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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As I have stated to the House on a number of occasions over the 14 months that I have been in this role, and as my predecessors did previously, the UK Government have a responsibility, in the absence of a functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland, to ensure good governance and to protect the interests of all parts of the community. We have a duty to safeguard public services and public finances. The Bill before the House today upholds that duty by giving certainty to Northern Ireland finances for the 2018-19 financial year and by enabling Northern Ireland Departments to continue to deliver public services into the first half of 2019-20.
Last year, the UK Government had to step in and ask Parliament to legislate for the 2018-19 budget for Northern Ireland. This was not a step that we wanted to take, but it was a necessary step in order to give a clear, legal basis to Northern Ireland Departments to enable them to manage resources and perform the important work that they continue to do in the absence of an Executive. I want to put on record once again my admiration for the work that the civil servants in the Northern Ireland civil service do in the absence of political leadership. The legislation that we passed, the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2018, 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 July. Since then, the Northern Ireland civil service has continued to assess where pressures lie across the system, and it has reallocated resources as required. As we approach the end of the financial year, those changes need to be put on to a legal footing, as is a standard part of any annual budgetary process, and that is what this Bill does.
In addition, the Bill would provide for a vote on account for the first half of next year, to give legal authority for managing day-to-day spending in the run-up to the usual main estimates process. This is a normal part of the estimates process. This year, however, following discussions with the Northern Ireland civil service on the pressures it faces in the year ahead, I am proposing in this Bill to provide a higher than normal level of vote on account of 70%.
The Secretary of State will be well aware that, in evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, a considerable amount of criticism has been expressed of the budget allocation to the Education Department. In particular, we have heard evidence that primary schools have had to ask for donations of toilet roll, in addition to pencils and the other things that one would usually expect. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that, following the increase in the budget to the Department of Education—many other Departments are in the same situation—we will not see a repetition of primary schools in Northern Ireland asking for donations of toilet roll?
The hon. Lady makes a number of important points, the first being that we have rightly increased spending for the Department of Education. This is an area in which there is a clear need for increased spending, and the permanent secretary at the Department was keen to ensure that the Government were aware of that. That is why, in the allocations for 2019-20 that were set out in the written statement last week, there is an increase in spending power for the Department of Education. The hon. Lady also makes a point about how that spending happens. The difficulty in the absence of Ministers in Stormont is that spending cannot be directed from this House. She also refers to issues within education in Northern Ireland. There is an undoubted need for reform of the system to ensure that money is spent appropriately and gets to the frontline and to the children and students who need it most, but we need Ministers to do that, which is why Stormont must be restored as soon as possible.
I am interested in what the Secretary of State said in response to Lady Hermon. I am looking at the Secretary of State’s written statement and the announcement of an extra £140 million for education, health and, as it happens, justice, but she says that it was provided
“in recognition of the lack of opportunity for more fundamental service reconfiguration over the last 12 months”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 655, c. 23WS.]
This may be new money, but it will provide no new services and it comes as a result of a failure of the political process in Northern Ireland to reconfigure those services.
The additional funding for health and education is partly down to the new money that the Treasury has found—the £140 million—but it is also down to Barnett consequentials and other reasons. We have worked to ensure that the money that is needed by Departments, as requested by the permanent secretaries, is given to them, but the shadow Secretary of State is right that it is for business as usual activities. Major policy decisions cannot be taken at this stage because that needs political leadership.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that this is not simply a matter of uplifting the amount of funding to education or healthcare; this is also about trying to work out how best to spend that money. Will any of the £4 million in transformation funding that she identified last month be used to try to work out how the footprint of the education and healthcare estate might be better utilised?
We are keen that the Northern Ireland civil service does the necessary work to prepare for the transformation of health and education and for the urgently needed reforms but, to be clear, the actual reforms can only be made once Ministers are in place in Stormont to make the decisions and give political direction.
Returning to the vote on account, the reason why it is 70% in this Bill, rather than the normal 45%, is that that recognises the increased spending pressures facing public services and the lack of Ministers in place to take reactive and decisive steps to respond to emerging or escalating pressures. It also recognises the uncertainty of the political situation in Northern Ireland in the months ahead. In the light of that context, such a level of vote on account is reasonable and provides the practical and legal certainties to protect public services in any circumstance and up until the point that Northern Ireland budget legislation for 2019-20 is taken through to secure funding for the full year. It goes without saying that I genuinely hope that a new Executive will be in place to take their own budget legislation forward for 2019-20, but this Government stand ready to take it through if needed.
To be clear, this Bill does not represent a budget for the year ahead. It does not seek to set out in legislation the departmental allocations that I outlined in my written statement on
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing me to intervene for a second time. She has said twice in quick succession that the Bill is to allow a budget that takes into account any circumstances in Northern Ireland—that allows Departments to plan ahead. May I just mention Brexit to her? Can she actually tell us how much has been allocated in the Bill towards Brexit preparations and does that allocation take into account—heaven forbid—the possibility of a no-deal Brexit?
I repeat: the Bill is about putting on a statutory footing the spending that has already taken place. I will be happy to furnish the hon. Lady with information about money that Departments in Northern Ireland have spent on planning for Brexit, which covers all Brexit planning. The allocations in the written ministerial statement do include moneys that have been allocated from the Treasury for planning for Brexit, so that is in the written ministerial statement, but the budget today is about the money that has already been spent. I will be happy to give the hon. Lady full information about money that has been spent to date and up till the end of the month. We are putting that on a statutory footing today. The hon. Lady looks as if she is itching to intervene again.
I am extremely grateful; it really is very generous of the Secretary of State to give way again. I am reading the legislation before us, which we are asked to give our consent to. Under the allocation for the Department of Justice, it says in black and white —I have not invented this—
“expenditure on activities that are required as a result of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union”.
As that appears to be expenditure on activities that are required as a result of Brexit, I have asked the Secretary of State how much has been spent. That is a clear question; I just want a clear answer.
There may be information on certain departmental spending, but, on the total, this is a number that is owned by NICS, not by the Northern Ireland Office, and I would not want to give the hon. Lady just one bit of the jigsaw. I would like to give her the full picture, including all the money that has been spent on preparations this year. On the allocations for the future, this is to enable the vote on account to happen, but actually the departmental allocations will be properly done, through a budget next year. In the same way as we had a budget Bill last July, which put the 2018-19 spending on a statutory footing, this is the completion of that process for 2018-19. Another Bill will do that for 2019-20. However, I will of course write to the hon. Lady and ensure that she has full information about all the spending across all Departments, because as I say, that information is held by the NICS; it is not owned by the Northern Ireland Office and I want to get it absolutely correct for her.
I think it would be very useful for the House to have the information that the Secretary of State just mentioned. Given that, regrettably, we do not have a functioning Executive and Parliament in Northern Ireland, it would be useful for the House to have the information that the civil servants have given her as to why there should be a budgetary increase in individual Departments—such as Justice, Education or Health—so that we have some way of understanding in this House what the budgetary pressures are, and what influences are leading to the decisions that the Secretary of State is making. I think that would be very helpful to us all.
The written ministerial statement sets out the departmental allocations. Those are the moneys that the permanent secretaries have asked me to deliver to them. I cannot direct the spending within those Departments. I also cannot ask them exactly which work streams or programmes they will spend the money on, because in this House we do not have the Executive power to do that. However, I am making it possible for the spending that has already happened to have the statutory footing that it needs, and I am making possible the vote on account for next year, as agreed with the permanent secretaries of each Department.
It is not a satisfactory process. I do not deny that this is not the ideal way to do it. The ideal way to do this would be to have Ministers in Stormont who are able to direct departmental spending, and to have a budget process that is done in the same way as the overall budget is done for the United Kingdom in the Treasury; but we are not in a situation where that can happen, so unfortunately, this is where we are.
I am not trying to criticise. I am not complaining or saying that the Secretary of State is wrong. All I am saying is that, for example, the Secretary of State’s statement states that £16.5 million goes to the police for EU exit preparations. That means that, somewhere along the line, the police have decided that they would like those additional moneys to help. All I am saying, as somebody who takes a keen interest in Northern Ireland, is that with that, or with the schools, or with health, it would be helpful, as far as possible, to have some idea about the reasons that that money has been requested—not to criticise it, but just to understand it better.
I understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes. He has significant experience in Northern Ireland and will know a great deal about it. The police put in a specific bid for additional resources for Brexit preparations. It went through the proper processes in the Treasury and this has been paid. I recognise his frustration about wanting more information here for parliamentarians, and I have supplied the information I am able to supply in my capacity as Secretary of State. Clearly, we are not looking at the future spending and, when we do the budget for 2019-20—I hope we will not have to, as I hope it will be done by Ministers in Stormont—I will bear in mind the points he has raised.
At which point will the Secretary of State accept that this is an entirely unsustainable position? As has been outlined, there is no scrutiny in this process. I do not believe that such a process would take place anywhere in a democracy in the western world. This process is taking place completely behind closed doors in terms of what bids are being put forward and what bids are being accepted. The people of Northern Ireland are in a difficult position; they are between two positions. The first is that Sinn Féin is boycotting the Northern Ireland Assembly, so we do not have the right mechanisms in place to scrutinise and make decisions. The second is that the Secretary of State and this Government are refusing to put in place direct rule, which, although not desirable, is necessary. We have now had several years of this type of process where there is no scrutiny and no democratic accountability. When is that going to change?
Of course, there is full scrutiny of the Northern Ireland block grant—that is the estimates process that we went through last week in this House; this House is able to scrutinise the block grant. I well accept the point the hon. Lady makes about the undesirable level of scrutiny and about how the allocations are made between Departments—I do not disagree with her on that. It would be much better to have the full scrutiny process that a devolved Executive would be able to deliver. We are in a very unsatisfactory position. I would rather we were not doing this in this way, but in order to ensure that public services continue to be delivered and that public servants—the civil servants in Northern Ireland—have the statutory underpinning they need for the spending, we are taking forward this budget Bill. I would really rather we were not.
The Secretary of State is right about the difficulty we are in because Stormont is not sitting, but that does not obviate the need for the process that this House should be engaged in. There is no need for this Bill be done through emergency procedures—there is no need for it to be fast-tracked. The explanatory memorandum says that the Bill is being fast-tracked because there was a hope that the Executive would have been restored to make the provisions. When in the past two months was there any genuine prospect of the Assembly being restored to go through this process? Our Committee stage is to be constrained this afternoon—we might get an hour or we might get 45 minutes on the Floor of this House. That is not satisfactory; we have the tools and the mechanisms in Parliament for full Bill Committee consideration of the estimates and future allocations. There was also the opportunity for the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs to get into these discussions. The Departments are very good at appearing before the Committee chaired by Dr Murrison. We should have used those processes, rather than this constrained, fast-track process today.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but we have to be aware of the constitutional precedents that are set by changing the way we scrutinise these Bills. The way this Bill should be taken through is not as primary legislation; it should be an estimates process done in Stormont, in the same way as we vote on our Budget in this House. We do not have scrutiny of the Budget resolutions upstairs; we have a Finance Bill that puts them into legislation, but we vote on Ways and Means resolutions on the Floor of the House. Unfortunately, we do not have the ability to do that in Stormont, for well documented reasons. What I want is to see those politicians in Northern Ireland doing the right thing, coming back to Stormont and forming the Executive, so that all those proper processes can be applied. We should not kid ourselves that some substitute arrangement will offer a different approach; we have to see devolved government restored in Stormont.
I know the right hon. Gentleman wants to come in, but I want to make some progress, because I am conscious that others want to speak and we want to make sure everyone has a chance to be heard.
