Before I invite the Secretary of State to move the Second Reading, I must announce the Speaker’s decision on certification for the purposes of
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As the House well knows, Northern Ireland has now been without a functioning Executive for almost three years. Since May, the Northern Ireland parties have engaged in a series of cross-party talks focused on getting Stormont back up and running. It remains my assessment that the issues preventing the restoration of Stormont are few in number and soluble in substance, and I stand ready to facilitate further talks if and when political parties are willing to move forward. However, until such time as they are able to reach an agreement, the UK Government and this Parliament have a duty to ensure good and functional governance in Northern Ireland. We have a duty to ensure that public services can continue to be provided for all citizens of Northern Ireland. This Bill upholds that duty by placing the budget published in February 2019 by my predecessor on to a legal footing and enabling the Northern Ireland civil service to access the full funding for this financial year.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing me to intervene so early in his speech, on the issues of public finance and the ability of our services to respond appropriately. I do so because I am mindful of the comments you have made, Madam Deputy Speaker, about the ability to table amendments. The Secretary of State knows that I have a keen interest in pursuing a legislative fix that would allow our Co-Ownership housing association in Northern Ireland to be able to avail financial transactions capital. The organisation would then be redefined so that it would not burden the public finances. Billions of pounds in housing association loans would not be on the public balance sheet. What commitments and assurances can the Secretary of State give that would assuage me from my desire to amend this Bill?
The hon. Gentleman has been precipitous in his intervention, as he often is. I will address that point shortly.
Since January 2017, Parliament has legislated four times to secure the public finances of Northern Ireland. These were not interventions that the UK Government wanted to make, but they were necessary to ensure the continued provision of public services in the absence of an Executive.
I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again. I had a stab at making this point earlier today during Northern Ireland questions, and I wonder whether he will indulge me just one more time.
I assume that the part of the budget that is covered by schedule 1, relating to the Department for Communities, covers welfare mitigation payments in Northern Ireland up until March 2020. In the September 2019 joint report of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, entitled “Welfare policy in Northern Ireland”, the Committees point out that ending the mitigation payments after March 2020 could make some 35,000 households in Northern Ireland worse off by hundreds of pounds a month. Is the Secretary of State aware of that?
The Department for Communities cannot extend these payments because, in the absence of the Assembly, that requires ministerial action. This is urgent because the Department is saying that it will need to start advising claimants by this autumn of significant cuts to their welfare payments next year, unless the Government act.
The hon. Gentleman tackled me on this issue in the Tea Room earlier. I will refer to it, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, will also refer to it in Committee. We are aware of this welfare challenge. It is indeed a responsibility of the Northern Ireland civil service; civil servants do have a power that they can use with regard to the discretionary housing payments. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will spend time on this issue over the coming days and weeks, because it is an important one.
This is an immensely important issue for some of the very poorest people in Northern Ireland. Might the Secretary of State go back to the Department and ask his permanent secretary what powers he can draw the Secretary of State’s attention to that will allow him, before the week is out, to take action to prevent people from falling off the cliff into greater poverty?
I am in the process of working through how we can move forward with this. It is a devolved matter, but I will be speaking to the Northern Ireland civil service over the coming days and weeks. As has been alluded to, these are funds and mitigations that help the most vulnerable citizens in Northern Ireland. I take these matters seriously, and I will come back to the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman in due course.
Indeed, the Northern Ireland civil service has a power, but if I can leave it there, I will come back to this House and come back to the hon. Gentlemen about this matter.
Does the Secretary of State accept, however, that even with the powers that civil servants have, the cost of these mitigation measures is such that budgets will have to be rejigged—quite substantially rejigged—and that that can be done only if a Minister makes a decision? Is this not yet another example of the Secretary of State burying his head in the sand and pretending that the Executive will come back when he knows that they are not going to come back? This can be dealt with only if civil servants bring forward a report saying, “This is the money that is required and this is how we see it being reallocated.” Someone has to make a decision, and it will probably be a Minister here.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. However, I go back to the fact that it is, I think we all agree, in Northern Ireland’s best interests that the Executive are reformed and the Assembly gets back up and running. Any idea that it is a better solution to take powers here at Westminster is false, and we have to focus on that.
I am going to make some progress.
I would like to pay tribute to the Northern Ireland civil service. It has the most dedicated civil servants who are continuing to deliver public services in the absence of political leadership and political decision making. Hon. Members from across the House have approached me today raising legitimate concerns about the future of public services. While today’s debate is not the place to tackle these issues—this Bill simply makes the necessary authorisations for expenditure for this year—those Members are right that they need to continue to be monitored carefully, and that is what we will be doing. However, we are up against a lack of a local decision making.
Could I continue to make a little progress?
There are some significant challenges to reflect on, such as housing associations and welfare reform, but there are opportunities, too. The £163 million growth deal announcement to Northern Ireland shows what can be achieved when politicians of all backgrounds, local businesses and community leaders come together to shape the economic future for their local area and for Northern Ireland as a whole. That is why we want to see these issues taken forward by a restored Executive.
To my frustration, however, it is necessary once again for Westminster to intervene to provide the necessary authorisations for expenditure in Northern Ireland in the continuing absence of an Executive and of a functioning Assembly. The finances of Northern Ireland Departments are in a critical state. The legal authority for the Northern Ireland civil service to spend is currently capped at approximately 70% of the opening position of the previous financial year’s budget—a spending cap that was approved by this House in March 2019. The Northern Ireland Audit Office and the public services ombudsman have already reached their cash limits, and the Department of Finance has been forced to issue two Departments with contingency funding. This temporary financial measure can be used on a very short-term basis to manage the smaller Departments running out of cash, but it is just not tenable for a significant number of Departments.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing me to intervene. He reminded the House in his opening remarks that we have not had a functioning Assembly for almost three years. I am astonished and disappointed—and I am sure that the vast majority of the public in Northern Ireland will be extremely annoyed—that the Bill mentions the remuneration of MLAs yet again. I had a horrible feeling when the Secretary of State mentioned a review, when I challenged him about the continuation of MLAs’ salaries in Northern Ireland questions today. We have had a review. We had a review two years ago by Mr Reaney, who reported in December 2017. Two years on, we do not need more long grass dressed up and disguised as a review. Why does the Secretary of State hesitate in getting on and doing the right thing by the people of Northern Ireland, by cutting MLAs’ salaries? It is so obvious that he should be doing that.
