Northern Ireland Budget Bill

– in the House of Commons at 4:34 pm on 23 January 2023.

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Second Reading

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 4:38, 23 January 2023

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I begin by asking the leave of the House to take all stages of the Bill. The Secretary of State sends his apologies; I am pleased to say that he is enjoying a trip to the United States where he is representing Northern Ireland as he seeks to drum up business for local people.

Once again, I stand here with a strong sense of disappointment.  On Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said:

“No Northern Ireland Secretary would want to introduce a Bill of this nature.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2022; Vol. 723, c. 820.]

That sentiment very much applies again today.

The Government are bringing forward this legislation because the Northern Ireland parties have been unable to form an Executive and subsequently, therefore, to set a Budget. In the absence of an Executive, the Government stepped in to set a Budget, which the Secretary of State put before the House on 24 November last year. We are legislating for that Budget today.

Setting the Budget was not an easy task. Northern Ireland departmental Ministers were in post until 28 October, which meant we could take over only from that point. They had not been operating with confirmed spending limits and had not implemented plans to deal with their looming overspends.

Of course, pressures on Northern Ireland’s finances did not happen overnight. Successive former Executives also failed to put finances on a sustainable footing. As a result, the Government inherited a Budget halfway through the year with an overspend of some £660 million. That is unacceptable, and the unsustainability of Northern Ireland’s finances cannot continue.

Spending per head in Northern Ireland is already at the highest level of any region in the UK. Northern Ireland receives 21% more funding per head than the UK average and has received record levels of financial support. The difficulties that Northern Ireland Departments now face are the result of tough decisions not being taken by elected representatives in Northern Ireland, not just this year but in successive years before that.

Funding alone will not solve those issues. They need strong and responsible leadership by a stable, devolved Government.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the Minister for giving way, but I know that he will go down the predictable line that all this would be sorted out if we had an Executive. How does he juxtapose that with his comments on 23 October, when he made it clear that

“we will not have devolved government in Northern Ireland” until Unionist demands are met and the jurisdiction of EU Law comes to an end? Does he admit that the idea that the Executive will be a magic wand is a fallacy?

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

There is no question of admitting any kind of fallacy. What I was saying with the quote the hon. Gentleman referred to was really a reflection of the DUP’s position. In a sense, I am grateful for his party’s clarity about what it requires to go back into government. From my engagement with its voters in Northern Ireland, I think they know that a price is being paid by not having the Executive up. It would be churlish of me not to admit that those voters—it was a small section—wanted to pay that price, but others will be devastated by the consequences of not having the Executive up. It is only fair that I, as a Government Minister, reflect the full spectrum of opinion, and people in Northern Ireland very much want the Executive back and dealing with the issues before it.

As for a magic wand, I would be the first to admit that government is difficult, whoever is in power. All these decisions are difficult—they are difficult decisions in difficult times—and there is no question of a magic wand. However, everyone in this House is aware of the devolution settlement, and I am sure everyone here would want Northern Ireland Ministers to be taking decisions in an accountable way locally. However, there’s no question of a magic wand, and I would be the first to be realistic about the conditions the hon. Gentleman and his party have set out for going back into the Assembly.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I will give to Sammy Wilson and then to my hon. Friend Simon Hoare, but then I will try to make a bit of progress on the principles.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

I am glad the Minister accepts that there is no magic wand, but does he also accept that, given the nature of the Executive, which is a mandatory coalition, we have had a Sinn Féin Finance Minister, and no Sinn Féin Finance Minister has, I think, ever succeeded in presenting a Budget that other parties could support? That is one reason why we face the deficit that we have at the moment. Indeed, the restoration of the Executive would make things difficult, given that some Ministers do not even attempt to reflect the spending wishes of the other parties in the Executive.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The right hon. Gentleman makes some legitimate points. The particular point about mandatory coalition is of course an important part of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement strand 1, which we completely respect. We are open to hearing suggestions for institutional reform that will deliver more stable government. Members on the Opposition Benches will know the difficulties in reforming the institutions. The Government are clear that any conversation would need to be led by the political parties of Northern Ireland and would need, in the end, to enjoy cross-community consent to be viable.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

My hon. Friend will probably know that the Select Committee was in Northern Ireland last week. I think this endorses and underscores the point he was making a moment or so ago, as he might know about this. The elections were some while ago—an analogue time for a digital age, if you will—and we were hearing from both traditions and both communities a growing sense of worry and anxiety about the impact on the quality of life and on outcomes in health, education and housing for ordinary people in Northern Ireland, who look to their political leaders of all persuasions to deliver for them. There is a growing sense of real anxiety and disappointment that they are being let down yet again.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My hon. Friend is spot on in what he says. If the situation in Northern Ireland presented itself in Wycombe or anywhere else in Great Britain, there would be outrage. There is 21% higher spending per head than in the rest of the UK—that is not something I wish to repeat too often, in case it is noticed by my electors—with dreadful public services, as he points out, and a Budget that is not balanced, because of a failure to take important strategic decisions. As I will come on to, we are a number of years on from the Bengoa report, which said that there needed to be transformation to maximise the quality and quantity of Northern Ireland’s health services, and that transformation has not happened. The public are suffering the consequences today. Having said that, I will press forward.

The Budget position set out on 24 November was a difficult one, not unlike the Chancellor’s autumn statement in the weeks preceding it, but it is a fair outcome. We are acutely aware of the difficult decisions that now have to be taken in relation to health, education and right across the spectrum in Northern Ireland to live within the Budget.

In setting the Budget we are legislating for today, it is clear that action needs to be taken to get Northern Ireland’s finances under control and to deliver the much-needed and long-promised transformation of public services to which I referred earlier. Six years on from the Bengoa report, we are yet to see the Executive deliver the changes that are necessary. That work needs to happen now, but it requires leadership and strategic decisions that should rightly be taken by locally elected politicians in a new and functioning devolved Government. However, in the absence of that, this Government will take those steps necessary to maintain the delivery of vital public services and to protect Northern Ireland’s finances. Clearly, consideration will need to be given to a sustainable and strategic Budget for the financial year 2023-24.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

There are many aspects of Bengoa that could be implemented, but there is seemingly a reluctance to do so. Whether that be political within the Department or whatever, I would say that it is not just down to having no Ministers; aspects of Bengoa could be implemented through good management, which people have the authority to do, to move forward on some of the savings that can be made.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022, which we put through, gives civil servants the clarity they need to make certain decisions. We have put those officials in a difficult position to take those decisions, and I put on record now, since the hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity, my thanks to them for rising to the challenge and bearing with this difficult situation. I am grateful indeed that permanent secretaries and others are rising to the challenge of taking the decisions that need to be made, but it is obviously not desirable that we should be in this position. Ministers should be in post in Northern Ireland doing what needs to be done.

If the Executive are restored in time to set a Budget for next year, the UK Government will of course continue to work constructively with Executive Ministers on a sustainable Budget that delivers for the people of Northern Ireland and supports economic growth.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I will, but I will then be determined to make progress.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

I thank the Minister for giving way. He will appreciate that in other circumstances the Executive would normally now be considering the Budget for the coming financial year and that it is important to have certainty ahead of the start of a financial year so that decisions can be made, particularly in tough times. If the Executive are not restored very soon, in order to give some degree of certainty to Departments and related agencies, can the Minister give an assurance that the Government will act in the near future to put in place a framework not just for this year’s Budget legislation but for next year’s?

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I expect the hon. Gentleman knows that clauses 8 and 9 put in place a vote on account for next year. I will come to that as it is in my notes; if memory serves it covers 65% of the spending, but I will confirm that when I reach that section. That puts in place the spending for next year, but of course we would like the Executive to return to set the Budget for next year. If they do not return, we will have to do the job, and it will be tricky; there is no getting away from that. Without Northern Ireland Executive Ministers in place, it has not been possible to take the difficult political decisions necessary to balance the Budget at this very late stage in the year, and that of course compounds the problem for next year. It is with great sobriety that I stand here and acknowledge that it is going to be very difficult. I for one would be up for the challenge of doing it, but it is not the Government’s position that we as UK Government Ministers do that; we would like the Northern Ireland parties to step up to that duty.

If the Executive are not restored on time, we will continue to work with the Northern Ireland civil service to prepare for next year’s Budget. The Government’s priority for that Budget will be to deliver a fair outcome for all taxpayers and citizens in Northern Ireland. We will work to put Northern Ireland’s finances on a sustainable long-term footing, which means appropriate consideration of a wide range of options including revenue-raising measures, as well as reviewing all spending.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I will give way once more but then will give a Bill overview in the hope of making progress.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for giving way and respectfully say to him that I have a suggestion for saving money in the Department of Health. We all know that agency costs for employing nurses are sometimes 25% to 30% higher than the costs within the NHS system; the obvious solution is to employ more nurses in the NHS system in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that in order to make savings we should reinstate nurses who want to work and do away with agency staff whose costs are higher?

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, but I hope he will not mind my saying that today’s Bill is a technical Bill to put on a legal basis the written ministerial statement laid before the House last year, and I am reluctant to get into particular decisions. However, I think every Member of this House will know that agency staff are very expensive and it would be much more preferable to avoid their use.

I do not propose to waste the House’s time by going through every detail of every clause on Second Reading—I will come back to that in Committee—but in summarising the Bill I want first to thank Opposition Members, in particular those on the Front Benches, for the approach that they take to these matters. I know they do not hesitate to hold the Secretary of State and me to account, but equally when necessary measures need to be taken, they are constructive, for which I am grateful because this Bill is about making sure that public services can be provided in Northern Ireland.

The Bill will place the Budget that the Secretary of State outlined to the House in his written ministerial statement on 24 November 2022 on a legal footing. It will also allow Departments and other listed public bodies to continue to deliver public services into the first half of the 2023-24 financial year through a vote on account. I do not propose to repeat the contents of that written ministerial statement, which set out the respective allocations reflected in this Bill; what I will say is that those Budget allocations were developed as a result of extensive and sustained engagement with the Northern Ireland civil service. I want to thank again the Northern Ireland civil service, and indeed our own officials in the Northern Ireland Office, for working with great passion and at great pace to work through this Budget; it was inspirational to see and I am particularly grateful to our senior leadership team for the way it rose to the occasion.

The Secretary of State has met Sir Robert Chote, the chair of the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council, and has received a range of representations from public groups and individuals. We have prioritised spending in health and education, with an overarching objective of protecting the most vulnerable: this Budget increases education spending by just under £300 million and delivers a £786 million increase in non-covid-related health spending.

The challenges that all Departments now face are due to the repeated failure of previous Northern Ireland Executives to take strategic decisions to reform public services and deliver sustainable finances. When Ministers left office in October, the Department of Education, the Department of Health and several other Departments were set to overspend significantly, with no plan in place to address that. The best solution for Northern Ireland’s health, education and other public services is a functional and effective devolved Government taking much-needed decisions to place those public services on a sustainable footing.

Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Labour, Bristol South

Like many Members of this House, I will be immediately affected, through immediate family, by the Bill’s provisions on education and on health, with the collapse of a care contract in my family this year because of the lack of budgets in the voluntary sector. I am afraid that the Minister is speaking as if none of this were the Government’s fault. Although of course it is up to devolved Members to create an Assembly, over the past six years they have been unable to function as they would in Wycombe or Bristol because of the situation with Brexit, the discussions on the protocol and so on.

This afternoon’s debate is like living in some kind of fantasy land. That is not acceptable from the Government. The very least that they could do is advise us how quickly they will act to resolve the issues around the protocol so that the parties can get back around the table, because the two things are not separable.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I am grateful that the hon. Lady finished with an encouragement to resolve the issues in the protocol. I have to tell her that I think the sense among all parties at the moment—including the Government of Ireland, the parties represented here in the House, Ministers and the European Union—is that we all want a deal. We want to move on. We want a deal that respects the legitimate interests of Unionism, that keeps the whole UK together and out of the European Union, that respects the Acts of Union and so on. My sense is that through much-improved constructive relations between the UK and Ireland and the European Union, we may well be able to get a deal, but I have to say to people watching this debate that right now there is no deal on the table. There is a large gap to be bridged, and we are working intensively to do just that.

With respect to the hon. Lady’s earlier remarks, she knows as well as I do what the devolution settlement is. I can tell her that the responsibility that we bear certainly sits heavily on the shoulders not only of Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, but of our officials. She will know that our officials often have friends and family in Northern Ireland or who come from Northern Ireland; I am grateful that she acknowledges that. All those people, I dare say, will feel as acutely as she does the implications of the situations that she has set out. She will know that it is very difficult today to see a Government moving into direct rule. In the absence of direct rule, we simply must make progress on the protocol.

As we approach the anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, I really hope that this exchange will be heard in the European Union, because we all want to be able to celebrate that agreement and 25 years of peace—and to celebrate it with the Executive up and running. DUP Members have made it very clear what is on the table, and I think that it is a moment of considerable gravity for us all. But in terms of the real effects on everyday people in Northern Ireland: yes, I am acutely aware.

In conclusion, the Bill is essential to deliver spending for Northern Ireland Departments within the Budget limits that have been set. It will not be an easy task; it will take place in difficult circumstances. People in Northern Ireland rightly expect to see decisions being taken in Stormont, and I agree. Once again, I must state my continued disappointment that it is necessary for the Government to step in and legislate for this Budget, and once again I urge the Northern Ireland parties to find a way back to forming a Government. However, until a functioning Executive returns, the Bill will allow public services to continue functioning and help to protect public finances in Northern Ireland. I therefore commend it to the House.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 4:59, 23 January 2023

I thank the Minister for setting out the measures in the Bill. It is needed to allow public services to function in Northern Ireland and we on the Labour Benches will not oppose it. The Bill will not provide new money, but allow Departments and public bodies in Northern Ireland to spend within the limits set out by the Secretary of State in his written ministerial statement in November.

Once again, we are legislating on Northern Ireland budgetary matters here at Westminster. This is not a step that any of us would want to take. Unfortunately, in the time available to us today, we are not going to be able to scrutinise the Budget properly. One hundred and forty-eight pages of a supporting memorandum detail the decisions that the Secretary of State has made. The Government have rushed the Bill forward at such a pace that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has not been involved in pre-legislative scrutiny in the way it normally would.