Let me go back to the work we are doing today. Like last year, the draft budget sets headline allocations only. It will remain for Northern Ireland permanent secretaries to use the powers of this budget legislation and the draft budget position to take decisions to maintain public services and live within their means. Also like last year, the Bill does not propose any new moneys to be voted on for Northern Ireland. The totals to which it relates are either raised locally or have been subject to previous votes in Parliament, most recently in respect of the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) (No. 2) Bill, which has passed through this House and is now in the other House. Instead, the Bill looks back to confirm spending totals for 2018-19, to ensure that the Northern Ireland civil service has a secure legal basis for its spending in the past year. Taken as a whole, it represents the minimum necessary intervention to secure public finances at this juncture.
Let me turn briefly to the Bill’s contents, which largely rehearse what I set out to the House in spring last year when I introduced the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2018. 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 1 authorises the issue of £16.8 billion out of the Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland. The allocation levels for each Northern Ireland Department and the other bodies in receipt of the funds are set out in schedule 1, which also states the purposes for which the funds are to be used.
Clause 2 authorises the use of resources amounting to some £20 billion in the year ending
Clause 3 sets revised limits on the accruing resources, including both operating and non-operating accruing resources in the current financial year. All are largely as they appeared in the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2018. The revised totals for Departments appear in schedules 1 and 2.
Clause 4 sets out the power for the Northern Ireland civil service to issue out of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund some £11.8 billion in cash for the forthcoming financial year. That is the vote-on-account provision that I have already outlined. It is linked to clause 6, which does the same in terms of resources. The value is set at around 70% 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 70% of the previous year, and clause 5 permits some temporary borrowing powers for cash-management purposes.
As I have already noted, all these sums relate to those that have already been voted for by Parliament, together with revenue generated locally in Northern Ireland. There is no new money in the Bill; there is simply the explicit authority to spend in full the moneys that have already been allocated.
May I record my serious disappointment that in the allocations we are going to approve today there appears to be absolutely no money at all set aside for the victims of historical institutional abuse? Will the Secretary of State confirm that the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, David Stirling, indicated that the Government would have a moral obligation, after the consultation on the Hart recommendations had ended, to bring the legislation through this House if the Assembly was not sitting? Will the Secretary of State honour that moral obligation to the victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland?
The hon. Lady has raised this issue on several occasions and I know how strongly she feels about it. I have met survivors of historical institutional abuse and what they went through is shocking. As she will know, the consultation the Northern Ireland civil service started is still open. Once that consultation has been completed and the recommendations from it are clear, we will consider them in the normal way. To reassure her, the vote on account that we are talking about is merely on 70% of the previous year’s spending. We are not doing anything in this Bill other than giving the Departments in Northern Ireland the ability to continue to spend money up to the level of 70% of the spending in the previous year. We are not directing them on how they spend that money.
May I take the Secretary of State back to where she started, before she began going through the departmental allocations and the detail of the Bill? The whole point—it has been made time and again by Democratic Unionist party Members—is that there is no scrutiny of how the departmental allocations were reached. She is right that that scrutiny would normally be done through Stormont, but Stormont is not operating. A mechanism is available here, but there seems to be reluctance to use it because of the possible reaction from Sinn Féin. Not only is Sinn Féin stopping scrutiny in Stormont; the fear of how it will react is stopping scrutiny here. When will the Secretary of State realise that Sinn Féin cannot block the scrutiny of how money is spent in Northern Ireland by keeping the doors of Stormont shut and causing fear here about how it may react when we try to do the job in this place?
I know how strongly the right hon. Gentleman feels about that point, which he has raised on several occasions. He will know that we consulted on the process with all five main parties in Northern Ireland, with the Opposition and with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to allow some prior scrutiny of the figures. All parties had full sight of the figures that we published in last week’s written ministerial statement. He is absolutely right that normal scrutiny procedures are not in place—they will be in place only with the restoration of devolution—but I caution him against trying to create artificial scrutiny processes that might well set a precedent for the future across all the devolved nations. The right scrutiny processes are available to respect the constitutional arrangements across the whole United Kingdom and all the devolved Administrations.
Civil servants are taking decisions—not major policy decisions, but the decisions that the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 enables them to make and that we want them to be able to make. We have to be very careful about the civil service’s separation and independence from scrutiny by political masters. It is the political decisions that need scrutiny, not the decisions of civil servants. We would like to see Departments given full scrutiny in Stormont, as happens in this House, but we have to be very careful about the constitutional arrangements.
That brings me back to my point that the Bill would ordinarily have been taken through the Assembly. Clause 7 therefore includes a series of adaptations that ensure that, once approved by both Houses in Westminster, the Bill will be treated as though it were an Assembly budget Act. That will enable Northern Ireland public finances to continue to function, notwithstanding the absence of an Executive.
Alongside the Bill, 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. Those estimates, which have been prepared by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance, set out the breakdown of resource allocation in greater detail.
When I was over in Northern Ireland recently, I realised to my horror that childcare is not widely available there, as it is in GB. People told me that some money had previously been allocated for childcare, but it seems that all the money for education, early years and childcare in the Bill is being allocated towards equal pay claims rather than provision to help women go to work, so this is a cracking day for women in Northern Ireland. To go back to the scrutiny conversation, the details seem to be very cloudy about where the previous money has gone and why there is no childcare in Northern Ireland. Could the Secretary of State answer that point?
This is a very technical Bill to put on a statutory footing the moneys that we have already voted through the House or that have been raised locally. The departmental allocations that the hon. Lady questions are in line with the advice that I have received from permanent secretaries about the moneys that they need. How they spend that money is for them to determine, based on previous decisions of the Executive and on the previous draft programme for government. That leads to perverse outcomes: things not being as we would like them to be in Northern Ireland, differences in Northern Ireland and the end of programmes that we might otherwise have wanted to continue. Without a Minister to direct them, those programmes finish. The answer is devolved government in Stormont. That is the way in which there will be proper scrutiny and proper political accountability, and there is no alternative.
In Northern Ireland, we have a childcare strategy called Bright Start, and a significant amount of money was allocated to each of its themes and actions. I concur with Jess Phillips that we do not have the 30 hours’ free childcare; the Department of Education in Northern Ireland was supposed to work on that. This illustrates two issues. First, we do not know what further allocations are being made under the childcare strategy. There has been no information on that thus far, and nor has there been any information about whether those allocations were bid for. Secondly, there cannot be a decision about 30 hours’ free childcare, despite all the work in the Department, because there is no Minister to take that decision. Sinn Féin are boycotting the Northern Ireland Assembly, so we cannot make the decision there. Will the Secretary of State please step up and start making those kinds of decision for Northern Ireland?
As I have said, there is no good alternative for the people of Northern Ireland other than the politicians that they have elected making the decisions on their behalf in Northern Ireland, fully scrutinised and fully accountable to the people who elected them. There is no alternative, and that is why we want to see politicians back in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] I can hear my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning making noises from a sedentary position.
As hon. and right hon. Members will note, this is a different process from that which we might ordinarily see for estimates at Westminster, whereby the estimates document precedes the formal Budget legislation and is separately approved. That would also be the case at the Assembly. If it is Westminster that is passing the main Northern Ireland Budget Bill later in the year, that Bill would contain modifications to the Government Resources and Accounts Act (Northern Ireland) 2001 to reflect the departure from the usual process.
As I hope hon. and right hon. Members will agree, this is very much a technical step that we are taking as we approach the end of the financial year. It provides a secure legal footing for the Northern Ireland civil service and demonstrates that this Government will uphold our responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland.
As I conclude, I will set out once again a point that I have made several times before to this House. The UK Government are steadfastly committed to the Belfast agreement. Legislating on Northern Ireland budgetary matters at Westminster is not a step I want to take; nor is it one I want to take again. I am determined to restore the political institutions set out in the 1998 agreement and its successors at the earliest possible opportunity.
The people of Northern Ireland have now been without a power-sharing devolved Government for over two years. They need their representatives back in Stormont, taking decisions on the issues that matter to them. I know that an agreement to restore the Executive is achievable. I met the party leaders of the five main parties on
May I begin by offering a small prediction that, sadly, there will be very little coverage of this debate in the Northern Ireland media or beyond? That is a tragedy, especially when I compare it to a debate that might take place in a large local authority—in my city region, for example. There would be massively more local media interest in such a debate for a particular reason: there is engagement with the political process. At the moment, people are becoming disillusioned with the political process in Northern Ireland, and that is beyond a matter of regret; it is a matter of danger for us all, and we should recognise that.
As the Secretary of State said, there has been no functioning Stormont for over two years, as the Stormont Executive and Assembly collapsed on
This is set against a background, I have to say, of a seeming lack of action on re-establishing the Stormont Executive and Assembly. I know that the political parties in Stormont will argue as to who is responsible. However, the reality is that during the more than two years that have gone by, the level of activity has been low. The Secretary of State has met the political parties, but not regularly. A little over a year ago, when the Prime Minister went over to be part of this along with the Taoiseach, people thought and hoped, rightly, that there would be a resolution to the situation. The Prime Minister has not been engaged consistently since then. I am bound to compare that with John Major when he was Prime Minister before the Good Friday agreement was signed, with Tony Blair during the years when he was Prime Minister, and with David Cameron when he was Prime Minister. I have to say to the Secretary of State that we must see more concerted action. We have to see some ambition for real change.
I know that this will not please everybody in the Chamber, but let me quote Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Féin at Stormont, who said, when talking about a serious and meaningful talks process that removes obstacles to proper power sharing and delivers a successful outcome in restoring the Assembly, that
“we have yet to see Karen Bradley prioritise such a process”.
The Secretary of State may be cynical about Michelle O’Neill. I know that other hon. Members in the Chamber certainly will be. However, the same message is coming through to me from all the political parties that this Government have not been properly engaged in re-establishing the Stormont Assembly.
The Secretary of State has said to me:
“This Government will continue to observe all our commitments under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 654, c. 906.]
The hon. Gentleman quoted the leader of Sinn Féin’s explanation of situations that had to come about in advance of the talks process. Does he agree that that sounded remarkably like a precondition to talks as well as a precondition to going into Stormont?
When John Major was engaged in the talks process leading up to the Good Friday agreement, and Tony Blair even more intensely so, there were many preconditions on the table—of course there were. That is the nature of a talks process. Anybody who has ever engaged in meaningful negotiations knows that people do not walk in with no agenda, but the talks process has to get them together and iron out the differences. It has, in the end, to say what is held more in common and what is more important.
I will go through some of the things that, in the end, are more important when we look at what is not taking place in Northern Ireland now—some of the things that hon. Members have already raised. Lady Hermon mentioned the Hart inquiry. The Secretary of State has heard the demands in this Chamber, on a regular basis, that she take action. We have to look at the people across Northern Ireland. The politicians from all sides say that they want to get back to Stormont. Yes, we have to test the competence and the willingness of politicians really to negotiate, but the trade unions, the business community and civil society are also saying, “Let’s get Stormont back working.” That is so important, because without it the decisions are not being made that can make a material difference.
The business community and the trade unions have recently said to me that they cannot get decisions made on infrastructure investment. I know that Mr Campbell will agree that the Derry and Strabane city deal is fundamental, and my hon. Friend Karin Smyth will talk later about the pressing importance of a decision on the medical school there. Decisions are required on the upgrading of the A5 and the A6 and on higher and further education. This might sound like a trivial issue, but decisions are required on sewers in Belfast. The sewerage system in Belfast requires £800 million. People may wonder why that matters, but from 2021, no new facility will be connectable to that water and sewerage system. We want to see the Belfast city deal bring in new offices, industries and hotels, but that will not be viable if the sewerage system is not capable of taking them on board. That is not a joke; it is very serious.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. I want to give another example, which is the Belfast power plant. When the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill went through the House, we indicated the need to get planning consent for that, so that it could form part of our capacity auctions and the Utility Regulator could factor it into our future energy requirements. Without it, we will not be able to keep the lights on. Four months on from that Act being passed, we still do not have a decision, and we need decisions where they can be taken.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Electricity is fundamental to our way of life. It is not a bolt-on extra, and it is not just a question of keeping the lights on; it is a question of keeping hospitals working and the world of work functioning. That is fundamental.