The hon. Lady raised that issue with me earlier today. I spoke to her three days ago about this review. I am on it, but as I said, I want to ensure that I balance the need to ensure that public expenditure is reduced with the fact that I want the Assembly up and running. I am not going to stand here and accept the premise that this Assembly and Executive cannot get up and running.
As I mentioned in Northern Ireland questions today, many of our MLAs are doing a fantastic job through their offices. It is important that we keep that representation for the general public.
It is indeed. There is so much more that they could do if they were in the Assembly, and we need to hang on to that over the coming weeks.
If Royal Assent is not granted by the end of October or as soon as possible thereafter, there is a risk that the Northern Ireland civil service will assess that the only way to continue to deliver public services in Northern Ireland is by exercising emergency powers under section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Using those emergency powers would constrain the Northern Ireland civil service to spending 95% of the previous year’s budget, effectively delivering a significant real-terms cut to the funding of public services. Northern Ireland Departments would have to consider their current budget allocation against their identified priorities and their available cash, which could put at risk essential services such as those within the health service.
I know that my right hon. Friend will be taking these steps very reluctantly, as I remember doing when I was in his post. He has highlighted the deals and the investment in various parts of Northern Ireland. I am conscious of investment in the north-west and promoting economic activity and opportunity in that part of Northern Ireland. Can he comment on the plans for a graduate medical school at the Ulster University Magee campus in Derry/Londonderry, which could promote a sense of skill and opportunity and secure the positive outcome that we would like to see for the north-west?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He has worked hard to promote the merits of the Magee campus, as have others. I visited it only two weeks ago. I am extremely committed to making that work, as I know he is. I think that we are close to a position where we can move that forward. It is a devolved matter, but there are things we can do, and we will continue to do them.
The Bill upholds our commitment to good governance in Northern Ireland by preventing the Northern Ireland civil service from having to rely on emergency section 59 powers. It is a budget set by the UK Government, but one that the Northern Ireland civil service must plan and implement. If Stormont gets back up and running within the financial year, the new Executive will be able to adjust the budget as they see fit and amend the legislation at the end of the financial year. The Bill does not authorise any new money. In the absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly, it simply authorises spending money that has already been allocated by this Parliament in the UK estimates process, together with locally generated revenue.
I want to ask the Secretary of State about Barnett consequentials from money that has been ring-fenced for special projects. One example is the high streets fund, to help our town centres in the United Kingdom. We got our Barnett consequentials in Northern Ireland, but that money has been swallowed up by the Departments and used to plug holes in their budgets. We have not been able to ring-fence that money and ensure that money coming from the Exchequer is used for the intended purpose.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Barnett consequentials, whether of the spending review or of other allocations from this place and from Whitehall, are very difficult to attribute due to the lack of an Executive. We are seeing a sort of constipation in the system, as we have cash arriving but no decision making to spend that cash.
I shall now briefly turn to the Bill’s contents, which largely rehearse what the former Secretary of State set out to this House in a written ministerial statement earlier this year. In short, the Bill authorises Northern Ireland Departments and certain other bodies to incur expenditure and use resources for the financial year ending on
Clause 1 will authorise the Northern Ireland Department of Finance to issue £5.3 billion out of the consolidated fund of Northern Ireland. The sums of money granted to Northern Ireland Departments and other bodies are set out in schedule 1, which also sets out the purposes for which the funds are to be used. The allocations in this budget reflect where the key pressures lie in Northern Ireland, building on discussions that the UK Government have had with the Northern Ireland civil service, the main parties in Northern Ireland and broader stakeholders, and, where possible, reflecting the previous Executive’s priorities.
Clause 2 will authorise the temporary borrowing by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance of about £2.6 billion to safeguard against the possibility of a temporary deficiency in the consolidated fund of Northern Ireland. If used, this money would be repaid by
Clause 3 will authorise Northern Ireland Departments and other specified public bodies to use resources amounting to about £6 billion in the year ending
Clause 4 will set limits on the accruing resources, including both operating and non-operating accruing resources, that may be used in the current financial year. The Bill would normally have been taken through the Assembly. Clause 5 therefore includes a series of adaptations that ensure that, once approved by both Houses in Westminster, the Bill will be treated as though it was an Assembly budget Act.
Alongside the Bill, I have laid before the House, as a Command Paper, a set of main estimates for the Departments and bodies covered by this budget Bill. These estimates, which have been prepared by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance, set out the breakdown of resource allocation in greater detail than the schedules to the Bill.
This is a fair and balanced budget that provides a secure basis for protecting and preserving public services, with a real-terms increase in health and education spending and protections for frontline Departments delivering key public services, but the budget is not an easy one. It requires savings and efficiencies to enable Departments to live within their means, and it will fall to the Northern Ireland Departments to plan and prepare to take decisions to do just that. As I hope right hon. and hon. Members will agree, this is very much a minimal step to ensure that public services can continue to be provided in Northern Ireland for the full financial year.
As I conclude, I will set out once again a point that I have made several times before to this House. The UK Government are steadfastly committed to the Belfast agreement. Legislating on Northern Ireland budgetary matters at Westminster is not a step that I or my ministerial colleagues want to take—nor is it one that I would wish to take again. I am determined to restore the political institutions set out in the 1998 agreement and its successors at the earliest possible opportunity. On
May I say to the Secretary of State that we well understand why the fast-track process has to be used for this legislation as we approach the general election? Obviously, the needs of the people of Northern Ireland require that there is a budget to provide the vital services on which they depend. It does however make it all the more paradoxical—and, I think, shameful—that the same fast-track process was not available for the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill to make its way through Parliament. I hope that even at this late stage those words are echoed from the Secretary of State, who I know is sympathetic to the case, to the business managers, who have so callously let those people down. It is an embarrassment for him, but it is extremely difficult to justify the decisions of the business managers when everyone in the House would be prepared to make time available for that legislation.
