today is any real insight into how the money will be spent, or where the priorities lie beyond those broad headings. We have had some confusion around HIA funding today. Clearly, there is an implication that 45% of the money for the HIA is available to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to deal with in this coming year, so some clarity on that would be helpful. I will come on to the HIA in a little more detail later. This is a poor substitute. I think that we can all see that we should have better scrutiny, transparency and accountability, but we can only have that if we get the Executive back up and running, because this place cannot properly form a substitute for Stormont.
All this places Northern Ireland’s excellent, hard-working and diligent civil servants in a very invidious position. They are taking responsibility for providing services and are making increasingly autonomous decisions about services without really having a political master to serve, or a political backstop to watch their back if there is a crisis in any of the services that they are providing. We can all see that that is not a situation that we would wish to place civil servants in, and it is not a situation that can continue ad infinitum. I know that the Secretary of State is mindful of that, and I hope that it is one of the things that will spur the Department on to redouble its efforts in this matter—and indeed spur the parties on to try to find the wherewithal to build trust between one another, because they, too, will be effectively leaving those civil servants to carry the can unless we are able to get an Executive back up and running.
Three areas of public expenditure are not included in the budget today or are only referred to obliquely in the case of the HIA that could be included in the budget and could have been dealt with more fully today and in the coming months. The first is the HIA inquiry conducted by Sir Anthony Hart that several right hon. and hon. Members have already mentioned today. The inquiry reported before the Executive collapsed, recommending that the hundreds of men and women who survived historical abuse in some 20 institutions in Northern Ireland should be commemorated and, crucially, compensated for the abuse that they experienced.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that his taxpaying constituents in Pontypridd, mine in North Antrim and those of Lady Hermon should pay the compensation, or does he believe that the institutions that carried out the abuse should be made to pay the compensation, given the vast amounts of money that some of those institutions possess?
It will be for the Government and, I hope, for the Executive to make a determination about the balance of payment. My view is that both will have to bear some costs. Some of the Church institutions that were involved will have to bear some of the cost, as happened in the Irish Republic. I think that the costs will be borne by the taxpayers where state-run institutions are involved. The reality is that we all have to recognise—I know that the hon. Gentleman does—that the abuse suffered by those individuals was heinous, and a way must be found for them to be properly compensated. This impasse in Northern Ireland cannot get in the way of that; we need to move forward. In fact, I have a particular question on this matter for the Secretary of State that she might want to listen to.
When I listened to David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, giving evidence to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs just a month or so ago, my impression was that he is preparing legislation in respect of the HIA. He said explicitly that if there is no Executive in place—he implied by the summer, as that is when the legislation will be ready—he will ask the Secretary of State to introduce legislation in Westminster to give effect to the recommendations of the Hart inquiry. The Secretary of State left a gap at the end of addressing that question, so I just want to be sure that she will introduce such legislation, notwithstanding the fact that we would, of course, like Stormont to do so.
To be clear, I also heard the evidence given by David Sterling and I have spoken to him about this. Constitutionally, the inquiry was set up by the Executive and reported to the Executive. Unfortunately, the Executive were unable to take decisions on the recommendations before they collapsed. Given the hon. Gentleman’s closeness to this issue throughout his long political career, he will understand that the constitutional implications of the Westminster Parliament or Government taking a decision about something set up by a devolved institution means that such decisions are not to be taken lightly. But, of course, if David Sterling should write to me with specific requests, I would consider them at that point.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that clarification, but she has effectively doubled down on what she said earlier, and that is not good enough. These people have waited long enough. I think that the report came before the Assembly collapsed, and there is widespread political support across the piece that compensation ought to be paid. I therefore hope that, notwithstanding the complications and the sense that we would in some respect be rescinding a measure of devolution, we should find it in this place to legislate and provide the resources. That is the view of the Labour party, and I am sure that the Secretary of State will reflect on that.
I just want to provide some clarity. The report from Judge Hart, who headed up the inquiry, actually came just a very short time after the collapse. In fact, we raised this point with Sinn Féin. We established the inquiry with Sinn Féin, who knew that the report was coming, and we wanted to hold on to get the report and make the correct decisions before the collapse of the Assembly.
The hon. Lady is right. I think that the report came a matter of days after the Executive collapsed. But that does not change my point, which is that there is widespread political support for action. David Sterling clearly thinks that it would be acceptable for us to legislate in this place. I have put on the record that the Labour party thinks that it would be acceptable for us to legislate in this place and that we think that the Secretary of State should do so.
The second area of omission that I wish to bring to the attention of the House is the legacy of the troubles. I know that the Secretary of State is reflecting on this and that it was part of the discussion between the parties in the recent talks that have unfortunately stalled. In the light of the failure of the talks, will the Secretary of State say a little more about whether and how she might bring forward resources and legislation on dealing with the legacy of the past?
It is probably worth confirming what I have said previously about dealing with the legacy of the past. No doubt, we will talk about this tomorrow during oral questions and the debates on the further legislation that we are bringing forward. I have been clear that the UK Government are committed to setting up the institutions that were agreed in the Stormont House talks process. We will shortly consult on how to set those institutions up, and we remain committed to doing that.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that confirmation. I am sure that people in Northern Ireland will find that reassuring. I also ask her to consider the plea made by the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland for a separate set of resources to allow the few remaining legacy inquests to be undertaken in a timely fashion. Some of the people affected are, of course, ill and some have already died. Every passing month leaves injustice hanging in the air. We could also be dealing with that issue in this place.
My third point is that the Bill could and should have included financial provision for a pension for the seriously injured victims and survivors of the troubles. There are still around 500 seriously physically injured survivors, many of whom live in significant financial hardship due to their injuries and the loss of earnings during their lives as a result of the legacy of the troubles. Some believe that we cannot provide a pension for all those 500, as among them are some who were injured by their own hand. I believe that there are six loyalists and four republicans who were injured by their own actions during the troubles. I acknowledge those concerns and the difficulty that this poses. I understand that right hon. and hon. Members have considerable issues with what that would mean for the treatment of victims and for how we move forward in respect of legislation for victims.
No, there are 500 civilian victims. As the hon. Gentleman says, there are separate provisions regarding injured soldiers. The reality is that many of the 500 have received some form of stipend or financial compensation, but for many that money has long since run out. The loss of earnings over a protracted period has left significant hardship as the daily reality for many men and women in Northern Ireland. This is another area where we cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Notwithstanding the difficulties, the Secretary of State in particular right now should be thinking about how we provide for those people.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s genuine concern about this issue. Is he equally concerned about the military covenant and its full implementation in Northern Ireland? Will he be pushing the Secretary of State to ensure that that occurs?
Of course, that is another very important issue. It is not necessarily related to the substance of this Bill, which is largely about financial measures, but I am sure that the Secretary of State has heard the hon. Gentleman’s point. I will be continuing to talk about the military covenant and its importance to all communities in Northern Ireland.
On pensions, the Secretary of State should know that some of the victims, particularly those represented by the WAVE group, will be here to listen to our proceedings tomorrow. I urge her to show leadership and find the resources to provide them with the amount of money that they need. It will be a tiny amount of money for the state in the grand scheme of things—£2 million to £3 million a year—but it will be a lifesaver for individuals.
The shadow Secretary of State will know that this is not just a question of financial provision, as we will require legislation. The Democratic Unionist party is prepared to put forward a private Member’s Bill to propose such a pension for seriously injured victims and survivors in Northern Ireland. Will the Labour party support that Bill?
That will depend on the nature and the terms of the Bill, and on how all individuals are treated under it. The right hon. Gentleman will know that, as I said earlier, people have concerns about the definition of “victim” and the nature of some of the individuals who might benefit from such a pension. My view is clear. As I put on the record a moment ago, we cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Even if some people injured by their own hand were eventually in receipt of a state pension, that would be a price worth paying to provide the necessary resources for the vast majority of innocent victims.
The Select Committee has met representatives of WAVE and looked at their proposals. Has the hon. Gentleman thought about how to design a pension that gave people who suffered mental health problems as a result of the troubles the right sort of compensation? I suspect that that might include far larger numbers than the 500 people and £4 million a year that he cites, but I cannot see how we could produce a scheme that did not help those people as well.
I know from the hon. Gentleman’s time on the Select Committee that he is very familiar with this issue. He is absolutely right. I referred to the 500 seriously physically injured victims and survivors, and the £2 million to £3 million quantum that is the annual sum associated with their receiving some form of pension. He is also right that a further significant issue to be considered is the people who have been injured permanently and psychologically as a result of the troubles. No, I do not have an absolute idea about how this would be achieved. I have of course read the commission’s report on how it might be achieved, and other pieces of work have been done. That would need to be taken into account. I repeat, however, that time is passing for all the victims of the troubles, and time is the one thing they cannot afford. I therefore urge us all in this House to get past these difficulties and see a way clear to providing the resources that are needed.
When we had the debate here on the Northern Ireland covenant, the hon. Gentleman said in response to many of the questions that he would go back to Sinn Féin to see how we could move the thing forward. In the period between that debate and now, has he had the opportunity to talk to Sinn Féin to see what its position on the Northern Ireland covenant would be, and is he going to give us good news that it will agree to it?
No, I have not.
I know that the Secretary of State agrees that this should be the last year that we are passing a budget in this place instead of at Stormont. Will she outline a little further what she is doing now to ensure that that is the case?
For our part, notwithstanding the slightly less than successful intervention by the Prime Minister in February, we continue to believe that there is an important role for the Prime Minister in galvanising parties in Northern Ireland and acting as a rallying point to try to bring people together, ideally in some sort of prime ministerial and Taoiseach-led summit of all the parties. These things have worked in the past and we cannot understand why there has been so much refusal to consider it in the past 14 months. We also believe that the Secretary of State should be thinking about asking an independent chair to come in to try to take those talks to fruition.
If we simply continue with the cycle of failure that we have seen in the past year—if we do not try to shake things up somehow and inject new energy and dynamism into this process—we can all see the danger that we do drift towards direct rule. I know that she feels that that would be a grossly retrograde step for Northern Ireland, so I urge her to tell the House today, and in the coming days, what she is doing to make sure that it is not where we end up.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on bringing forward this measure. It is something that none of us wanted to see, but it is preferable to section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, not least because it means that accruing resources can be used, and subsections (2), (3) and (4) make it clear that those sums of money are substantial. Clearly, this Bill requires a budget to be set at some point. We hope that that budget will be set in Stormont and not here, but it still needs to be set. It would be useful to hear what timetable the Secretary of State envisages. We have grown used to timetables that are somewhat flexible in recent months—indeed, years—but if she has to bring forward a Bill here, it will be nice to have a sense of when she intends to do so.
I thank the Secretary of State for her letter to me of
In my letter, I drew attention to the £79 million discrepancy between the cash grant and the departmental expenditure limit at main estimate. The explanation relating to the Stormont House and Fresh Start agreements is perfectly satisfactory, but my Committee’s scrutiny work would have been greatly assisted by early notification of that apparent discrepancy. Hon. Members can be sure that we will scrutinise the figures in this Bill closely, and the budget when it appears. It is very important that any discrepancies are brought to the attention of my Committee, or indeed the House, since in the current circumstances, scrutiny in this place is vital.
Are we any further ahead in quantifying the costs of systems envisioned under option 2 at paragraph 49 of December’s joint report? If so, where and when will they appear in subsequent estimates? Those are the costs that will be involved in creating alternative solutions in order to ensure that the border in Northern Ireland is as frictionless and seamless as possible. Those costs are likely to be significant, if indeed such a solution can be created, and it would be good to know that sufficient budgetary accommodation has been made for them.