I want to touch on one area of progress. I am delighted to see that £55 million has been put into the budget for the legacy coronial process, which is a really important step forward. That is a decision by the Department of Justice, within the framework of this budget. However, there will be a consequence of that coronial process. If it is successful, which we all hope it will be, it will put pressure on the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the police ombudsman and the Public Prosecution Service. Those bodies will all need a resource base that allows them to complete the work of the coronial process. Otherwise, we will be giving an illusion to the families of victims of crime.
In that context, I also want to mention pensions for the victims of violence. There are issues to be resolved, but nobody in the Chamber would disagree that those pensions are necessary. All these things are urgent, because we have an ageing population, whether it is Hart victims or victims of the violence during the troubles. They will die without resolution of these issues unless action is taken.
I am bound to compare this issue to what we will discuss tomorrow, which is the contentious issue of tariffs under the renewable heat incentive. That is urgent, and the Government are acting—even though it is outwith the norms of Government power, according to the Secretary of State’s definition—because it is about money. The issues relating to the Hart victims and victims of terrorism are human issues, and they are just as urgent. If we can act on one such issue, we should think seriously about acting on others.
I have listened carefully to what the shadow Secretary of State has said, and he has made some very reasonable points. I would like to ask him two questions. First, it seems that there is little movement, and we can blame a lot of different people, but at the end of the day it takes two to tango and Sinn Féin needs to come forward and be part of the process. If there is no movement, does he think that direct rule is the answer, two years on? Secondly, he talked about victims. Has he forgotten the victims who were our soldiers, our people and our policemen on the streets of Northern Ireland, who are now being dragged before the courts? Does he not think that they need a mention?
On the first question, it is very reasonable to ask what happens next. We simply cannot allow this vacuum to continue—decisions are not being made. I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that, from my perspective at the moment, I still think we have to say that the hope is for a restoration of the Stormont structures, because if we give up on that, we are giving up on at least the principle of what the Good Friday agreement delivered.
Democracy matters. The right hon. Gentleman would not accept the situation—I say this to him seriously—if I said that we were going to abrogate his local council’s need to function. This is not about getting two to tango, but probably about getting at least five parties in Stormont to tango, plus the Government here in London and, actually, the Government in Dublin. We have to see a much more concerted effort to get people around the table to try to break the logjam. If we start raising the spectre of direct rule at this point, we are saying that we are giving up on power sharing.
I do not quite understand the point the shadow Secretary of State is making. If a council is failing to deliver the services we would expect from it, the Government step in and deliver them, as we have seen in Northamptonshire. We have a situation in the Province where there is no governance. We cannot question what civil servants are doing, quite rightly, because they are civil servants. However, they are running the show, which is not a democracy. I ask again: if not today or next week, when, for Labour, does direct rule come in?
I simply repeat to the right hon. Gentleman that I do not want to see direct rule—I genuinely do not—and there are massive issues with it. Some of my hon. Friends served as Ministers during the period of direct rule, and it is a very difficult and undesirable thing. I will say this, and it may give him a small hint: the Labour Government did bring in direct rule, so none of us can say that it will never happen. We are not there yet, but we are in a position where we have to see greater activity from the Secretary of State and—yes, of course—from the leaders of the political parties. I will return to that theme in a little while, because I want to make another point in that context, but I am definitely not giving up yet on Stormont being brought back into operation.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked me a totally separate question. By the way, let me make it clear to him that there were soldiers who were victims themselves, such as members of the then Royal Ulster Constabulary. Many of them take the view that the justice process has to continue because they want justice or, very often, the families of soldiers and serving police officers want to know what happened to their loved ones. I think that is still a legitimate case to make, and it is one I will continue to make. We will no doubt debate this on other occasions.
As always, I am following all the hon. Gentleman has to say with a great deal of interest. He has mentioned victims, and he is right to do so. Will he say whether he would include within his definition of a victim those who are victims by virtue of actions by their own hand?
I am afraid—to give the hon. Gentleman the answer he does not want to hear—that, yes, I think so. We have to cut through this very difficult situation, and we cannot delay payments to victims. It is controversial, and I am very well aware of that, but if we are going to delay payments to victims across the piece to get the perfect, then we may be waiting forever, and that would be at the expense of the ageing population of people who are now dependent on seeing some real progress.
I do appreciate that this is a sensitive point. In saying that, however, does the hon. Gentleman accept that he is condoning criminality, because that is what compensating criminals would be? It is an extraordinary thing—indeed, I would say, an unprecedented thing in this country—that the state should seek to compensate those who damage themselves by their own hand while engaged in terroristic activities.
I do understand the difficulties. Let me simply say that this is probably not the right time to pursue this debate, although I am more than content that we ought to pursue it, because bringing to a conclusion the question of victims’ payments is clearly right and just, and it is important that it is done in this era, not simply deferred forever. However, it is probably not for today. I hope I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question as directly as I could—I think it was a clear answer —and we will continue the conversation.
It is clear that the hon. Gentleman does not want to talk about this issue, but it is vital, when we are talking about money that will go to schemes to develop the whole argument about victims, that we address the point made by my hon. Friend Dr Murrison. We have plenty of time to do it now. How can it be right that someone who has attempted to kill a civilian, a member of the police force or soldiers on active duty gets compensation from the victims fund? I used to administer the victims fund when I was at the Ministry of Justice, and it is not perfect, but, for sure, one thing that I would not allow was that.
It is rather interesting that the right hon. Gentleman says that I do not want to discuss the issue. I did. I answered Dr Murrison very directly. I do not know what Sir Mike Penning wants me to say beyond what I have said. If he wants to check the record, he should please do so. I am happy to continue the debate. If any Member wants to apply for an Adjournment debate, I will certainly turn up. They can ask the Secretary of State the same difficult question. It is a difficult question, but what we cannot do is freeze the process for victims, who, as I and the right hon. Gentleman agree, are absolutely worthy of compensation. We have to get on with it; that is the issue today. We need progress on all these issues, the difficult ones as well, then let us debate the finer points.
There needs to be a comprehensive settlement, but are we not coming up against the same problem that was discussed earlier? The question of transparency in the Bill and the limits that the Secretary of State sets for disclosure of all items confine us equally when we talk about any one element of the Bill. We need to look at it globally—at all of it. We need some way to get through the lack of transparency to find out where the expenditure is going, how it is being asked for, and what is being sought.
My hon. Friend makes a similar point about the lack of transparency to that which has already been made by a number of Members, including the hon. Members for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). They are right to make that point.
Any local authority would have a far more dignified debate than the one we are having today about the length of time involved and the capacity to scrutinise. The Secretary of State says that we would create a new precedent were we to change these things, but we are in very different circumstances because we do not have direct rule and we do not have a functioning Stormont structure. We are already in unprecedented terrain, and we have to find ways to make sure that transparency and scrutiny are done far better.
There are specific questions I want to come on to, but it is probably worth making the point that a lot of people in Northern Ireland are already concerned about the lack of engagement with the budgetary process. I know that they are not represented in this House, but I want to quote the Ulster Unionist party’s finance spokesman, Steve Aiken, who said:
“It’s a disgrace…that the NIO handled the engagement on next year’s budget so appallingly. The Secretary of State said in her budget statement that she has discussed the budget situation with the political parties—she has not. Tokenistic efforts do not constitute actual engagement.
Over the last ten days there have been three NIO budget meetings. The first ended in farce as the political parties were asked to consider options without being told what those options were, the second ended with only minimal information provided, and the third—just two hours before her statement was published—lasted minutes with again only bare information provided.”
That is not good enough to reassure the wider public or even people in this House that the process is transparent and accountable or has any processes for scrutiny. They simply are not there.
I have some specific questions and I hope that the Minister of State will pick up on them in his response. The Secretary of State said that this was retrospective, and of course not all of it is, because it sets out the budgetary headings for the coming year. It is important to recognise that. There is a real question. If Stormont were to begin to operate again at the beginning of April, would this budgetary process be transferable and amendable by an elected Stormont? Would they be able to change the budgetary headings?
That is absolutely the case. The shadow Secretary of State is absolutely right. The Bill puts on a statutory footing the spending that has already happened and that which will happen in the next three weeks up to the end of March. It also allows for a vote on account of 70% of the previous financial year’s spending in the following year’s spending, but nothing about this budget puts on a statutory footing any of the departmental allocations as set out in the written statement. That has to be done in a separate piece of legislation, which we hope will be done at Stormont. It could be amended and changed at Stormont, as seen fit by Ministers in Stormont.
I very much welcome that reassurance. Will the Secretary of State also consider this point? The frame of reference in previous budgets is that 45% of the spend has been moved forward. That would take us up to September, roughly. This year, unusually, the Secretary of State has put in 70% of next year’s spend. That speaks to the point raised by the hon. Member for Belfast East, who made the legitimate point that there is no emergency. The original ambition was to put this through using emergency powers, but there is no emergency whatsoever. This could have been done at any other time, whether in March, April or May—well, the retrospective part cannot, but the part for next year could be.
It is probably helpful if I clarify that point. We have to put on a statutory footing, by the end of March, the spending for the financial year 2018-19—the year we are in. That is what we are doing. The vote on account of 70%, rather than the 45% we did last year, is because of the recognition of the pressures on the Departments in Northern Ireland as a result of having no Ministers, and because we have additional moneys coming through. If an infrastructure decision is taken, money will need to be spent. What I did not want to do was constrain Departments to be legally able to have only up to 45% of the previous year’s spending. The 70% reflects the fact that, because there are no Ministers and because of the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland the fact that there may well be decisions on infrastructure and on other issues that may require accelerated spending in a Department, I wanted to provide flexibility so we do not have to come back sooner and bring forward the legislation required to put that on a statutory footing for the next year. We will of course have to do that at some point; what we hope is that it will actually be done in Stormont.
I think the Secretary of State is confirming that this is not an emergency and that the procedures to allow everything to be forced through so quickly are not absolutely necessary. The different parts of the Bill—the retrospective definition of what was legal spend and the anticipatory spend for next year—could have been separated. The second most certainly could have been done more slowly. There could have been capacity for much greater and lengthier scrutiny of those processes. That is important. The suspicion about the 70% is that it anticipates that there will not be an Executive or an Assembly back in operation. It allows the situation to ride over and ride over. The concern is that there is no ambition to see the restoration of Stormont.
I am sorry to intervene on the hon. Gentleman again—he is being very generous with his time—but I just want to be absolutely clear on the record: this has nothing to do with a timetable around the restoration of devolution. It is recognising that last year we were under pressure to introduce, before the summer recess, the Northern Ireland Budget Bill for 2018-19. We did that in July—I think in the last week of July—to put it on a statutory footing, because there was a risk that if we had not done so, some Departments would have run out of the ability to spend money over the summer recess. There would have been no legal basis for spending on schools, hospitals and so on. The reason for the 70% is that, in the absence of Ministers and with additional spending pressures on Departments, I do not want us to be in a position where we are urgently having to take that legislation through here again. I would much rather we gave civil servants the comfort they need. I accept that it is unusual, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is nothing to do with the timetable around devolution.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that assurance.