James Brokenshire is in the Chamber. I remark on that simply because he was the Secretary of State when Stormont collapsed. Since then, we have recycled Secretaries of State and the paralysis in decision making in Northern Ireland continues.
There are some technical issues that we ought to address. One of the questions in any budgetary process ought to be an account of value for money. However, there is almost no capacity for any form of scrutiny of the efficiency of the spend from this budget. That is as unacceptable to hon. Members from Northern Ireland and taxpayers in Northern Ireland as it is to taxpayers anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Value for money is fundamental to any form of Government spending or public spending, and the scrutiny required for that is not available for this budget.
The shadow Secretary of State is making an important point about the inability to scrutinise the efficiency of the spend. Does he also accept that we do not even have a chance to look at the relevancy of the spend? Much of the spending that goes on in Departments is determined by decisions made by an Executive four years ago, and new priorities that are emerging in Northern Ireland do not get a chance to be considered because civil servants cannot initiate new measures.
I have enormous sympathy with the point made by Sammy Wilson. One thing we do know is that there has been significant demographic change in Northern Ireland in the last three years. The population is growing increasingly elderly and the number of young people, in relative terms, is decreasing. Therefore, the decisions made by politicians those years back may still be relevant in some areas, but in others they are beginning to be stretched.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is currently not only a lack of scrutiny and reactiveness, as outlined, but a lack of transparency? I have written to the head of the civil service on numerous occasions to ask about the additional money that goes into the Northern Ireland budget—I accept that it is by way of unhypothecated Barnett consequentials, which is not ring-fenced, and decisions must be made on where it goes—and I get a fairly stock response simply to say, “This is not ring-fenced. We will have discussions and civil servants will decide.” Civil servants have done nothing to open up their processes to scrutiny and transparency. It appears that they are still unaccountable to anybody. We now see this Bill, which outlines their decisions, rushed through this House with very limited scrutiny. It is letting down the people of Northern Ireland.
Again, I have real sympathy with the point made by Emma Little Pengelly. It is similar to the point made earlier by Paul Girvan about ring-fencing of moneys for the high streets and the inability to trace those moneys. In fact, some time back I raised with the previous Secretary of State whether it would be possible to have an accountability mechanism whereby the Northern Ireland civil service would respond to questions from Members of this House so we could scrutinise its decisions for exactly those reasons and provide at least transparency, even if that would not necessarily lead to proper accountability of the spend made.
These are really important issues, and they would be important even in an annual budget. If this was the budget for a large local authority—the Greater Manchester Combined Authority budget or that of the London Mayor are, I suppose, equivalent to the budget of Northern Ireland—we would be astonished if we did not have the capacity to scrutinise it. I say to the Secretary of State that I think the time is coming when we will need to look again at how the scrutiny process takes place; that will not be resolved today, but clearly we have to look at it.
I have some questions for the Secretary of State. I should say that we do not intend to block the Bill in any way, shape or form. It is vital that it goes through, and the amount of time available does not allow for any rarefied debate about more than the general outlines. However, there are some issues that we must begin to address. I nearly quoted the permanent secretary at the Department of Health, but I shall paraphrase: he said that Northern Ireland has the money for a world-class health service, but it just does not have the money for the health service that Northern Ireland has. In that, he was referring to the fact that the Bengoa reforms, which would and could have transformed the health service in Northern Ireland, had not been implemented.
There are issues about areas where we know the spend is no longer adequate. We know, for example, that Northern Ireland now has longer waiting lists than any other part of this United Kingdom. We know that mental health provision is unacceptably poor in Northern Ireland; I have to say that it is poor in my own constituency, but it is nevertheless particularly bad in Northern Ireland. The chilling fact that more people have committed suicide since the end of the troubles than people died during the troubles gives some indication of the need for improvement in those services.
We know about social care and the demands on it—again, this addresses the point made by the right hon. Member for East Antrim. We know that the number of elderly people and the dependent elderly is growing all the time in Northern Ireland, just as it is in my own constituency, but the capacity of the budget to deal with those issues has remained largely unchanged. We know that education spending is no longer appropriate: Northern Ireland still has a high standard of results in its educational system, but too many people are now being left behind because of the inappropriate nature of the education service.
I would particularly like to continue the questions raised by my hon. Friend Steve McCabe and my right hon. Friend Frank Field, which my hon. Friend Karin Smyth raised in Question Time earlier. The Minister of State has used words like “the same refrain” when saying that the answer lies in getting devolved governance back. I understand that that is the long-term answer, but we are going to face a crisis for some individual families because of the exhaustion of the welfare mitigations. It is not simply about housing: it cuts across other areas of spend where those mitigations are protecting families now. The Secretary of State’s response was that he would look to see what could be done by him and the Northern Ireland Office. We have to look very closely at the Secretary of State and Northern Ireland Office working with the Northern Ireland civil service, and that is important.
Let me ask a specific question. Does this budget contain money for the Stormont House bodies? Those bodies ought to be set up imminently, of course, so money has to be made available for them. We need to know that the proper provisions are there. Equivalently, and this is also important, if the historical institutional abuse Bill is not going to come before Parliament immediately, I hope it will be introduced rapidly by whatever Government take their place after the election so that that legislation can come into operation. That means we need to see within this budgetary framework resource available for HIA victims, who deserve not simply our compassion but our recognition and our financial support.
I need in that context to ask the following question. The Secretary of State has been very specific: he has undertaken to see whether it is possible in terms of welfare spend to use imagination around the powers that do exist. I wonder whether he will now begin to apply the same kind of imagination to see whether it is possible to create within the framework of the existing spending operations something that begins the process of reconciliation, even if it is just the simple acknowledgment of payment to victims of institutional abuse. Money clearly is not everything in that context, but is it possible even without the legislative framework to find an imaginative way of making some form of payment that would at least go some way to showing the willingness of the Government and the Secretary of State, which I know is there, to try to rectify the failure of the system and get this Bill through Parliament?