In her written ministerial statement of
The Treasury has made a rather unusual call for evidence in a piece of work that it is doing on tourism. It wants evidence on VAT and air passenger duty that may go to support an improved position for tourism in Northern Ireland. I very much welcome that. Indeed, my Select Committee took evidence on this subject recently, and the Treasury documentation refers to that. However, it does seem to be an unusual intervention. Indeed, since many of the things that will have to be done as a response to any such report that the Treasury may produce will be devolved, how does the Secretary of State see that work being carried forward? I am sure that she, like me, would not wish the Treasury to be embarked on a piece of work that was not, at the end of the day, going to result in recommendations that could be carried forward. I therefore imagine that she has worked out, in collaboration with the Treasury, a pathway between recommendations that may come out of this piece of work and how they are going to be implemented. We cannot necessarily assume—I am sure that she does not—that we will have an Executive up and running within a timeframe that will be suitable for this report.
The hon. Gentleman is right in respect of some of the recommendations that may come out of that report. As for whether Ministers responsible to this House or Ministers responsible to the Assembly take these decisions, we will have to wait and see what happens. Air passenger duty and value added tax are matters for this House—for the Chancellor and the Treasury—and therefore the main object of the report will be a matter for this House.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. However, the call for evidence goes much further than that. That is what I am chiefly concerned about, since it implies that competences will be available in the event that there is no Executive in place that will carry this forward. Otherwise, it would be a fairly tight and narrow call for evidence.
The Northern Ireland Audit Office this year will report on a number of things. It is a very busy office, and my Select Committee was very pleased indeed to be able to meet Kieran Donnelly recently in Belfast to take evidence on the work of his department. It will be reporting on digital transformation in Northern Ireland, welfare reform in Northern Ireland, speeding up avoidable delays in the criminal justice system, financial health of schools and the social investment fund.
A lot of that has to do with increasing productivity in Northern Ireland and rebalancing the economy. It is not discretionary work; it is vital. It has to do with achieving value for money. My question is: where is all that work leading? If there is no body to scrutinise the auditor, let alone an organisation to take forward his recommendations, he may be crying in the wilderness. It is a bit of an irony that his work is geared towards value for money, since in those circumstances—that is to say, those recommendations not being taken forward—some question would be revolving around the value for money posed by the auditor himself.
It would be useful to know what thoughts the Secretary of State has about how the auditor’s reports can be properly examined—perhaps by a shadow Public Accounts Committee made up of Members of the Legislative Assembly—so that some comment can be made upon them. There would then be at least some chance of that work being carried forward by perhaps a newly emboldened Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who may need to have powers if the current impasse continues for any length of time.
I would like to ask the Secretary of State about the guidance that she has recently offered permanent secretaries and the status of it. On
The Secretary of State will want to ensure that this is got right, not least because, if she gets it wrong, there is every prospect of judicial review. I know very well that she is not going to publish the legal advice—I know better than to ask her to do that—but I wonder whether she could publish the guidance that she has issued to permanent secretaries. My Select Committee and this House will want to know what guidance she has issued, the status of that guidance and the extent to which permanent secretaries will be acting upon it.
In the schedules to the Bill, a whole raft of things are listed, with very big sums of money attached to them. It is important to understand whether we are dealing with governance by guidance or whether these are simply helpful suggestions that the permanent secretary may be guided by because, if he is judicially reviewed at some point for decisions made, the courts will want to determine what status that guidance has. At the moment, that appears obscure.
It becomes important in areas such as infrastructure. In the schedules, very large sums of money are attached to the Department for Infrastructure. We know that the Secretary of State wishes to pass £400 million for particular infrastructure projects in connection with the confidence and supply agreement, in two parts—£200 million in one financial year and £200 million in another. It is not clear to me what happens if that money is not spent within the timeframe of the agreement.
I ask that because, like right hon. and hon. Members who have observed large infrastructure projects in their constituencies, the natural tendency is for these things to run and run. In the event that the money is not spent, does it accrue to the Treasury? Is it spent on other things? Does it sit at Stormont, waiting for the glorious day of the restoration of the Executive? What happens to those unspent funds?
Can we also know a little more about what big-ticket items the Secretary of State has in mind? The wish list published by the Executive before their collapse contained a great deal more than the York Street interchange, which the Secretary of State has mentioned recently. Does the guidance issued for the permanent secretary at the Department for Infrastructure cite what things the Secretary of State thinks are important, in priority order? That, she will be aware, is difficult because some of the political parties in Northern Ireland—one of them in particular—are not at all keen on one or two of the projects and would rather see other things. It is politically quite sensitive, and it would be good to know what guidance the Secretary of State has issued to the Department for Infrastructure on that important item of public expenditure.
The £100 million for health transformation in the confidence and supply agreement is most welcome, but we have to understand what transformation means. It is not simply about opening clinics or hospitals; it is also about closing them. Owen Smith was right to make the point last week that there is nothing more political in what we do than the opening and closing of healthcare institutions. I know that very well from my own constituency experience.
Is it really reasonable to expect permanent secretaries to make decisions of that sort? Indeed, would they make decisions of that sort? If they will not, the risk is that Bengoa will simply be put on ice. Under those circumstances, everybody loses. One way forward would be a legal avenue by which the Secretary of State can offer guidance that is perhaps a little more prescriptive than might otherwise be the case. We will not know that in this place unless we have sight of the guidance that has been issued and are able to examine it.
Does the Secretary of State share my concerns on policy drift and “do nothing” becoming the default option? Kate Hoey, who is not in her place, gave the great example last week of the decisions needed to secure the Commonwealth youth games in 2021. I know that the Secretary of State, because of her previous portfolio experience in this matter, is acutely aware of the difficulties. A number of decisions have to be made around that yet, at the moment, there is nobody to make those decisions. It may be small, but it is a poignant example of why it is so necessary for somebody somewhere to be able to make those sorts of decisions.
I know that the Secretary of State was recently in Derry/Londonderry. It just happened that she was visiting at the same time as my Select Committee. She will have heard from people in that fine city how frustrated they are that nobody appears to be making any decisions right now. This goes right across communities. Regardless of community almost, people just want things to happen, because they see society being pulled back and a Province that has made so much progress in recent years—economically, socially, in every conceivable way—essentially marking time while the Executive get their act together.
There will come a point when, with a heavy heart and the greatest of reluctance, Ministers here will have to start to make decisions. We can all hope for a restoration of the Executive, but we might be hoping for a restoration of the Executive in three years’ time. In three years’ time, the world will look a very different place. Bengoa will probably have been forgotten. Some of the big infrastructure projects that we want to see in Northern Ireland may well have fallen by the wayside. All that good stuff will not have happened, and Northern Ireland will have slipped further behind economically, socially, in every way imaginable. That would be a huge failure, and I know the Secretary of State feels the same way.
The hon. Gentleman is 100% correct in what he just said. He is right to point out that of course we want devolution, and efforts must continue to ensure there is devolution in Northern Ireland but, in the meantime, there are communities and people suffering as a result of the lack of decision making. As he rightly says, in the meantime we must ensure that decisions are made for the good of everyone. That is an extremely important point, which I am sure the Secretary of State heard very clearly.
The right hon. Gentleman is, as ever, absolutely correct.
I will finish my remarks on the Hart inquiry, which Members are right to mention in connection with the business before us. The programme for government offers a helpful pointer to Ministers, who may otherwise not feel on particularly safe ground in relation to making decisions. The Secretary of State and other Ministers have said that it provides some basis on which they can take note of the last expressed democratic view on a number of issues. However, on
It would be helpful to have a bit of clarification, because I fear that we cannot have it both ways. We either observe what democratically elected bodies determined before they crumbled, and that extends to any bodies that they may have established, or we do not. It is an important principle because it seems to me that it is legitimate to take note of decisions that have previously been made and of the clear will of those bodies, particularly if there was no great controversy about them. It would be useful if the Secretary of State clarified this point, so that we are a bit clearer about what we can rely on and, indeed, what she will rely on in making any decisions or issuing any guidance on which she may wish to reflect.
I commend my hon. Friend for his work and that of his Committee. Does he acknowledge that one of the challenges is that no recommendations were agreed by the outgoing Executive? That obviously makes the job of the Secretary of State in determining the right way forward on the hugely sensitive issue of the recommendations that the Hart inquiry sought to bring forward extremely difficult, and that is why she has to think carefully about how best—cross-community, and with the parties—to assess the right way forward.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right but I am sure that, if he re-reads Hansard from last week, he will see that the argument extended not just to decisions made by the Executive or passed by the Assembly, but to things done by organisations set up by the Executive, which of course includes the Hart inquiry. The issue is whether we are guided by the recommendations made by those organisations or not, particularly if there appears to the Secretary of State and her Ministers to be genuine cross-party and cross-community acceptance of those recommendations and findings. To what the extent is that the best we have to work on? The question is really whether we are guided by what happened before the collapse of the Executive or not. I do not think that we can easily be selective.
The impasse at Stormont means Whitehall is taking decisions that should rightly be taken in Belfast. There is no upside to that; no good to be found in it. I take the opportunity to repeat the Scottish National party’s position that policy decisions on areas of competence that are devolved should be taken by Ministers in the devolved Administrations, rather than in Whitehall. Unfortunately, there are no Ministers in the Stormont Administration, so I find myself in reluctant agreement with the Secretary of State that legislation must be passed here to allow public services to operate in Northern Ireland.
I have to say, however, that the parties elected to Stormont have failed the people who put their trust in them and loaned them their votes. Plenty of excuses have been offered and there has been plenty of posturing, but no one has come out of the negotiations with credit, and the fact that Stormont is still in suspended animation is a disgrace. Some massive concessions were made to get power sharing up and running in the first place, and people risked a huge amount to pursue peace. It is to be hoped that the current set of politicians in Northern Ireland find the strength and the humility to get themselves back to the negotiating table to thrash out a deal and restart the Assembly, so that their budgets do not have to be passed here in the future. No matter what the reasons or excuses are for the current position, that is the least that electors should be entitled to expect.
Turning to the Bill, I thank the Secretary of State for providing me with a copy of it yesterday afternoon: it is always good to have sight of legislation before it starts its progress. I want to take just a few moments to talk about the rationale for fast-tracking as laid out in the explanatory notes, although I accept that there should be no further delay. I acknowledge that there is a need to provide resources to the civil service to allow continued spending on public services, and I of course appreciate that confidence in Supply is important. I find it difficult, however, to accept the delay that we have witnessed so far. I will quote the paragraph from the explanatory notes for clarity:
“The Government has sought to defer legislation for as long as possible to enable final decisions on the allocations to be made by a restored Executive. The need for this Bill arises from the lack of an agreement and the appointment of an Executive within the timescale required for a Budget Bill to be brought through the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is taken forward at the latest possible point before the risk to public services could manifest. In the circumstances, therefore, it has not been possible to give Parliament more time to scrutinise this Bill, without risking the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland or distracting from and undermining the talks aimed at restoring an Executive.”
We have watched this situation grinding on for a long time now. We have not been kept in the dark about the difficulties in the negotiations—real or fabricated—and we have all known it was likely that we were trundling towards this point. In my view, this legislation should have been prepared and started in good time for it to be considered properly; it could have been abandoned if an agreement had been reached. I cannot accept that the progress of a budget Bill would distract from or undermine the talks aimed at restoring power sharing and getting Ministers in place. It might well have focused attention and sharpened the negotiations. To be fair, the Secretary of State is not long in the job—a couple of months—but I still think this should have been foreseen and that she or her predecessor should have begun the process. The drafting could have started without compromising anything.
That said, we have arrived at this point, and we have to deal with the situation we have, rather than the situation we would have preferred to have had. We have to provide the civil servants in Belfast with the resources they need to do their job properly, and give public servants across Northern Ireland some certainty about the funding they need to continue operating—literally, in some cases.