On a different issue, the Secretary of State’s colleague, the Communities Secretary, made it clear that the Stronger Towns initiative would extend to Northern Ireland, and hon. Members from across the Chamber will welcome that. However, given that it is a UK Government initiative, it is not clear how the decision-making capacity will be implemented. It is important that people can make decisions. It would be farcical if money were gifted to Northern Ireland—I do not know whether it would be Barnettised—but were not spendable because nobody can made a decision. [Interruption.] I am glad to see that the Secretary of State is considering that proposition.
Some have claimed that the £140 million is new funding that has resulted from the political pressure that Northern Ireland parties have put on central Government, but it is important that I repeat what the Secretary of State has already confirmed. Although it is new funding, and is welcome for that reason, it is actually a result of the lack of opportunity for more fundamental service reconfiguration, as she said. In other words, it is money for failure. The problem with that—the House must look at this very closely—is that my constituents, the Secretary of State’s constituents and the constituents of all Northern Ireland Members are paying for it. That is unacceptable. It is a tariff resulting from the failure of the political process. Once again, we come back to the recognition that, because there is no Stormont Assembly, we are all paying the cost in worse services, financially, and in the erosion of democratic values.
We do not intend to divide the House on budgetary items. It would not be appropriate do so because they give permission to spend or are the legal ratification of spending processes. However, this shakes us all to say that there must now be real effort put in to restoring Stormont. I have never doubted the Secretary of State’s sincerity in wanting to see Stormont restored, but I doubt the Government’s capacity. That is the real issue that divides us. I repeat what I have said previously: if the Prime Minister is so preoccupied with Brexit that she has no time to look at devolution to Northern Ireland, that is a fundamental political mistake that we will rue in time to come. We need ambition. Those talks must take place, and the Government in Dublin must be involved.
Some time ago, when I arranged the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference with the Secretary of State, she said:
“I remind him that that body has met twice in the past 12 months.” —[Official Report,
Vol. 654, c. 906.]
That is true, and those occasions were the first in 145 months. That is not acceptable.
It is worth putting on the record the fact that the last time the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference had met was in 2007. Clearly, although the institutions were running and Stormont was fully running with full power-sharing, the appropriate east-west conversations could happen through other bodies. It is clear that that has happened, but it is a consequence of Stormont’s not operating and there needing to be a forum for east-west communication.
As the Secretary of State knows, I have asked for the BIIGC to be convened regularly. Back in the day, it sometimes met three or four times a year, particularly in the days of direct rule, when there was an ambition to get us back to a functioning Stormont. I have asked her in the past when it will meet again. Those meetings need to be timetabled and put on a regular basis so that we know it will meet and continue to be an active partner with the British Government in achieving the ambition of a restored Stormont.
I am aware that I have spoken for some time—I have given way a lot—and although we have the time, as the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead reminded me, it is probably time I devoted it to other people.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s hard work over the past several months in trying to resolve the impasse at Stormont. She has worked tirelessly. If I may be ever so slightly critical of Tony Lloyd, I think he is being a little harsh—uncharacteristically —about the efforts of the Government to restart this process and about the Prime Minister’s efforts. I do not particularly appreciate shuttle diplomacy of the sort we have seen in the past—there are other more effective ways of achieving the same end—but he has to accept the extraordinary difficulty that currently pertains in Northern Ireland and the intransigence of some of the actors therein.
Like the Secretary of State, I hope that we restore the Executive in the near future—more in hope than expectation—and I understand why she is behaving as she is in trying to keep the ship on an even keel while trying not to interfere in matters that are properly devolved. It is a dilemma she faces on a daily basis. She well knows that the longer this goes on, the more the people of Northern Ireland suffer and the more their lived experience deteriorates. In that context, I congratulate once again the Northern Ireland civil service and David Sterling. It is important to do that. This is unprecedented, and Northern Ireland should be very proud of its civil service. I also thank and commend the work of the Northern Ireland Office under the strong leadership of Sir Jonathan Stephens. It is often forgotten in this mix, but it has done an excellent job in trying to keep things going.
Clearly, I welcome the Bill, which is largely of a technical nature, but I share the concerns expressed about scrutiny. I am not entirely clear that this measure should be dealt with as an urgent matter, as referred to in paragraph 27 of the guidance notes. It could have been far more elective than that. Scrutiny is important. I accept that the Secretary of State is avoiding at all costs making decisions on important matters relating to Northern Ireland that are properly devolved, but this place has to assume some responsibility for scrutiny of these important matters, and I am not sure we are doing justice to that process.
My hon. Friend says the Bill is of a technical nature, and I agree in some respects, but ultimately it authorises the spending of billions of pounds in Northern Ireland. Can it really be called merely technical when it is so substantive in nature? On scrutiny, despite all the money going to Northern Ireland, there has been very little progress in getting it directed in a way that meets the needs of people in Northern Ireland since the priorities were first set. If we are to be in this situation again in 12 months, we will need to reflect on how we can do this better.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are in uncharted waters. It is difficult to hold to account Ministers who are not making decisions. It is not clear where accountability lies in this process. I hesitate to say we are making it up as we go along—clearly that would be unfair—but it is difficult to know precisely whom to hold to account, which is the job of this place.
Of course we have organisations such as the Northern Ireland Audit Office, which does its best to ensure that public funds are being disbursed in a reasonable manner, and there are other mechanisms for Members to attempt to shed light on the position and hold the Executive to account. Ultimately that process may end up in the courts through judicial review, but the Secretary of State is very keen for that not to happen, hence the guidance that she issued recently. However, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend Paul Masterton that the whole thing is unsatisfactory. I suspect that if the Secretary of State were answering his point, she would say that the solution is very straightforward, and it is the restoration of the Executive.
I must say that I worry about the state of Northern Ireland and where it is going, given the lack of Ministers. The public are often rather cynical about us politicians, but I think this process has shown that Ministers have utility in improving people’s lives. David Stirling himself has referred to “slow decay and stagnation” in Northern Ireland. Those are strong words, and I take them very seriously: I think he is absolutely right. Very few of us who have anything to do with Northern Ireland will not be impressed by the sense there that people are being let down by their political class, and that, I have to say, is an indictment of us all. I will not pin the blame on any one party or set of politicians, but it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that proper governance is restored to Northern Ireland at the earliest available opportunity.
I accept the arguments for the uplift in the vote on account for the financial year 2019-20, because that strikes me as a pragmatic way ahead, but it is quite unusual. Of course I accept everything that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has to say—she is a person of great honour and integrity—but, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire pointed out, surely the job of this place is ultimately to scrutinise, and this 70% uplift is somewhat unusual. I therefore particularly regret the lack of opportunity that we are having—and, if I may say so, my Select Committee is having—to delve into why the uplift is needed. It may be expedient, but expediency is not necessarily sufficient.
I also accept that the Bill does not imply any particular decisions, political or otherwise, except, of course the so-called flagship projects to which the Secretary of State referred in her written ministerial statement on
At the risk of being accused of being a pedant, I should like the Minister, when he sums up the debate, to clarify what the £4 million allocated to transformation is being spent on. I alluded to that earlier in a brief intervention. “Transformation” is very politically loaded, because it implies that something is being transformed into something else. It is important to know what is in the minds of those who are doing the transforming. I know that £4 million is not a great deal of money, but it would be useful to know what it is being spent on, because it implies a particular direction in terms of the outcomes that are being sought. I understand from what has been said previously that it is intended to make public services more sustainable. “Sustainable” is one of those words that sound innocuous, but it does imply change, and when change impacts on public services, it becomes politically contentious and, again, politically loaded. We therefore need to be told in a reasonable amount of detail how that relatively small sum is being disbursed.
I welcome the real-terms increase for health and education. My Select Committee has taken the view that it should get involved in both of those areas. They are both areas that in the normal way of things we would be firmly told to set aside since they are devolved matters, but nobody else is looking at these particularly important areas of public policy at the moment and we have taken that as licence to exert some level of scrutiny. It has been very clear to us that not only is transformation needed in both areas, but that we need to look at making root-and-branch changes particularly in relation to footprint, in order to ensure that public money is spent properly and outcomes are improved.
In healthcare in particular, outcomes in Northern Ireland are really not good at all. The people of Northern Ireland deserve much better. We have heard in our Committee about issues to do with education, and I think we will be drawn to conclude that the footprint is part of the problem. All these things in all our constituencies up and down the country would ordinarily be matters of acute political interest in which politicians would be heavily involved, and there would be public meetings and all manner of things. The hon. Member for Rochdale who speaks for the Opposition was absolutely right to draw that comparison in his opening remarks, because were this to happen in my constituency I know I would be attending public meetings and doing all sorts of things that simply do not happen in Northern Ireland because of the absence of normal politics there at the moment. What is important however is that, wherever we can, we make sure we have some level of scrutiny, and that is why in its small way my Select Committee has taken upon itself investigations into health and education, and will be reporting very shortly.
I wonder if the Secretary of State, or the Minister who replies, can update the House on what the £130 million transferred from capital for the next financial year to deal with public service resource pressures is being spent on. It has been referred to already and is a substantial sum of money. We really do need some level of granularity in order to ensure that money is best spent on areas where it will have the biggest impact. It is of concern, obviously, when money is transferred from capital to revenue, because it implies that there will be a backlog in due course of capital spend not being done at the moment that will have to be made good in the fullness of time.
Will the Minister say why the Executive Office vote is being uplifted by 4.4%? On the face of it that seems remarkable, and, knowing how eager Lady Hermon is to scrutinise these areas, she might have it in mind to press Ministers further on this when she speaks. It is remarkable that when we do not have an Executive in place, the Executive Office should be having an uplift of 4.4%. I would have thought the reverse would be the case.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most heartbreaking pressures brought to the attention of his Committee is that of special educational needs children in the education sector, and that some of the money he has identified would be far better allocated to addressing that particular and acute need that affects everyone on these Benches, and indeed those who do not even come to this House?
Yes I very much do, and if the hon. Gentleman wants to attend my Adjournment debate tomorrow on the subject of special educational needs in Wiltshire, perhaps he will find some commonality between his situation and my own as a constituency MP. [Interruption.] I am looking forward to the contribution of Jim Shannon; I would be very disappointed if he did not contribute to my debate. He will be very welcome, while of course trying to remain in order since I suspect his knowledge of special educational needs in Wiltshire is somewhat limited—not that that will necessarily stop him.
May I press Ministers on how confidence and supply money is being spent? Of course spending in general in Northern Ireland uses guidance set by the collapsed Executive. That is perfectly right and proper, and to use that trajectory to guide spending is perfectly legitimate, but that justification obviously falls away in relation to confidence and supply money; the guidebook is not there, which makes it of particular interest.
For example, under the non-ringfenced resource departmental expenditure limit—RDEL—£100 million is being allowed for health transformation. Health transformation is surely needed, but it is politically sensitive. We in this place really do deserve to know how that money is being spent, but we are none the wiser. Under CDEL—the capital departmental expenditure limit—there is £200 million for infrastructure. Again, that is highly politically sensitive stuff, and almost certainly involves projects that will be warmly welcomed by the people of Northern Ireland, but our job is scrutiny, and one way or the other, scrutiny must be done. I fear that it is not being done at the moment.
We are sort of being asked to sign this off, although the Secretary of State is saying that she has no input into decision making within this process. Nevertheless, the mere fact that we have a Bill before us today means that we have to accept some level of responsibility. I am left with a sinking feeling that I do not have the information necessary to do this confidently, yet it needs to be done, because the consequences of not doing it would be immense. This is putting right hon. and hon. Members in something of an invidious position, because we do not have the level of detail or granularity that we deserve. Paragraph 27 of the guidance notes claims that the Bill needs to be implemented “urgently”. I think it probably does, and I sincerely hope that it is passed this evening, but this really should not happen at the expense of scrutiny.
