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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:55 pm on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 4:55 pm, 5th March 2019

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 28 February, which include the A6, the York street interchange and the mother and children’s hospital. Those projects are unobjectionable and I believe that everyone in Northern Ireland wants to see them, so I think that the Secretary of State is on very safe ground. Nevertheless, they are big infrastructure projects which, in the normal course of things, would be subject to intense scrutiny one way or the other. That scrutiny clearly cannot come from Stormont, as Stormont is not working, but it falls to someone, and it really falls to us, because we are the default position. I am not clear in my mind that those big projects, and the planned expenditure on them, are being given the scrutiny that they deserve.

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.