I will offer no amendment to this Bill, nor will I seek to impede its progress. I will accept the amounts for each Department mentioned in the schedule as being made on the recommendation of the head of the Northern Ireland civil service in conjunction with the Northern Ireland civil service board. Their knowledge of what is likely to be needed on the ground over the next financial year outweighs any considerations that Members in the Chamber might have. The challenges that lie ahead for them in the near future are large, and I do not envy them their tasks.
As I said earlier, these decisions would be better taken by politicians elected for that purpose by the people who will be affected by these decisions. It is to be hoped—devoutly to be hoped—that this will be the last budget for Northern Ireland that gets set here. I urge all sides in the negotiations over power sharing to get back to the table and find a resolution. In the meantime, this Bill should be approved for the sake of keeping the lights and the heating on for public services.
May I start with an observation? It is interesting that when we talk in this place about Northern Ireland and Brexit, the Benches are absolutely heaving, but when we talk about the budget for Northern Ireland, which is having a real impact on the day-to-day lives of the people of Northern Ireland right now, the Benches are much less full.
I welcome the Bill. I have served on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and I have heard at first hand from some of the witnesses who have attended how difficult life has been for the people of Northern Ireland without a budget in place. We have heard from the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland about how life is difficult in the public sector even in ordinary times, but when working to a budget that has not been set, it is almost impossible. He explained how for days, weeks and months he did not even know whether he had the money to pay his officers, which is just an unacceptable position to be in.
The Committee has also heard from members of the business community in Northern Ireland about the difficulties that not having an Assembly, an Executive or a budget was giving them. They gave the good example of the apprenticeship levy. Businesses are paying into it, but because no budget is in place, they have no access to the funds. Apprenticeships in Northern Ireland are hugely at risk, and this in a part of the United Kingdom where apprenticeships are needed for all communities more than ever. Because of the lack of a budget, businesses are finding that the apprenticeship levy is forming a type of additional taxation.
I have met charities in Northern Ireland—I am particularly thinking of Addiction NI, which works with people trying to combat alcohol and drug addiction—and I know that not having a budget in place is having a huge impact on their ability not so much to provide an immediate service, as to plan for the long term. These are difficult times for charities, and not knowing where the next penny is coming from or what direction a Northern Ireland Government will be going in makes it almost impossible.
Then we have the Belfast city deal, which was announced in the UK Budget late last year, but which, as far as I know, is going absolutely nowhere. This city deal is an opportunity for Belfast to build on its infrastructure and create jobs.
May I assure the hon. Lady that the Belfast city region deal is going forward? It is being led by a consortium of local councils—Belfast City Council, Lisburn and Castlereagh Council, Antrim and Newtownabbey Council, and some others—
And, of course, Mid and East Antrim. The absence of a devolved Government is therefore in no way inhibiting progress on the city deal, which is directly between central Government and local government in Northern Ireland.
I am extremely pleased to hear that, because the city deal is a huge opportunity for Belfast and, if it works well, could be a huge opportunity for other parts of Northern Ireland in future.
Not having a budget set for this financial year has a huge impact, but I am greatly concerned that we do not have a budget for the next financial year, because we have heard time and time again how difficult things have been for the charities sector, public services and businesses. This constant uncertainty, a bit like the uncertainty around Brexit, is just not feasible for the long term.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s point, and of course I agree with it, but we should not be totally pessimistic. Unemployment is the lowest it has ever been in Northern Ireland, at 3.9%. Exports are up and we have had drives to promote the economy in other areas, and we are not the only region of the world that from time to time does not have a stable Government. Indeed, Germany did not have a Government for several months earlier this year.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, although I have heard him say himself that we want some certainty and a direction of travel, because this is not just about setting the budget. This is about scrutinising how that money will be spent. The civil servants in Northern Ireland are doing a fantastic job—we have all put on record today our thanks for their dedication and hard work—but we need political decisions about how that money is allocated and political scrutiny of how it is spent.
I therefore agree with my hon. Friend Dr Murrison that there is a sense that Northern Ireland is treading water or standing still. That reduction in unemployment and creation of jobs, and the great place that Northern Ireland is, is down to the hard work of people in the councils—the elected members at council level—who are continuing despite there not being an Assembly or Executive, and the civil servants, yet so much more could be achieved if there was an Executive in place.
I have three asks of Ministers. I do not want to be a pessimist—I hope I do not sound too pessimistic—but I honestly do not think there is a realistic possibility of the Assembly being reformed in just the next few months. As this is budget-setting time for most authorities across the United Kingdom, serious consideration needs to be given to the impact of not having a long-term budget for the next financial year. My first ask is: if there are Members who will not get back round the table and restore the Assembly, could an Assembly be restored with those who are willing to do that? As is the case in this place, if MLAs choose not to get round the table, that is a personal decision for them.
Secondly, is there a possibility of setting a budget for the next financial year, not just the first few months, so that public sector bodies such as the PSNI, charities such as Addiction NI and communities that desperately need to know the direction of travel for their funding can have some certainty? As Deidre Brock said, that budget could be set and abandoned if an Assembly came back into being. My third ask is: could the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee be given some task-and-finish authority to scrutinise current spending? Without any scrutiny whatever, are we really sure that the money is being spent in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland?
I welcome this much-needed Bill, but there is still a huge amount of work to do. I want to put on record my congratulations and thanks to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is doing so much to try to make progress happen. These are difficult circumstances. None of us wants to be passing this Bill, which is a necessity, but there is still so much more work to be done.
Let me start by making it clear that this is a technical debate, although the misconceptions that we have heard from some speakers in the Chamber today are not uncommon. As my right hon. Friend Nigel Dodds and I will remember, from when we were in the Northern Ireland Assembly and from our work at the Department of Finance, this budget debate very often degenerated into people coming forward with all the things they wanted to spend money on, when in fact it was nothing to do with setting the budget.
The shadow Secretary of State fell into that misconception. I do not want to go through all his mistakes. He talked about this being a pretty poor way of dealing with the budget, yet we are not actually dealing with the budget; this would have been an essential step even had it been in the Northern Ireland Assembly. He also talked about the general headings in the Bill and how they had not changed. As was pointed out to him, unless we change the remit of a Department, we would not change those headings of expenditure—although there are significant points that the Secretary of State will need to address in future.
This debate is really about, first, how Departments spent their money last year. As the figures show, some spent more than was originally allocated and some spent significantly less. For example, the Department for the Executive spent more than a third less than it was originally allocated, although I note that this year it will be allocated the same amount that it was given last year, even though it underspent by a third. Maybe the Secretary of State can tell us why that decision was made, when the underspend was so high. This debate looks back at the past, at what was allocated, what was spent and what additional money had to be given to some Departments—for example, health and education. Where did that money come from? It came from some of the Departments that underspent. That additional expenditure—or that reduction in expenditure—has to be authorised, which is what this Bill does.
This debate also looks forward, because a budget has been set for Northern Ireland—the Secretary of State did that a couple of weeks ago. Each Department knows its expenditure limits for the next year, but until a budget Bill goes through, which will take some time, Departments have to have the legal authority to spend. That is the reason why 45% of the budget is allocated in this Bill. Departments can spend with confidence, because they know that the money is available to them, and they know the limits within which they have to spend it.
It is important that we understand what we are actually debating today. This is not about, “Well, you should have given more money to the Department of Education” or “The Department of Education should be spending money on this” or “The historical enquiries team should have more money allocated to them.” The Members who raised those issues have illustrated an important point, which the Secretary of State needs to address: simply giving Departments information about the money they will have available to them next year does not give them the ability to spend that money, because there are some things civil servants will need direction about.
The Secretary of State has taken the first step—namely, setting the departmental spending limit, giving us the budget statement and now bringing through this Bill authorising last year’s expenditure, which is historical, and giving some money to start off next year—but the big, important political question is when, in the absence of the Assembly, she will give permanent secretaries more power or have Ministers take responsibility for spending the money that is allocated.
I could bore the House with that this afternoon, but let me take just one example: the Department for the Economy, which will get roughly £1 billion next year. Some of that will be spent on air access. If we want to authorise new routes, that will require a ministerial decision—no civil servant is going to do that.
Another thing that is listed is “development including regulatory reform” and “mineral and petroleum licensing”. We are sitting on one of the most lucrative goldmines not just in Europe but in the world. There are issues around that, but those will not be resolved by civil servants. The Exchequer will be able to get vast amounts of revenue from that development. There are hundreds of jobs in the west of the Province, where rural employment is difficult to obtain. However, in terms of making decisions about that, it is not enough just to say to the Department for the Economy, “There is £1 billion.” Decisions have to be made. Direction has to be given about the development of regulations and about decisions where controversies are going to arise.
Another issue is assistance to the gas and electricity industries, which is particularly relevant in my constituency. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee looked at the issue recently. As a result of the auction, Kilroot power station is likely to close. That major coal power station supplies, on occasion, 45% of the power to Northern Ireland. A decision has to be made, because the regulator wants the station kept open for three years, but there is no guarantee that it will sell 1 kW of electricity. Quite rightly, the owners are saying, “We are not going to keep it open for three years if we are not guaranteed any sales.” A decision is going to have to be made by a Minister—it is that important. What do we do?
There is also the issue of investment in tele- communications infrastructure. This is not included in the Bill, but £150 million has been allocated for broadband infrastructure in Northern Ireland. However, again, the policy decisions required to spend that money will require ministerial direction.
On Tourism Ireland, we provide 60% or 40% of the budget for that cross-border body. Yet, if someone goes into the international airport, what is that body advertising? Is it advertising and promoting tourism in Northern Ireland? Not a bit of it. It is advertising tourism in the Irish Republic. There needs to be a ministerial decision: do we continue to spend such an amount of money on a cross-border body such as that, when it is actually to the detriment of Northern Ireland?
Is my right hon. Friend saying that the Secretary of State should make those ministerial decisions or that she should appoint other Ministers under her from here to make them?
I am just picking at random from one Department, and I could do the same with every other Department. When it comes to spending the money, the Secretary of State has two options, or a combination of both. It can either be made clear to civil servants that they have the power to make decisions—I do not think that that is a particularly good way of doing things—or there is a mechanism whereby decisions about the spending of the money can be made politically, and that will require intervention. Otherwise, we will find that Departments receive the money and continue to spend it as they are doing at present, without any policy development and without considering the changes that have occurred in Northern Ireland.
That is actually where I was getting to. Unfortunately, the decisions that we have had to date—a budget statement two weeks ago, the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill today, and a full budget Bill probably in June—are not the inevitable consequence of reluctance from the DUP to do the work that is required. The very next morning after election day last year, we were saying, “Let’s get back into Stormont, and let’s do these things.” We did not lay down any conditions, but Sinn Féin laid down conditions that fell nothing short of blackmail.
Sinn Féin made demands for things in the talks that they knew they would not have got through the Assembly. Even when it came to the Irish language, they could never have persuaded the other parties, some of which have said they are sympathetic to some movement on the Irish language, to give them the kind of Irish language Bill that they wanted. So, what did Sinn Féin do? They made the decision not to go back into the Assembly until they had been given an assurance that there will be delivered, as a price, some things that they could never have negotiated, debated, argued for or persuaded anybody to give them had they been using the Assembly mechanism. Lady Hermon continually tries to share the blame, but let me make it clear that we are having this debate today not due to any reluctance on behalf of my party; it is because we will not give in to the kind of blackmail that we have experienced from Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin make things even more difficult, because even if someone was daft enough to give them what they wanted, they create such a toxic atmosphere in Northern Ireland that they would be pilloried for it. For example, an MP, who was elected to this House but did not attend, was seen dancing around a garage at midnight, mocking the victims of IRA terrorism—people who were taken out of a minibus on their way home and gunned down—and then they say, “We want to sit down and talk about the way forward and about respect.” When the former Finance Minister does the same, it is impossible to reach an agreement that would get us back into the Assembly.
We welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has acted, and she has not actually been tardy, because had this Bill been presented to the Assembly, it would have been presented around this time of the year anyway. Some poor Finance Minister in the Assembly would have been standing up and enduring—I used that word deliberately—a six-hour debate about what should be in the Budget, and they would have been gnashing their teeth and continually reminding the Speaker, “This is not what the debate should be about,” and MLAs would simply have ignored him or her and continued to talk about it anyway. The Minister has not been tardy with the timing. If the Bill had been brought forward earlier, we would not really have known by how much Departments would have been underspent or overspent for the year. This is as close to the end of the year as we can get. When it gets to June, the final accounts will be made available, so we will know that if changes and adjustments had been made in the last couple of weeks in the month, they can be reflected in the figures that are given.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene again. He has painted a very bleak picture, sadly, of the prospects for the restoration of a devolved Assembly and an Executive this side of the summer. That being the case, would he confirm on the record for the victims of historical institutional abuse that, should we have no Assembly and Executive by the summer, it will be in order for the Secretary of State to implement the Hart proposals through legislation here at Westminster? The victims are elderly and infirm and many are not in good health. It is intolerable that they should be kept like this, uncertain about their future and compensation.
That will be entirely a matter for the Secretary of State, but as has been pointed out regularly during the debate, one of her considerations when coming to that decision ought to be whether some of the institutions that at least turned a blind eye to the abuse should also be held culpable and have to make some contribution towards compensation. It should not fall totally on the public purse, but the Secretary of State would have to make that decision. Our view, if we were ever consulted on it, would be that yes, there is a role for the state, but there is also a role for the institutions that at least turned a blind eye to some of the terrible abuse that went on and therefore allowed so many victims to experience the terrible things that happened to them.
In conclusion, I welcome the Bill and I think Departments will welcome it, but I warn the Secretary of State that it is but a first step. It is one thing to allocate money to Departments, but it is another to ensure that Departments and the civil servants in them have the guidance, direction and authority to spend the money.
As always, it is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Sammy Wilson, who spoke with great authority and eloquence. Of course, as he said, he speaks with authority as a former Minister for Finance in Northern Ireland. He and I both have experience of serving in that office in the Northern Ireland Executive, so I totally empathise with his frustration when it comes to replying to some of these kinds of debates. I well remember civil servants preparing a whole host of possible answers to questions that might arise in such a debate. After a year or two of experience, I remember being able to tell them that they could discard all their preparations, because the same issues would arise that had arisen in every previous debate of this type—the issues would be totally irrelevant to the debate, so they should just get on and prepare the press release. Thankfully, there has not been as much of that in this debate so far, and I think my right hon. Friend set out very clearly what the Bill does.
I too welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has brought the Bill to the House today. It is very timely; it is the start of decision making for Northern Ireland, ending the drift, and is an important milestone in that regard. I fully empathise with the point that Maria Caulfield made earlier about the empty Benches. I suppose in one way that is actually quite a good sign, in that it seems that taking decisions at Westminster is not that controversial after all. At the end of the day, there seems to be a broad consensus. Nobody I have heard railing about how terrible it would all be is actually even here to make those points. That is a very significant development.
The hon. Lady rightly alluded to those who speak so much about Northern Ireland—about their concern for the economy and the future and about having no hard border—but who, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of financial management and decision making for Northern Ireland, are not here. These are people who speak a lot about Northern Ireland in terms of Brexit but who never show any interest at any other time. It raises questions in our minds about the extent to which Northern Ireland—the Belfast agreement, the peace process, our political situation—is being used by some people to thwart Brexit or to shape a Brexit they would like for the whole of the UK. That is what is actually going on. I therefore commend Members on both sides of the House who are here and making a contribution today on this important matter.
I reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim said about how we do not wish to be in this situation. We would far rather these matters were decided in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. Indeed, it is ironic that in late December 2016, when the then Finance Minister, a Sinn Féin Member, had the ability to bring forward measures in the budget, he refused consistently to do so—refused even to bring matters to the Northern Ireland Executive—in the full and certain knowledge that Sinn Féin was going to crash the institutions early in January over matters totally extraneous to the programme for government or anything it had previously raised in discussions with us.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that had that Member, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, still been Finance Minister when this situation arose, he would probably have breathed a sigh of relief, because he had not the courage to take the political decisions to bring forward a budget—the only Finance Minister never to do so—but would rather whinge and gurn and point the finger at the Conservative party?
My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point. A very good illustration that proves his point concerns welfare reform. We were faced with a difficult situation in Northern Ireland following welfare cuts and changes to welfare benefits. The then Minister, Nelson McCausland, negotiated mitigations that helped the situation in Northern Ireland, but generally it presented a difficult position for all the parties in Northern Ireland. The parties, including ours, took the hard decisions and brought them to the Assembly, but Sinn Féin refused to go along with it, and because of the make-up of the Assembly and the veto principle, it was able to block those decisions, and the institutions almost collapsed as a result. We had to have the Stormont House and fresh start negotiations to prevent the collapse of the Assembly.
As my right hon. Friend points out, Sinn Féin, in particular, refuses to take hard decisions and work within the parameters of a devolved legislature that has to set budgets and work within the block grant. That is part of the problem and one of the reasons we are now in this situation. Our party stands ready, as it did in December 2016 and at the time of the elections in March 2017, and as it has done every day since, to get back into government immediately, without any preconditions or red lines, to tackle the issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland.
In any survey or poll conducted right across both communities, the issues that matter to people are those that matter to people everywhere: health spending, education, infrastructure, housing, the environment. These are the things people care about, and they want their politicians to be delivering on and dealing with them—and so do we—which is why we are mystified, and why most people in Northern Ireland are bewildered, that Sinn Féin put narrow partisan political issues above dealing with these issues. When we proposed dealing with issues of concern to Sinn Féin in parallel with getting the institutions up and running and dealing with the big issues affecting all of us, and even suggested time limiting the Assembly to ensure there was no bad faith on our part, it was rejected out of hand.
Let us be very clear: devolution is our first option and our clear preference. We are not the barriers to devolution in Northern Ireland; nor, I believe, are other smaller parties such as the Ulster Unionists, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party. It is very clear what is blocking devolution.
There is another point that we make over and over again, and it was strongly emphasised by the Chairman of the Select Committee, Dr Murrison, and he was absolutely right. Without prejudice to efforts to get devolution up and running, we do need decisions to be made. The same point was made by the hon. Member for Lewes.
It is the fact that there are no Ministers in place that is causing drift and putting Northern Ireland into limbo. That is why some decisions are not being made in the Department for the Economy, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim referred. The problem is not the absence of an Executive per se, but the absence of Ministers. As the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire said, the situation cannot continue for much longer. The various decisions that need to be made by Ministers are basically about allocation and prioritisation. Civil servants cannot make those decisions, because they would just be making personal decisions. They are not accountable. We need to ensure that something is done, and that it is done in a relatively short space of time.
Does not part of the problem lie with the wider community in Northern Ireland? They are disillusioned with politics for the obvious reason—Sinn Féin’s reluctance to return to the Government—but they are also disillusioned by the lack of what my right hon. Friend has identified: ministerial decision making and ministerial directions to address issues that affect everyone, not just a small part of the community.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I have constituency surgeries and meet people and, like all Members of Parliament, discuss with them matters of individual concern and wider issues, what they all lament—whether they are from a nationalist or a Unionist background—is the fact that decisions are not being made.
The recent lobby of this place by a large group of people interested in and affected by mental health issues was a glaring example of that. Those people made a cross-party, cross-community plea. They said, “Please give us someone we can lobby, someone who can make decisions”—on, for example, the trauma centre in Northern Ireland. As my constituency has the highest rate of suicide in Northern Ireland—indeed, the United Kingdom—I feel very strongly about that issue. Something needs to be done about it, in terms of decision making. As a result of the confidence and supply agreement, we have secured extra money to be spent on mental health specifically in Northern Ireland, but civil servants, in the Department of Health and elsewhere, are unable to say how they will spend it, because they have no ministerial direction. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim, money can be allocated, but decisions within the Department need to be made by a Minister.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I also thank my right hon. Friend Sammy Wilson for his contribution.
I do not quite understand why a Minister could not come to make such decisions relatively shortly, although, as far as I can ascertain, we are not at that stage yet. We are not returning to direct rule, but we might be moving towards pragmatic, and also legal, decisions that are required for us to look after the community of Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman has made a very sensible, reasonable, pragmatic point, and, as always, he has demonstrated his strong interest in Northern Ireland affairs. I know that he speaks from the heart and wants to ensure that Northern Ireland keeps moving forward, and that is our only concern. We want to make sure that nobody across the board is detrimentally affected by the lack of Ministers. Likewise, it was because of that concern to ensure that people across the board in both communities had their lives improved that we argued that the confidence and supply arrangements should include an extra £1 billion in cash resources for Northern Ireland to be spent across a range of subjects which would benefit everybody. That is in addition to the extra half a billion pounds in flexibilities in terms of previous moneys allocated.
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State announced in recent days the budget for Northern Ireland, to include the £410 million first tranche, or substantial part, of those confidence and supply arrangements. Some in the media and elsewhere said over and over again that that money would never come to Northern Ireland and that it was a pipe dream, yet it has now been delivered. They also said it would not come in the absence of an Executive, and that too has been proved wrong, although I do not hear them saying much about it despite being very vocal previously. They also said it could not come because there was no parliamentary authority for it. Well, we are now getting parliamentary authority through this Bill for the money to be expended in this financial year and proper parliamentary authority will be given to all the rest of it, as is to be expected and is the normal process.
I always listen very carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman has to say, and he has made it clear on behalf of his party that there are no red lines. He has also made it clear that his constituents—indeed, my constituents and people right across Northern Ireland from all communities—are anxious to see their Assembly back again and Ministers taking decisions, so what exactly is holding up the DUP getting back into talks with Sinn Féin and successfully seeing the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland, for the benefit of everybody?
I could repeat everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim said in response to exactly the same question. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady has said, “Please don’t,” so I won’t, and if she did not understand it the first time I doubt she will understand it now if I repeat it. The fact of the matter is that we are no barrier to devolution, and neither are the Ulster Unionists, the Alliance party or the SDLP, and perhaps more pressure exerted on those who are the barrier would be more productive and sensible.
The fact of the matter is that this is a very positive move in terms of breaking the logjam and stopping the drift that has continued for too long in Northern Ireland. It sends a strong message to everyone, including the parties that have been reluctant and recalcitrant so far in terms of forming the Executive, that decisions will be taken, for the good of Northern Ireland.
The right hon. Gentleman is being exceedingly generous in giving way again. I just want to ask him to reflect for a few moments on the fact that tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the death of Martin McGuinness. Martin McGuinness sat as Deputy First Minister in a very successful period of devolved Government with the right hon. Gentleman’s then party leader, Ian Paisley senior. Sadly, they are both no longer with us, but remarkable generosity of spirit was shown by both of those gentlemen at the time. Could the DUP indicate a generosity of spirit to get back into talks without any hesitation or red lines?
The hon. Lady is right to refer to the efforts made by the previous leader in Northern Ireland of Sinn Féin and my former leader as well and to the great efforts that were made, and there have also been their successors Peter Robinson, who led the Executive for seven years, and Arlene Foster, and Martin McGuinness during that period as well. I served in the Executive under both Dr Paisley and Peter Robinson, so I am fully aware of the efforts the DUP has made to reach out across the communities and to serve with people who for many, many years attacked our communities, and indeed attacked us personally by trying to assassinate members of our party—myself and others—so that was no easy task.