For another year, I rise with a degree of reluctance as we agree a budget that should be debated about 300 miles from here. I am sure that hon. Members across the House will agree that this situation is deeply regrettable. Devolution should be cherished, and its success is vital to the growth and prosperity of Northern Ireland. I believe unequivocally that this budget should not be voted on by politicians in this place representing constituencies in Scotland, Wales and England. Also, as others have said, this emergency legislation process affords ineffective scrutiny. I once again urge the Government to redouble their efforts to begin talks in earnest as soon as possible, so that they can be the effective arbiter required to bring an end to this impasse. If they cannot do that, they should bring in someone who can.
The collapse of the Executive and the subsequent failure to deal with the situation have placed huge, unsustainable stress on the civil service in Northern Ireland. I join Dr Murrison in praising the Northern Irish civil service for all the work it has done in these tough times without an Executive. In our opinion, direct rule can never be countenanced but, as the shambolic Brexit process is now a central reason for the ongoing crisis, the UK Government have a responsibility to ensure that talks progress swiftly.
Amid ongoing austerity, the absence of decision making is straining Northern Irish public services. Decisions are urgently required to provide direction and funding to vital services. The current conditions are placing particular pressures on health and education, which are the most important services that a Government can deliver. It is for this reason that I want to make it clear that I do not begrudge the additional money that is going to be made available for public services in Northern Ireland—far from it. We have been calling for additional public spending from Westminster for years. However, it must be said that, under our agreed devolved settlement in this precious Union of equals, both Scotland and Wales should also receive additional funding. Successive UK Governments have inflicted brutal austerity measures on Scotland and Wales, as well as on Northern Ireland. That extra funding could be a small step towards repairing this recklessly inflicted damage. Indeed, if the Barnett formula were applied as it should be, Scotland would receive an extra £400 million for its budget.
Last year, the economy of Northern Ireland did not keep pace with the rest of the UK and it lagged far behind that of the Republic of Ireland, which was growing around four times faster. That just shows what a small independent country in the EU is capable of.
I firmly believe that investment in good public services and infrastructure is vital to the success of any economy. There is £140 million of new funding in recognition of the lack of opportunity for more “fundamental service reconfiguration”—a nifty wee phrase with which the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Office are attempting to circumvent the regular budgetary process. We cannot forget that that is in addition to the £333 million of funding that comes from the Government’s confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist party. Some of the money seems to be allocated effectively, with £100 million to support health transformation, £3 million for broadband and £200 million for capital spending on key infrastructure projects. I particularly welcome the £30 million to tackle poor mental health and severe deprivation. However, despite my jealousy at that extra investment, I would never countenance the SNP selling its soul to prop up a Government who do so much harm to our citizens and are hellbent on ripping us out of the EU, for which neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland voted, and the reasons behind the positive spending are more than a little suspect. In fact, many say that the extra funding is just a Brexit bung to buy off the DUP.
The extra revenue allocation falls outside the normal budgetary processes deliberately to ensure that Scotland and Wales are denied their rightful Barnett consequentials. That raises huge questions of the Secretary of State for Scotland, who said unequivocally that he
“was not going to agree to anything that could be construed as back-door funding to Northern Ireland”.
He has been written to this week, but he had not replied by the time that I stood up to speak, so does the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland know when the Secretary of State for Scotland was informed that the additional moneys would not be subject to the Barnett formula? Did he agree to that? Most importantly, did he even argue that Scotland should be entitled to its fair share of budgetary increases? If he did not, he must simply go.
I know that the hon. Gentleman wants to make an elaborate political point, but he is not a churlish individual and will have heard this afternoon that we do not have devolved Ministers who are able to take account of financial pressures and make decisions accordingly. That is the rationale for the additional funds. Scotland is blessed with a functioning Government, and we wish we had one, but he should not try to extrapolate this proposal into some cheap point.
I do not accept that I am making a cheap point, but I fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s central point. We would not be strong Members of Parliament for Scotland if we were not here to represent Scottish interests, and the Barnett formula is there for a reason.
The Secretary of State for Scotland should have used his position in Cabinet to stand up for Scotland and protect the Barnett formula, but he did not. If he did, the Scottish budget could have increased by £400 million. Moreover, if he had stood firm regarding the confidence and supply agreement in its entirety, Scotland would have had an extra £3 billion to mitigate this Government’s policies, to prepare for Brexit and to invest in infrastructure, but he either failed or did not bother. He has abdicated his responsibility to Scotland and, despite various promises that he would resign with regard to protecting Scotland interests vis-à-vis Brexit, he has bottled it each and every time.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent contribution. Does he agree that the Secretary of State for Scotland has promised to resign so many times that we have lost count? It is clear that the Secretary of State does not have the ability to have any effect in Cabinet and is becoming the boy who cried wolf.
I could not agree more. The Secretary of State for Scotland’s promises to resign in defence of Scotland have become like white noise, which just highlights how Westminster does not work for Scotland. If the Scottish Secretary is actually arguing for us in Cabinet, he is not being listened to. The alternative is that he is not bothering at all, which is even more troubling. If ever there were proof that the Scottish Secretary is the Tory Cabinet’s voice in Scotland rather than Scotland’s voice in Cabinet, it is now.
The SNP believes that new talks should be established immediately to restore the Executive and the Assembly. However, with the UK Government rather distracted by internal Tory party infighting, I say again that an independent mediator could and should be brought in to speed up progress. It has been over two years since Northern Ireland had a functioning Assembly, which is far too long. The people of Northern Ireland deserve reassurances that they will have a responsive and functional devolved Assembly and Executive as they face Brexit—one of the biggest policy challenges that any of us will ever face. Nothing must be done that would undermine the Good Friday agreement. Therefore this, in my opinion, must be the last budget to be delivered in this manner. A paralysing political vacuum in Northern Ireland must not become the new normal state of affairs.
The UK Government, in this Parliament, to a degree are in chaos, but that absolutely cannot be used as an excuse for the lacklustre attempts since last February to re-establish Northern Ireland’s political institutions. The Government are consumed by their own civil war, but that should not distract from all of our duties to steadfastly defend and protect the peace process. The SNP understands that decisions are badly needed to direct and fund public services in Northern Ireland, but the absence of political decision making, amidst ongoing austerity, has placed an intolerable burden on the health and education systems, and on the Northern Ireland civil service and the people of Northern Ireland.
The broader instability caused by Brexit is a central reason why it is proving to be so difficult to restore the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. The Executive and Assembly may have collapsed for various reasons, but Brexit and the threat of new borders or regulations have prolonged the dangerous political vacuum. The threat of new borders can, however, be removed. There would be no need for new economic borders in the Irish sea or across the island of Ireland if the whole of the UK pursues the SNP policy of staying in the European single market and customs union. It is important to remember that Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to remain in the EU by 56%.
Since the 2016 referendum, we in the SNP have engaged with businesses and civic leaders across Northern Ireland, all of whom have consistently made the point that the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain, and that their future economic prosperity will be put at risk by Brexit in any form. According to the Government’s own figures, a no-deal Brexit could end up resulting in a 12% GDP decline in the Northern Ireland economy. The UK Government’s analysis states that a no-deal Brexit
“would affect the viability of many businesses across Northern Ireland”, and would therefore be tantamount to economic vandalism.
We in the SNP want to see Northern Ireland flourish. We want to see political and economic stability, partnered with strong, inclusive economic growth. We want to see that so that our neighbours—only a few miles across the Irish sea—will have effective public services, growing businesses and better livelihoods for their families. A prosperous Northern Ireland is in Scotland’s interests. A prosperous Northern Ireland is in the interests of England, Wales, the Irish Republic and our friends across the European Union.
We in the SNP fully support the Good Friday agreement and the maintenance of an invisible border that people from all over Ireland can freely cross, whether that be to visit family, to work, to study or to conduct business. Let me be clear: we would never stand in the way of Northern Ireland achieving a special relationship with the European Union, if that was what was required. All that we ask is that correct, and equitable, budget procedures are followed, and that any increases in spending across the UK result in the rightful Barnett consequentials for Scotland.
The final point that I want to make about the budget is on the Hart recommendations. I appreciate that those are sensitive topics and have been raised already, and I concede that the Secretary of State’s position has softened somewhat of late, but the Scottish Government have already announced that they are taking action in this area. The Secretary of State and the Minister will be aware of the victims’ group SAVIA—Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse. The group was pleased that the Scottish Government confirmed that they would be making advance payments to elderly and infirm victims and survivors prior to the passing of legislation, and is calling for that model to be adopted for Northern Ireland. So many of those who would have been entitled to compensation are now deceased, and SAVIA believes that the initiative shown by the SNP and the Scottish Government shows that where there is a will, there is a way. The group asks that the Secretary of State follows the leadership, courage and compassion shown by the Scottish Government to make compensation payments to elderly and infirm victims before it is too late.
In conclusion, the Government must give Northern Ireland and restoring its Assembly the attention that it requires. Delays in establishing effective talks can no longer be accepted. The institutions of the Good Friday agreement must be championed by all across this House, for the sake of the peace process and for the people of Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than this. However, if the Prime Minister’s promises about governing in all our interests are to ring true, she must respect the agreed devolved settlement for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. The people of Scotland and Wales deserve better than this and, believe me, Madam Deputy Speaker: they are watching closely.
I did not expect to be called first, Madam Deputy Speaker, so you have caught me off balance. [Interruption.] I am never lost for words.
I am pleased to be called in this debate and I want to start by thanking the Secretary of State for introducing this essential Bill today. It is important and it is why we are all present. I thank Members for the contributions that have been made up to now. We all know that the Bill contains parliamentary approval for in-year adjustments to Northern Ireland departmental budgets and for certain other bodies to incur expenditure and use resources for the remainder of the financial year ending
We all understand how necessary these steps are to take. We have the information before us and I had a quick look through it earlier. I wonder whether the Minister summing up will be able to indicate what the responsibilities will be in respect of the fisheries enforcement vessel we have in Bangor and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs when we leave the EU on
I do not want to be critical about Departments but sometimes I wonder exactly what happens. I brought the matter of packaging to the attention of Ministers at the Department for Exiting the European Union last week. There is a responsibility here to the agri-food sector, and a number of businesses in my constituency depend on that. The packaging issue has not been addressed. For some reason, DAERA has not responded to the companies in my constituency. Lady Hermon is one of those who contacted me about this. I understand that this is a simple matter of addressing the packaging. DAERA has not done it and has referred the issue to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is like musical chairs; they are pushing it about as much as they can. They must get it done. That is the issue we need to get sorted out for our agri-food sector. The explanatory notes state:
“This Bill is a minimal step to ensure that public services continue to be provided in Northern Ireland.”
Therein lies the issue I have: the people of Northern Ireland have had the bare minimum for too long. The acceptable level of governance has been emphasised by other Members and we simply are not getting it.
As for 70% of the moneys allocated to Departments being used for projects, I have to say that I have some concerns about delays on some of the things we are all waiting for. I am sure Members will not be surprised if I give them a list of what I am waiting for in my constituency. I could spend half an hour going over all the ones that need to be done, but I will just spend a few minutes highlighting the issues. The first thing we need is the Ballynahinch bypass—we are still waiting on it. All the papers are in order; everything is ready to go; the land has been acquired—but, guess what, the Department just cannot make that decision. Everybody in Ballynahinch wants to see the bypass in place. Even my colleagues and friends do. Why is that? It is because then I will not be bringing this issue up every time we have a parliamentary meeting, but that is by the by. The point I am trying to make is that everything is in order for it to happen but it is not happening.