The explanatory notes for the Bill state:

“As Northern Ireland Ministers remained in office until 28 October 2022, it was not possible for the UK Government to take steps to set a Budget before this date.”

I have sympathy for the Government here. It was right to prioritise trying to restore power sharing last year, instead of preparing for a prolonged absence. The last time Westminster took through a Budget for Northern Ireland was in 2019. Of course, at that time, the Executive collapsed for three years before the New Decade, New Approach agreement was reached. I hope that the Minister can update us today on the progress of negotiations on the protocol, which we hope will allow power sharing to return.

I am pleased that the Government have taken on board the Opposition’s ideas and that the Prime Minister has now finally visited Northern Ireland. We have now passed the latest deadline for the appointment of Ministers, and the Secretary of State has 12 weeks to decide whether he will call elections again.

There has recently been an abundance of optimism on the direction of the protocol negotiations—on which, I think, the Minister just poured a bit of cold water. We are now nearing the 25th anniversary. This is not just an issue within the United Kingdom; it is one that our allies around the world are looking at, particularly the United States and our friends and partners in the Irish Government, who are looking on closely. The clock, as we used to hear, is ticking. I hope that that cold water can be mopped up and we get back to the point where we not only have optimism in these negotiations but can —finally—get something across the line. We stand ready to support any deal that the Government strike that delivers in our national interests and for the people of Northern Ireland.

To return to the Bill, the Government previously said that the totals in the Budget are “difficult choices” that are the result of political failure. It is only fair that we put on record some of the reactions of stakeholders to the difficult choices that the Secretary of State has had to make. Paul Mac Flynn of the Nevin Economic Research Institute said:

“the UK government intend on contracting public spending in Northern Ireland and have no interest in understanding how that will impact on the delivery of services here”.

Last week, the leaders of seven bodies representing all schools and the four main Churches in Northern Ireland highlighted a similar concern. In a letter to the Secretary of State, they warned of

“a crisis in education funding” and requested a meeting. Let me remind the House that Education was the Department that the Secretary of State said would be required by the Budget to make

“significant reductions in current spending trajectory levels”.

Difficult choices have difficult consequences. It is the view of school leaders in Northern Ireland that

“Without question, reduction in funding and ongoing under investment will negatively impact the quality of education of every child and young person” living in Northern Ireland. We are reluctantly supporting the Bill, but it is right to highlight the real-world effects that these allocations will have. I hope that the Secretary of State will arrange a meeting to discuss the school leaders’ concerns.

The health service in Northern Ireland will also require more long-term thinking than is possible with this Budget. It is noticeable how little progress has been made since New Decade, New Approach promised to transform the healthcare service in Northern Ireland. Waiting lists in Northern Ireland are the worst in the United Kingdom. I was shocked by a recent report by Channel 4 which laid bare the experiences that patients are facing. Since 2011, the number of women in Northern Ireland who have had to wait more than two weeks to see a breast cancer consultant has risen 55-fold. Let me repeat that: it has risen 55-fold. In 2011, 10 patients a month would miss this target; now the figure is a staggering 569 every single month. In response to the report, the Northern Ireland Health Department said:

“In the absence of an agreed multi-year budget for health and a significant overspend for this year, the ability to strategically plan beyond 22/23 is extremely challenging.”

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk of the inability to set out multi-year plans. We were being told about that when the Committee was in Northern Ireland last week, in a range of different areas. This is the problem: without a functioning Executive, there cannot be that multi-year longer-term thinking. The Government are doing everything they can year on year, but that will not replace a strategy and a plan that would help women with breast cancer and help children to get a decent education.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am grateful for that intervention from the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and I am grateful for the fact that his Committee, or the majority of it, made it to Northern Ireland last week, while the shadow Foreign Secretary and I were snowed in. I know that some members of the Committee were struggling to get there. I am pleased that he did and that the Committee was able to complete its inquiries.

We have six hours of protected time here today, but it would take six hours to prosecute what landed us in this situation. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is correct —as is the Minister—to say that the best way to move forward from this particular moment in time is to have Stormont, and devolution, up and running, carrying out the required scrutiny of public services and with long-term strategic planning and political oversight and processes also up and running. However, I remind him and others, in fairness to those in the DUP, that they were raising these concerns about the protocol from a position within a devolved Administration long before they withdrew the Executive and then again failed to appoint a Speaker last year. There was a fantastic six-month window of opportunity in which to resolve these issues before the Executive collapsed, and that is the missed opportunity that has led us down the path on which we find ourselves today. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is correct to say that we need to get the institutions up and running, but I cannot forgive the negligence that allowed this state of affairs to emerge in the first place—and that negligence, I am afraid, started here, and in Whitehall and Downing Street.

This Bill will legally be considered a Northern Ireland Assembly Budget Act, but it serves only as a sticking plaster until the Assembly returns. If we keep passing Budgets for Northern Ireland in this way, the problems facing public services will keep building. We are also asking a huge amount of the civil servants in Northern Ireland who are now effectively running Departments. They are the ones who will have to make the choices about where the savings that this Budget requires can be found.

I want to raise the issue of education again, as it is the Northern Ireland Education Department of which this Budget is asking the most. I am sure that everyone here follows the reporting of BBC Northern Ireland. Last week, its education correspondent Robbie Meredith revealed that the Education Authority, the body that delivers school transport, meals, maintenance and support for special educational needs, is struggling to find £110 million of savings. In the authority’s view,

“The majority of the options available to save £110m in less than three months of the remaining current financial year would lead to highly unacceptable and detrimental risks to our children and young people and therefore could not be recommended for implementation.”

The fact that these discussions are happening behind closed doors and not receiving the attention they deserve from politicians shows that something has gone very wrong. It is my view that education is the greatest way of levelling up any part of our country, so any cuts should receive so much more scrutiny than is available here today.

To sum up, we need to accept the need for this Bill to allow public services to keep functioning for this present financial year. This process, however, is unsatisfactory for everybody across Northern Ireland. As the Secretary of State has said, he will start preparing a Budget for next year. I would welcome discussions with him about how to improve the scrutiny of taxpayers’ money. Of course, the best solution would be that Stormont is restored and that local representatives can agree on a Budget with political accountability. I would welcome an update from the Minister on progress on addressing the issues that are holding that back.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 5:10, 23 January 2023

It is a pleasure to follow the shadow Secretary of State, Peter Kyle. I think we could have waved at each other last week when he was trapped somewhere in Derry/Londonderry as we went over the hills to get there. At least we are all back safely and able to speak in this afternoon’s debate.

Here we go again. Once again, Northern Irish exceptionalism has to come into play and this place has to step in to fill a gap. My hon. Friend the Minister of State was absolutely right when he said that if this were the service being given to his or, indeed, my constituents in North Dorset, not only would questions be asked in the House, but there would be real and tangible anger. People would feel a sense of abandonment. I think there would also be a growing sense of, “We are the public and we need and want public service, but that can only be delivered at the political level. If the politicians we have do not want to do it, give us the opportunity and we will find some who will.”

There will always be ultras in this sort of debate. I well remember talking to an SNP friend from the 2015 intake when the price of oil was absolutely on the floor. I hope you will give me a moment to expand on this point, Madam Deputy Speaker, before you start wondering, “Where the hell is he going with this?” I said, “You must be rather pleased that Scotland decided to stay part of the United Kingdom in the referendum. We’re able to support you and so on because your income as an independent Scotland would have been down as a result of the collapse in oil prices.” A steely glint came into the eye of this person, who must remain nameless—and I can see a steely glint coming into the eye of Brendan O’Hara, who will speak on behalf of the SNP in this debate—and he said, “Simon, you’re right: the quality of public services would fall. Things would be difficult, and we would have to take difficult decisions, but we would be doing it with an independent Scottish people in an independent Scotland, and that is a price worth paying.”

There will be some who will always say that the price is worth paying—people whose fixed point of principle on one side or the other is so important to them that, no matter how much suffering and pain are occasioned, they believe that it is a price worth paying. I respect those two positions—we always have to have extremes in any debate—but I do detect, as I mentioned in my intervention on the Minister, a growing sense across the communities of Northern Ireland of real anger and disappointment at the failure of politicians to rise to the occasion and to deliver the public service that they expect.

The shadow Secretary of State was right to point out some of the problems that this process, by definition, generates in Northern Ireland. The Government are to be commended for bringing forward the Bill—a common sense act by a sensible Government. But the problem we are going to have—this has been tested in the courts—is that there will be huge reticence among the civil servants. I do not criticise civil servants for that in any way, shape or form, but they will only be able to deliver policies that have already been agreed. If they act ultra vires, there would be a problem because this has been tested in the courts and we know how they ruled on it. Moreover, some of these policies—not all of them—are analogue for a digital age. They do not reflect the cost of living crisis, energy costs and the increase in inflation. They do not reflect the need for fleet action to fill the gaps and address the problems created as a result of covid in education and health, although not exclusively those two things. We need a local Northern Ireland Budget set by Northern Irish politicians in Northern Ireland, reflective of and given cognisance to what they are hearing on their own doorsteps. This process, by its very definition, cannot meet that challenge.

I want to speak briefly about what we, as a Committee, heard from both sides of the community in our visit last week. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) referenced the very real concerns about the absence of a multi-year settlement. We heard from an organisation whose main funding was from the Northern Ireland Office and Stormont. The NIO part of its funding had been agreed and signed off—it knew it had it. It had no idea at all what it would get out of this budgetary process. No idea at all. Notices were going out to their paid staff to say, “We may have to make you redundant. We hope we won’t have to. We hope we will get the money, but we do not know.”

These are not institutions or organisations teaching origami, advanced flower arranging or contract bridge for the winter months. These are organisations that are stepping in for peace building and community building. They are community-led. They are working to help women who find themselves, as the BBC “Spotlight” programme showed, caught in a cycle of the cost of living, leading them to default to extortionist money lenders of the so-called paramilitaries, only to find they cannot pay the money back. They then have to resort to criminal behaviour, being forced to give sexual favours as payment in lieu or seeing their children brought into the ambit of influence of these paramilitaries as a way of paying off debt.

Those groups, which are so dependent upon the money that this Budget could provide and that Stormont could reflect, now find their work in jeopardy. I encourage female Members of this place to take a growing interest—I know many do, including the shadow Minister, Tonia Antoniazzi— in the impact of the budgetary pressures and other deficiencies in the delivery of public services for the women of Northern Ireland. I make no judgment on the merits, but this House has focused on that issue merely in access to abortion services.

There are a hell of a lot of other things going on—bad things—for the young women of Northern Ireland and, by definition, their young children. They look to those organisations to help them and to protect them, to help them be better parents and to keep their kids on the right path. I think we heard from every single organisation that we met—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon confirms that—the anxiety about the effect that this absolute abdication of the delivery of public service is having and will have.

My hon. Friend the Minister will also know of the potential poor budgetary settlement for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which will have ramifications across the whole of Northern Ireland. They need to do so much in order to build on those peace foundations laid 25 years ago by the Belfast-Good Friday agreement. They will have to make a choice. Everybody in this House will understand and readily applaud the determination to continue community policing. We all know the merits of good community policing in our own communities, and those are magnified still greater in Northern Ireland. But you will not be able to have good community policing and good criminal policing. Something will have to give. Ian Paisley was right to say that there is no magic wand, and Stormont would not, by itself, have the answer to all these problems, but—by God!—notwithstanding the absence of that magic wand, are not the people of Northern Ireland hampered yet further by not having in place MLAs who can take to officials and to debates what they hear on the doorsteps, or in their church halls?

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader

At the beginning of 2020, in “New Decade, New Approach”, the UK Government committed to addressing the issue of police numbers in Northern Ireland, and to helping the Northern Ireland Executive with the funding necessary. The Assembly and Executive were restored on that basis. From early 2020 until October 2022, the UK Government failed to deliver on their commitment. The Treasury would not provide additional funding to enable the recruitment of extra officers, despite that being an NDNA commitment. Does the Chairman of the Select Committee understand our frustration? We keep hearing that if we had the Assembly and the Executive back, we could address those issues, but there are many examples where that is not the case. Not least of those is the issue of the UK internal market and the protection of our place in it—another key part of NDNA that was not delivered. This Parliament and Government are not innocent when it comes to these issues.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

I very much agree, and I wrote to the PSNI only today, following our visit, asking it to put in writing in more detailed terms what we heard last week, so that the Select Committee and this place can better understand the implications of that for policing in all its guises. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that those on the Treasury Bench need to step up and honour the agreements reached in “New Decade, New Approach”.

I have always felt that the slight fault line is that when there is a problem or impasse, people say, “I know—we’ll have an agreement! It will promise almost all things to all people; there will be something in it for everybody.” Then they say, “But, you know, we didn’t really mean it. We were just using it as a device—a negotiation stepping stone to get us from one side of the river to another,” and, “Oh, you mean that we will be held accountable for delivering that?” I think in this instance they will be. The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues from across the parties in Northern Ireland need no lectures or lessons from me on the huge damage that would be done to community safety, and the criminality that would arise, if the PSNI was not functioning. He can rest assured that as soon as I receive that missive from the PSNI, either the Committee will look at the matter still further and go into detail on it, or I will raise the matter with the Treasury and the Secretary of State.

Let me conclude by picking up a thread from the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention—and this points to what was said by the hon. Member for North Antrim. There is no goose that lays golden eggs—we know that—and there is nobody who advocates for the speedy return of Stormont. Nobody is suggesting that that would solve all the problems of Northern Ireland. However, the fact that an organisation cannot do all the good, all the time, should not stop it from trying to do as much good as it can, as long as it is there to do it. That is the fundamental choice.

