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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:11 pm on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales) 5:11 pm, 5th March 2019

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.