Secondly, we have a coastal erosion programme for the Ards peninsula. Again, the deliberations are done and the recommendations have been made. There are 96 coastal erosion locations to be addressed, but we have not got to the place we want to be in addressing that. Again that highlights how we need to get the moneys through to where they need to be. The problem with these minimal steps is that they are going to produce a minimal health service and minimal education for our children. Dr Murrison, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee referred to its ongoing inquiries on education and health. We will shortly be doing one, which we hope will be less complicated, on the benefits system, which the hon. Member for North Down and I wish to see addressed too. There are lots of things happening that we need to address.
The DUP has taken action. The fact is that without the supply and confidence agreement, which boosted the budget by some £300 million, and the successful party representation to the Chancellor, which has secured an extra £140 million, Northern Ireland simply could not function. People talk about green cheese in this House all the time. Gavin Newlands sees somebody getting something good and he wants it as well. They are unbelievable, they really are.
We need to take action to tackle the pressures in education and health. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is trying to address some of the important issues as and when it can and make recommendations, which we hope to see shortly. My hon. Friend Ian Paisley referred to special needs education. How important that issue is. It comes up in every inquiry, deputation and presentation that we get. I have people in my constituency saying almost every week that we need to address those issues. The highest levels of depression in Northern Ireland are among schoolchildren, some of them under the age of 10. There are levels of depression that we were never aware of before, but we have them in our area and in our constituencies in Northern Ireland. We really need to address those critical issues.
The referrals are also part of the issue. I met the chair of the local primary schools less than a month ago. All those primary schools’ budgets are squeezed. They are really at crisis point, so we have to address the issues. Last week, I had the opportunity to speak to the principal of Movilla High School to catch up and find out what is happening there. Movilla High School needs some help. I sit on the board of governors of Glastry College, which needs that new building. These things are coming across throughout the constituency.
The money would not have come without my colleagues having outlined the fact that frontline services are at breaking point. I am thankful for the funding that the DUP has secured, but we must be clear that even with the additional money, frontline services are struggling; A&E services are literally at capacity. We need ministerial intervention, and that is not happening at Stormont, so I ask again for something for which I have advocated consistently: a compulsory return to Stormont with no red lines or the Secretary of State’s rolling up her sleeves and beginning direct rule procedures.
We have tried to address the issues relating to rare diseases in the Chamber. I am a member of the all-party group, along with other right hon. and hon. Members, and we have tried to address the issues with getting funding through, because rare diseases involve minimal numbers. We need to address those issues. On access to medicines, Orkambi is very important. Those with diseases and problems who need help will understand that access to drugs is important. Diabetes is a growing time bomb in Northern Ireland, among not only children but adults, too. We have the highest levels of diabetes among children in the whole United Kingdom, with Scotland second. We need to address such issues, if we can.
A long time has passed and Sinn Féin’s intransigence is slowly killing hope and seeing people needlessly die on waiting lists throughout the Province. It is effecting professionals’ mental health as they try to cope in situations that have been described as war-zone situations in A&Es. We need to act on behalf not simply of patients but of the staff who are being asked to do the impossible. Minimal steps are not good enough for the elderly lady lying in a corridor in the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, and neither are they good enough for the four-year-old about to start her schooling career in a school where the teachers are advised to ask parents—this has been said in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—for toilet paper and told by unions that they cannot run after-school clubs. Not only the principal of the school that I visited but the chair of the primary schools in my area have told me that if it was not for the parent-teacher association and the moneys that it raises every year, they could not afford to have the classroom assistant teaching in those schools. They could not afford to have the stationary if it was not for the good will of others who are helping out. These are the critical issues.
Of course I welcome the additional money for frontline services—£20 million in 2017-18 and £410 million in 2018-19—but it was a sticking plaster. That plaster has now come off, revealing a wound that needs dedicated, specialised attention but is not getting it. The DUP wants a return to devolution, because we believe that that is the most democratic future for Northern Ireland, but we cannot afford to wait any longer.
I believe it is time to consider a new political process for Northern Ireland with all the parties at Stormont that want a devolved Administration, which Sinn Féin continues to thwart. It is time to consider a different and more direct approval process. If Sinn Féin does not want to participate, or wants to put down red lines to stop the political process, let us move forward with the parties that do wish to participate and form a Government who can look after the affairs of Northern Ireland. I believe that that would be a way forward; it might be different from what we have done in the past, but maybe it is time we did it now. Even if a party does not want to be part of the process, we should move forward, because we need regional government.
I will finish soon—as you will probably be glad to hear, Madam Deputy Speaker. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I do not know why Members are saying that.
Minimal steps are not enough. That is what this debate is about: we are very pleased to have a budget approved, but we are also clear in what we are saying. I ask the Minister of State to take the appropriate steps towards direct rule, not because that is my first option or that of the DUP—we want a regional government in place that is accountable to the people—but because it is our only option to stop the wound seeping before we bleed out.
Please, Minister of State, hear our call. Yes, we need the Bill, but we need more than these minimal steps; we need decisive action. We need to start the process and send a message to Sinn Féin: “If you won’t return to Stormont, fine, but decisions will be made in this place for the education and health of all people in Northern Ireland.” Nevertheless, I welcome the budget, and I welcome where we are today.
General disappointment has been expressed that, for the third year now, expenditure in Northern Ireland is being approved through this unusual process in the House, with little or no scrutiny or knowledge of how the allocations to Departments have been decided. We do not know what arguments were made for giving 3.8%—or whatever it was—to health and 1.1% to education, while other Departments suffered an overall reduction and others’ budgets were kept static. We have had no opportunity to ask civil servants what cases were made or whether they were valid. As my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson pointed out, it is not that there is no mechanism for such scrutiny; it is simply that a choice was made not to use the mechanism that is available through this House.
Of course, this should all have been done at Stormont. During the budget process, its committees ought to have brought civil servants in, asked them what bids were being made and what arguments were being employed, and then made a judgment on the merits of each case. However, we are not in that position—not because parties in Northern Ireland do not want the opportunity of scrutiny at Stormont, but simply because they have been prevented from carrying it out.
Using the terms of the arrangements for setting up a Government in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin has been able to prevent the coalition arrangement that was forced through in the Belfast agreement from being implemented. Because including the two main parties in the Executive is a compulsory imposition rather than a voluntary arrangement, if one of those parties throws a hissy fit and decides that it does not want to be in the Executive, everybody is kept out—not just from the Executive, but from Stormont and from all the roles and responsibilities that they were elected for and would normally be entitled to carry out.
The Secretary of State quite rightly says that this process should be done at Stormont, but she knows that it cannot be done there. Like the shadow Secretary of State, I do not place the blame totally at the door of the Secretary of State. She has to operate within the rules, and the rules state that if one party decides to veto, not a great deal can be done about it. For reasons that I will explain in a moment or two, no powers of persuasion will persuade Sinn Féin to go into Stormont at this particular time; they have made that quite clear. Sinn Féin have thrown up every barrier. Whatever magic wand the Secretary of State might wave, she is not going to persuade them otherwise. However, there is one way in which she could put pressure on them, which is by making it quite clear to them that, through their inaction, the very thing that they do not want to happen—that is, rule by London—will happen, unless they are prepared to accept their responsibilities in Northern Ireland.
We find it difficult to understand why there has not been a willingness to take Sinn Féin on in that way, but I suspect that it is because of the advice given by the Northern Ireland Office, known colloquially among Unionists in Northern Ireland as the nest of vipers. The position of the Northern Ireland Office seems to be, “Don’t annoy Sinn Féin and don’t annoy the Irish Government.” I suspect that a large part of the reason why we have not moved to greater scrutiny and greater decision making by Ministers here is the advice of the Northern Ireland Office: “Don’t rock the boat.” But if we don’t rock the boat, we are going to stay on the path that we are on at present, which does not provide scrutiny of the most important issue for politicians—the expenditure of resources for the benefit of the community.
Not only do we not have scrutiny of the overall budget allocation, we do not even have scrutiny of the efficiency of current spending. Looking through the various headings for expenditure last year, or through the proposed 70% expenditure for next year, we can see many areas where there is great concern about the way in which money is spent. I will pick out just a few. Take, for example, the Department for the Economy. We have been trying to increase connectivity in Northern Ireland, yet despite all the evidence that supporting access to air services to other parts of the world helps economic growth, we have found an unwillingness to spend money in that area. One of the reasons that the Department has given is, “We don’t have any direction from a Minister. It’s not a decision that the civil service can make.” My hon. Friend Paul Girvan has lobbied hard on this issue because Belfast international airport is in his constituency and there could be huge opportunities there.
Petroleum licensing is another example. There are huge opportunities in Northern Ireland but we cannot even get consultation on licences that could create hundreds of jobs in mining and oil exploration in rural areas in the west of the Province, where high-paid jobs are hard to come by. Money for broadband has been reprofiled because, despite the fact that £150 million was made available, decisions have not been made about spending that money. Hopefully, with the start of the money that has been allocated this year, we will find that the programme will be accelerated over the next number of years.
We allocate money to Tourism Ireland, and many people query whether that money is used effectively. When people travel into Belfast International airport, what hits them in the face when they come off the plane? An advert to send tourists who arrive at that airport down to Dublin—and our money pays for it. Yet there is no scrutiny of whether that is an effective way of spending public money to promote Northern Ireland.
I could go on with lots of other examples, but that is the kind of vacuum we are left with because of the lack of scrutiny not just of the general allocations of money across Departments but of the specific allocations within Departments.
As members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, we hear at first hand, nearly every week now, about how the lack of an Assembly and an Executive is affecting ordinary people, whether it is money not being spent on healthcare, schools where parents are having to bring in toilet rolls, or the Police of Service of Northern Ireland not knowing whether it can pay its staff at the end of the month. This is impacting the real lives of real people.
The hon. Lady mentioned education. In the year for which we are now finalising the accounts, additional money was secured for education. That money was meant to go to frontline services in education—that is, the classrooms—but the Department of Education decided to allocate it to finance the education authority, which was running a deficit, and was leaning on schools that were running a deficit in their budgets. That is the kind of thing that would never have been allowed to happen if we had a functioning Assembly and a Minister rather than civil servants making these decisions. It is not just about the total amount of money that is allocated; we also have to be looking at how effectively that money is spent, and we do not have the means for doing that. If it cannot be done in Northern Ireland, then there should a means for doing it here.
The Secretary of State gave an explanation as to why she had allocated 70% of the expenditure to Departments for next year as opposed to the usual 45%—because there might be heavier expenditure at the beginning of the year than at the end of the year, and she therefore wanted to make sure that Departments did not run out of money. Given that most of the revenue expenditure has to be spread over the year because a lot of it goes on salaries and so on, I do not think that is a credible explanation. I think the Secretary of State knows full well that we will not have an Assembly up and running by June, because she knows what the problem is. She has talked to Sinn Féin and she knows the attitude of Sinn Féin. I suspect that 70% has been allocated so that she has the flexibility maybe even to bring the final budget to this House in September or October rather than be forced to bring it early in June because there is no Assembly up and running.
That brings me to one of the reasons why I believe we are having to do this again this year. Many people have said that it is about Brexit, or the fact that Sinn Féin cannot get agreement with the DUP about certain matters like an Irish language Act. Having said that, I do not know how anyone justifies tens of millions of pounds of expenditure on an Irish language Act at a time when we have the pressure on budgets that we have now. Certainly it should not be a priority for expenditure or getting Stormont up and running again.