This Bill is important—I think everybody accepts that. Nobody is going to want to block the capacity for the structures to operate within Northern Ireland over the coming three months, so it is important that this is passed today before Parliament is dissolved. We will support the Secretary of State in moving it through Parliament, but there are some issues that he and his Department need to begin to look at and see whether there are at least some patches that can be applied that can make a material difference to those who would most suffer if we do not get the answers right.
That was a quicker speech than we thought it would be.
May I begin by briefly putting on the record that I think the House should have enormous appreciation for Stephen Pound? During my time in this place since 2015 he has been the steadfast rock with regard to Northern Ireland. I occasionally see him as the political equivalent of the giant’s causeway—nobody quite knows why he is there or why he is that shape, but we know that things would not quite be the same if he was not there. The House will miss him, and his interest in and knowledge of the affairs of Northern Ireland and the politics of the island of Ireland will be missed. [Interruption.] Yes, he is going to be a tourist attraction in his own right—and is already listed, I believe, as an ancient monument.
Our thanks should also go to the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend Mr Hurd. The idea of the Northern Ireland Office not having a Hurd somewhere near it is depressing and dispiriting, and I wish my right hon. Friend well. Although she is not in her place, as Chairman of the Select Committee I ought to repeat what I said in Committee this morning and express my eternal thanks to Kate Hoey, who has done so much on behalf of the communities of Northern Ireland over so many years.
I obviously support this budget. I echo entirely what Tony Lloyd said, and I also echo the concerns of Steve McCabe with regard to the welfare cliff that we canter towards in a slightly unguided, uncontrollable way.
I will not read it out, but page 5 of the explanatory notes to the Bill sets out clearly why fast-tracking is necessary. We appreciate the reasons why, and we can rehearse and rehearse and rehearse in a rather odd political version of the film “Groundhog Day” the comments, “I wish Stormont was back up and running…Ministers are doing all they can to achieve that…Parties stand ready to come back”, yet we never quite get that over the line again.
While we fiddle with that issue, everybody is aware of the problems in Northern Ireland with regard to welfare, the downturn in education and the acute issues with healthcare. If we are serious, and if talking about Northern Ireland as a part of the Union is something beyond words and some sort of abstract, we should worry that we have allowed the eccentric to become the norm and allowed a mindset to develop whereby emergency legislation, sticking plasters and ad hoc solutions have to be found. If this was taking place in Scotland, Wales, North Dorset or any of the counties of England, we would be up in arms. Front-page articles would be written about it and questions would be asked all over the place. The fact that they are not is a cause for concern. How can we ever hope to make the politics of Northern Ireland and public service to its taxpayers as normal and as mainstream in Ballymena as one might find in Blandford Forum in my constituency? We are never going to make the progress on peace, reconciliation and confidence building that is so desperately required.
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. He mentioned welfare a few moments ago. That is of particular concern to many people in Northern Ireland, particularly with regard to welfare mitigation payments, which were negotiated by a member of my party when he was Minister. They give rise to great concern, because in four short months, those mitigation measures will fall away. We need to take steps immediately and urgently to deal with that problem.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. People in communities in Northern Ireland today will be worrying about the impacts that the end of the mitigations will have. They will be among the most vulnerable in the community, who have the least opportunity to ride even a temporary blip or gap in service provision, and they will be the hardest hit. We understand that we are adding to their justifiable reasons for concern and anxiety, because as well as Stormont not sitting, Westminster will not be either. The ability of right hon. and hon. Members to hold the Secretary of State and his ministerial team to account on the Floor of the House, in a Select Committee or in Westminster Hall will be removed from us. A democratic deficit—an accountability vacuum—will be created for five or six weeks, and that presumes that on
We do not know what the result will be; we could be in for weeks of horse trading, with the usually happy time of Christmas and the new year elongating the window when no decisions are taken into early in the new year. Those who can least afford any hardship are likely to be facing it, and having their burden of woe added to, without having any democratic forum in which their concerns can be expressed and the decisions—or lack of decisions—taken by Ministers can be questioned and challenged. That is the icing on the cake of the democratic deficit that is now becoming the norm, and of the tendency to deal with Northern Ireland as a perpetual emergency, which is subliminally, if you will, undermining the path of peace and civil stability that we all wish to see. We have to be careful: we are allowing this psychologically to become the norm.
I do not feel very gallant.
I seem to recall that two Secretaries of State ago I sat in this House and heard that direct rule would have to be imposed very soon, and here we are, 18 months later, still not there. The people of Northern Ireland must be really fed up with the fact that we cannot give them proper governance. Please, let us have direct rule if we cannot get the Executive working again.
I have enormous sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. Again, if these were normal times, that would probably have happened, but as we all know, when it comes to the delivery of politics and services in Northern Ireland, we push one and we pull the other, and it is a bit like water in a balloon: it moves around and alters but the shape remains vaguely identifiable. In theory, direct rule would be a good thing, bringing decision making and delivering policy change in real time for real communities, but of course that would provide grist to the mill of those, including some in the nationalist community, who like to castigate the British Government and say, “This is just the big imperial mother Parliament flexing her muscles and exerting herself”. So it is not, I am afraid, as easy as just deploying direct rule, as desirable as that would be for service output.
My hon. Friend is right, however, that at some point somebody will have to take a decision, and how we mitigate things would then depend on that decision, because this perpetual coma, limbo, purgatory—call it what you will—is not sustainable. These are citizens we should consider equal to ourselves on the mainland. This disruption in the delivery of governance, which we would not support or sustain for more than three weeks were it an English county division, cannot be allowed to become the norm any more. At some point, somebody will have to be brave and take a decision, knowing full well that we can please some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.
While we welcome the Bill, in so far as it is necessary, we most certainly do not welcome the circumstances in which Parliament has to legislate. I listened to Simon Hoare, and he made some very important points. It is ironic that Members of Parliament elected to this House from constituencies in Northern Ireland who refuse to take their seats, and therefore do not involve themselves in the process, are the very people responsible for the fact that we are dealing with this legislation today and that we have limited ability to scrutinise it. There is only one party in Northern Ireland refusing to form a Government, and that party is Sinn Féin.