DUP Members are fed up, and they are fed up with me saying this—I will not even ask them to nod in support, because I know they are. They are nodding, but they do not even know what I am going to say. It is this: Members on the Treasury Bench have made the error of allowing issues and concerns about the protocol to be conflated with the delivery of functioning devolution. They are two very separate work streams. The protocol offends some in Northern Ireland, but the absence of Stormont affects all, and that is what we should be focused on.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara SNP Chief Whip 5:24, 23 January 2023

I will not detain the House very long, because there are many voices from Northern Ireland—those directly elected by the people of Northern Ireland—who need to be heard and should quite rightly be heard. It is a pleasure to follow Simon Hoare , who I think spoke for many when he said “Here we go again.” That must be the overwhelming sense of the people of Northern Ireland as well, who deserve so much better than they are being given.

I share the Minister’s frustration that it has come to this again, particularly when people are struggling to make ends meet and there is a cost of living crisis. People have to know, they have to be able to plan and they have to have a Government that plan. They need their Executive up and running as quickly as possible. Peter Kyle made that all too real when he brought up the statistics and talked about the health crisis in Northern Ireland, because that is the consequence of being unable to make multi-year decisions about how Northern Ireland goes forward.

The SNP supports this Bill. We regret the circumstances that have brought us here today, but we accept that it is necessary. Nevertheless, it is hugely disappointing that it has come to this and that this place is acting in the stead of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Having Stormont back working properly as soon as possible is in the interest of all the people of Northern Ireland, because there is no substitute for local people making local decisions. Let us be frank, with all due respect to my DUP colleagues, nobody knows better day to day what the people of Northern Ireland want and need than the local MLAs who have been elected and whose job it is to deliver on those priorities.

The people of Northern Ireland need the politicians they elected to the Assembly back at work as quickly as possible. That is why this Budget should not be set here—but while there is no functioning Assembly, this Bill, as I say, is better than nothing and in the absence of Stormont, we will support it. It is essential that those hard-working public servants get what they need to allow them to do their job and that the people of Northern Ireland get what they need.

From a Scottish perspective, it is absurd that we now have trade barriers not just with our European partners, but within the UK itself. Having been promised the “best of both worlds” by the former Prime Minister, we now appear to have the worst of all worlds. I speak particularly as the Member for Argyll and Bute with our fishing industry. We can see across the water to Northern Ireland and the fishing communities there; we share the same waters and we fish for the same catch, but we have completely different regulatory systems.

My communities have been—excuse the pun—battered by a double whammy of Brexit, which was totally mismanaged, and the choice the UK made to turn a blind eye to the inevitable problems that would be caused by Brexit to Northern Ireland. That has led us to where we are now. The passing of this Bill goes nowhere near resolving those problems, but it is necessary, and on that basis we shall support it.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit) 5:28, 23 January 2023

First, I too join the Minister in expressing sympathy on behalf of my party to Alex Easton, one of the MLAs for North Down, whose parents died tragically in a house fire today. Our thoughts and prayers are with him. He has lost both elderly parents today.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

Alex Easton lives in my North Down constituency and, to echo what the right hon. Gentleman has said, the community in Bangor is extremely shocked by what happened overnight. Regardless of politics, the entire community across Northern Ireland will want to give their full support to Alex and his family at this most difficult time.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

I am sure that feeling will be widespread across the constituency, as Alex—a former member of my party—is well known and loved there.

I share the Minister’s view on at least one point he made at the start of the debate—namely, I would have preferred it if this Budget had been discussed in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and if decisions about priorities and spending had been made there. Unfortunately, that has not been possible because the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot function, because the very basis of the Northern Ireland Assembly has been destroyed. The Assembly has to work on the basis of consensus, but that consensus has been destroyed by the protocol. We hear ad nauseum from Simon Hoare, who chairs the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, that we should all be back and we cannot have any more Northern Ireland exceptionalism, but Northern Ireland has been made exceptional by decisions that he has supported—namely, that Northern Ireland no longer remains fully part of the United Kingdom as a result of the protocol.

Furthermore, even though I, my party and our representatives, as Unionists, believe that the protocol is damaging to Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom and to our economy, had we been sitting in the Assembly today, we and our Ministers would have been required to implement the very thing that we say is damaging us, making us exceptional, removing us from the rest of the United Kingdom, causing huge economic burdens—I will mention some in a moment—and being a drain on the Northern Ireland Budget. Yes, we would like to see this legislation debated and these decisions made in the Assembly, but until the basis of the Assembly is restored—that is, until there is cross-community consent for decisions that have to be made—that will, sadly, not be possible and this House will be required to intervene.

It is quite right that the Minister has taken a decision. I do not criticise him for leaving it so late, because he could not have done it before. Indeed, this Budget crisis originated not in October last year, but at the very start of that year—ironically, when the Assembly was fully functioning, and we had a Finance Minister in place, an operating Executive and Ministers who could make decisions about priorities—when, for the second time, Sinn Féin failed to present a Budget that could have the support of any party in the Assembly. There have been only two Sinn Féin Finance Ministers, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir and Conor Murphy, and neither has ever been able to bring forward a successful Budget. There is this idea from the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that these things would be resolved if only the Assembly were functioning—but the Assembly was functioning, and this was not resolved.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

I understand why the right hon. Gentleman is trying to say what I said, but I am afraid he is missing the mark. What I actually said, if he had heard me, was that I appreciate entirely that a functioning Stormont would not be able to solve all the problems, but that surely solving some—or at least playing an active part in trying to solve some, even if they cannot do all—is better than nothing.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

For any problem to be resolved, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well, we need a Budget that Departments work from. The Northern Ireland Assembly has collapsed twice in the last four years. On both occasions, it collapsed without a Budget; that is a fact. It collapsed without a Budget because the Finance Minister could not present a Budget that people and other parties could sign up to. On both occasions, the Ministers responsible were Sinn Féin Ministers. All I am saying to the Chairman of the Select Committee is that we could not have had a functioning Assembly. Leaving aside the principle of consent, we could not have had a functioning Assembly because the Assembly did not have the authorisation to spend money on Departments because of the failure of Ministers.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

Of course, the right hon. Gentleman is a former Finance Minister, but we should not go into his record in that Department if we want to get through the day. He knows that I am no supporter of Sinn Féin, but has he noticed that Sinn Féin has said that it would take the Department for the Economy if an Executive were formed tomorrow? Given everything we have seen over the past 25 years, that would likely mean that the DUP would get the Department of Finance. Surely that is an incentive for the DUP to go back into government and put a Budget in place very quickly.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

I do not want to get into history, but I would point out that in the first year I was Finance Minister, we had a 5% cut in the Budget in the middle of the financial year as a result of decisions made here, and we agreed a Budget. Furthermore, we agreed a Budget not just for one year but for three years, so it is possible for the Assembly to make decisions. All I am saying is that, in its current form and with the current party holding the Department of Finance, that has not been possible. The point I am trying to make is that rather than lay the blame at the feet of the DUP for not operating an Executive—in which its views were excluded anyway—we should lay the blame for this situation at the feet of those who could not make an operable Budget even when the Executive was functioning.

Moving on to my second point, the Minister has made great play today of the fact that Northern Ireland gets treated more generously than the rest of the United Kingdom. I accept that, but so do Scotland and Wales. One of the important things about being part of the Union is that there are fiscal transfers from those parts of the country that have geographical, economic and infrastructure advantages that other parts do not have. I do not believe that it shows a begging-bowl mentality when people in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland—or indeed the north of England—say, “Look, there are parts of the country that are richer, but one of the benefits of being part of the Union is that those parts help the areas that are in difficulty.” Indeed, the Government’s own philosophy at the moment is what? To level up, and to accept that there is a responsibility to transfer resources to those areas that, for whatever reason, face disadvantages.

I would point out to the Minister that the increase in the money we have had to receive is partly due to the protocol, which his Government signed up to. There is nearly £500 million a year in the trader support scheme, as well as the resources behind the extra sanitary and phytosanitary checks—the people who have had to be employed, the computers that have had to be installed and the buildings that we now find are going to be built, but not as a result of a decision made by Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, because of course there could not be agreement on that.

Ministers at Westminster have now taken over the power to deliver at least a £47 million investment in border posts within our own country. There are questions—not for today, but at some other stage—about who authorised civil servants to start the work on those before Ministers in Westminster took responsibility, even though it was controversial. The Minister has talked about the difficulty of civil servants taking decisions, but it seems that when they want to, they can even make controversial decisions—decisions that split the United Kingdom and put border posts between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Nothing can be more controversial than that, yet civil servants seem to have been able to take those decisions.

The Bill allows Departments to spend until the end of this financial year, and then into the middle—I think it is June—of the next financial year. That is not unusual. Indeed, if the Assembly had been functioning, that power would have to have been given to give the Departments the ability to spend that money on account until the Budget was finally agreed—it usually was agreed, but it was not agreed in some cases—in the Assembly in June of this year.

There are aspects of the Budget that are particularly difficult: one, which has already been mentioned in interventions, is the expenditure on education. Once education and health are taken out of the Northern Ireland Budget, we do not have a great deal left, because they account for over 60% of spending between them. However, education has been specifically targeted by Ministers to face a reduction, even though education spending in Northern Ireland is at the lowest level per head in all parts of the United Kingdom. The difference between Northern Ireland and Scotland, for example, is £1,200 per pupil. I know that these things are not always solved by money: although Scotland has the highest level of expenditure per head when it comes to education spending on pupils, its outcomes are actually falling, so let us not imagine that there is a direct correlation all the time between spending money and getting outcomes.

I am sure the Minister will make the point that that is why it is important for Government Departments to make decisions about performance, efficiencies, productivity and so on. Some of the decisions that the Assembly has made have not been helpful in that regard. The Integrated Education Act (Northern Ireland) 2022, which was passed just before the Assembly collapsed, gives preference to one particular sector of the education system. I think that Act is going to make it much more difficult to rationalise education and, therefore, to ensure that money is better spent. While I do not want to go into the detail of the Act today, that is what the other sectors of education believe as well—that it is going to make that whole process of efficiency and spending in education more difficult than it is at present. Again, that is an example of where just having a devolved Administration, which should know local needs, does not always ensure that the most efficient decisions will be made.

On health, leaving aside the money that is spent directly from Westminster—annually managed expenditure —we are now spending nearly 45% of the total Budget that the Executive has to spend on health, yet outcomes are falling and waiting lists are increasing. I get letters from constituents and angry letters from doctors all the time, saying, “We need to spend more on health. We are under- resourced; we are underfunded.” I do not know how much of the Budget we can continue to take out and give to one particular sector—there are other areas, as Members have mentioned, including policing, infrastructure, education, universities, training, agriculture and industrial promotion. All those things are in competition, and we cannot simply say, “Here is one part of the Budget that we will keep pouring money into.”

Of course, as I mentioned, some money could be released for the trader support service and the other expenditure around the protocol—nearly half a billion pounds every year. As the Government now accept, the reason why that money is spent is that the protocol is such a big disadvantage and a burden on business that they need to help those businesses overcome the bureaucracy, and the barriers and impediments to trade between GB—our biggest market—and Northern Ireland.

The other point I wish to make on the Budget this afternoon is that when it comes to looking at priorities, even in the absence of devolution Ministers could do more to look at where we need to spend the money and direct civil servants. Despite what the Minister has said, civil servants now have the power to have greater flexibility in how money is spent. I know it is difficult for them and that some of those decisions are political, but there have already been political decisions made about the priorities that the previous Executive and the Assembly wanted. Surely those things should be guides to civil servants in making decisions about how money could be more effectively spent. As I have said, they make some controversial decisions in relation to the protocol, so there is no reason why we should not have tweaking of the Budget.

The last point I wish to—

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned this a couple of times and I mean to come to it as I close the debate. We have to insist that it is Ministers who decide, and officials who advise. He will know that the protocol is the responsibility of the Foreign Office. I am highly confident that Foreign Office Ministers will have taken a decision and taken responsibility for it. Of course, it is not Northern Ireland civil servants who are responsible on the protocol, but the Foreign Office. I want us to respect the fact that the Foreign Office is taking this matter very seriously.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

The point I was making—the Minister knows this, because we have raised it here on a number of occasions—is that the responsibility did lie with the Northern Ireland Executive. The Foreign Office did not like the decisions that Democratic Unionist party Ministers in the Executive made on the protocol infrastructure and only recently have taken over the responsibility to implement that. Even before that happened, civil servants—I do not know whether they did this at the prompting of officials or Ministers in the Foreign Office—were already making decisions about clearing sites in my constituency to build border posts.

The last point I would—

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader

Surely it is even more serious than that. The reality is that the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly are now in a position where they have to administer laws that are not even created by this Parliament, never mind by the Assembly itself. This applies in more than 300 areas of law; the way we administer, for example, our ability to trade with the rest of the UK is now determined by a foreign polity, the EU. It imposes laws on Northern Ireland, on which we have no say; there is no scrutiny and no accountability for those laws. So the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland is very real to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive and is one of the fundamental reasons why we do not have functioning political institutions, because our party is not prepared to tolerate a situation where we are treated like an EU colony.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

Until that situation is revolved, we are going to be faced with the kind of situation we are discussing today. What amazes me is that other parties in the Assembly, which equally will have no say on those laws, meekly accept those powers being taken from them and not being available to them. I have heard many debates in this Chamber about the Government snatching power from devolved Administrations on various Bills, yet we find that some parties in Northern Ireland are happily accepting that they should not have the ability to make decisions on matters that will greatly influence the lives of ordinary people.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

The point about the democratic deficit is important, as everybody would understand. Does the right hon. Gentleman share my understanding that both Westminster and the EU are very alert to this, and that the EU is keen to find ways, such as Norway has, whereby the views of directly elected Northern Irish politicians, business organisations and others will be taken into account and canvassed in order to shape rules, which may apply to businesses, standards or whatever it may happen to be within Northern Ireland? I appreciate that that does not hit the sweet spot that he would like to see, but we should all draw comfort from the fact that everybody recognises that there is an issue with the democratic deficit and that there are models whereby it can be addressed.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

I am amazed at the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. As far as I know, he is a member of the Conservative and Unionist party, and as a Unionist, he should be interested in that sweet spot. Simply to hand over power and then find some complicated mechanism to ensure that maybe someone’s voice is heard and considered, while laws from outside are still imposed in our country and a foreign court adjudicates on whether they have been applied properly, does not hit the sweet spot with me, and it should not hit the sweet spot with him; otherwise he should take “Unionist” out of the title of his party membership.

