Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) (No. 2) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:23 pm on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 4:23 pm, 5th March 2019

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?