My right hon. Friend is drawing attention to a matter that has been raised numerous times. Does he agree that, to add insult to injury, what does not get mentioned very often, in the House or outside, is the fact that the House pays those Members not to attend and represent their constituents and gives them expenses for office costs, flights and hotel bills?
I appreciate that intervention. I know that from time to time Members express concerns about the pay of Members of the Legislative Assembly. I rarely hear a concern expressed about the paid lobbyists of Sinn Féin who are omnipresent in the coffee shops or outside on the Green but are absent from these green Benches, failing to fulfil their responsibilities to their constituents. Yet they alone are responsible for Northern Ireland’s not having a functioning Executive.
I hear lectures from some Alliance party representatives about how we should be doing this and that and restoring Stormont, but when they had an opportunity to show their presence and highlight the fact that Sinn Féin alone is holding the people of Northern Ireland to ransom, yet again the Alliance party gave Sinn Féin political cover by absenting itself from Stormont.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is an issue about which many people in all communities in Northern Ireland care very deeply? People are very concerned, because they do not know about the details that have led the Secretary of State to present regulations relating to the termination of pregnancies. Those who did not turn up, or who refused to go into that Chamber, did not just deny any democratic accountability in respect of that decision; they even closed down basic debate because they disagreed with another party’s stance, and some other people’s stance, on the issue. That is shameful. They should have at least facilitated debate, because the people of Northern Ireland wanted that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have said this before, but I will keep putting it on the record because it needs to be said, lest the perception be created that somehow this is a problem that goes beyond Sinn Féin. Yes, there are difficulties in Northern Ireland that need to be resolved. Yes, there are issues that need to be addressed. But the people of Northern Ireland elected their Members of the Legislative Assembly to go to Stormont and sort those issues out. The place in which to do that is the forum that was created under the Belfast agreement for the very purpose of resolving our difficulties.
For our part, the Democratic Unionist party wants to see Stormont functioning properly. If the Secretary of State, or the Speaker, or whoever, wants to convene the Assembly on any day, we will be there. We will appoint our Ministers, we will elect an Executive, we will play our full part. But our Assembly Members are being penalised, and I have to say, with the greatest respect to Lady Hermon, that there is not a single Democratic Unionist MLA in Northern Ireland who does not want to be doing their full work at Stormont. In fact, we are losing good people because they cannot do their job.
I have a concern—others may not, but I do—about what this means for the political class in Northern Ireland. If we are dissuading people from becoming involved in politics, that is not good for the future of Northern Ireland, and it is not good for the development of the political process. I understand the sentiment that leads people to say, “Cut their pay”, but I think it a little unfair for all the Assembly Members to be punished because one political party refuses to do its duty and play its part in that political process, and is holding the rest of us to ransom.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for his continued interest in Northern Ireland matters, which is deeply appreciated. We wish him well in the election.
Thank you. We will be back.
It is frustrating that we find ourselves in this situation, and I have a lot of sympathy for the Secretary of State for having to perform these functions, but I want to echo the comments of Bob Stewart, who made the point earlier when he intervened on Simon Hoare that this cannot continue indefinitely. This is not how democracy should function.
Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the issue about the pay of MLAs is ironic? We have raised an issue about political donations many times with the Secretary of State, and it is that Sinn Féin fundraises huge amounts of money outside the United Kingdom—in the United States and in other places—which it can use to sustain its operation, but it is the party that is preventing every other MLA from getting back to work. This needs to be addressed urgently.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is an impact on the political process in Northern Ireland when we have one party that receives funding from international sources, which skews the political system. That is something that we have consistently pressed the Government to address, and they have not yet done that.
Does my right hon. Friend not find it ironic that when Sinn Féin raises those funds in America and other parts of the world, they can be used for the purposes of promoting the party in the United Kingdom but not in the Republic of Ireland? That is because the Government of the Republic of Ireland have had more guts in dealing with Sinn Féin than this Government here at Westminster have had.
It goes further than that. In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Beckenham, I believe that we have not had direct rule reintroduced because Sinn Féin objects to it. On the one hand, it will not allow us to function as an Assembly and an Executive; on the other hand, it says that we cannot have direct rule. There is surely an irony there. The party that calls itself republican and objects to so-called British rule in Ireland is the party responsible for this Parliament having to exercise its authority to agree budgets and take legislative decisions. That is entirely down to Sinn Féin. It speaks out of both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, it is the ultimate republican party demanding an end to the British presence. Incidentally, that includes myself and all my right hon. and hon. Friends. It does not want us to be British. It does not want our British identity to be exercised, despite the fact that it has signed up to agreements that supposedly respect that. It does not respect this Parliament. Just this morning I heard Sinn Féin say that one of the slogans for this election will be to ditch Westminster. So, we have ditched the Assembly, and we have ditched the Executive—let’s ditch Westminster! What are we going to be left with to provide government within Northern Ireland? This is a ridiculous situation and it cannot go on.
I say to the Minister and to the Secretary of State that in the next Parliament we cannot continue with this situation with the absolute minimum of decisions being taken to pass budgets, when we do not have proper scrutiny of government in Northern Ireland. It is not right, and my colleagues have made that clear. I shall give one little example, and it relates to the education budget in Northern Ireland. I think there would be cross-party support for more funding going into special educational needs in Northern Ireland, yet we are frustrated in being able to influence those kinds of decisions, because we do not have an Assembly. There are parents in my constituency—and, I am sure, in those of all other right hon. and hon. Members from Northern Ireland—who are desperate to have adequate educational support for their children, but we cannot change the way in which the budget is spent because we do not have proper opportunity for scrutiny. That is just wrong, and it cannot continue.