Let me make one last point, about the size of the Budget. Unless there is a radical movement in the EU’s position, the situation could continue for some time. It is important that Ministers consider some of the points that have been made by the education sector, especially in Northern Ireland. Youngsters have fallen behind as a result of covid, and have been locked out of schools. Many of them—and I know this from my own constituency—are youngsters who are most disadvantaged in education anyway, and there should be a discussion with the education sector about what can be done to introduce additional help, especially for youngsters who have fallen behind as a result of the covid closure of schools.

There will be further discussions after the Bill progresses, and I hope that many of the priorities articulated in the Chamber today will be considered. I understand that there are certain sides on a cake, but I do not believe that the cake is big enough. If we consider the existing pressures—teachers, wage increases for public servants, the cost of energy and so on—some of them are universal and apply across the board in the United Kingdom, but given the size of the public sector in Northern Ireland even a Barnett consequential does not fully compensate for the increase in costs that the Northern Ireland Administration faces. Those are the kind of issues on which I hope we can have continued discussion with the Minister in future.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle 5:52, 23 January 2023

I promise not to make as many final points as were made in the previous speech. Listening to some of the contributions, one would almost think that Brexit was a bad idea for the people of the north of Ireland, given all the consequences. We do not have any influence or representation any more in the European Union, and I could think of one or two ways in which we could remedy that.

At the last election, the Conservative party in Northern Ireland secured 0.03% of the vote, but today the Conservatives are setting a Budget for the Departments and the people of Northern Ireland. They are doing so because the Democratic Unionist party will not go into government and take control of the Department of Finance and set a Budget for the people of the north of Ireland. The argument from the DUP seems to be, “Sure, we can’t fix everything, even if we do go back into government. There is no magic wand.” As a harsh critic of the DUP-Sinn Féin Government over many years, I can say that it is impossible to fix everything—absolutely, Stormont could not fix everything, but it is the job of public representatives to roll their sleeves up, get in there and try. It is like a Pontius Pilate concert—“nothing to do with us”—with hands being washed all over the place. The reality is that a Budget has been set by the Conservative party, which has absolutely no support in Northern Ireland, because the DUP will not go into government, although it could go into government tomorrow morning if it wanted to.

The Minister—a man I often agree with—made a clear point: there is no connection whatsoever between the negotiations that are going on between the European Commission and the British Government and the formation of a Government in Northern Ireland to deal with the problems that we face. Anybody who says otherwise is lying to themselves. In my view, the issues around the protocol will be resolved, but it is vital that a core part of that resolution respects the fact that we now have a fantastic opportunity, because of the protocol, to trade into two markets unencumbered—an opportunity that no one else has. Indeed, the Secretary of State is in America right now, selling to American companies.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

We would not be where we are today if the DUP had not come out of the Assembly. Europe and everything else would have floated along quite happily and we would have been left to drift forever. We were told day in, day out, “We’re talking about this. We’re talking about that,” but we were getting nowhere. We had to do something, and this was the only opportunity.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we would not be where we are today were it not for the actions of the DUP. And where are we? We have people dying in their homes because ambulances are not coming in time. We have people on trolleys for over 24 hours in every hospital in Northern Ireland. We have an Education Department that is being cut to ribbons by this Budget. We have people from my constituency emigrating every day because they cannot find work. Will that all be solved by the Executive in the morning? No, it will not, but it is our job to try. That is the whole point of representative democracy. That is the whole point of devolution. That was the whole point of the Good Friday agreement—that people who disagree with each other can come together and thrash out agreements to get things done. It is difficult and it is tough, but it is what we are supposed to do.

I welcome the conversion of Sammy Wilson to levelling up areas that need it most. I will extend an invitation to him now to visit Foyle, because my experience of previous Executives is that they did not do an awful lot of levelling up there.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

The hon. Gentleman continually raises this issue—sometimes taking a whining approach as well—but under the Executive I remember money going to the airport at Londonderry, Altnagelvin hospital getting the cancer centre and money being allocated for the road from Londonderry—

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

I am thinking only of my own experience. Actually, the road was cut because the Irish Government said they were not going to make their contribution to it.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

It is interesting that people in Derry are entitled to some Government funding—thank you very much! My constituency has the highest unemployment, the highest claimant count and the highest household overcrowding, and it has five of the 10 most deprived areas in Northern Ireland. Maybe some work was done, and maybe some money was spent outside the Greater Belfast area, but it has not had the impact that some might claim.

If people think it is good enough or acceptable just to say that we will throw a few quid at people in Derry—people who have been left behind—after many decades, they are absolutely wrong. The New Decade, New Approach agreement was referenced earlier, and this Government have a responsibility for some of the commitments in it. I think of the expansion of Magee—there is still no funding for that from the Government. There is the Brandywell stadium—there is still no funding for that from the Government. And there is the Northlands addiction centre—we have had promise after promise, but the money is still not in a bank account.

Frankly, I find it difficult to watch people jumping up from their seats and giving excuse after excuse as to why it would not make any difference if we were in government, when people are literally dying on trolleys right now because they cannot get access to the health service. We are abdicating our responsibilities as elected representatives for the people.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader

The hon. Member consistently attacks the Democratic Unionist party, but might I remind him about the history of his own party? When people were dying on the streets of Northern Ireland in their thousands, his party refused to take its seats at Stormont and participate in a functioning Assembly for very many years. He will argue there were valid reasons for that, but he should at least respect that if we are going to sort out our problems in Northern Ireland, Unionists also have an entitlement and a right to have valid reasons not to participate in institutions when they feel that their rights have been undermined and diminished.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

That is astonishing, given the fact that we had the Sunningdale agreement, where we had people working in those institutions. They were brought down, frankly, by people associated with the right hon. Gentleman’s political party and other Unionists. That accusation thrown at the Social Democratic and Labour party for not wanting to make institutions work is coming from someone who walked away in the dying hours of the negotiations to bring about the Good Friday agreement. That agreement had to be brought about because the three strands—the three sets of relationships—had to be recognised. We could not have an internal settlement in Northern Ireland without north-south institutions and institutions that recognise the east-west dimensions to our relationships as well, and it is absolutely ridiculous to state otherwise. We now have people in the DUP using the Good Friday agreement as a reason why they cannot go back into government. It is absolutely astonishing, it is wrong and it is an attempt to pull the wool over people’s eyes.

We all, in all our communities and constituencies, should recognise that the European social fund, for example, has gone. That was £40 million into communities, supporting 1,700 jobs and activity right across every single community. The British Government are proposing to give us half of that back, even though they told us that we would not lose a single penny as a result of Brexit. That is 800 jobs in the community and voluntary sector gone. We have councils across Northern Ireland right now considering massive rates hikes, which will put more pressure on ratepayers and small businesses, and it will mean that workers in those small businesses, many of whom are already on the breadline, will lose their jobs.

We also have an opportunity missed today—I think Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson and every other political leader in Northern Ireland will agree with me on this, because they all signed a letter about it—to implement the organ donation law known as Dáithí’s law. The Government missed the opportunity, and I ask them to revisit that. The work done by young Dáithí, his whole family and the people around that campaign deserves support from this Government.

I also put on record my condolences to Alex Easton, his whole family and his family circle. It is an awful tragedy to happen to anyone, and I cannot imagine what that family is going through.

We have proposed a change to the rules around how a Speaker would be elected, which I think could get the Assembly back up and running and at least see Committees meeting. It will not see an Executive up and running, but that is down to a political decision by the DUP. The DUP tells us that the basis of the Assembly is consensus—well, not in my experience. I do not remember an awful lot of consensus in the Assembly in the nine years I was there. The principle of consent is the basis for the Good Friday agreement, and it is a very different thing.

I am saying, as an Irish nationalist who thinks that all these economic and social outcomes will be better in a new Ireland—I think we will get there sooner than some people think, and I thank some of the people sitting to my left for that—and who wants to bring about constitutional change, that the principle of consent is sacrosanct. It is not going anywhere, and it is not changing. This pretence that we have been taken out of the United Kingdom and nobody noticed is the basis of the boycott of the Executive, but I must have missed the victory party, if we are now all in a united Ireland. I did not notice.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

No, I am not being childish. The DUP’s argument is that this is a constitutional rupture and the people of Northern Ireland have been taken out of the United Kingdom. That has been said twice by DUP Members in this debate, and it is simply not true. If that is what they want to tell people, it is a very strange way of being a Unionist.

My view is that the Assembly is there to deal with all the problems we have in the health system and the education system. I want to see a united Ireland, and I will work to make that happen, but I have to convince enough people and we have to have a referendum, and that is when the principle of consent comes into play. The two things should not be conflated. A political decision has been made by the DUP, and there are consequences for it. My view is that the DUP has to own those consequences.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence) 6:04, 23 January 2023

As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, it is customary to say that it is a great pleasure to follow the previous speaker—in this case Colum Eastwood—so may I thank him for the comments that he made about Dáithí’s law, which makes that convention easier to abide by? I agree with him wholeheartedly, and I thank him for his sincere remarks about our former colleague Alex Easton, the independent Assembly Member for North Down. In such harrowing and tragic circumstances, those remarks will be appreciated by him and by all those around him.

I do not think that there is any need to delve into some of the squabbling of the past 10 minutes, but I place on record my appreciation for the comments of the shadow Secretary of State, Peter Kyle. He rightly identified the huge failure on the part of the Government to deal with or grasp the issues presented to them in the six months following the September 2021 speech at La Mon in which my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson outlined clearly, in intelligible terms that anyone could understand, how the protocol was fraying the strands of the Belfast agreement. The more those strands fray, the more likely it is that they will snap.

We should not need a history lesson in this Chamber to know that in New Decade, New Approach an agreement was struck that dealt not only with police officer numbers, but with the fact that Northern Ireland had been removed from the United Kingdom’s internal market. A commitment was given to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom’s internal market. If that commitment had been delivered, we would not be where we are today. If the warning that the shadow Secretary of State has highlighted had been heeded at that stage, steps would have been taken to ensure that we did not end up where we are today.

I had to smile when the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Simon Hoare, said that we get fed up with him. He then had more to say, but I agreed too early, so I apologise for that. However, he has stood at the vanguard of those who have dismissed and demeaned the legitimate political concerns that have been raised—not post the Northern Ireland protocol, but during its passage through this House and in all the tumultuous years that led up to that point. It was clear as day: we did not support it in October and November 2019, and we did not support it when we came back in January and February 2020.

It is clear as day that when Northern Ireland is removed from its integral place within the United Kingdom, without the consent of people in Northern Ireland; when a situation is created in which Northern Ireland Assembly Members are no longer able to vote, speak or shape laws that attach to trade; when a huge cost is placed on consumers across Northern Ireland and product choice and availability is removed; when there is an attempt to subvent that at a cost of £358 million over the past two years, or some £460,000 a day, for the trader support service in order to ameliorate the bureaucratic requirements associated with the protocol, with grace periods in place; and when people have the temerity to talk about a cost of living crisis, without recognising the huge costs placed on consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland because of decisions taken by this House, there is a problem.

I am extraordinarily sorry to say that this is the second time that as Members of Parliament here we are having to set a Budget for the people of Northern Ireland. That should not be the case. The issues should have been grappled with much earlier. The Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee indicated that civil servants cannot make decisions, but we passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022 in this House last year. Section 3 of that Act makes it very clear that civil servants are empowered to make a decision even when it has not been put to the Executive, if

“it is in the public interest”.

Am I suggesting that that is an ideal situation? No. Am I suggesting that it could not be better? No. Would we like to be in Stormont, shaping our own destiny? Absolutely we would, but we should not suggest, as has been suggested, that decisions of public importance on life-and-death issues—decisions that are in the public interest—should not or cannot be taken. They can.

That is why I have raised with the Minister of State, on a number of occasions, an issue around Grenfell cladding, as but one example. Claire Hanna will know that she benefited from Grenfell moneys in her constituency because a building there had an ACM cladding system. In my constituency, buildings have non-ACM cladding, for which the Executive have not yet created a scheme. I am not talking about money that the Executive need to get from Whitehall—they already have it. In March 2020, I got letter from the Finance Minister saying that the money had been reallocated because we did not have a scheme, and yet in one complex alone in my constituency there are 474 apartment owners who know that their building is made from materials that need to be remediated. They also know that, two years ago, the Executive got money from Whitehall to remediate that building. They cannot sell their properties. They cannot get an EWS1 form. They cannot borrow against their properties. They are stuck until the scheme is delivered. We are talking about remediating cladding that is a fire safety issue.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The hon. Member makes his point with great force on behalf of his many constituents. Since last week, when we met and discussed the subject and I wrote to him, my officials have confirmed with Northern Ireland civil servants that a scheme is under development. I know that he will continue to champion his constituents on this issue and I will continue to be in touch with the Northern Ireland civil service on this point. Obviously, we do need to see progress on that.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

I thank the Minister. I appreciated the correspondence, which he copied to colleagues as well, and I appreciate him looking at this. The scheme that was referred to his officials has been under development for well over 12 months now. The scheme envisages a Whitehall Department—it will remain nameless—which is already administering the scheme in England, administering the scheme on our behalf in Northern Ireland as well. Yet, even though we passed legislation in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022 last autumn, officials are still suggesting that, when the scheme is developed, they cannot do anything because they need the Executive to agree it. I was grateful for the clarity in that legislation last autumn that that is not the case and that it need not be the case. It is in the public interest that officials should advance that in the absence of functioning institutions at Stormont.

I raise that as just one discrete issue to highlight how things must move on. Policies must progress. When money has been attributed by Westminster to Northern Ireland for that specific purpose, when the Executive have accepted that there needs to be a scheme, and when there is a blatant need for people who are trapped in their homes or for fear of fire safety issues, it needs to happen.

I mentioned that this is the second time that we have considered a Budget Bill in this place. I want us to cast our minds back to the last process. In that, the Treasury started off with the new regional rate for Northern Ireland at something extraordinarily ridiculous like 18%. I see that one official who was scarred by that process has returned for a second go. However, 18% was absurd. We had to engage significantly with the Treasury on that. In those discussions with the then right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, now Lord Hammond, it was clear—this is the importance for this debate—that we cannot just keep on with the same funding system for Northern Ireland. I invite the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to have an inquiry on that specific point.

