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

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

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 5:23 pm, 5th March 2019

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 31 March 2019. Its importance has been highlighted by everyone who has made a contribution, including in interventions and by Northern Ireland’s representatives in this House. On behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, we are here to make that comment. The Bill further seeks approval for a vote on account of an amount equivalent to 70% of the 2018-19 allocation to allow those Departments and public bodies to continue to deliver public services for part of the 2019-20 financial year. This finance, what it sets out to do and what it does is so important.

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 29 March. On the Monday a week or so ago, I had the opportunity to meet the fisheries officers to discuss that. I said to them that that fisheries enforcement vessel does not seem to do very much. That seems to be the case, from the evidence I have. Will it be more active after 29 March? Will the resources be made available to ensure that it can enforce the fisheries rules that we will have for our seas at that time?

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.