Generosity of spirit is something that we have exhibited over many, many years. Despite the toxicity of the atmosphere that Sinn Féin has created, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim alluded, we are still prepared to go into government and to work in devolved government. That shows a pretty generous spirit. There are no red lines for us because we believe in going about the people’s business and getting the Government up and running. That is what matters.
Just as an aside—although it is more than an aside—I should like to say this. Lady Hermon referred to an anniversary tomorrow, but we have already rightly referred to the anniversary today of the Warrington bombing and the anniversary yesterday of the savage murder of two Army corporals. Everybody who was alive at the time remembers seeing the footage of the two young British soldiers who stumbled into a funeral and who were almost literally torn to death. We should remember, as we hear the eulogies to Martin McGuinness, that it was the movement he led that carried out those atrocities.
My right hon. Friend refers to one of the darkest days for the British Army during the troubles, but will he join me in contrasting that day with the scenes that we saw in Lisburn last week when my former battalion, 2 Rifles, was welcomed back with great enthusiasm by the whole community? Is that not a great example of the way which Northern Ireland has changed?
Yes, and I am sure that even 30 years ago the good people of Lisburn would have extended that same welcome to the soldiers to whom my hon. Friend refers. The fact is that when we praise the peace process and the political process in Northern Ireland, far too little praise and respect are given to the members of the Army, the other services, the police or the Ulster Defence Regiment, who over many decades held the ring and protected innocent life, both Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and nationalist. They were courageous in their efforts and, were it not for them, we would not enjoy the peace that we enjoy today. There are individuals in the political sphere and elsewhere who are rightly praised and given plaudits, but the real heroes are the people of our emergency services and security forces who put on their uniforms and went out to defend the people at great cost to themselves. Some of them still bear the cost in mental and physical trauma.
I think it might be appropriate to point out, given that my right hon. Friend feels as we all do on this side of the Chamber, that Gillian Johnston was brutally murdered by the IRA as well. Perhaps her family feel that she is one of the forgotten victims, but we should remember them. There are many forgotten victims, but their families never forget.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw our attention to that particularly brutal slaying. It is right to remember all the victims of the troubles in Northern Ireland; it is all too easy to gloss over these events. We remember them not because we want to indulge in talking about the past but because it is important to remember the victims and to remember that their sacrifice is never forgotten.
It is also important that we redouble our efforts to keep moving Northern Ireland forwards. We want devolution to be restored and we want to get the institutions back up and running. Sometimes, when people say that we should just get it done, I say to them, “Well, let’s call a meeting of the Assembly on Monday. Let’s go through the process of forming the Executive. Let’s see who steps forward to form the Executive, and let’s see who refuses to step forward.” Then all those who say, “Why can’t you all just get together?” and who lump all the politicians into one group and say, “You’re all to blame” would be able to see for themselves who was refusing to form the Government.
Let us get this process passed today, and let us get the legislation passed tomorrow. Let us start getting decisions made and let us keep on with the efforts to get devolution. Then perhaps the Secretary of State, encouraged by her efforts in getting this legislation through, will come forward with the proposal to call the Assembly together, to re-establish the Executive, to invite those who wish to do so to form a coalition of the willing, and to invite those who refuse to do so to say why they are not prepared to take on the responsibility of the government of Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to follow the excellent speeches that we have heard throughout the House today, especially those by my right hon. Friends the Members for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). They have very strongly set out all the key issues involved in the current situation in Northern Ireland, and I will heed their advice. It is not often in scrutiny of such a technical budget Bill that it is possible to sit on the same Benches as no fewer than two former Finance Ministers, and I am very conscious that they, in the House and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, held strongly held views and that officials shared those views. Some officials from Northern Ireland are present today, and I know that they will have sat year after year, and heard people raise the same issues, and I do not want to broach them too much today, but I will do so to a limited extent.
Before I get into the substance of some of the issues discussed, I want to say yet again that I find this a particularly sad day for Northern Ireland. Once again, we are standing in this Chamber, discussing the business of Northern Ireland, when what we want is for the Northern Ireland Assembly to be restored and for locally elected Northern Ireland politicians to be sitting in the local Northern Ireland Assembly, making decisions for our people from Northern Ireland. That is what I hear from people on the ground all the time.
A very strong point was raised by Maria Caulfield and reiterated by my colleagues about the interest shown in Northern Ireland. I hear, as we all do, day in, day out, from across the House about Members’ interest in Northern Ireland and their interest in the economy, and what is good for Northern Ireland, how we do not know what is good for Northern Ireland and how we are irrelevant, and all that, but it is an incredible and stark fact that there has been no Government in Northern Ireland for over 14 months. In this great democracy that is the United Kingdom, there is a region—Northern Ireland, part of that United Kingdom—where there is a democratic deficit. We have no Ministers to be accountable to the people. We have senior civil servants trying to get by—because that is all that they are doing—and they are under intolerable pressure, because this is a legal minefield. They do not know, and it is not clear, what decisions can and cannot be taken; but what they do know is that they should not and cannot take decisions that Ministers ought to be taking. Yet, after 14 months, we still do not have Ministers in place, and that is simply unsustainable.
Although I welcome this technical Bill, as has been articulated by my right hon. and hon. colleagues, there is a lot of confusion at times about such technical Bills. However, it does not take away from the fact that decisions need to be taken. It is not sustainable in Northern Ireland for those decisions not to be made.
My hon. Friend has outlined the position very well, but the bottom line is this. There is one party that is holding Northern Ireland to ransom and that has held Northern Ireland to ransom for many years through its previous violence, but now is holding the country to ransom economically, and that is Sinn Féin.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I will discuss that in more detail later.
I shall highlight two key issues. The first relates to the process that would be instituted by the Bill and the process as we lead up to the budget, which will, we hope, be presented around June. Although we do have two former Ministers of Finance in the Chamber, I was the last Chairperson of the Finance Committee in the Northern Ireland Assembly on collapse, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North spoke a little bit about the behaviour of the then Finance Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, who was the Sinn Féin Finance Minister. Sinn Féin had concerns in relation to a number of matters. It became clear that Sinn Féin were intending to bring down the Assembly unilaterally. The only way that they could do that was by resigning—and that was the resignation of the late Martin McGuinness. The Committee and I made strong recommendations and representations to the Finance Minister in writing and on the floor of the Northern Ireland Assembly to say that the decision about the timing of this collapse was Sinn Féin’s—it was the only party that wanted the collapse and it chose that timing.
That is vital in respect of two of the issues mentioned here today, with the first relating to the report of the historical institutional abuse inquiry. As a special adviser and a junior Minister for a period in the Office of the First Minister, I had policy responsibility for that area. I spoke to many victims of historical institutional abuse on an ongoing basis. Their stories are powerful and one has incredible sympathy with their recollections and accounts. That is why the Executive jointly moved—with Sinn Féin—to put in place the legislation and this independent body to look at these matters.
What was clear from the outset when I sat down to negotiate and talk about those terms of reference, when the Executive agreed them, was the date on which the report would come forward. Unlike some of the public inquiry legislation, the historical institutional abuse legislation had a deadline—it had a period of time specified, with a discretionary power to extend it, but only for one year. Right from the outset of that inquiry, and through the years of that inquiry, Sinn Féin knew exactly when that report would come forward.
I want to put on record my thanks for the excellent work that its chairperson, Judge Hart, did on that inquiry. One key thing he did was to bring it in not only on budget, but on time. The report was produced to the time asked for by the Executive and known by Martin McGuinness and Sinn Féin. When they collapsed the Assembly, there were just days to go before we got that report.
I raised the issue directly with the Finance Minister in the dying days of the last Northern Ireland Assembly and asked, why not hold on for a further week to allow for the budget to be presented to the Assembly and to be passed, to give certainty for the people of Northern Ireland and their public services? There was no reason not to do so, as I made clear. One week or two weeks would not have made any difference whatsoever in terms of that collapse. We did not want the collapse to happen, but Sinn Féin chose to collapse this and Sinn Féin chose the timing. That timing was when there was an already wildly overdue budget. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir and Sinn Féin will go down as the only people in Northern Ireland who had the finance ministry but failed to do their No. 1 duty, which is to produce the budget for Northern Ireland.
The second important issue in relation to the scrutiny of the Committee for Finance is that that opportunity is no longer there. Part of that role, which is set down slightly differently from the statutory duties and the duties of the Select Committees of this House, involves a statutory duty on the Committee to scrutinise and to ask for evidence, which we did. We called stakeholders and Departments to ask about the pressures within them. We took a look at the overall budget position and we would make recommendations. That process simply does not exist in the current situation, which is not good for Northern Ireland; it is not good for the budget not to have that process.
As has been outlined, the DUP has been clear: we are prepared to go into government right now—it is as simple as that. If there was a calling of the Northern Ireland Assembly tomorrow, we would be there. We are not asking for anything. However, it is not just the DUP, but the entirety of Northern Ireland that is being held to ransom by one party, Sinn Féin, which is making it clear that it will not go into government unless its demands are met. That is not the way to do business. I ask any interested Member from across this House to look at the programme for government agreed between the two parties. I have been clear that the only way to make coalition government work and to make this type of power-sharing agreement work is by focusing on what we agree on and not to get sidelined or obsessed with the things we do not agree on. Nobody will ever say that Sinn Féin and the DUP are the same party in relation to a whole range of policy areas. We accepted that and we accept that in a power-sharing arrangement. So let us get on and focus on what we can agree on. What we can agree on was contained in the last programme for government and that is what we should be doing and implementing.
There are plenty of issues on which we know Sinn Féin do not agree with the DUP. There are plenty of issues on which we could say to Sinn Féin, “We will refuse to go into government unless you agree to x, y or z.” We are not doing that because we do not hold the people of Northern Ireland to ransom.
The people of Northern Ireland need key decisions to be made on health, education, special educational needs and access to drugs and in respect of support and public services. Although in relation to a budget Bill this legislation is welcome, it is vital to remember that the decisions that need to be made have not been made for 14 months. No Government and no Department can continue like that. It is not sustainable and it is not fair on the senior civil servants and those trying to walk the incredibly difficult line between what is legal and what is not. They fear that they may end up in court at any time for the decisions that they are having to make. That is incredibly sad for everybody in Northern Ireland.
Despite my colleagues’ advice not to get into some of the issues, I wish briefly to raise several concerns that have been expressed to me. First, others have mentioned the severely disabled victims of the troubles who will be with us over the next couple of days. I have spoken to several Members about that and welcome their interest in meeting those people. It is clear that those people have great needs, particularly as they age. They need somebody to listen to them and to lobby for them—somebody they can ask to take up their cause—and most importantly, they need action, because they are the people who are suffering the most while others want to focus on divisive issues.
The reality is that the Irish language Act is a divisive issue on the ground. There is no consensus on it. It cannot be the case that the answer is to say to the DUP, “It’s your fault because you won’t simply roll over and agree.” We need to listen to people and to build consensus, because it is a divisive issue. We have plenty of divisive issues in Northern Ireland—there are divisive issues all over—and we can take the time to talk about them, but in the meantime our politicians must get on with doing what they need to do, which is to deliver for the likes of the severely disabled victims and their needs and for the victims of historical institutional abuse. I talked to those people throughout the historical institutional abuse inquiry and they said to me clearly, “We are not interested in the money. It is not about the compensation. This is about the truth and about getting to the bottom of what happened.” It is important that something happens as a result of that inquiry. The report has come out and has been sitting there. Those people need to see action taken on it urgently.