There is absolutely no point in either today setting a Budget and thinking things will get better tomorrow or establishing an Executive and believing that it will all be okay. The Northern Ireland funding system does not work. The Northern Ireland funding system will only get worse. The Minister enjoyed saying that Northern Ireland gets a 21% premium above his constituents in Wycombe, but if we are honest about the figures, his constituents are outbid by a 30% premium for households in London, 20% for those in the north-east of England and 20% for those in the north-west of England. All those individuals do better in funding per household than the affluent south-east of England.

Northern Ireland has a disproportionately larger public sector, even though it has a smaller population, because there needs to be a critical mass to provide services. We have higher levels of deprivation; the hon. Member for Foyle mentioned it, and parts of my constituency, west Belfast and other urban environments are in exactly the same position. Rural deprivation is also disproportionately higher than in other parts of the United Kingdom. That all goes back to the Barnett formula from 1979; the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee should grasp the issue. When we engaged with the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, there was a recognition of that, but if someone were to ask the Treasury today whether there is a problem with how Northern Ireland is funded, it does not seem to have any legacy knowledge of that discussion.

Importantly, it was agreed in New Decade, New Approach that a Northern Ireland Fiscal Council would be established to consider how Northern Ireland is funded and the sustainability of our funding system. That has been established and it has published incisive reports that are ignored. If they are not ignored, they are picked up only because people are interested in newsworthy items about Brexit or about the potential for water charges. People are missing the core element of those reports, which is the recognition that, if we do not systematically change how Northern Ireland is funded, the situation will only get worse.

In January 2023, the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council considered the long-term projections for the Northern Ireland block grant. It was 29% of the premium that we received in the 1970s and it has fallen sharply since.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

If the hon. Member would like to set out in a short email or letter to the Committee the scope of the inquiry that he envisages and the reasons that underpin it, I will take that to Committee colleagues in the not-too-distant future and see what, if any, progress we can make on it, because he makes a valid point.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

It is what is known as the Barnett squeeze: it started off at 29%, it was 25% in 2002 with the Northern Ireland Executive, and it is currently sitting at 21%. Over the next 50 years, it will be 6%. That 6% higher sounds great, but it is not when we assess the relative need of people in Northern Ireland and the disproportionately higher level of public services. The pay parity issue in 2019 and 2020, when nurses went on strike for the first time in the UK in Northern Ireland, illustrates the point entirely: pay awards were being agreed in England, but the funding was not being sent to Northern Ireland to pay nurses the money that they deserve.

In September, the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council was as clear as it could be when it said that, by 2030, Northern Ireland will have public spending below relative need. The tensions we hear about today, and the pain we experience in individual aspects of public services, indicate that we are quickly getting to the point where we cannot provide the public services that people in Northern Ireland need at the funding levels that we have. In the next spending cycle from 2022 to 2025, Northern Ireland will see a 3.6% increase in spending, but in England, there will be a 6% increase. The squeeze will get worse.

I say all that not to be boring—I do not like economics; I do not find it that interesting—but because it is crucial. In Northern Ireland, the headlines will be, “Parliament rushes through a Budget Bill.” The Bill is a snapshot in time that crystallises what has happened over the last 10 months, determines what will happen for the rest of the financial year and sets out projections for the next six months. It misses the fundamental point, however, that unless there is a total and earnest recalibration of how Northern Ireland is funded, the situation can and will only get worse. With or without an Executive, and with or without a protocol, this will only get worse, and public services in Northern Ireland will stall. They will stall and get to a point where it is irretrievable. As an elected representative who believes in raising issues that are of huge importance to the people I have the privilege of representing, I cannot let this evening pass without raising those fundamental issues.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 6:20, 23 January 2023

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson on this matter. At the outset of my speech, I also refer to the very kind comments made about our colleague Alex Easton. In the course of today’s events, he has sent a little text message thanking colleagues for their kind messages. The unbreakable heartache he must be going through will be unfathomable to most, and we leave him in the care and grace of his God and saviour at this time.

Turning to the less solemn issue of the Budget in Northern Ireland, which this House is passing, I chided the Minister earlier that no doubt he would say that, if we had a functioning Executive up and running in Northern Ireland, the Budget at Westminster would not be necessary and everything would be much better. Legislating for the Northern Ireland Budget Bill at Westminster is of course a mark of the failure of the Government to create the conditions to help restore the Executive. The Democratic Unionist party cannot do that on its own, despite the childish comments from some that, if the DUP just got over the protocol, this thing would be sorted out. If it were that easy, most of us agree it would have been sorted out, but it is not, because there is a problem here that has to be addressed.

It is now two years since the protocol came into effect and the Government have still failed to fix the problem of the protocol. I remember the first debate in the House back in the new year, in January, after the protocol had come into effect. I said then that within a week it was clear that the operation of the protocol would be an unmitigated disaster for Northern Ireland and we should move immediately to trigger article 16. I was told that that was premature and, “Don’t be silly, that cannot be the case.”

It has taken two years for the penny to drop. Among the architects of the protocol, even Leo Varadkar in recent days has indicated his regrets at signing up to it. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was in the House at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee today and again said that this matter has to be resolved. Thankfully, the chorus has started to change. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East is right to single out the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Kyle, for, I think for the first time from the Dispatch Box, making it clear that Unionists have actually got a point here, and sooner or later that point has to be addressed.

Six months after I gave my comments in 2020, in a Command Paper, the Government accepted that the

“combination of serious economic and societal difficulties, along with the obvious diversion of trade, would justify” triggering article 16. That was 18 months ago. We are in what is called the can-kicking phase of the protocol’s existence, with the can just being kicked down the road and nothing actually being done, when all the evidence clearly suggests things should have been done years ago. They were flagged up. There was no excuse not to do them—they were flagged up and should have been done years ago.

A further year on, with no substantive action having been taken and following the understandable and inevitable collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive, the Government introduced the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, claiming the legal justification of necessity. In international law, the doctrine of necessity requires “grave and imminent” peril, yet a further six months and more have passed and the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill appears to be stalled in the other House.

I know the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, and indeed others, want the DUP to put hope over bitter experience and take this Government on trust and restore the Executive before the protocol has been fixed, but the Minister of State will know that it is not going to happen. I have referred to his comments on 23 October when he set the standard; it is a very good and high standard and it has to be met. The Government have got to deal with Unionist demands on the protocol. Those are not just my words but the Minister’s words, and I appreciate his echoing them. There is no point in the Government’s complaining about legislation for a Northern Ireland Budget in this House given that they have failed to address the problems of the protocol over the past two years, when they have had ample opportunity to do so. I hope they will address them now.

I do not criticise the Government for legislating on this matter. I want His Majesty's Government to govern. I do not want them to manage; I do not want them to hold the ring until something better comes along. There will be things with which I disagree and there will be things that I oppose, but it is the Government’s job to govern for our region of the United Kingdom when devolution is not in operation. I therefore do not criticise the Bill on that point of principle, but I believe it has taken far too long for the Government to act, and as a result the public sector finances in Northern Ireland have continued to deteriorate. We need to address that as a matter of urgency.

The options do not get any better if the inevitable is delayed. The time and the personal political credibility of the Government were wasted when they were playing around saying that there would be another election. That was the time for them to act immediately. They should have acted when the leader of my party pulled the First Minister out of government, but it is not a matter of 20 days or so but a year since that happened. The Government have had a year in which to do something about this, not just since the election but well in advance of it. A great deal of time was wasted over that year when the Government were not grappling with the issue.

As my colleagues have already pointed out, devolution of itself does not generate money, with the exception of the rate take. It is important to guard against the idea that an Executive would be an answer to many of the serious challenges faced by public finances. That is not abrogating responsibility; it is a statement of fact. We should not pretend that the Executive is a solution to all our problems. The mere fact that devolution does not produce money is one indication of that. Ironically, spending in Northern Ireland will probably be higher this year in the absence of an Executive—because the Secretary of State was able to secure flexibility from the Treasury—than it would have been if the Executive had been in place. This comes at the cost of next year’s Budget, which I think will be a worry for many people.

There are three points that I want to leave with the Minister. First, the Budget does not deliver on NDNA commitments. As some of my colleagues have already observed, NDNA spelt out the need for a sufficient increase in resources to allow the number of police officers to rise to 7,500, but the Budget does absolutely nothing to achieve that. In passing the cultural legislation, the Government placed reliance on the purported implementation of the NDNA agreement, but the Budget flies in the face of that approach when it comes to policing, which is something that will affect everyone in Northern Ireland.

Secondly, the Budget fails the children of Northern Ireland. It is one thing to set a challenging Budget at the beginning of a financial year, but it is quite inappropriate to impose damaging and undeliverable cuts in the final months. I think that all Northern Ireland Members—and, I hope, the Government—have received copies of a letter that was sent jointly and uniquely, for the first time, by the chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the chief executive of the Controlled Schools’ Support Council, a chief executive in the Irish sector, the chief executive of the Catholic Schools’ Trustee Service, the chief executive of the Governing Bodies Association Northern Ireland, the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, and the chairperson of the Transferor Representatives Council. That letter spells out very clearly that the authors

“question the lack of parity” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. They ask:

“Why is the education of a young person in NI valued less than those in England, Scotland and Wales?”

My right hon. Friend Sammy Wilson went into that in some depth. He has significant knowledge, having for a long period headed the section that set the exams in Northern Ireland. I am delighted for Scottish kids. They get the equivalent of £7,600 per pupil. In Wales it is about £6,600, and here in England it is £6,700. Northern Ireland gets £6,400. There is a significant decrease in the moneys available to help children in Northern Ireland, and that crisis is not addressed by the Budget that this House and this Government are presenting to us this evening.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

To add to that, I outlined the difficulties of the squeeze over the next three financial years, which will see £2,000 taken from the spend of every household in Northern Ireland. That is almost 10% in public spending off every household in Northern Ireland over the next three years.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank my hon. Friend for putting that on the record. It is clear that this Budget and the squeeze that he identified—set by this House—leaves the Northern Ireland education system facing a funding crisis that will affect every child and young person, not just this year and next year but for years to come.

The third point I want to leave with the Minister is that this Budget makes next year’s Budget even more difficult. I touched on that in my earlier comments on being able to get money out of the Treasury. Though it was not highlighted in the Secretary of State’s November statement, this Budget is balanced only by robbing from next year’s Budget. That will make it even more difficult for any new Executive to agree a Budget, given the cost of living crisis and wage pressures. In the absence of reforms or additional funding, it is difficult to see how next year’s Budget will be credible at all.

At the outset of his comments the Minister thanked the various permanent secretaries in Northern Ireland for taking on a very difficult task. It should be pointed out that the various permanent secretaries in Northern Ireland have described this Budget as grotesque. They are not happy being left to carry the can. We find ourselves in a constitutional netherworld where the Secretary of State dips in and out of devolved responsibilities formally and informally in a manner that is frankly unacceptable. That has been referred to by former senior civil servants as an affront to the democratic process.

Although Parliament has the right to legislate for Northern Ireland in the devolved field, it is only in very narrow and carefully defined circumstances that it has the power to take executive decisions. We have seen the Government taking legal powers to intervene in areas such as abortion law and the implementation of the protocol, but not to tackle hospital waiting lists or Dáithí’s law, as raised by Colum Eastwood, to allow Northern Ireland’s new organ donation laws to take effect.

Many will question the political morality of the choices that the Government have made and the right to do that, but it is equally unacceptable, in the absence of direct rule, for the Minister to make Northern Ireland civil servants answerable to him. Direct rule is a legitimate choice for the Government to make in the absence of devolution. It is not a choice that we are asking them to make, but indirect rule where the Secretary of State seeks to wield power without taking responsibility is not acceptable. It puts civil servants in an intolerable position. They are expected to make the cuts but do not have the authority to bring forward the reforms. I go back to my first point to the Minister: govern, do not manage. That is the job and that is what should be done. I hope that the Government will act now. There is an old saying that if you break it, you fix it.

By signing up to the protocol, the Government broke the institutions first created by the Belfast agreement. Rather than asking Unionists in Northern Ireland to do the politically impossible, the Government should face up to their own responsibilities. The Budget will pass this House tonight, but very soon the constitutional no man’s land must come to an end. Either the Government should fix the protocol so that new arrangements can be supported by Unionists as well as nationalists, or they should take responsibility for decision making in Northern Ireland in a way in which they can be held accountable properly and thoroughly by this House.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down 6:34, 23 January 2023

The Bill is essentially about giving legal effect to the Budget policy statements and the allocations made by the Secretary of State back in November. In practical terms, there is relatively little that we can do retrospectively tonight about what has already happened, but this is an opportunity to make wider points about funding, and to look ahead.

These decisions come late in the financial year, and in the absence of a formal Budget statement from a devolved Executive, bodies are essentially operating in a vacuum. That has led to some very unfortunate overspends, and has inhibited the capacity of Departments and agencies to plan ahead properly, and to use their scarce resources with maximum efficiency and effectiveness. That has real-life consequences. It is certainly my contention that having an Executive very much matters to the wellbeing of those in Northern Ireland, and to our finances. The notion that it does not really matter whether we have an Executive is a major fallacy.

Obviously, the lack of an Executive is linked to the protocol. I promised myself that I would not mention the protocol, but as it has come up, I will make a few comments on it. My party recognises that the protocol brings a degree of economic friction. It creates a new interface within these islands, and it interferes with some sense of identity in Unionism. We recognise the problems of the protocol, but my frustration is that people charged ahead with Brexit without really considering the implications for a shared, interdependent Northern Ireland, but we are where we are. As for the way forward, we want a pragmatic solution. If we turn the protocol into a constitutional test, I fear that we will not find a way forward. For us, the key issue is maintaining dual market access—access to both the wider UK market and the European Union market. There has to be some recognition that that means adherence to certain aspects of EU law and ultimately, in some respects, being in the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That aside, we are extremely open-minded about where we go; as long as solutions are mutually agreed with the European Union, legal, sustainable in the long term, and work for the business community, we will give any outcome a warm welcome.