I am proud of what the Democratic Unionist party has delivered in this Parliament for Northern Ireland: additional funding for public services, reform of our health service, and more money for our schools and for infrastructure projects. All those things are important, but it is extremely frustrating that we are not always able to influence how that additional funding is spent. That is difficult to explain to my constituents, because they expect their Member of Parliament to be able influence those things. We are neither one thing nor the other. We do not have direct rule from Westminster, and we do not have devolution in Northern Ireland. We are in this kind of—
Limbo; the hon. Member for North Dorset described it as another thing earlier. I cannot accept that for my constituents. This is not British democracy functioning for the people of Northern Ireland. I have every sympathy with the Secretary of State, and I commend his and his team’s efforts to bring the parties together to try to get an accommodation and to try to restore devolved government. We do not believe that the fault for that lies at the foot of the Secretary of State; it lies at the door of Connolly House in west Belfast, the headquarters of Sinn Féin, which is responsible for us having no Government.
I will briefly touch on two particular aspects of the budget, both of which speak to public safety in Northern Ireland. The first is the Police Service of Northern Ireland. One of the successes in recent years has been the progress in the level of public support for policing in Northern Ireland and the transformation of the police service. However, having met the Chief Constable recently, I am worried about police numbers. I know that the Government have said that they are recruiting more police officers—it is a big part of their platform for the general election—and I know that the PSNI is engaged in some recruitment, but the demographics and the turnover of experienced police officers are not being matched by recruitment. We will want to sit down with the Government after the general election to look at that, because there is a need to increase the number of officers available for community policing, which is crucial for the continuation of public confidence in policing in Northern Ireland.
The Police Federation for Northern Ireland gave evidence at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee this morning, and I asked a series of questions about the required number of police personnel. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, looking at policing both in the past and at present, we appear to need in excess of 1,000 additional personnel?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is what the Police Federation for Northern Ireland and the Chief Constable have been saying, so we need to consider police officers and the recruitment process.
My final point on public safety relates to the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, which is headquartered at Lisburn in my constituency and comes under the remit of the Department of Health. Of course, the Department has enormous pressures on its budget and on how it manages staff, so I have every sympathy, and the priority in the Department must be the health service and health service reform. However, I am nevertheless concerned about the downwards trend in funding for the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service. In 2019-20, the budget for the fire and rescue service is £74.1 million, but it was £81.6 million in 2011-12, so there has been a significant cut.
Earlier today, we had a debate on the report on the tragic circumstances of the fire at Grenfell Tower. None of us wants to see that kind of situation, but the cuts in the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service leave me concerned, as a public representative, about its capacity to respond to that kind of emergency situation. I will not go into all the detail of how those cuts are having an impact, but they are.
We have seen whole-time crews cut in Northern Ireland, which means that in many locations crews cannot deploy without part-time firefighters being available to provide them with the full complement they need to attend an incident. That is a matter of concern. That is in no way to question the professionalism of part-time firefighters—far from it—but it is an unsatisfactory situation for the fire and rescue service to be in, because it can result in delays while full-time fire crews wait for their part-time colleagues to arrive before they can respond to an incident.
That is a having an impact on response times for fire crews in Carrickfergus, Portadown in the constituency of my hon. Friend David Simpson, Omagh, Enniskillen, Newtownards in the constituency of my hon. Friend Jim Shannon and Armagh. The cuts are also having an impact in Londonderry. It concerns us that the capacity of the fire and rescue service to respond to major incidents is being diminished in Northern Ireland.
My right hon. Friend has outlined a number of towns where fire services will be cut. Does he share my annoyance and concern over the reductions in the fire service in towns that are growing, with a population growth of some 10%, 15% or even 20%?
Indeed I do. I have made the point that the population of Northern Ireland has increased in the period I quoted.
We welcome the progress that has been made. The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service does a great job at fire prevention. Its fire safety talks in schools and to community groups have been very successful. Nevertheless, I am concerned that if we have major incidents in Northern Ireland, like we had at the Primark building in the centre of Belfast, the capacity of our fire crews to respond and the specialist equipment that needs to be deployed will have been diminished as a result of the cuts.
My right hon. Friend is right to mention critical incidents. Although he did not refer specifically to cuts in my constituency, the Knock fire station is one of those that houses an aerial appliance, which is crucial for high-rises in the city of Belfast and for Belfast City airport in my constituency. It is important that we not only plan for critical incidents, but have the crews available to resource the appliances that are required.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the capacity and ability of the fire and rescue service to respond to major incidents such as one—though we would never want it to happen—at Belfast City airport.
I give that illustration simply to make the point that I would like my Assembly Members and those who represent the towns and cities that I have mentioned to be able to scrutinise properly how our budgets are being allocated and spent, and to consider the impact on public safety as they do so, as any legislator or political representative would. They are denied the opportunity to do that, and we cannot do it on their behalf properly or effectively. This is not a criticism of any Department or of the civil servants who are making the decisions, but the civil servants themselves would say that the absence of that political input is harmful. It is to the detriment of the people of Northern Ireland.
We cannot go on like this. The current situation is not fair on the people of Northern Ireland. If the Government are returned after the general election, I hope that we will be able to sit down, and if there is not the basis for restoring devolution—if the political parties cannot reach an accommodation—we will take some tough but right decisions to give a degree of accountability and scrutiny back to the political process in Northern Ireland through this Parliament.
I shall be extremely brief, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I am very conscious that some of our colleagues from Northern Ireland also wish to speak and we have a time limit.
I want thoroughly to endorse the contributions of Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson and Tony Lloyd as to the difficulties the House is placed in now by this process, whereby we are not able to scrutinise properly the expenditure of the Northern Ireland Departments. When we had the equivalent legislation 18 months ago, I tabled amendments seeking to curtail the expenditure on the prosecution of our military veterans. In the 18 months since I withdrew those amendments, we have seen those prosecutions continue and, indeed, accelerate, in quite an arbitrary way and, as usual, in a very unfair way, in that members of the armed forces are being put first in the firing line.