I have previously mentioned the pressures on our education sector. Schools are contacting us all with worries about their budgets, particularly in relation to special educational needs. We are seeing a rise of conditions such as autism and big challenges in relation to young people’s mental health. Such issues need to be addressed, but they require decisions. It cannot simply be a case of things rolling on. There is a programme for government. We have gone on for 14-plus months and it is far too long. Because of the current situation, which we do not want in Northern Ireland—a sad situation in which the negotiations have not produced agreement—I appeal to the Secretary of State to step up and ask her colleagues to put in place Ministers to make the vital decisions, for the good of all the people across all the communities in Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly. The word “anticipation” is in the Bill’s title, and a lot of anticipation has been associated with this legislation. I do not want to regurgitate things that have been said already, but I was one of those Members of the previous Assembly who was told that they could talk not about what the money was going to be spent on but about the budget and what had happened historically. We had to glibly go ahead and go back through the detail of our wish lists for our constituencies.
In welcoming the Bill, I wish to go back over some of the ground that has already been covered. We had a difficulty last year: no Budget was set. One never came forward to the Northern Ireland Assembly. As a consequence, the permanent secretaries in Departments were left in a very difficult position: they were allowed to make a spend of up to 75% of their budget. Ultimately, we were told that they could spend up to 95% of their total budget, which would leave Northern Ireland with a black hole of somewhere in the region of £600 million accounted in one year if no Budget was set.
Thankfully, a Budget was put through this House in November 2017, which meant that the total amount allocated could be spent. I appreciate that that creates its own difficulties in that Departments cut their cloth accordingly, as they know where they can, and where they cannot, make their spend. Unfortunately, decision-making is the main area with a deficit. The difficulty over the past year is that many projects were put on the backburner. Some civil servants used the excuse of no political direction as a reason to do nothing. In my area, we have roads that need repairing. Unfortunately, whenever it comes to monitoring rounds, we do not have the opportunity or the flexibility to move money where it is needed. That is a big problem. That has happened not just in Northern Ireland, but throughout the United Kingdom. A lack of direction has led to problems in our education sector and in our health sector—two areas of biggest spend.
In the past month, I had occasion to meet a delegation of principals from schools right across my constituency, representing every sector of education, Irish-medium included. I can only say that there is a total unfairness in the way that education is funded. Unfortunately, the Department says that it cannot make an adjustment because it needs ministerial direction. We have primary schools that receive £2,242 per pupil. Another sector of education receives five times that amount per pupil. Where is the equality when one pupil is valued at five times the level of another in the ordinary controlled sector of education? That really needs to be looked at. The message that came from that meeting of principals was that they do not necessarily want more money; they just want it spread more fairly and evenly throughout the education sector. That would mean that we would have the same outcomes in whatever sector of education we are dealing with. That was the message that came out loudly and clearly, and it is something that I want to see being driven forward.
I appreciate that all sorts of options have been proposed for how we deal with the way forward. All I can say is that we are rolling down a track, and there is a buffer. I appreciate that decisions have to be made in June, or whenever we set a Budget, but if we do not have an Assembly up and running—I cannot see us having one at that time—we will not have Ministers in position in Northern Ireland to give direction to the way the budget is spent. Let us be honest, not all of us have the same faith that the Northern Ireland Office will deliver the money fairly either. Therefore, we need direct input from Westminster to ensure that the spend is made correctly.
As my right hon. Friend Nigel Dodds has said, great play was made about the confidence and supply money. One message that we have been very sure about putting forward is that this is not our money—this is money for the whole of Northern Ireland and it is to deliver for the whole of Northern Ireland in areas where it will have the most benefit. That is very important.
It was interesting to hear the Chair of the Northern Ireland Committee make reference to the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Department in Northern Ireland and some of the scrutiny rules that might be required. He suggested—and this is something—that we might well set up a scrutiny Committee, which would be made up of Members of the Legislative Assembly. I think that the Secretary of State’s predecessor had already suggested that this might be a way forward, giving the Assembly some form of business by involving it in the scrutiny role of both Departments and the PAC.
There are those in Northern Ireland who have said that they welcome the budget, although former Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, has been on local media stating how sad it is to see Tory austerity being driven forward in Northern Ireland. But there is a Barnett consequential carried forward to Northern Ireland through this budget, so we are getting our increase. The additional moneys that we have received for our confidence and supply agreement are over and above anything else, and we will ensure that they have direct benefits for Northern Ireland.
We need to be careful that we do not stand back and say that we do not want the Northern Ireland Assembly back. As a former Member of the Legislative Assembly, I see the benefits of devolution and believe that it is the right way forward for Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, we have a sword of Damocles held to the back of our necks, and it is being held by one party: Sinn Féin. We really have to stand up to them, drive forward and have, as Maria Caulfield said, an Assembly of the willing. Let us be honest—there are those who are willing to run Northern Ireland and work together. We are willing and want to go into an Assembly tomorrow. We hear red lines mentioned all the time now. Well, Sinn Féin has unfortunately set its red lines when it comes to the issues that it does not believe it could not drive through the Northern Ireland Assembly. Instead, it uses the talks process to drive forward its own agenda.
The Irish language is totally toxic to my community, and Sinn Féin knew that. Those issues were just put on the table to drive us further down the road. With the elections in the Irish Republic, Sinn Féin wanted to ensure that it did not let the Northern Ireland Assembly get up and running; it was keeping its eye on what was happening in the Republic of Ireland.
On my hon. Friend’s point about the Irish language, the DUP has made it very clear that we do not object to people speaking the Irish language or having their children educated in the Irish language. Indeed, the Government in Northern Ireland have contributed millions of pounds towards promotion of and education in the Irish language. But the fact is that when a Sinn Féin spokesperson says that every word spoken in Irish is another bullet fired in the cause of Irish unity, they politicise a language, meaning that it becomes a very divisive issue in Northern Ireland.
I agree 100% with my right hon. Friend. I do not necessarily hold to speaking Irish, but I am not going to be against those who want to learn it and speak it. But there should be fairness and equality in the funding of these cultural issues, and political direction is needed in this area for the following year’s budget.
I appreciate that there were Departments that did not make their full spend. If other Departments were to come before the Assembly, they would have to qualify their accounts because of the overspend; there would probably be a vote on account associated with the overspend of some Departments. Some should probably have learnt a lesson and been a little bit more prudent in their accounting. I appreciate that there were negotiations about the spring statement last week, and Departments will have had some input. We want to see political direction to ensure that the spend is made to benefit the whole of Northern Ireland for the year 2018-19.
I, for one, am sad that we are here to discuss this. It will be worse when we are having to discuss the budget in June, because each and every one of us will have our own pet project that we will want to include in the debate, and we might well drag it out for longer than it should go on. However, I hope that the message from today’s debate is going out loud and clear: we are here because one party failed to deliver a budget in 2017-18. As a consequence, all the blame should be laid at the house of Sinn Féin over what it has caused Northern Ireland to suffer in the past year.
It is always a pleasure to speak at any stage in any debate in this House. I look forward to the opportunity to be the rear gunner, to use terminology that is very apt in the armed forces and the services.
We did not want to bring this debate to this House, but it is here and we must have it. I congratulate and thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for their contributions to making it happen. I am not here to plead for direct rule, because I am very committed to devolution, as is my party. I was part of the old Assembly from 1998 before I was elected to this place. The work in the Assembly was always hard and frustrating, trying to plough forward against constant opposition, as we sometimes do in this place as well. Yet it was workable, because people knew they were elected to do a job and sought to do just that.
People still know that. Our MLAs who are more than capable of doing their job want to do it but are stopped by a red line that may as well be the Red sea. The problem is that we do not have Moses to step forward to part the sea at this time. None the less, the waters are raging and the people who are being caught in the current are everyday people from all sides of every community. Rich and poor, Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Muslim, Unionist and nationalist, healthy or sick, old or young: all are paying the price for the red line erected by Sinn Féin which says that nothing is worth more or is greater than an Irish language Act. No grandmother who needs a care package, no child who needs a classroom assistant, no road that needs repairing: none of those supersedes the provision of a militant Irish language Act. My right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson referred to the politicisation of this legislation. That is why I say this: set the budget, make the ministerial decisions, get the process in place, and do what we are capable of doing ourselves but are prevented from doing back home in the Assembly. I have too many constituents in need for this to be prolonged any more.
At the end of the day, we secured additional money for all the people of the Province. Last week, a Member said to me facetiously: “Well, I suppose that money will be going to the Unionist areas.” That money will go to Unionist, nationalist and all parts of the Province. It is very clear where it is going to be allocated. I wanted to put that on the record.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a very substantial contrast between Sinn Féin’s very narrow focus, to bring the Assembly down, and the much wider and more comprehensive approach that we took in terms of the confidence and supply motion, which benefits everybody without exception in Northern Ireland?
I thank my hon. Friend; he is absolutely correct. Yes, we were committed to bringing advantages for everyone across the whole of the Province, and we did so. This money has been committed to all the people of the Province.
Permanent secretaries will not take decisions, and the losers are people from all corners of the Province. Northern Ireland is disadvantaged today because of Sinn Féin’s austerity and its obstacles and negativity. Members of Sinn Féin are quite clearly the people to blame for this. I have parents tearing their hair out as their child can and should be mainstreamed if they could have a little bit of help in the form of a classroom assistant. Similarly, I have head teachers tearing their hair out because they are limited in the amount of referrals they can make, in the hours they can allocate to pupils, and in the one-to-one time they can give to pupils who could excel with early intervention. There is a very clear need for classroom assistants and educational assessments. I have schools such as Newtownards Model Primary School, which provides music specialists and has helped children who struggle academically but thrive musically. The school has seen great success with these programmes but is having to cease them because the board of governors cannot work out what its budget will be and do not know how or what to cut otherwise.
That simply should not happen. The school has raised money and worked hard to have that wonderful scheme, only for it to end because schools do not know what is happening. That is unacceptable, and yet our schools are forced to accept it, with the caveat of, “Blame the politicians on the hill.” It is not the politicians on the hill who are to blame; it is Sinn Féin. Not all politicians are to be blamed, but some are, and let us be clear who: the blame lies with Sinn Féin and their intransigence.
Special schools were a big issue in the news yesterday. I had a number of phone calls yesterday morning about that, as other Members will have had. Five schools are going to be amalgamated into perhaps two. There will be a consultation process, but already parents in my constituency have phoned to say that they are very concerned about where their child is going to end up and what is going to happen.
We have North Down Training Ltd, which does some great work with young adults who are educationally disadvantaged and have problems that are apparent and need to be addressed. We have high schools with small numbers under threat, with no money in the budget, yet money is flowing in for the Irish language schools—and this is before an Irish language Act comes into being. I have constituents saying, “Where is the equality for the small school in my area, when Irish language schools with under 50 pupils are as happy as Larry?” Of course they are, because they get every bit of money they want.
Where is the fairness? Where is the equality? We hear Sinn Féin talking about equality. I am going to talk about equality as well. Let us have equality for my constituents and for constituents across the rest of the Province who are disadvantaged and do not have it. How can I explain to my constituent why his child deserves less than another child because he does not feel a need to speak Irish in an English-speaking country?
New builds are an issue. Glastry College, which I serve on the board of governors for, is waiting for a new build. The decision on Movilla High School stands clear as well. These are problems that every school in my constituency, and indeed every constituency across the whole of the Province, deals with.
I have people complaining that they cannot access their GPs and that when they do get to the surgery, their GP puts them on a waiting list of sometimes over 18 months to get done what needs to be done urgently. We need a decision to be made to provide bursaries to medical students who will give a commitment to work their first seven years in GP surgeries, to relieve the burden on those and the doctor out-of-hours system.
These are things we are dealing with every day. Hopefully this budget and the allocation of moneys and ministerial decisions that will come will eventually ensure that these systems are all sorted. Again, we have A&Es bursting at the seams, with beds in the halls being above the normal. I remember my parliamentary aide coming back from Swaziland and telling me about the hospitals there, which had two people to every bed in the wards. Sometimes we ask ourselves, is that where we are heading? If we are, something needs to be done.