There has been reference made to the moneys involved in the trader support service. I would rather that the money was not spent on it, but it is recognised that the money does not come from our block grant; it is money that the UK Government are spending, so there is not a trade-off between that spending and what we can do ourselves in Northern Ireland.

There are clear implications for Northern Ireland from the current lack of a budgetary framework, most particularly for health. Night after night, healthcare professionals call for an Executive to be put in place to provide a framework for decisions. Everyone recognises that there is no silver bullet, and no magic money tree, but an Executive would at least provide a framework for decisions to be taken, and provide for some degree of planning, which is crucial when resources are scarce.

Reference was made to education, and the almost impossible task of finding £100 million of savings with two months to go in the financial year. I am the first to recognise that there are massive inefficiencies in our education budget, but they should be unlocked over time. Finding those savings in a short period will not work at all.

In a different universe, a devolved Executive would continue to function in Northern Ireland, and it would now be considering its Budget policy for 2023-24, rather than tidying up the end of 2022-23. Indeed, the 2023-24 Budget would be part of a multi-year Budget that allowed for longer-term planning and clarity on available resources. Furthermore, that Budget could be linked to a programme for Government, and fully aligned with a range of strategic objectives for the transformation of Northern Ireland. That alignment is highly desirable at the best of times, but is absolutely essential at times of financial stress and struggle. There is a clear example in the Department of Health, in which we all recognise that there has to be some degree of transformation. In particular, we need to invest in building up certain staff teams, to tackle the issue of waiting lists. However, if the Departments and the trusts are only getting their allocations quite late in the year and do not even know what they will get next year, they do not have the confidence and clarity to make those investments. That is just one example of a massive opportunity cost in not tackling those waiting lists, which I stress are the worst in the United Kingdom: we hear a lot about the health crisis across the UK, but on all those indicators, Northern Ireland is that bit worse.

While this Bill does include a vote on account, which allows Departments to spend legally at the beginning of the incoming financial year, it does not give clarity on what they will have to spend over that 12 months, so they cannot make longer-term allocations or plan properly. We need to see a Budget decision-making process for the next financial year, taken—preferably—by a functioning Executive that is restored in the near future, or by the Government, if they have to do that instead. That has massive implications for where we are going and for our governance, but at some point we have to recognise that that is the price we pay for not having functioning devolution, to provide some degree of certainty for those in our public services who are trying to do their best on behalf of all the people of Northern Ireland.

I tend to agree with the Minister that previous Executives have squandered opportunities to reform our public services, but that is not the entire story. It is also important to recognise that, as Gavin Robinson has set out, the size of our block grant in Northern Ireland is set to be squeezed in real terms over the years ahead, not only through the Barnett squeeze, but due to the fact that our basic allocation is being reduced because—for reasons that I will not labour at this stage—the wider UK public finances are in a difficult situation. We heard announcements from the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the autumn about how that would be managed over the coming years, but we are part of that wider framework and suffer as a consequence.

While recognising that our finances are unsustainable, I will highlight one area that my party has been keen to stress: Northern Ireland is wasting a lot of resources, which could otherwise be spent on investing in our economy and improving public services, on managing a divided society. There are many good reasons to overcome the segregation and division and to build a shared and integrated society, but finance must be one of them. Various estimates and reports over the past years have put the cost of trying to manage a divided society at between £400 million and £800 million per annum. That comes with major opportunity costs, as I have said.

Those costs occur in four particular areas. First, there are the direct costs of policing riots, other civil disturbances and parades, distortions to policing from the security threat and repairing damaged buildings and facilities. Secondly, there are costs associated with the duplication of goods, facilities and services implicitly for separate sections of our community. That includes most clearly what happens with schools in different sectors, but also the spatial distribution of GP surgeries, jobcentres, community centres and leisure centres.

Thirdly, there are hidden costs, which impact on the environment in which Departments and agencies operate and include pressures on the housing sector, for example, from demographic imbalances and a sense of territory, with various implications for people’s mobility depending on where they are housed. Fourthly, there are lost opportunities for economic activity and tax revenue and for investment in tourism and job creation.

Beyond those costs, there is a compelling case for transforming health. The Northern Ireland Fiscal Council produced a useful report on that in the past year, which people should read and consider. Obviously Northern Ireland has higher health needs than other parts of the UK, so health spending will always be higher in Northern Ireland than elsewhere, but none the less the report points to inefficiencies in how our health sector is run and operated. There is a challenge for a returning Executive to genuinely tackle that and, in doing so, to improve health outcomes. This is not about cuts for the sake of cuts; it has to be about rebalancing how we spend our Budgets to get better outcomes.

Another clear example is the scandal of double funding between schools and further education, which amounts to scores of millions of pounds every year. Given that Northern Ireland does not have a proper 14-to-19 framework, we end up with schools trying to retain pupils post-16 by offering a whole range of vocational courses, even though the further education system is a much better place to offer such courses. Schools also get two years’ worth of funding per student in years 13 and 14, but if a student is not performing sufficiently well in the school’s eyes, they are asked to leave rather than stay and bring the school’s results down in the artificial league tables, so they end up going into the FE sector and effectively repeating a year. That is just one example of money needlessly being spent when it could be better invested elsewhere.

My wider fear is that public finances in Northern Ireland are on a burning platform. Some retired civil servants have talked openly about the fact that £1 billion-worth of pressure is building up in the system, but our Budgets are shrinking and the longer-term trajectory is smaller, smaller, smaller. Without the time, space and opportunity to reform and transform, all we will see is cuts, cuts, cuts. That means that we will end up with worse health and education systems, we will not invest in skills and, indeed, we will not meet our obligations to invest to mitigate climate change. What we will see, essentially, is managed decline and stagnation, and that simply lets Northern Ireland down.

We have to find some means of breaking this vicious cycle. I know that we have had past packages in relation to Stormont House, including Fresh Start and New Decade, New Approach. Some very searching questions and challenges have to be raised as to why those have not been properly addressed and why promises have not been fully delivered. I am not directing that at the Government; the question why that has not been the case is also one for the Northern Ireland parties. I appreciate that there will be a certain degree of scepticism in the Treasury whenever I say this, but I do not think we have any alternative but to think through how we can talk about the development of a longer-term plan for Northern Ireland, involving a restored Executive and the Treasury, and how over the next five to 10 years we can make Northern Ireland a financially sustainable society and, in the process, improve our public services and economy.

I am conscious that we are coming up to the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement in a couple of months. That agreement has transformed Northern Ireland in many respects and we are very grateful for that, notwithstanding the current problems and controversies. Many people have reflected on the fact that perhaps Northern Ireland has not been transformed fully in terms of social and economic opportunities and in terms of investments. People are talking about looking forward to some form of prosperity decade; we need to think about that.

There is an opportunity, if we can get ourselves past the immediate blockages, for the Government, the parties and a restored Executive to try to work in partnership to hammer out some sort of plan and break the cycle. I believe that there is a compelling overarching argument for doing that. I am keen for myself and others to elaborate on that over the coming weeks, and it is important that we use tonight as an opportunity to set out our initial thoughts on the potential way ahead. This will be based on investing to save; we cannot unlock and change Northern Ireland without some investment coming in from the outside. Others will be entitled to hold us to account for all of that. With that cheery thought on what could be an exciting future for us if we can get past the hurdles, I will end my comments.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann 6:49, 23 January 2023

It is a matter of deep regret that this Budget must be brought through this House and not the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. As a devolutionist party, we in the DUP strongly believe that the budgetary process in Northern Ireland ought to be put forward by those elected to make decisions and provide local scrutiny and accountability, yet we are in what can only be described as a very serious situation, which is not helped by the ongoing denial of its gravity by Members of this House. In this debate, we have heard the naive and rather vacuous posturing of some Members across the House who have laid the responsibility for the institutions not being operational at the door of my party and called for the immediate restoration of Stormont.

Let me make one thing clear: we are in this unsatisfactory situation because of the decisions made by this Government. We are in this position because the party of government decided that its unity, as it imploded over Brexit, was more important than the economic and constitutional unity of the United Kingdom, and Ministers openly admit that.

The Government know that this situation is of their making. The leader of my party, my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson, in trying his utmost to avoid this situation, gave the Government and the EU ample time and opportunity to find a new way forward that would command the consent of the Unionist community, and in doing so restore the foundations on which power sharing is built. Members know that until that consent is in place, there will be no restoration and no Stormont Budgets. It is time for people to get real about the magnitude of the situation and the urgency for new, comprehensive solutions to be found.

There is another reason that the Bill is before us today. We ought not forget that the Budget process in Northern Ireland started in October 2021, and in the time and space that my party provided for solutions to the protocol, there was ample time for the then Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, to prepare a Budget agreement, yet he failed to set a Budget and we are now reaping the consequences. His approach to setting a Budget was to promise millions when the coffers were empty. When Sinn Féin was peddling fallacies, the black hole in our Budget was getting darker.

Let me home in on the figures and how the Government are approaching allocations, starting with allocations to the Department of Health. The Secretary of State has aggressively pursued the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland, as was evidenced by the consultation held by his predecessor, Brandon Lewis, during his time as Secretary of State; yet while local health trusts are being compelled to provide these services, no additional money has been provided for them to do so.

Instead, with A&E departments overwhelmed with pressures to the point of complete meltdown, with a lack of care packages available across Northern Ireland to help people return home safely and free up capacity in hospitals, and with children enduring appalling waiting lists for speech and language therapy, for instance, to unlock their participation in this world, we now have the additional pressure of providing abortion services within existing budgets. There is no local mandate, no local scrutiny and no local accountability for that decision. I ask the Minister to advise which service currently provided by our crumbling health service ought to be cut to provide that service. Perhaps in his winding-up remarks, he can outline which service he would cut.

Let me turn to concerns about our education system. For too long, our schoolchildren have been the poor relation in terms of spend per pupil in the UK, and this Budget outlines a continuation of that disparity. I see no justification for funding inequality. Surely the education of a child in Banbridge, Portadown or Lurgan is of equal value to that of a child in Banbury or Portsmouth. We hear a lot from this Government about levelling up; surely it is time for levelling up in our classrooms. Our education system simply cannot take ongoing underinvestment, as has been made abundantly clear to the Government by the Education Authority and various school bodies. That issue has been much discussed today.

Since Stormont has been in abeyance, the Government have legislated to spend what limited resources are available to provide unwanted abortion services and unnecessary cultural and language provision that will cost millions, at a time when our schools are running deeper deficits, our healthcare system is in need of emergency care, and our households are set to face huge hikes in household rates. Of course, an even greater cost is the unnecessary and seemingly bottomless pit of money that is being made available to support the functioning of the Northern Ireland protocol. The Treasury has confirmed that the trader support service, which helps companies deal with the paperwork generated by the protocol, has cost the taxpayer £318 million in just over two years. That is £436,000 per day, or £18,000 per hour.

That £436,000 per day could employ 10 highly experienced nurses for a year. The protocol paperwork costs the salary of 10 highly experienced nurses every day—it is really important that we stress that point. That is 7,300 nurses. How transformative that money could be for schools, hospitals and roads in Northern Ireland, rather than facilitating an unnecessary border that divides Northern Ireland off from the rest of the UK. It is time for this Government to find real solutions to the protocol, so that we once again see decisions such as these taken and scrutinised by locally elected politicians, held accountable by local people.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport) 6:56, 23 January 2023

There is a programme on Radio 4 that I listen to from time to time called “Just a Minute”. To be honest, Mr Deputy Speaker, you are going to get a little bit of hesitation, repetition and deviation this evening—you have already had quite a bit of them so far.

Mention has been made of the costs of the Northern Ireland protocol to the block grant—of the moneys that are having to be spent out of the public purse to fund a system that has been imposed upon the people of Northern Ireland by not only this Government, but Europe, trying to protect what they want—but little mention has been made of the costs of the protocol to the businesses that are trying to operate in such a bureaucratic system. Many of them have had to change their axis of trade from buying goods in the United Kingdom to buying them from the Republic of Ireland, with all goods coming in through the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland. There has been a marked increase in direct trade between the Republic of Ireland and France, to such a degree that a number of additional ships have been put on, direct from the Republic to Cherbourg in France.

That change has had a marked effect on businesses in Northern Ireland, but it is also affecting businesses on the GB mainland, many of which have come to the conclusion that the bureaucracy involved in implementing the trade agreement that we supposedly have is causing such a problem that it is not worth their while trading with other businesses in Northern Ireland. That is something that needs to be recognised. I have been contacted by businesses that are based in Conservative Members’ constituencies, saying that they cannot supply Northern Ireland. They are having difficulties not just because of the cost to them, but because of the hassle they have with the likes of the trader support service.

Mention has been made of how much that service has cost to date, but that is only one aspect of it. There is also the enforcement section, with millions of pounds involved in that. There is the digital assistance scheme, and the millions that are involved in bringing that forward. In total, the costs are £530 million. That is the figure to date, not to the end of the financial year; that is not the projected figure through to March. As has been outlined, that money could be spent very effectively within our civil service—I am using the overall name of the civil service, which includes all Government Departments. Efficiencies probably need to be found—let us be truthful about that. We are not working with a bottomless pit. Everyone seems to think we have a money tree, but it does not exist. Unfortunately, with this Chancellor and some of the decisions that have been made lately some people are starting to think that it does. As a consequence, the Government will never be thanked for what they have done and what they have given. Let us be honest: they are going to be punished by the public, who seem to listen to a narrative that is, “Give us more because we need it all.” This is not going to work out beneficially.

Mention has been made of moneys that are within the current overspend within Departments. We heard that there was a projected overspend of £660 million, but that was drawn back and it ended up at £330 million. I am glad to hear it has been reduced to that amount, but it is important to note that that £330 million will come out of next year’s Budget, to balance the books. That area needs to be considered. Those who have not been acting within the parameters of the budgets that were set or are supposedly to be set have allowed overspends, which are going to have to be met. My hon. Friend Carla Lockhart alluded to the fact that we had no Budgets being brought forward and agreed. We could have been dealing with this matter whereby all Departments or all parties had looked at a Budget that they had agreed to, but unfortunately that is not the case.