I am therefore extremely pleased by the progress that has been made by the new Government since July. The consultation has finished and we have had the commitment in the Queen’s Speech to legislation, a commitment repeated again by the Prime Minister today. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to continue to make progress on that, to see whether it is possible to construct some presumption against prosecution in cases that were too long ago, in cases that have already been investigated and in cases where there is no new evidence. I would add a fourth criterion: where a member of the armed forces genuinely believed he was doing his duty. None the less, I welcome the progress that has been made and I very much hope the Minister will reassure me that we will soon proceed to early legislation, because, as I said when I spoke in the House 18 months ago, this issue is not going to go away, however difficult and complex it is. From my time in the Ministry of Defence, I understand the difficulties that the Northern Ireland Office is faced with in trying to resolve it, but this issue will not go away and I hope the Minister will reassure me that progress really will be made at the beginning of the next Parliament.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I say that I must bring in the Front Benchers at 5.40 pm?
First, let me say that the Secretary of State is being very optimistic if he thinks this is the last time he will be bringing such a Bill to this House. I have listened to every Secretary of State over the past three years who has brought the budget Bill to the Floor of the House say that they hoped it would be the last time. They have even had the same Northern Ireland Office line in their speech that, “We are close to getting an agreement on the restoration of the Assembly.” I really do think it is time that instead of listening to the Sinn Féin spin that comes from the NIO, he looks at the reality on the ground, which is this: despite the fact that the absence of an Assembly hurts Sinn Féin’s constituents greatly, Sinn Féin still refuses to go back into the Assembly.
We have heard here today about the mitigations on welfare reform. A recent survey found that most of the people who will be hurt will be in Sinn Féin constituencies, yet Sinn Féin is still happy to plough on and face the end of this financial year, when people will be hit with huge bills because housing benefit will be reduced and some of the other mitigation measures that were put in place will no longer be there. Yet still Sinn Féin says that we are not going to have the Assembly.
We have heard here today about something that would benefit a Sinn Féin constituency. I happen to think it is a wrong decision, although I am sure my hon. Friend Mr Campbell will disagree with me on this—I am referring to putting a medical school into Londonderry. There are good arguments—including the economies of scale and other benefits—for saying that we should just enlarge the one at Queen’s University. I guarantee that had Ministers been in place in the Assembly, we would already have the medical school in Londonderry, yet Sinn Féin are quite happy to sit it out and see a Sinn Féin constituency without that important facility that would bring a lot of benefits to that constituency, although it might not be the best thing for Northern Ireland as a whole.
We have heard time and again in this place about the victims of historical abuse. Martin McGuinness drove that work forward, yet the closure of the Assembly has denied those people the justice and support that they thought they would get. Sinn Féin are still unmoving and will not go back into the Assembly.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. It will not come as a galloping shock for him to hear that I have been campaigning for the medical school in Londonderry. Does he agree that what Sinn Féin are really worried about is having a whole new electorate that would not vote for them in a tight marginal seat?
That may well be the case. On the face of it, Sinn Féin say they support the idea, but they are quite happy to sit out the Assembly so that no decision is made on it.
As my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson pointed out, the Assembly met recently because of the whole issue of changes in respect of abortion law, which exercises tens of thousands of Sinn Féin supporters who come from a Catholic tradition, yet Sinn Féin sat out the Assembly rather than go in to address the issue. If the Secretary of State thinks Sinn Féin are just on the brink of going into the Assembly then, to use a Northern Ireland colloquialism, his head is full of sweetie mice. It is not going to happen. They have shown time and again that they are not prepared to make that decision, even when it is unpopular with their own electorate.
That brings me to the inadequacy of what we are doing today. The Secretary of State has made it quite clear that there is no additional money for Northern Ireland; the Bill will simply ensure that, of the money allocated in the budget, the remaining part that was not allocated when we last debated these issues will now be made available to see us through to the end of the financial year.
The Bill does, though, have a substantial impact on Northern Ireland. People have mentioned the lack of scrutiny. Of course, this is not the only way in which the budget is scrutinised. Had the Assembly been up and running, the permanent secretaries, Ministers and officials of each Department to which money is allocated in the Bill would have been brought before committees and asked about how the money was being spent. Is it being spent efficiently? It there the transparency mentioned by my hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly? Is the money being spent on things that are relevant, or should it be allocated in different ways? But none of those committees is meeting.
We then find that, for example, in the Department for Communities, there are at a rough count 51 different heads of expenditure. Are they all necessary? Have changes occurred in Northern Ireland over the past four fears that mean we perhaps should have focused spending in different ways? In the Department for the Economy, there are more than 60 different heads of spending. Some of those may have been relevant four years ago, but are they as relevant today? Should some of them not be raised in priority and some dropped in priority? That scrutiny does not happen. The global sums are given, and the civil servants will spend them as they see fit.
Of course, the civil servants do not have the decision to make and cannot make decisions on huge changes. All they can do, even with the legislation available to them, is spend money on the basis of decisions that were made four years ago. Any new initiatives cannot be taken by civil servants. For example, the £140 million that went on mitigations in welfare reform would have to be found by cutting back on other programmes. Civil servants are not going to make those decisions; Ministers must make those decisions. The Minister cannot run away from that. He must accept that those changes and that stepping in will be necessary, which is why we must get a grip on this.
The one point that the Minister had promised to make during his speech and did not make—this has been raised time and again by my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson and myself with Treasury Ministers and with the Secretary of State—is to do with the whole issue of housing associations and the fact that they cannot currently access financial transactions capital of which the Northern Ireland Executive does have surplus, but cannot spend, because there is no outlet for it.
Have we not yet had the legislation because various Northern Ireland Departments—the Department for Communities, the Department of Finance or the Northern Ireland Office—have been dragging their feet? Or does the problem remain here at Westminster, with the Treasury not taking this matter forward? It is important that we find out, because this issue will affect capital spending in Northern Ireland.
I know that you want me to finish, Mr Deputy Speaker, but let me just say to the Secretary of State that the Government cannot dodge the issue. If we do not have an Assembly, or any prospect of an Assembly—Sinn Féin has no intention of allowing us to have an Assembly—decisions will have to start being made here.
