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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:36 pm on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit) 5:36 pm, 5th March 2019

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.