I think about what is actually happening. Many people talk about the block grant but they keep forgetting about AME—annually managed expenditure—funding, which comes directly to pay for budgets such as those relating to those on benefits and to pensions. All aspects relating to those who have retired from the civil service are receiving funding topped up by AME funding and those who are living on benefits are getting AME funding. That is an area where we do not look at the overall Budget. I will give a clear example: people who are waiting for an operation. In the UK and in Northern Ireland, people wait for a hip replacement but it might be sitting years down the line. By the time they get their hip replacement, they have lost their job, are living off benefits and are at an age where they cannot get back into work. Several other European countries adopt a very different angle in funding towards their health system, in that if people cannot get their operation, the Health Department will pay their wages. Sometimes that might wake people up to doing something about it. Ultimately, we put everything into silos instead of looking at the overall picture.

The rebalancing of our budgets is an area we really should be focusing on and ensuring that we do it correctly. My hon. Friend Jim Shannon mentioned the agency nursing aspect. That is one area within health where we are burning money and we are not getting the outcomes for it. That is not just a Northern Ireland issue; it needs to be grasped on a UK-wide basis to ensure that we are getting bang for our buck. The waiting lists are growing, yet we are spending more of our money. We are spending more of our block grant on health and the outcomes are worse, so something is seriously wrong. It is not just Bengoa that is the problem, because the same problems exist in mainland GB as are happening in Northern Ireland.

We will support this Bill this evening, on the basis that we know it allows spending to go forward for next year. There was a change in the Bill to allow for a figure of up to 95%; it used to be that we had to make a judgment where we were allowed to spend up to 60% within a small period of time. Within the Bill a provision has been included to allow us to spend up to 95%—more than £17.4 billion—of the existing Budget at the present time. That is something we need to look at, because I for one do not believe that we will have an Assembly set up before March in time to put in place a Budget for next year. I think that we will be back here discussing the Budget in this House, because unless the protocol is resolved, we will not be back in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

There is no point in trying to beat us up and saying that we will be brought to another election, although we were threatened with that. I am getting the clear message that that is not going to resolve all our problems. Everyone thinks that it is a wand that can be waved and that everything will be hunky-dory as soon as the Assembly and the Executive are brought back, but we cannot and will not be going back in. The Chair of the Northern Ireland Committee talked about why we came out of the Executive, but in fact there was no movement before we came out. Everyone was telling us that this was like the laws of the Medes and Persians and that not one jot or tittle could be changed, but I can hear different messages coming out today. I hear those who were the greatest advocates of driving forward the protocol and of its rigorous implementation now saying, “Well, maybe we got that wrong; maybe we do need to make some changes.” This is not just about change; we want our constitutional position within the United Kingdom single market to be retained, and not to be protecting the single market of the EU or to be subject to the European Court of Justice. That is the message that must go forward, because this debate should not be happening here. If all those things had been addressed, this Budget would have been addressed in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South 7:06, 23 January 2023

Like other Members, I regret that we are considering this Bill in this place in this way. I regret the lack of scrutiny, innovation and imagination that can come from Budgets being done in this way, and I regret the lack of shame from some about the collective failure that we are again foisting on the people of the region. There is definitely a sense of “same stuff, different day”, because it is worth saying that the way public spending is overseen in Northern Ireland is nearly always convoluted and untransparent. I joined the Finance Committee in Stormont in 2016, and when I was trying to get my head around the process I think had to go seven or eight years back to find a textbook Budget year. The process is so far from transparent as to put people off even understanding what we are doing.

It is also worth saying that this is not a Budget in the way people would understand the use of that term, in that it is not a list of political priorities. Again, that is increasing the cynicism among citizens about our ability to spend on things that matter to them and our ability to address the short-termism and the ingrained lack of responsibility-taking that unfortunately characterises Stormont for many people. Nowhere is that clearer than in health, where many years of this sort of stop-start governance and can-kicking has left that service and the people who deliver it for us in a really parlous state.

No party is without fault in that regard, but the two largest parties deserve the most opprobrium for walking off and staying off the job in late 2016 after the Bengoa report created a little bit of shared purpose and the little bit of hope that we could possibly reform services. What we are doing instead is allowing little bits of the national health service to fall down one by one, bringing all of the downsides of reform and none of the upsides. Just one example of that is the closure of a rehabilitation ward at Whiteabbey Hospital. It is a successful rehabilitation facility and it makes no clinical sense to remove it; its closure will send patient blockages back up the system for each one of those beds that is not reopened due to a lack of decision making. As well as the failures in those people’s lives and the pressures that that builds in the staff who are delivering the services, it will make it harder to achieve buy-in and confidence in health reform in subsequent years when we finally get back to working properly, because people associate the reforms only with closures and not with the enhanced services that they can bring. We know that there are challenges across the services, including waiting lists. Yes, people have said that they are bad everywhere, but they are far worse in Northern Ireland. GP services are facing an existential crisis, and deepening levels of mental ill health are engulfing many parts of the service.

We know that it is not just in health that we are failing people. If the climate targets that we finally agreed in the dying days of the last Assembly are not mainstreamed and given effect through Budgets and plans, they are not going to mean anything. The labour shortages that employers across Northern Ireland are facing are not going to be mitigated by, for example, parents, and particularly women, coming back to work, because there are no Ministers in place to finally get a grip of childcare. Adults with some vulnerabilities but who have plenty of ability to work will no longer be supported by the many European social fund projects. They will fall by the wayside in a crude Darwinian process that seems to be happening at the moment. Projects are failing, and we will have to see which ones survive. Without ministerial intervention, we will keep exporting thousands of students because of a cap on numbers, to say nothing of the challenges in schools that many colleagues have raised.

Gavin Robinson touched on an issue that underpins all of this. As I say, yes, I am prepared to share the responsibility of failures over decades of devolution, but we cannot ignore the austerity that has been imposed on Northern Ireland, as on other regions, over the past decade and a half. No one pretends that devolution is perfect, but we have to —and our party certainly does—imagine a much better way to run our public services than being dependent on a little bit of a hand-out and being tethered to a vision of an economy that is related to Brexit, deregulation and threadbare public services. The SDLP does not believe that it has to be that way, even when we are operating within devolution. The Chairman of the Select Committee, Simon Hoare, said that it was our job to do the bits that we could. To paraphrase Wesley: “You do all the things you can in the places you can for as long as you can.” It is probably simpler than that. Woody Allen said that 80% of success is just about turning up, and that is something that devolution is failing to do.

The SDLP has tried to make the constitutional set-up work, and will continue to do so, but it is not the limit of our ambition. Members have given all the reasons why devolution cannot work. They have mentioned the trader support service and the cost that that imposes on the Budget—not the Northern Ireland Budget, but the Budget from the Treasury. That is another cost of Brexit, but they fail to mention the £1.3 billion in increased exports from Northern Ireland to the Republic that have been achieved as a result of the protocol. We would want to caution them: if you take away even the status quo, even the possibility of cut-and-paste devolution in the UK, you have to be aware that people will look at other ways to meet their basic needs. As I have said many times before, and as Hume said, if you ask for all or nothing in governance, you often end up as nothing. We are prepared to work with anyone who will work with us to try to make some lemonade out of the Brexit lemons that we have been handed. There are opportunities and options, and there is space for compromise, both in the EU-UK talks and in the Executive when we finally have Members there.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

We come to the last Back-Bench contribution, from Mr Shannon.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 7:14, 23 January 2023

The good book says that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, so I am happy to speak, whenever it may be—and in this House that is nearly always last. However, that does not take away from my comments, and it is a real pleasure to add some Strangford commitments and comments in relation to this essential Bill.

The difficulty with the Budget is not a new problem, and it is not a DUP problem, despite what has been said by some colleagues in this place and in the media. The problem is that the then Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, was unable to find agreement within the Executive. He was unable to do so not simply because the funding was tight, but because he was allocating it to political aspiration projects, rather than to nurses, postal and health workers, and teachers in the classroom.

We all understand that money is tighter than it has ever been, and we cannot ignore that. I have constituents who have trained for eight years or longer to get their early years qualifications, only to learn that their 17-year-old daughter can work for Lidl and get paid more than them. Sometimes it is hard to understand how that works— a person trains, qualifies and does well, but they get less than their daughter.

It is tough for these people to make ends meet, and they are having to cut their cloth to suit them. We have to do the same, but the first cut must not be to our schools, and I commend the shadow Minister, Peter Kyle, for saying that. Many others have latched on to that—in fairness, the Minister of State referred to it as well—but it is a massive issue. Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis shows that, since 2009-10, spending per pupil has been consistently highest in Scotland and lowest in Northern Ireland. In 2021-22, spending per pupil was estimated to be £7,600 per pupil in Scotland, but only £6,400 in Northern Ireland. What is the reason for that?

The additional funding in the Chancellor’s autumn statement is restoring pupil spending to 2010 levels in real terms, yet under the Barnett consequential we are not able to do the same in Northern Ireland. How is that appropriate? Why does wee Rosie Murray in my constituency deserve £1,200 less in educational support than her cousin, wee Rosie Murray in Glasgow? She does not, and she must not be discriminated against because of her nationality. The disparity is quite clear; there is something wrong with the system. My hon. Friend Gavin Robinson was here earlier, and he referred to Northern Ireland’s Barnett consequential reducing almost every year.

I have had representations from all education sectors—from the controlled sector as well as the Catholic maintained sector—begging me to make it clear that the Budget must not be used as a whipping post for political gain. Our children have not yet recovered from covid closures, and now their education and their future are at risk of being sacrificed due to the refusal of the EU to do the right thing and the refusal of this House to take the EU on. I am a great believer in the idea that money spent on education and children today is money well spent on giving them a chance tomorrow.

I could find an easy way to cut costs without affecting quality of life or increasing the price of goods: do away with the protocol. We cannot ignore the fact that the protocol costs so much, and if those moneys from the Treasury were spent in Northern Ireland, they would make a big difference.

I received an email only this morning from a local supplier who asked me to make this comment. He is being chased by His Majesty's Revenue and Customs for the duty costs of purchasing artificial flowers from a supplier on the mainland—that is an extra cost because of the Northern Ireland protocol—and I do not mean mainland China; I am talking about a company based not too far from this House. Members should let that sink in for a second. The protocol, which gives no accountability, no representation and no benefit to Northern Ireland constituents, ensures that the flowers my constituent buys cannot be sold at £1 a bunch, as they are here, to lay on a grave, but cost £1.25—a 25% charge because he is from Northern Ireland. The protocol means not only that excise duty paid in the UK costs the customer more, but that HMRC spends man-hours chasing up bills that should not be in place and never should be paid.

Where can we get the moneys from? Everybody has referred to that issue. We in the DUP have an opinion, and others have too. That brings us to the trader support service, which deals with the costs and the customs. The cost of the TSS was estimated at £340 million until the end of 2022, with another £113 million for 2023, giving a grand total £453 million up to the end of this year—or approximately half a billion, to round it off. Those are the savings that could be made, and they could have an incredible impact on health, education and prosperity in Northern Ireland. Nor do the figures take account of the additional money that our businesses are spending on trying to do the right thing, the cost of which naturally has to be passed to the customer. It is little wonder that local businesses are unable to put their wages up to help their staff; they themselves are barely surviving.

Approximately half a billion pounds could easily be saved in the Budget by doing what this House promised: passing a Bill to deal with the protocol. What a difference half a billion pounds could make to education or to the NHS. Perhaps it would allow our nurses to be paid the same as the mainland nurses. What possible justification is there for cutting NHS budgets and education spending when we seem happy to throw money away for no purpose other than to facilitate the EU’s grudge against us?

What has been the total cost to the public purse of recruiting and training veterinarians to fulfil the requirements of the Northern Ireland protocol since 1 January 2020? That is another cost of the Northern Ireland protocol that does not need to be paid—another potential saving for Northern Ireland. The Government say that

DAERA reported in August 2022 that a total of £15.3 million capital, £16.4 million resource and £1.7 million depreciation has been expended on the provision of the infrastructure, IT systems and personnel for the work necessary to carry out the required SPS checks at Northern Ireland’s Points of Entry as a result of the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”

Again, those are savings that we could make and that we could use for the benefit of Northern Ireland.

That is not even the full picture. As we are not implementing the full scheme, the costs will be even greater. These millions could already have made a difference. We could have provided support to farmers to buy new, more efficient and eco-friendly farming aids with all the money from that scheme, the digital assistance scheme, the mutual enforcement scheme and the scheme for temporary agri-food movements to Northern Ireland—all schemes that are at best unnecessary and at worst morally wrong and divisive.

Last week, with my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East and other representatives, I had a Zoom meeting with Roisin Coulter of the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, who outlined very clearly what the costs and impacts on health services will be. As the shadow Secretary of State said, cancer waiting lists are the worst in the whole of Europe; Roisin outlined that point last week and told us that waiting lists for cancer services are the longest that they have ever been. She also referred to other health issues.

We recognise clearly that something needs to be done about pressures on A&E. In my intervention on the Minister of State, I mentioned agency staff, who cost 30% more than nurses on the equivalent pay grade. We should be employing more nurses and paying them the correct wage: that would be cheaper than paying agency staff, and it is something that I would particularly like to see if at all possible.

To those who point to this restrictive Budget as the DUP’s punishment for obeying the clearly held view of the people of Northern Ireland, I say this: we will be in our seats within a day of the protocol being eradicated and reason and common sense prevailing. We will be in our seats, taking our positions to make tough decisions as soon as we can do so, but that will not happen until the Government and the EU come to a decision that satisfies the tests that we have set out. Those tests are not the result of obstinacy or political point scoring; they are tests that the people we represent have told us, through wide-ranging engagement, are the red lines for Unionism.

Sir William Cash has referred to this: the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is sitting in the House of Lords like the Mary Celeste—it seems to have got lost there. We need it to come back from the House of Lords so that we can move it forward.