It is a source of great sadness to me and, I think, to everyone both inside and outside the Chamber tonight that such an important piece of legislation is being discussed so briefly. It is also a source of sadness that we have to legislate in this House for matters, which, entirely, should be the province of Northern Ireland. I am also concerned that we are probably failing in the scrutiny process. I am not sure that we reach the highest standards. I understand the need for fast-track legislation, but I was intrigued to see in the explanatory notes that, because of the urgency, there was no opportunity for the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to consider the matter in full; instead it has received an informal technical briefing from the Northern Ireland Office. I think that we should place on record our concern that this form of consultation, by way of a technical briefing, is something that we should resist except in extremis.
I pay credit to the officials in the Northern Ireland Office for producing an extraordinary, well-made piece of work here. The amount of effort that has gone into this is quite remarkable and it does bear examination. It is extremely interesting that, over and again in the Bill, we see that expenditure is required as a result of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union and related services. Some of them are quite extraordinary. The Northern Ireland Assembly Commission requires a modest £11 million, which has to go towards
“enhancing public awareness and involvement in the working of the Assembly”.
That is money well spent. Then we have £3 million for the Northern Ireland Audit Office, and £868,000 for the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation—I wonder whether there might be a quango in there for me somewhere in the months ahead. Who knows?
The fact remains that this is crucial stuff, and in the extraordinary, passionate and well-informed speech of Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson, he absolutely put his finger on it. We should be talking about the issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland. We should not be allocating funds to the Assembly Commission; we should be talking about the health service, about social services and about education.
Talking about being passionate and well-informed, I think the whole House will join me in paying tribute to my hon. Friend, as he is at the Dispatch Box today for possibly the last time. He has been one of the finest Members to grace this House and a friend to many. He will be sorely missed once he finally leaves this Chamber.
I am not entirely sure that I accept that. I am obviously grateful to my good friend and colleague. However, I was slightly knocked back by the extraordinary comment of Simon Hoare, who compared me with a prehistoric ruin on the North Antrim coast. I am quite proud to be compared with the Giant’s causeway, but if I were to be any feature of the Northern Irish landscape, I prefer to think of myself as Carrickfergus castle, a doughty defender of Northern Ireland. That would also enable me to keep an eye on Sammy Wilson on a regular basis.
Time is very short. We have heard excellent contributions, not just from the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset, but also from the right hon. Members for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), for Lagan Valley and for East Antrim.
As has been intimated, this will be the last occasion at which I stand at the Dispatch Box. I am delighted that it is on an issue that means so much—an issue that has come to dominate my life in many ways, but one that I willingly allow to so do. If there is one thing that typifies what could be best about this House, it is the way in which we are so often united on this subject. Equally, this issue typifies the House at our worst, because we seem to be incapable of resolving it. I would have hoped that my last appearance at the Dispatch Box would have been to say that a restored Assembly and Executive are now taking the lead in Northern Ireland. It may be said that I have my head full of wee sweetie mice; I do not know. I like to think that I am an optimist, and I like to think that the great people of Northern Ireland can respond to that optimism, step up to the mark and show what they can achieve.
My colleagues and I will not oppose this Bill tonight. Reluctantly, we support it. We pay tribute to the Ministers who have brought this legislation forward, all the Northern Ireland Members and particularly the officials and officers of the NIO, who have done such an extraordinary amount of work. May they soon be able to return to the work that they should be doing, where they should be doing it. In the meantime, all I can do is to say thank you and goodnight.
May I start by paying tribute to Stephen Pound? I previously served for a long time with a shadow brief, and I would say the key thing is to care about it, and the hon. Gentleman does deeply and that comes through. He has earned a great deal of respect across House in that position. Tonight he has been compared to a historical monument—listed or listing, I was not sure—but of course he also represents a constituency that has the magnificent Ealing pyramids. Surely this may be time for the good people of Ealing to consider commissioning a statue to sit alongside them. I thank him for his service and for his very kind remarks about officials, who often do not get the appreciation they deserve.
I thank the Labour Front Bench and the DUP for their constructive approach to the Bill. Whatever we feel about the circumstances of why and when we are here, it is recognised that this Bill is necessary—otherwise, emergency powers will have to be used that will see the people of Northern Ireland short-changed in terms of their public services, and we cannot allow that. This Bill is absolutely necessary, and I thank Labour and the DUP for their recognition of that. However, the debate did reflect a great deal of frustration across the House about the state of democracy in Northern Ireland at this moment in time. The Secretary of State expressed his frustration, although of course I will never be able to look at him in the same light now that I know his head is full of sweetie mice.
I think it would be appropriate at this time to mention the debt of gratitude that the House owes to the right hon. Member for South Ruislip and Northwood, who is also leaving the House. I just want to place on record the Opposition’s appreciation for his work. In the short time that he has held this brief, he has immersed himself in it and has won the respect of Members on both sides of the Chamber. We wish him well and thank him for his service to date.
I am really grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I do not want to appear churlish, but in fact I am the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, although I am sure that the current Member for South Ruislip—the Prime Minister—will be grateful for the appreciation shown.
The central theme of this excellent debate was one of profound frustration at the state of democracy in Northern Ireland. This was reflected by the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State, who raised important issues about the quality of scrutiny available—a point reflected passionately on the DUP Benches, not least by the right hon. Members for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). My hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart, who I have heard speak passionately about his tour of Northern Ireland, again expressed frustration about direct rule. The Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Simon Hoare, spoke really well in warning against tolerance of a new norm around the listless process of decision making that we are in. That is not to denigrate in any way the hard work of civil servants in Northern Ireland. I could not have higher regard for David Sterling and his team there. They are in a very difficult situation and they do a difficult job.
In the time remaining, I should respond quickly to some specific and very important points, particularly around mitigation of welfare reforms, which was also touched on in oral questions. There is a significant issue approaching in terms of the so-called cliff edge in March 2020. That is a very serious matter, given that we are talking about mitigations that help to support many thousands of the most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland. There are powers available to the relevant Department, but they present administrative challenges and are sub-optimal as a response. The best response is through the law, and the best way of doing that is through the Northern Ireland Executive. I hope that the shadow Secretary of State heard the response of the Secretary of State and is willing to lean in on that.
One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the allocation of time motion, the Deputy Speaker put the Question (Order, this day).
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).