I welcome the additional money. For the information of Gavin Newlands, this is not a result of the Barnett formula not being properly applied. The Barnett formula is properly applied. Barnett formula allocations for Scotland and Northern Ireland are based on the expenditure decided for Departments in England. If there is an uplift in areas of spending in those Departments, it also comes to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
This is money over and above the Barnett formula. Scotland has experienced that on occasions, but we did not complain about it. It is wrong to suggest that this is a result of the Barnett formula not being properly applied. Some of the changes to the allocations that we are authorising for 2018-19 are a result of Barnett formula applications during the year, with additional money put into the budget since we discussed it last June having to be spent by Departments.
This is a challenging budget. The real reason why Sinn Féin are not prepared to enter the Assembly is that they do not have the political courage to make the decisions that a budget of this nature would require them to make. There is plenty of evidence for that. First, why did the Assembly collapse? Despite what people say about the renewable heat scheme and everything else, the Assembly would have collapsed anyhow, because the then Finance Minister had not even presented a budget to the Assembly. If it had not been presented to the Assembly, the Government would have collapsed because there would have been no money to spend. Why did he not present a budget two and a half years ago? Because he knew that there were hard decisions to be made, and he was not prepared to make them. His party was not prepared to go through the Lobby to back those decisions because it was looking over its shoulder at People Before Profit, which had taken votes off it in its heartlands in West Belfast and Londonderry.
If that was the problem then, it is still the problem today. Sinn Féin do not want to have to put their hand on the tiller and guide Northern Ireland through the difficulties of budget considerations. Governments here and in Scotland and Wales have to do that, as indeed do Governments in the Irish Republic. Sinn Féin would rather strut around the Irish Republic telling people that if they vote for Sinn Féin, the Government down there will not have to impose austerity measures. Of course, the one way to expose the nonsense of that claim is by Sinn Féin having to make decisions about budgets in Northern Ireland, but they do not want to do that.
That means that we have not been able to look at new areas of expenditure, and that is significant. Members have talked today about new pressures. For example, there is greater pressure on school budgets because of rising populations and a change in the distribution of populations, which sometimes expand and sometimes decline. There are greater pressures on mental health, which my hon. Friend Jim Shannon talked about. This budget reflects the decisions and priorities of the Executive of more than three years ago. Indeed, if we look at the heads of spending for 2018-19 and 2019-20, we see that it is a cut and paste. There are no new things, because that is not possible.
We pass legislation here to allow top civil servants and permanent secretaries to take decisions that could redirect some spending, but civil servants—wrongly, I think—have refused to use those powers on many occasions. It is frustrating that they have not been prepared to make decisions on even simple things, because they fear that if something goes wrong, they will be called before the Northern Ireland Audit Office or finish up on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph. It is not a great way of doing it, but at least some of these decisions should be made by civil servants.
We have a lack of scrutiny of the overall budget and of the detail of the budget, and we have no mechanism for deciding new priorities, all of which we are going to need in a dynamic economy. That is why this process is so damaging to Northern Ireland. It is damaging politically because it allows people simply to opt out of the political process. They entered that process, stood for election and got elected, but then they do not do their job.
I know there will be debates about how to do this, but I think one of the ways of pushing into doing their job properly those who are holding back our ability to do the job—we are doing it, and doing it very poorly, here today—is to make it quite clear that the stark choice is either to have local rule or to have rule from London. I believe that would be a huge embarrassment to Sinn Féin. It has been able to avoid that embarrassment because the Government here have refused to make such a decision.
We want to see devolution and we want people to be pressurised into going back into Stormont, however difficult that may be. Let me just say to the House that it is difficult. Look at the difficulties the Government have with the disparate views they have on their own Back Benches in this place. It is an indication of the skill that was used by politicians in Northern Ireland that, for many years, we ran a coalition that included people who would very happily sit on the Government Benches as well as people who might be uncomfortable sitting beside the Leader of the Opposition on the Opposition Benches because they are even to the left of him. We ran a coalition on that basis, but it has now collapsed, and following its collapse, this is an inadequate way of doing business for Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Sammy Wilson. I am afraid, as far as the Northern Ireland Office is concerned, I will continue on the issue of the lack of transparency and scrutiny. At the nub of this—it is felt across the House and I know it is shared in Northern Ireland—is the fact that these are important matters that need to be dissected and examined, but the level of scrutiny we are able to subject them to will be minimal indeed.
I want to begin with the political outlook. Unfortunately, we are in the position we face today only because we do not have a devolved Government in Stormont, and we have now been in this limbo for two years and several months. Part of the reason why we continue to be in this limbo is that Sinn Féin, which brought the Stormont institutions down by the resignation of the then Deputy First Minister, has for some considerable time established a series of red lines in relation to going back into government.
However, as indicated by the Opposition spokesperson on Northern Ireland, Tony Lloyd, Sinn Féin, in the words of its leader, Michelle O’Neill, has now copper-fastened that approach. I have to say that part of the reason why it has copper-fastened that approach is that the lack of decisive action from the Government in this place in confronting its previous intransigence has only emboldened it to be more intransigent.
Not only do those in Sinn Féin say, “Well, we’ve gotten away with two years of saying we’re not going back into government until we have certain unreasonable demands met, and we must have them met, pocketed and banked before we go in”—they have got away with that, and we have simply continued this limbo period—but they have now established yet further red lines in relation to even going in to talk about how we get the Government up and running. I am afraid that a considerable amount of blame can be landed on the desk of the Northern Ireland Office for not confronting the Sinn Féin approach.
We are in a situation that is neither fish nor fowl, with neither direct rule nor local rule, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim put it. Our constituents are talking about education, health and a whole series of local projects that could be delivered and asking what we are doing to try to help deliver them. Our answer is that we can do very little and that we want to get Stormont up and running. I know colleagues of mine met a series of principals in the education sector just a few weeks ago, and the principals were unanimous in their demand that something had to be done to rescue their sector from an impending crisis, as we hear in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee week after week. Yet my colleagues had to say, “We’re ready to enter Stormont today, tomorrow or next week, but unfortunately others are not.”
We find ourselves in this bind, without either direct rule or devolved government. We are stumbling into a crisis week by week, month by month. Although there are a number of local issues, people are also demanding action on broad, encompassing issues. I know that the Secretary of State made it clear that certain matters of departmental spend were not her prerogative or that of the Minister of State, and I understand that, but nevertheless we are left in a bind with something that cannot deliver and that is inadequate in what it does deliver.
Many parts of Northern Ireland are teetering on the cusp between the crisis that is ahead of us and a remarkable breakthrough. My hon. Friend Jim Shannon, who is not in his place at the moment, talked about his constituency. For the first time in 70 years, the Open golf tournament will return to my constituency and the Royal Portrush golf club. There will be almost 200,000 visitors to that tournament, 30% from outside Northern Ireland and the Republic. A considerable number of that 30% will be high net worth individuals.
I have been pressing Invest Northern Ireland to ensure that when those people arrive, we do what we can to maximise any inward investment potential. At this point, I pay tribute to the outgoing chief executive of Invest Northern Ireland, Mr Alastair Hamilton. He has spent 10 years in his role and has performed a manful, dutiful task over and above what would have been expected of someone in his position. So much more could be achieved in the next few months . The Open golf tournament takes place in July, and I would hope that Invest Northern Ireland would be campaigning and pressing inward investment buttons for opportunities that could be opened up as a result of it.
I have referred in this House to the private sector Heathrow logistics hub process, which is taking a further step forward. If it is a successful operation in the part of the United Kingdom that is Northern Ireland, it will deliver thousands of jobs. Here we are on the cusp of a breakthrough, with a combination of things that could deliver. Others have mentioned connectivity, and I think of the potential at all of our airports. Londonderry airport can expand, and we have a public service obligation that could help deliver additional routes. That can only happen if we have ministerial direction and ministerial cover to ensure that all the possibilities are taken advantage of. We have other rail routes and road routes. All can help to deliver job infrastructure developments, which are there now but cannot be fully developed because of the lack of a devolved Government.
As I said, there are two overarching sectors that pervade the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee week on week—education and health. We hear the messages of complaint. We hear the dire consequences that are ahead of us. I do not want to unduly be a prophet of gloom, but the health sector came through the current winter crises and pressures because of the relatively mild winter. It came through it in a poor state, but not in a crisis. Next winter, however, if emphatic action is not taken either at Stormont or here, I am absolutely certain that we will not come through unscathed in the way that we have in the winter that is hopefully just ending. The overall Bengoa-style review is required to give emphasis and impetus to an overarching exchange and development of our health service to meet the demands of the 21st century. Without taking that into account, we are facing an impending crisis in the health sector.
Every one of us, every week, hears from schools, principals and vice-principals about the escalating catastrophe that is the education sector. That will worsen and deepen in the coming weeks and months unless we have ministerial involvement either in this place or in Stormont. Unfortunately, to date, Sinn Féin’s feet have not been held to the fire. We want to get a devolved Government back up and running. We know and accept that the process for that devolved Government is not ideal. It is not our No. 1 priority in terms of what we would like to see, but it is the only show in town, so either we deliver a mechanism through Stormont or moves will have to be made here in the Westminster Parliament. One thing is for sure: we cannot and we must not—the people will not allow us—allow the position that currently pertains to go on for very much longer.
We have heard a wide range of speeches on the Bill, but they have a similar theme. Before entering this House, I was a manager in the NHS in England. I have been a school governor and a non-executive director. I have served on finance committees, audit committees, and, since joining this place, I have been a member of the Public Accounts Committee. Like many people in this place, I take seriously the issue of spending taxpayers’ money. I believe it warrants scrutiny, analysis, challenge and, critically, accountability. As has been noted in all the speeches we have heard this afternoon, we should not be discussing the Bill, but, if we are we should be doing it properly, and we cannot.
The hon. Lady mentions her role on the Public Accounts Committee. Does she think that, for as long as Stormont continues to not sit, there would be any merit in having the reports of the Northern Ireland Audit Office reviewed by the Public Accounts Committee?
I understand that the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland are currently not being scrutinised in the way that we would expect here. If the Public Accounts Committee was to undertake that role, it would be a very serious change to constitutional arrangements. The actuality discussed by the Chair of Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and others is that there needs to be some sort of process. I am not sure whether this is the right process, but I agree that there needs to be some sort of process for the reports already coming out of Northern Ireland that are highlighting some serious problems.
I make no judgment about the work of the Northern Ireland Office, the civil servants in Northern Ireland and the many public servants trying to continue to deliver services, but the lack of scrutiny and analysis of that money, and our incapacity to challenge, means that that huge area of spend, involving UK taxpayers’ money, is receiving less attention than school budgets get when we audit them. We know—this has been reinforced—that there are huge problems under the headings of this debate. As my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd said, the Opposition want the Department to make progress on the Hart inquiry, victims’ and survivors’ pensions, and the medical school at Ulster University. I recently visited the team behind the project to progress the medical school in Derry/Londonderry. The scale of the work to date, and their ambition for their city and region, is to be commended, and the Secretary of State must find a way to support them. We have the ridiculous situation in which civil servants can support the business case but not agree the funding, because that is beyond their powers and would be considered a reallocation.
Why is a medical school important? The Government are proud of their announcement of new medical schools in England. The areas chosen need those schools because we need the recruits. As the chief executive of Health Education England said when the announcement was made—MPs in those areas know this—
“studies show that doctors tend to stay in the areas where they train so it means more doctors for the region to deliver high-quality care.”
In Northern Ireland, the locum bill is more than £80 million per annum and rising—an increase, according to the Bengoa report, of more than 78% in five years. It is clear that Northern Ireland needs to be training more of its own doctors and other clinical staff. It also needs to pay them properly, but the rates of pay of those staff are falling behind those in the rest of the UK.
I commend the hon. Lady for raising the issue of the medical school. Does she agree that there is an urgent need to develop not only the medical school in Londonderry but the veterinary school in Coleraine for precisely the same reasons, albeit in a different sector?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I have not been able to visit that project, but I would very much like to. I agree that investing, training and keeping people local is an important and valuable symbol.