I have met the permanent secretary regarding funding for insulin pumps, which vastly improve the quality of life of children with type 1 diabetes, as well as adults. He agrees that those would be wonderful, but money needs to be released for training of the nurses who specialise in the field. That needs to be budgeted for. In Northern Ireland, we have the largest number of type 1 diabetics percentage-wise in the whole of the United Kingdom, with Scotland following us. These are key issues in my constituency and in constituencies right across the Province.
We need to bridge the pay gap for the nurses and staff, but again, that will not be done without ministerial approval. We need care-in-the-community packages to allow elderly people to retain their independence for as long as possible and to cut down on the funding allocated to placing them in a home before necessary. That cannot be signed off without ministerial direction. We need to ensure that people on restricted diets can access their food when needed on the NHS, without having to make a case; their illness is the case.
Some of the money from the sugar tax will come to Northern Ireland, and we need someone in place to make decisions on that. A pilot took place in the constituency of my hon. Friend David Simpson, which my hon. Friends are well aware of. That is a great scheme, addressing issues of obesity, diet and health. We want to see that scheme across the whole of Northern Ireland. That is something we should do.
We need the £1.4 billion of funding that we secured to be allocated. We desperately need the Ballynahinch bypass, which would benefit so many people in my constituency and in South Down. Since Chris Hazzard refuses to come to the House—he is too busy naming his office after those killed in the midst of terrorist activity—we are making that point and speaking for all those people in this place. I speak for my constituents and perhaps for some of his as well.
My hon. Friend thinks I am intervening to put forward an alternative proposal for the route of the A55 Knock Road widening scheme, but that is not the case. He has mentioned on several occasions that many things cannot progress because of a lack of ministerial appointments and the fact that there are no Ministers to make decisions. Does he agree that it would be useful if the Minister indicated whether he has considered article 4(4) of the Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, which says that senior officials can take decisions falling to their Departments in the absence of a Minister?
I thank my hon. Friend for that solution and for his question to the Minister. I am sure that Ministers will correspond furiously with their civil servants to find out how that might work. It has already worked in Northern Ireland on one occasion. We have seen it in action, and if we can have it in one Department, it can happen in all of them. Let us see whether we can get on with doing so.
In the case of the Ballynahinch bypass, the permanent secretary needs ministerial direction. This scheme is ready to go, so will someone please sign it off, because I would love it to happen? Similarly, a scheme must be put in place, Province-wide, with additional money for repairing roads. This hard winter has left too many potholes on our roads, and they are damaging cars. People are coming to my office saying that they have never before had to come and see their elected representative about this matter, but are now doing so. Let me mention one example which, miraculously, was fixed after a lot of correspondence. There was a pothole in Mary Street in Newtownards, and I raised it with the Department on a number of occasions. The last time I did so, I said to the gentleman, “If we don’t fix that pothole soon, we’ll be shaking hands with the Australians”. It was so deep, cars were getting damaged every day. It has now been fixed, and thank the Lord for that.
I have big businesses that are seeking to remain competitive globally through the Brexit uncertainty, but they cannot access grants to improve their business and cannot get through to decision makers to bring us into line with mainland practice. I say to the Secretary of State that someone needs to make such decisions. For example, the budget in front of us mentions the agri-food sector, which is very important in my constituency and across the whole of Northern Ireland. Where are the moneys for capital build? There is such a scheme in England, and this is devolved in Scotland and in Wales, but we do not have it in Northern Ireland, so we would like that to be put in place as well.
I applaud the voluntary sector and charitable organisations that are doing a tremendous job, but they are closing their doors as they cannot operate in uncertainty—they do not know what will happen in April—which leaves vulnerable people without the support they need to function meaningfully. Again, we look to the budget, and perhaps the permanent secretary, with the blessing of the Secretary of State and the Minister, could do something about that.
For all of these reasons, I am bringing to the House what I should have brought to Ministers and asking them, in setting the budget, to allocate the powers as well—as my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson said so well—to those who are capable of making decisions. They will make such decisions and stop this floundering about, which has left our constituents frustrated, unrepresented at the Assembly and second class citizens.
I ask that consideration is given to the issues raised today when setting a budget, but also, more than this, that a system is urgently enacted to allow Northern Ireland to run again as a country, instead of being in limbo and no man’s land due to Sinn Féin’s austerity programme. Sinn Féin have tried to break the Assembly and to destroy Northern Ireland, and no matter what language they say that in, it is wrong. I hope that the budget we are setting today is the first stage in stopping just that.
I conclude with this last comment. Northern Ireland has weathered the past year, but a heavy price has been paid by voluntary sector workers, community groups, our NHS, our education boards and schools, and they are done paying for someone else’s refusal. I look to the Secretary of State and the Minister, and to this Government, to take the power, make the decisions, get the country back on its feet and put Sinn Féin back in the corner in which it already skulks.
I understand that the Minister of State will be replying to many of the points made in this debate. I want to add to the list of his replies that will be vital going forward.
Since being appointed, and in looking at the budget and how we got to this point, the Minister has also created an expectation. He has been very diligent, going round Northern Ireland, visiting with Invest Northern Ireland, visiting the Police Service of Northern Ireland and many other groups, along with the Secretary of State, making the case, listening to needs and, I suppose, creating an expectation that those needs will rightly be addressed. Of course, and to echo everything said by every other Member, we would far rather those expectations were addressed by a functioning Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. However, at some point we have to smell the coffee and recognise that that is not the case at the present time and, realistically speaking, probably will not be for the remainder of this year. If that is so, and given that between now and June the Minister will have to look at the next budget and how we deal with incoming expenditure and setting targets, it is important that he turn his mind to certain matters,.
I want to focus on one part of the portfolio that I carry responsibility for in this House, and that is sport. We have a very successful sport tourism portfolio. Indeed, Northern Ireland golf tourism is about to really take off in the coming year, and that has been started in the last week by the success of Rory McIlroy, who set a particular standard of achievement in the Arnold Palmer cup.
When my hon. Friend speaks of smelling the coffee and the importance to our economy of driving things forward, he will be aware that one of Northern Ireland’s many success stories in the past 14 months is the Pure Roast Coffee company in my constituency, which has struck a deal to supply coffee across China, so there is good news and we should welcome it.
It is good that we, as the country that I think drinks the most tea per head of population, are now exporting coffee, and to the largest market in the world.
We are going to have an influx of golf tourists coming to Northern Ireland for the Irish Open, and indeed the open in 2019. The organisation—the Royal and Ancient—but more importantly the golf clubs in Northern Ireland, in particular Royal Portrush golf club, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr Campbell, will need certainty about the finance for them and for those tournaments. Will the Minister of State ensure immediately, so that there is no delay, that those organisations get certainty and clarity about financial expenditure for golf tourism? This is going to be the single largest shop window for Northern Ireland—a very positive shop window—and the expenditure therefore needs to be properly underwritten by the Government.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we have a number of excellent ambassadors for golf in Northern Ireland? They include our very own Rory McIlroy—congratulations to him. With him back on form, as demonstrated at the weekend, and winning across the world, this is the perfect time to maximise golf tourism in Northern Ireland.
We always used to mention the triumvirate of Rory, Darren and Graeme, but now there are so many good golfers in Northern Ireland that we do not want to get into naming them all, because we might offend one by leaving them out. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we have a great golf ambassador in Rory, and there are many others.
We are in danger of getting stuck in the bunker, and that is not where I want to be. Come on, Mr Paisley!
I will put the sand wedge away and move to another discipline, if you don’t mind, Mr Deputy Speaker.
In their wisdom, the last Executive, before they were put out of existence by the untimely resignation of the then Deputy First Minister, kindly appointed me to be the independent chairman of the Northern Ireland taskforce on motorsport. A number of significant motorsport events occur annually in Northern Ireland. Significantly, the North West 200 will require financial certainty from the Minister of State before June, and I would like to make sure that he is able to give that certainty and that he talks to the relevant Department—the Department for Communities—to indicate that proper finance will be put in place for the largest outdoor sporting event not only in Northern Ireland but in the entire island of Ireland. The race attracts over 100,000 people annually to the triangle of Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine. It is very significant for sport in Northern Ireland and, indeed, for community relations. Motorsport is one of those things that attracts all people, of all classes and creeds. It is also something that Northern Ireland excels at, and we require certainty in terms of the provision of support to allow the race to go ahead. The Armagh road race in my constituency and the Ulster grand prix, which straddles the constituencies of South Antrim and Lagan Valley, also require certainty before the August timetable. I ask the Minister of State to look into that to ensure that the Department is properly told by him that funding must be put in place.
Looking forward to 2021 and the youth Commonwealth games, plans are already being put in place, and it is essential that the organisers are given certainty so that they can market Northern Ireland around the world as a destination and the location of those games. That will not happen in the six months before the games; it has to happen years in advance. I ask the Minister of State to put his mind to making sure that the Department is put on notice that he will be breathing down its neck to ensure that proper resources are put in place for these important showcase events for Northern Ireland.
We have had an extraordinarily interesting afternoon. It started with almost a political first—almost a parliamentary first—when a Secretary of State came to the Dispatch Box longing to give up power and desperate to slough off some of the responsibilities of office. Most of us—obviously, I exclude myself and hon. Members present—are climbing the greasy pole with all rapidity, but, no, the Secretary of State spurns the trappings of authority and wants no part of them.
I have to say I have enormous sympathy, because, in all honesty, what we have heard this afternoon is almost an admission of failure. We heard an admission that we are discussing issues that we simply should not be discussing; we actually need to talk about the things that really matter to this House, and representatives of Northern Ireland need to talk about things that matter there.
We heard an extremely forensic analysis of the Bill from Dr Murrison. He brought to the Bill the same scalpel-like skill that he used to bring to human beings—most of whom survived—and he broke it down, particularly in his comments on the role of the Northern Ireland Audit Office. He said, quite correctly, that permanent secretaries should not be dealing with the closure of health facilities. In many ways, that brought us to the nub of what we are talking about this afternoon.
Deidre Brock said she was in reluctant agreement, but, in a very potent phrase, she said we have to somehow keep the lights and the heat on. We do not normally talk about heating in these debates, but in this case talking about keeping the lights and the heat on was entirely appropriate.
The contribution from Maria Caulfield has attracted much support and comment. She not only spoke from the heart and from a position of authority, but she spoke the essential truth. The references she made to, for example, the Belfast city deal were very potent because such matters really concern the people of Northern Ireland—rather more than what we are saying in this Chamber.
Sammy Wilson showed yet again what an immense loss he is to the world of higher education. An entire generation of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland learned at his feet, studied underneath him and survived. He again gave us a master class, and he was right to talk about misconceptions. Like his pupils, I feel honoured and a better person for having heard him.
Nigel Dodds widened the scope of the Bill somewhat and brought us to Brexit, among other things. He incorporated an extraordinary amount of detail, but that was quite correct in many ways, because the Bill does have an impact on so many areas. He also talked about going about the people’s business, which is a potent phrase. We should be going about the people’s business in our constituencies, whether they be in Northern Ireland or here; we should not be doing this. Not for the first time, the right hon. Gentleman spoke not just good sense but with a great sense of rightness on his side, and it was good to hear it.
I hope that Emma Little Pengelly will not think me patronising when I say that she has grown in stature during the short time that she has been in the House. She spoke superbly, saying, again from the heart, that today is a sad day. In that, I think she enunciated the spirit of the House. She talked about the democratic deficit and referred in passing to the paucity of Members here present. That is their loss, because we have heard some excellent speeches, including that of the hon. Lady. She also talked about the impact on children with special educational needs and on education, which are issues on which we should be concentrating.