Colum Eastwood referred to Dáithí’s law, which I fully support. I have always supported the organ donation opt-out process: I supported and sponsored the private Member’s Bill about it that the then Member for Coventry North West promoted in this House, and I supported the proposal back home. Others whom I know quite well did not support it then, but they all do today, which is good to see. If we can pass the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act 2022 and the abortion legislation in this House, we can do it for Dáithí’s law as well. I urge the Government to grasp that; perhaps the Minister can give us some indication.

Those who consider overriding democracy and the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, and allocating positions to those who will take their seats, do so in the knowledge that they are saying that Unionists have no place in Northern Ireland and that democracy is dead. Be mindful of the statements made which will be deadly serious in Northern Ireland. For some in this Chamber, Unionism may be nothing more than a pain, but we have a mandate and our people have spoken. The requirements from this place are clear and simple, and must take place soon.

I understand that we are here under protest to decide on something that we did not want to decide on, because the Assembly should be doing it, but if this place has to decide, let us ensure that it does so equally and fairly. If laws can be brought in for other things, they can be brought in for that. Savings can and should be made.

Photo of Tonia Antoniazzi Tonia Antoniazzi Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Opposition Whip (Commons) 7:25, 23 January 2023

I send prayers and condolences on my behalf and that of the Labour party to Alex Easton MLA, his family and friends, and the community of Bangor. I also take the opportunity to welcome a new life, as Doug Beattie is now a grandfather. I welcome his granddaughter Skyler to the world.

As my hon. Friend Peter Kyle said, we will support the Bill so that public services in Northern Ireland can continue to function. Although we recognise the need to pass these measures, the lack of scrutiny time afforded to them cannot be the new norm. If the continued absence of a functioning Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland causes more matters that should be before Stormont to be discussed here, the Government must outline how they will ensure that there are opportunities for proper scrutiny and how they will involve voters in Northern Ireland, whose voices have been diminished through political failures.

As many hon. Members have said, I hope that this is the last time that we will need to discuss what should be devolved business in the Chamber. Although I welcome the Government outlining progress on the protocol negotiations, I urge them to share with the House progress on the negotiations as soon as possible.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State has included ringfenced funds for abortion services within the Bill to ensure that women have access to essential healthcare, but I share the concerns of clinicians and patients that women’s healthcare in Northern Ireland is falling by the wayside. Northern Ireland has the longest NHS waiting lists for gynaecological care in the United Kingdom, which forces many women to seek private healthcare to receive treatment for conditions such as endometriosis, which causes debilitating pain and can affect fertility. Even women who reach the top of the waiting list in Northern Ireland cannot access the same expertise as other women across the UK, because there is currently no fully British Society for Gynaecological Endoscopy-accredited endometriosis specialist centre in Northern Ireland, but there should be.

Unfortunately, that is not a unique situation, as we have heard. The Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee rightly raised the concerns of organisations with a lack of funding to support women in Northern Ireland. He knows that I am a doughty campaigner for the rights and protections of women in my constituency and in Northern Ireland. I have visited Belfast and Lisburn Women’s Aid and spoken at its conference, and I fought for the homeless services for women in Belfast to be retained. I have also spoken to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Informing Choices NI, Amnesty International and others.

What all those issues have in common is that they are a result of political failure, which requires political solutions to solve it. I recognise the work of civil servants in Northern Ireland in ensuring that public services have continued in the absence of the Executive, but it is neither fair nor appropriate that decisions on the allocation of budgets and the priorities of public spending are made by those civil servants. When services are already falling so far behind acceptable standards, to seek simply to keep things running represents a grotesque abdication of responsibilities from political leaders. While we support this Bill, I will finish my words there.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 7:30, 23 January 2023

With the leave of the House, I am glad to respond to the debate.

First and foremost, I join other hon. Members in offering condolences to Alex Easton, whose parents Alec and Ann tragically died in a fire in Bangor earlier today. I know the whole House will want to put on record our shared sorrow at this news, and to thank the emergency services who attended. At the same time, I am delighted to congratulate Doug Beattie on the birth of his granddaughter Skyler. I am sure we will be able to find a couple of copies of Hansard to send on to the families.

I am grateful to the Opposition for their comments; When opening the debate Peter Kyle said that we were right to prioritise restoring power, and I am grateful to him for that. He asked for an update on the negotiation, which I will give in a moment. We are all agreed that Stormont should be restored—I think that has been a universal theme. The Secretary of State and I have met a wide range of stakeholders and, though of course we are in an undesirable position, we are confident that we have listened to a range of views as we have participated in reaching these decisions with Northern Ireland’s civil service.

Turning to the protocol, as hon. Members know, it has always been our preference to resolve the issues through talks. The Foreign Secretary and Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič speak regularly and Government officials have technical talks. The Foreign Secretary and Vice-President Šefčovič spoke on Monday 16 January and have agreed that rapid scoping work should continue, which we are very pleased about.

We welcome the agreement reached recently on the EU’s access to UK IT systems that provide live information about what goods are moving across from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. That agreement has provided a new basis for further constructive discussions with the EU to come to a negotiated solution on the protocol. We are of course proceeding with legislation, but I would like to take a moment to elaborate on the situation we face.

It is sometimes impressed upon me by some of the harder-line Unionist commentators that we should simply tear up the protocol. I am not sure what political world they think we operate in—I am not talking about Members of this House, but some individuals outside it. The world is rather more complicated than that. Ministers do not have unfettered power to tear up treaties, nor should they. That is why we proceed with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.

On the point about border posts, the reality is that we are in the happy position where legitimate interests on both sides are now being recognised: the legitimate interests of the EU and Ireland to have their market protected—that is what the border posts are for, even in the circumstances that the Protocol Bill has to become an Act and be used—and the legitimate interests of Unionism and Unionists. I put on record my heartfelt thanks to the present Taoiseach, Mr Varadkar; I know I will not be thanked by some Unionists for that, but he has had the statesmanship to move his position and recognise the legitimate interests of Unionism. I am grateful to see Opposition Members nodding; it is very good news.

Given the position we are in, where we are very willing to recognise the legitimate concerns of the EU and Ireland and they are increasingly willing to recognise the legitimate concerns of Unionism, this is a moment when we ought not to goad one another. I have fought hard enough in this place over Brexit, but we are tantalisingly close to recognising that we are friends and partners and that we can look after one another’s interests and go forward in the spirit of goodwill.

I encourage everyone, rather than rehearsing the arguments and grievances of the past, to look to a future that is tantalisingly close to being very positive, with a deal that we can all accept. With that in mind, I want to say gently to those of us who fought for Brexit, those of us who are Unionists, that when a deal comes—I do believe it is when, but there is a lot to be done—if that deal is acceptable to the Eurosceptic cause and to Unionism, we are all going to have to sell it to people. It will be no good to just denounce border infrastructure, which is there for the red lane, to protect the interests of the EU. Denouncing what has been done, when we have the green lane and arrangements for unfettered access within the UK, will not be enough. I mean that most sincerely, because if one thing has come home hard, even now—I think I have always known it, given when I joined the Royal Air Force—it is that even after 25 years of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement giving us some welcome peace, the politics of Northern Ireland, as hon. Members from Northern Ireland know better than me, is not to be taken for granted.

The politics of Northern Ireland is a grave thing; too many graves. That has been realised across the European Union. People realise that it is a post-conflict society with, as we have heard, an enforced coalition between the two poles of debate on the pre-eminent constitutional question that caused the conflict, so things are not to be taken lightly. That is why I am happy to put on record my admiration for the current Taoiseach and his predecessor, Mr Martin, with whom I get on well. I look forward to meeting Mr Varadkar. On the protocol, we are tantalisingly close to a success of which we can all be proud and then move on. Let none of us do anything to spoil the prospects of that success.

I turn to the overall points made about spending. Notwithstanding what was said about the Barnett formula and so on, which we support, it must be said that per head public spending in Northern Ireland is the highest of any region of the UK at 21% per head more than the UK average. The Northern Ireland block grant is at record levels, averaging some £15 billion a year over the next three years. On top of that, if we look at the new deal for Northern Ireland at £400 million, city deals at £617 million, the New Decade, New Approach financial package at £2 billion and the forthcoming Peace Plus at £730 million, that adds up to about £3.5 billion of extra funding. That is reflective of Northern Ireland’s special status. But it cannot really be said that Northern Ireland is in any sense neglected.

I will make three points about the process by which we came to the Budget. First, it has been drawn up as a result of intensive engagement between our officials and the Northern Ireland civil service. We are grateful to officials on all sides. The Government have also taken on board many representations that we received in correspondence and in person.

Secondly, I stress again that we believe this overall Budget is a fair and appropriate settlement that reflects the key pressures facing Northern Ireland. I mentioned per-head spending, and I will not repeat myself. Thirdly, it has been said on many occasions that the Bill does not preclude a functioning Executive from making changes to the Budget allocations, should one return. Of course, we are beyond the point at which it is possible to restore the Executive without an election so we would have to legislate. We all fervently hope that the Executive could be restored without an election, and the Secretary of State is considering all his options.

I turn to the important point about the PSNI made by the leader of the DUP, Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson. As the right hon. Member will know, its main budget is allocated by the Northern Ireland Department of Justice. The Budget gives the Department of Justice a 3.1% uplift on its 2021-22 budget. In addition to the block grant, the UK Government provide the PSNI with the additional security funding that it needs to tackle the substantial threat that we face from Northern Ireland-related terrorism. The UK Government contribution for 2022-23 will be £32 million

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Westminster Leader

I do not dispute the Minister’s figures—my point was not about those figures and I was not challenging them—I was simply pointing out that, in relation to New Decade, New Approach, there was an agreement to recruit additional police officers to bring us up to the level that was agreed way back when the Police Service of Northern Ireland was formed. It was clear that the Treasury would provide the additional funding required to ensure that those extra officers were recruited. My point is simply this: that has not happened.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Member for clarifying that point. I will write to him on that. The PSNI is close to my heart, and I am extremely grateful to all the people who work for the PSNI for everything that they do to keep us all safe.

The Opposition spokesman Sammy Wilson and Colum Eastwood all talked about education funding. According to information published by the Treasury, identifiable public spending on education stood at £1,759 per head in Northern Ireland for the 2020-21 financial year. That compared to £1,428 per head for the UK as a whole over the same period. That was 23% higher than the UK average. That reflects our commitment to Northern Ireland and to education.

The Department of Education projected significant levels of overspend, but this Budget has actually delivered an increase in education spending of just under £300 million. We recognise that pressures above that level of increase will require difficult decisions to be taken, but we believe that those decisions are deliverable within the legal framework that we have set out in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022 and the accompanying guidance.

I was grateful to Stephen Farry for his point about efficiency savings that could be made in education. My goodness, yes there are some. Again, that integrated education could even be a question in the 21st century is extraordinary to me. There are certainly savings to be made. That level of additional funding represents around a 12% increase on the previous year, excluding the additional funding allocated for covid. That really is as much as could be afforded in the light of the £660-million black hole that we were facing. Overall, that demonstrates just how unsustainable Northern Ireland finances have become and the need for reform.

Tonia Antoniazzi mentioned women’s healthcare, particularly the misery of endometriosis. Once again, this is a shocking situation to be in. Claire Hanna talked about the lack of collective shame. In this day and age, we should be ashamed of the state of public services in Northern Ireland. For far too long we have been just grateful for peace and have not done enough to highlight across the whole of the UK what needs to be done to serve the people of Northern Ireland because, my goodness, they deserve good services.

This Budget provides £7.28 billion in funding for the Department of Health. That is an increase of £228 million on 2021-22 spending, which included significant covid-19 funding. It is an increase of £786 million compared with last year’s funding, excluding the one-off covid uplift. As with education, there will be difficult decisions to take on health. Decisions on the reform of healthcare will be difficult. The Bengoa report, as we have discussed, should be carried forward. Too many years—six—have gone by without progress. We need to see Executive return as soon as possible.

I will make one more point before I conclude. I responded to the hon. Member for Foyle in an earlier debate on the addiction rehabilitation centre. I can tell him that the Government stand ready to respond to a proposal submitted by the Executive. I know it is frustrating; I am frustrated because I want to give him the answer he wants. We are waiting on that Northern Ireland Department of Health business case.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

I am extremely frustrated, as the Minister knows, because this has been going on since the New Decade, New Approach and beyond. We have people dying every single day of addiction-related conditions. Can I press him on one issue that was raised by me and other colleagues, which has a total support across political parties in the Northern Ireland? It is Dáithí’s law on organ donation. Will the Government do something to address that wrong, and to follow through on what had already begun when we had an Assembly and an Executive?

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The Secretary of State is reflecting on that very thing right now. I believe he is meeting the parents, although I cannot confirm when. The point is well made. The Secretary of State will certainly reflect on it. I will no doubt be party to those decisions.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann

I associate myself with the remarks about Dáithí’s law and trying to ensure that that proceeds. The Minister noted that he was on his final point: can he first bring some clarity around the abortion issue that I raised? What services would he advocate being cut for abortion services to be provided in Northern Ireland? Will there be new money made available from the Treasury to facilitate the abortion services that have been forced on the people of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

As the hon. Member well knows and does not like, we were forced under law to bring forward abortion services because this House legislated. She may recall that I was in the Lobby with her voting no. That was because I did not want to see the devolution settlement trespassed upon. It is my belief that women in Northern Ireland should have access to abortion services. That is because I think that the law as it stands for my constituents in Wycombe and in England is about right, leaving as it does room for conscience in the earlier stages of pregnancy.

What I would say to the hon. Member is that the law required us to move forward. I know she does not like it, but money has been allocated as set out in the Budget, and the memorandum is available. We just have to move on. I am well aware that people will find that challenging, but the Secretary of State has done the right thing in complying with the law.

I will finish by saying that there has been a great deal of unity across the House on the pressing need for the Budget and the pressing need to transform and improve public services for the people of Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for North Down mentioned managed decline in his remarks. I am clear, as I know he is, that managed decline is not good enough for the people of Northern Ireland. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and as we approach hopefully getting a deal on the protocol and therefore restoring the Executive, it is incumbent on all of us in our different and respective positions to work out how to better serve the people of Northern Ireland and deliver a Budget that not only works for them, but that transforms public services so that Northern Ireland can be a real beacon for the whole UK.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).