I recently visited the stunning new Omagh Hospital and Primary Care Complex, which is part of the Western Health and Social Care Trust. It is doing great work across the area to manage the challenges of rising demand and costs, which all health systems face. Its top issues of concern are the availability of medical staff and the huge amount of money being spent on locums. To ensure cover across Northern Ireland, precious resource is being spread far too thinly. I ask the Minister to tell us whether the Government will direct the Ministry of Justice to support the Lord Chief Justice’s call for funding, and whether he will progress the medical school, which is time-critical.
Some 46% of the Northern Ireland budget is for healthcare, and the history of reports and recommendations is decades-long. Most recently, Professor Bengoa’s report referenced the renowned academic Professor John Appleby, who found that Northern Ireland’s spending is roughly 11.5% higher than in England, but there is roughly an 11.6% higher level of need. The service is broadly funded as well as the rest of the UK, but there are significant disparities. In particular, mental health need is recognised to be about 44% higher than in England, but per capita spending is sometimes 10% to 30% lower. That led to the conclusion that the problem is not the level of funding but how it is being used to deliver services. Today, we are no further forward in addressing that problem. Spending on the acute sector continues to grow. Having a large number of small buildings is expensive and, most importantly, is not fit for the high quality, 21st century care that we should all be expecting across the United Kingdom.
The Bengoa report opens with a quote from the former chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson:
“A proportion of poor quality, unsafe care occurs because local hospital facilities in some parts of Northern Ireland cannot provide the level and standards of care required to meet patients’ needs 24 hours a day”.
What action are the Government taking to address that problem?
The Minister of State and I share a health geography in the south-west. His local hospital is undergoing difficult and controversial changes. He understands the safety issues and the need to make difficult choices about changes to small hospitals and the transformation to different models of care and to greater specialisation at large acute trusts. In his remarks, he needs to reassure people in Northern Ireland, just as we seek to reassure our constituents here in England, about quality of care. He needs to assure us today that the extra money for health is not just covering continuing inefficiencies and deficits, but is doing something to improve services and, above all, that patient safety is paramount.
Previous allocations as part of the confidence and supply money are of course welcomed by people in Northern Ireland, but one-off payments are no way to transform a health system. I recently heard about a preventive cardiology pilot working upstream with GPs. Money for successive years is not known and the trust is expected to continue funding it as part of its mainstream budget. It is not possible to transform healthcare to meet demands in the 21st century on one-off moneys, and it is a very poor use of taxpayers’ money as well as of the staff time spent proposing and developing new bids.
The next greatest area of spending is education, which has dominated today’s debate. As mentioned, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has had an informative session on education spending in the last few weeks, and last week again discussed the much reported recommendations to improve education outcomes in Northern Ireland. Sir Robert Salisbury, who gave evidence last week and reported in 2013, told us six years ago that the system was living beyond its means, and he gave the example of the six post-primary schools in Omagh, which has a similar population to his native Nottinghamshire, which has two.
The Education Authority, which has been referenced this afternoon, has a £90 million deficit largely because of special educational needs spending, which has also been addressed this afternoon. Schools are managing very high levels of mental ill health and, sadly, of suicide and self-harm among children, as Jim Shannon highlighted. As I mentioned earlier, the poor funding of mental health services as part of the overall health budget is exacerbating the problem.
There is a large deficit in schools, as Mr Campbell just said, and the budget is an escalating catastrophe. There are also high levels of achievement, as referenced in the Select Committee last week, and what is described as a long tail of underachievement. There are an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 empty desks in Northern Ireland, two teacher training colleges and two separate statutory planning authorities. The Integrated Education Fund, which I have visited recently, has called the system divided and costly.
I hope that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report will shine more light on education spending, but many of the calls have been for a Bengoa-type review. As noted, however, we already have a Bengoa review of health, and without the political oversight and will, it will not make the change. The end of the Committee’s session finished on a depressing note, as the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People reported that there needed to be an honest conversation about the allocation of funding within the Department of Education but that there was no appetite for that.
We in the Labour party continue to support the need for integrated education as part of the long-term route to reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and I know that the Integrated Education Fund hopes to visit here in the summer to share with Members the work it does and the challenges faced. It would be good to see some of its thoughts put to the Northern Ireland Committee in its final report.
Beneath the figures that we are rushing through tonight—without proper process and security—lies the future of Northern Ireland’s children’s hopes, dreams and aspirations and of the people needing treatment and care from the NHS who now find themselves on record length and totally unacceptable waiting lists. We will of course support the budget tonight, so that public services can continue, but the people of Northern Ireland deserve much better than this.
Let me pick up from where my opposite number, Karin Smyth, left off and say that I am pleased to hear—from, I think, everyone—that there is limited opposition to the Bill and that Members are willing to support it on a cross-party basis. That is incredibly welcome. This is perhaps an unusual example of cross-party unanimity and consensus; there have been some pretty stroppy debates in the last couple of weeks on a variety of subjects. It is lovely to be here on a day when agreement is breaking out across different parts of the House.
However, I do not want to overstate that degree of cross-party consensus and agreement because what was also widely shared was a sense of frustration. There was frustration at the lack of a Stormont Executive—we heard that from pretty much every speaker this afternoon—and inevitably, because it matches that lack of a Stormont Executive, frustration at the limits of the Bill. As we have heard repeatedly, the Bill is there to keep the wheels turning in Northern Ireland, but not to bring about much-needed reforms, because those reforms require a functioning Stormont Executive. We have also heard repeatedly a litany of things that are either not being done and need to be done, or are not being done as efficiently as they could be, simply because there is not the political air cover in Stormont that would enable much-needed decisions to be made to change what is happening.
I echo many Members—including the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend Dr Murrison—in saying that that is no criticism of the civil servants in either the Northern Ireland civil service or the Northern Ireland Office. They are honour bound to make decisions based on the last set of policy decisions available to them, some of which are two or three years old. They must try to draw a line between those policy decisions and remain true to them.
May I repeat what I said earlier? I agree with what the Minister is saying and this is not meant to be critical. I accept that, given the lack of a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, we cannot scrutinise the decisions of civil servants. May I, however, ask the Minister to reflect again on the fact that changes are being made in this budget on the basis of the advice of civil servants? While we may not want to scrutinise or criticise those decisions, no information is available to the House about why the changes should be made. Will he take on board what the Secretary of State has said and look again at what information is provided to the House so that we can base our decisions on more information than we have now?
I do take that on board, especially because I think that the hon. Gentleman was one of the last Ministers who had to deal with the issue of direct rule.
So I am giving the hon. Gentleman responsibilities that he never had to bear. Let me also mention to him that a Command Paper is currently available in the Library which gives a very detailed breakdown—it is well over an inch thick—of the way in which money has been spent in Northern Ireland during the financial year that is about to end. There is a huge amount of detail, but it is backward-looking. While it is helpful and, I am sure, welcome to all Members to ensure some degree of accountability, I think that all of us, including the Secretary of State, have agreed that we all hanker after a better process than this, but also that the fundamental and central problem is the lack of a functioning Executive in Stormont.
I was delighted to hear the shadow Secretary of State, Tony Lloyd, clearly say that he did not think direct rule is justified at this stage. He is also right to say that, because of that and because of the shortcomings we have all been enunciating, there is a tariff for political failure at Stormont: I think that that was the phrase he used. The Chairman of the Committee quoted a reference to the “slow decay and stagnation” that is happening in Northern Ireland politics as a result, but rightly levelled the balance a little by referring to the restoration talks efforts made by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, and—again, rightly—was positive and fulsome in his praise of both the Northern Ireland civil service and the NIO, and their unstinting efforts to do a professional job in an extremely difficult and increasingly challenging political environment.
A number of Members have said today that they would regard it as a last resort. I agree because we have to be incredibly careful about what we wish for here. We have to be extremely cautious about the notion of starting to take the drug of direct rule because it very swiftly leads to a very difficult and very precarious political position. I say to my right hon. Friend that there is a process laid out in primary legislation passed by this House—the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018—that says we have, first, five months and then, potentially renewable, a further five months in which to find a consensus and get an Executive re-established at Stormont. At that point, to answer his point about “If not now, when?” there are statutory obligations on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland which will require decisions to be made at those various different waypoints, but it is extremely dangerous and extremely difficult for us all to prejudge, or indeed to wish that those talks, stuttering though they are, but attempted though they definitely are, should not be given enough time to come to a sensible conclusion. I think everybody has been clear that that is what we want them to do; we want them to be successful if they possibly can be.
It was certainly not my intention to cause the hon. Lady to draw breath. The point I was trying to make is that direct rule is potentially extremely dangerous and can lead to a very difficult political situation if we are not all collectively very careful. It is not a step to be taken lightly, simply or frivolously at all.
In agreeing with the Minister, it is probably worth pointing out that the last period of direct rule lasted five years. This was the total antithesis of the ambitions of the devolved Administration.
Jim Shannon had a long list of local projects that are not happening and that he thinks could and should happen were there to be proper government led in Stormont, and so did Sammy Wilson; he had a list of all sorts of missed opportunities—everything from mining to tourism was mentioned. Both of them had some interesting suggestions, which I will take away rather than react to now, about how we might perhaps exert more pressure through potentially changing rules in Stormont. I will treat them with the care with which they were offered, I am sure.
Mr Campbell was passionate in saying that Northern Ireland is on the cusp of a breakthrough—the economic performance and indeed the social cohesion in Northern Ireland is out-of-sight better than it was 10 or 20 years ago—but that it is being frustrated and that further progress could be made, but we are caught. I think he said that the governance of Northern Ireland is neither fish nor fowl—it is neither London nor local—and should this be solved, that would make a huge difference.
My opposite number, Karin Smyth, spent some time talking about important issues to do with public services—health transformation budgets, for example—and how that money could be used to make some of the changes, because they were already agreed in policy before the Stormont Executive changed. But she was also right to point out, as others have done, that the amount of transformation that can be done is limited by the political constraints that everybody here has been describing.
On the issue of health transformation, the permanent secretary at the Department of Health has made it clear that £100 million went into health transformation funding last year and another £100 million will go in this year as a direct result of confidence and supply money. He has welcomed this greatly, because it gives us an opportunity to roll out multidisciplinary teams and other things that can actually save money. These are not insignificant amounts of money. They are substantial amounts that are going to transform the health service as a result of the confidence and supply deal.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There is a significant transformation going on, and a significant amount of funds is going in to let that transformation happen, but it is also true to say that more transformation would be possible if there were political leadership as well. The civil service is limited not so much by the money at the moment; it is about the ability to take fresh policy decisions that would allow further progress to be made. That is the frustration under which we are all labouring during this Second Reading debate. On that basis, I plan to let us move on to consider the remaining stages of the Bill. I am delighted that there is cross-party consensus that it should proceed.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In my remarks, I specifically asked, given the progress that the Government made on the Lord Chief Justice’s proposals, whether the Minister would give us an answer on progress towards having a medical school as part of Ulster University. The project is not only time critical but critical to the future provision of training places for doctors, particularly, in Northern Ireland, which would help to reduce the locum bill. We would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that.
I shall respond swiftly, as I do not want to hold up the rest of the process. The hon. Lady is right to say that she asked that specific question. Let me make two comments in response. First, the judicial changes are not a Westminster Government decision. They are taken, rightly, by independent judiciary in Northern Ireland. Secondly, her question on the medical school needs to be addressed as part of the city deal discussions that are currently getting under way, and I would be happy to discuss that with local people and, if necessary, with her as well. With that, I propose to do something unusual for a politician: stop talking and sit down.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).