Paul Girvan talked about the roads that needed repairing and problems in health and higher education. Mr Deputy Speaker, if I may prevail upon your legendary generosity of spirit, I will say that it was a great pleasure yesterday to meet the hon. Gentleman with Grace Nesbitt, one of his constituents —oddly enough, she worked in the Department of Finance—who came here to receive her well-deserve OBE, accompanied by her absolutely delightful daughter, Rhoda.
Normally when Jim Shannon stands up, I feel that we have saved the best for last. I thought he was to be the last speaker, but he introduced us to the giant pothole of Newtownards. I have no doubt that it will before long become one of the signature destinations in Northern Ireland. We have had the Giant’s Causeway and the walled city, and we will soon have the giant pothole of Newtownards. I understand that it would be difficult not to score a hole-in-one where the giant pothole is concerned, and the thought of the DUP accidentally opening an Australian branch is one that does not worry me overmuch, but I understand that a certain concern is being expressed in the antipodes. He also talked about important things, such as bursaries for medical students, and it is the combination of the local minutiae—the bread-and-butter issues of his local politics—with the big issues that makes him such an excellent speaker.
Ian Paisley suddenly led the debate into a completely new direction, and the entire House almost leaped to its feet in animation as we started to talk about golf, tourism and the North West 200. We could have carried on like that for another couple of hours.
I am more familiar with Bob Stewart than Portstewart, but there may well be a distillery along that route. I also remember that there are demountable traffic signs and that the street furniture can be moved to the side thanks to Joey Dunlop’s inspirational leadership. Mr Deputy Speaker, although I have referred to your legendary generosity of spirit, I think that even you may be tempted to rise and ask me to sit were we to go into more discussions on that.
Ultimately, we are talking about a subject that none of us really wants to be addressing in this Chamber. Last Thursday, I attended the excellent housing conference organised by agendaNi in the Titanic centre to hear people talking about housing issues in Northern Ireland, the problems of substandard housing and the problems of needing to adapt properties for people with special needs. Those are the issues that we should be talking about. This afternoon, we talked about the York Street interchange—that should be discussed in Stormont and not in Westminster. It is important and it matters to the people of Northern Ireland. We should not even have to mention that here and now.
The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr Vara, was referred to earlier by the hon. Member for North Antrim, who remarked on him traveling around the highways and byways of Northern Ireland, stirring up expectations and giving people the anticipation of delivery. I have every confidence and faith in the Minister. I consider him a friend—I appreciate that may breach parliamentary protocol, and it has probably doomed his career. I think we have a duty to be evangelical and optimistic. The great people of Northern Ireland—some of the greatest people I have ever had the privilege of meeting—deserve better. In fact, they deserve more than better; they deserve the best, and they deserve that from their elected representatives in their own part of the world. What we have done today has been technical and necessary, but I wish that we had not had to do it.
May I say what a pleasure it is to be in this debate this afternoon, Mr Deputy Speaker? I thank right hon. and hon. Members across the House for their contributions. In particular, I thank the Opposition Front Benchers for their support for these necessary steps to safeguard public finances, public services and public confidence in Northern Ireland in the continued absence of devolved Government. In bringing forward the Bill, we are taking an administrative but hugely important step to formalise spending totals for the previous year. Given the largely technical nature of what is proposed, I intend to be brief while also responding to some detailed points that have been raised.
In his opening remarks, Owen Smith made several points, many of which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State responded to. There has been some confusion about the purpose of the Bill, and I hope the hon. Gentleman takes comfort from the fact, and will appreciate, that the issue of victims’ pensions is one for a devolved Assembly.
My hon. Friend Dr Murrison raised a number of points. Although the Secretary of State will reply to him in detail regarding the specific questions he raised, I just say that as far as schedule 3 is concerned, this is cash to be drawn down from the Consolidated Fund to pay for revenue and capital investment, while schedule 4 is for the use of resources only. It excludes capital but it includes non-cash items, such as depreciation costs.
We covered the Hart inquiry extensively. Other Members spoke about that as well, but my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire will appreciate that no recommendations were made by the devolved Assembly before it collapsed. That was something that my right hon. Friend James Brokenshire, the former Secretary of State, was able to confirm.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire also spoke about the costs of the border to the Northern Ireland Administration. I emphasise that this budget Bill deals with the 2017-18 budget. Detailed spending decisions, including any allocations required for Brexit costs, remain for the Northern Ireland Administration to take. The Secretary of State’s written ministerial statement from
May I clarify one particular point? In response to a question following last week’s statement, the Secretary of State said she would write to the “permanent secretaries”. In actual fact, she meant the “permanent secretary”, and she is more than happy to provide a copy of the letter to my hon. Friend. I hope that that has clarified the issue.
The Minister will undoubtedly be aware that last week—I am sure it was last week—the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, David Sterling, gave evidence under oath to the renewable heat incentive inquiry. He explained—I have no reason to doubt what he said—that in the past some Ministers had instructed officials and civil servants not to take minutes of meetings and decisions about expenditure to avoid freedom of information requests. Since permanent secretaries are now to be given budgets and to be making decisions about expenditure, will the Minister confirm for our benefit and that of the people of Northern Ireland that that policy is no longer in place and that permanent secretaries are indeed keeping minutes of all meetings and decisions relating to the budget?
I hope that the hon. Lady will appreciate that this is an ongoing inquiry and that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on it.
With the greatest of respect to the Minister, for whom I have enormous regard, this has nothing to do with the RHI inquiry. I am not asking about the inquiry, which his ongoing, as he rightly says; this is a separate issue. In evidence to the inquiry, the head of the civil service in Northern Ireland, David Sterling, confirmed that Ministers—I understood him to mean Sinn Féin and DUP Ministers—had instructed civil servants not to keep minutes of meetings to avoid freedom of information requests. [Interruption.] I am pleased to see that there is some head shaking from DUP Members. Will the Minister confirm that all permanent secretaries, who are now running Northern Ireland Departments, have instructed civil servants to keep minutes of all meetings and decisions recorded afterwards?
I hope that the hon. Lady will appreciate that there are no Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It would be for them to give instructions to permanent secretaries, not Ministers in Westminster, so I cannot give her the assurance she seeks. It is a devolved matter.
I am grateful for the support of Deidre Brock. She spoke of the delay in the Bill coming forward. I hope that she will appreciate that we were very keen to get the devolved Assembly up and running again—only recently there were intensive talks to try and progress matters—and that we therefore left this to the last minute. We had hoped not to have to take the decisions we are taking today.
My hon. Friend Maria Caulfield raised several issues. The Secretary of State’s budget statement on
My hon. Friend also mentioned city deals. She will be aware that work is ongoing on these deals. Councils, the Northern Ireland civil service, the Northern Ireland Office, the Department for Communities and Local Government and Her Majesty’s Treasury are all involved in charting the way forward, but she and the House will appreciate that we need the devolved Assembly, because it has a huge contribution to make to progressing those city deals.
My hon. Friend referred to the apprenticeship levy. The Northern Ireland Administration have been allocated their share of the apprenticeship levy, so it is available to the Northern Ireland civil service for allocating. In line with the devolution settlement, however, it is not for the UK Government to dictate how Northern Ireland’s share is spent. Apprenticeships are a devolved matter. That is another issue that highlights the need for a devolved Assembly to be up and running.
Sammy Wilson spoke in his customary manner and with his customary passion. It was good that he helped to clarify the purpose of the Bill, given that there has been some misunderstanding among Members. Nigel Dodds also made a passionate speech, which he normally delivers. He spoke of the way forward for the devolved Assembly from his own perspective, but also recognised the need for crucial decisions to be made, as, indeed, we are making them today.
Emma Little Pengelly spoke of her personal experience, and it was certainly beneficial to the House to hear that. She, too, spoke of the need for decisions to be made and gave the example of the special needs sector in education. Paul Girvan, again, spoke of the lack of decisions, giving examples relating to education and health. He also highlighted the additional funds from the confidence and supply agreement, and it is important to remember that those will benefit all the people of Northern Ireland. Jim Shannon reinforced the need for decisions to be made.
Ian Paisley asked two specific questions, about golf tourism and the youth Commonwealth games. I appreciate the vital importance of golf tourism to the economy, as, I think, does the House, but I am going to give him the answer that he does not want: that, along with the youth Commonwealth games, is a matter for the devolved Assembly, which is another reason why it is so important to try to get the Assembly up and running.
I wholeheartedly agree that, yes, in the best case in the world that is a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly, but let us have a reality check. The Northern Ireland Assembly has gone for now. We would love to have it back, but the Minister needs to start preparing an emergency plan that will give certainty about the funding of events in the future. That does not detract from our desire to see the Assembly restored as soon as possible. I just hope that the Minister will take this message to his officials. I hope that he will say to them, “Please give certainty to these organisations in relation to sport and our games bids.”
I take on board what the hon. Gentleman has said, but he will appreciate that, as I pointed out at the beginning of my speech, the Bill is technical and specific. I hope he will forgive me if I stick to the terms of the Bill, but I hear loud and clear what he has said.
Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson spoke of the coffee business in his constituency. I hope that he will be pleased to know that last Thursday I was at Borough market in London supporting some 14 Northern Ireland businesses dealing with food and drink. They all seemed to be doing very well and to have made contacts with traders here who are happy to take goods from them in the future and sell them in London. That was a very productive event, and I greatly enjoyed it.
Gavin Robinson asked a specific question about the Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999. Article 4(3) provides that decisions may be made by senior officials. Permanent secretaries consider legal authority for decisions every day in line with legislation. It is a technical issue, but I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some comfort.
The Minister is right to refer to paragraph (3) rather than paragraph (4); I misdirected him earlier.
Of course legislative opinion may be sought, but does the Minister not believe, having reflected on that provision, that it fundamentally undermines the blanket stance that no decisions can be made until Ministers are appointed? There is more flexibility in that legislation than is suggested by the current political atmosphere and the discussions that are taking place in Northern Ireland. Given that it is there, we should use it.
The hon. Gentleman is a distinguished lawyer and will therefore appreciate that, given the context in which we are speaking, I would prefer, speaking as one lawyer to another, to read that paragraph a wider context before making any further commitments to it, and he will appreciate that I am not in a position to make that comment now. I hope that he will be content with that; I think the smile on his face says that he knows he is trying his luck there. [Interruption.] Trying his luck in terms of pushing me further than perhaps I ought to go.
I reiterate the point made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the Bill does not set out in law the allocations outlined in her written statement of
As for providing authorisation for spending in 2018-19 without formal departmental totals, I can reassure colleagues that this is exactly in line with usual processes. Last year, Northern Ireland permanent secretaries were forced to rely on emergency powers under section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in the absence of legal authority through an Act of this kind to spend money. I hope colleagues will agree that it will not be acceptable to invite the same uncertainty.
The issue of scrutiny and accountability was raised, and of course it is important to appreciate that that is there. The measures before us relate to the formalising of allocations for the previous financial year. As the former Secretary of State my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup put it, arrangements are in place to allow the reports of the Northern Ireland Audit Office and Northern Ireland departmental responses to be placed in the Libraries of both Houses when they concern audit or value for money issues. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State placed the first two departmental responses to NIAO reports in the Libraries to fulfil that commitment, and we stand ready to continue that process over the coming months. We shall reflect on whether any further scrutiny arrangements are merited to enable appropriate oversight of the use of public money.
We would very much have preferred these budgetary steps today to have been taken by a restored Executive and we waited for as long as possible for that to happen, but in the absence of an Executive, this Bill is required to give much-needed certainty for the Northern Ireland civil service as it safeguards public services for the people of Northern Ireland. That is why it is so important that the Bill be passed on Second Reading today.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).
Bill considered in Committee (Order, this day).
[Sir Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
The Chair put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Order, this day).
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 2 to 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill and schedules 1 to 4 agreed to.
Bill reported, without amendment.
Bill read the Third time and passed.