Public Services: Budgetary Constraints

Northern Ireland – in the House of Commons at on 22 November 2023.

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Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration)

What discussions he has had with the Administration in Northern Ireland on the potential impact of budgetary constraints on the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

What discussions he has had with the Administration in Northern Ireland on the potential impact of budgetary constraints on the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

What discussions he has had with the Administration in Northern Ireland on the potential impact of budgetary constraints on the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland.

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

Northern Ireland’s finances are unsustainable, I am sorry to say, and the Departments are facing difficult decisions to live within their budgets. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has directed the Departments, using powers under the Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Act 2023, to launch public consultations on measures to support budget sustainability and raise more revenue.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration)

I thank the Minister for that answer. The Prime Minister announced on Monday that one of his five new key priorities is to improve education across these islands, yet at the same time his Government are starving Northern Ireland’s Department of Education of £300 million. We all know that the Government love fantasy economics, but surely the idea that cutting £300 million from education will improve it is a flight of fantasy too far even for this Government.

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

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was right when he said that education is the closest thing we have in public policy to a silver bullet, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council has acknowledged that Northern Ireland is currently receiving the funding it needs through a combination of the Northern Ireland block grant, locally generated revenue and additional UK Government funding packages. Those additional packages amount to some £7 billion in additional funding since 2014. I am afraid that the reality for schools in Northern Ireland is that they are long overdue reform, and the cost of running a divided education system is considerable. We need to see much more integrated education and much more efficiency, to ensure that children get the education they richly deserve.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

Recent analysis shows that Northern Ireland’s budget over the past three years has been cut by £2.3 billion in real terms. On top of that slow decline, the UK Government have withheld millions in funding, forcing budget cuts on Northern Ireland Departments. Why does the Minister think it is okay to punish the people of Northern Ireland for the political impasse of their representatives?

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

It is not our view that the people are being punished for an impasse. The reality is that the budget situation is difficult for all the devolved nations. The hon. Lady will know that in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, difficult decisions have to be taken in order to live within our means. This Government are taking the necessary steps to assist the Executive in balancing the books.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

Whoever is responsible for the current stalemate in Northern Ireland, it is not young people in the country’s schools. My hon. Friend Chris Stephens has pointed to the desperate shortfall in funding. Is the Minister aware that teachers in Northern Ireland have not had a pay increase for three years, so effectively they have taken a pay cut that is now over 20%? Can he explain how that will help to maintain the proud record of education in Northern Ireland that he spoke about a few minutes ago?

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

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that teachers have not hesitated to impress that point on me when I have been in Northern Ireland. It is a matter that we have under active consideration, but I am unable to satisfy him today.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

My right hon. Friend has mentioned additional UK Government funding, and an important element of that is levelling-up bids. We on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee note with concern that no Northern Ireland application was successful in the recent third phase. Can he assure me that a sum of funding is being set aside for Northern Ireland projects? If so, can he give us an indication of the likely amount being set aside?

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

My right hon. and learned Friend is right to highlight the issue. A number of things have been said about this matter that are not the case. The money will be made available in Northern Ireland, and it has been set aside. If memory serves, it is about £15 million, but I would need to double-check—if I am incorrect, I will write to him. The reality is that we need decisions to be taken by a restored Executive, and the Government are keen to work with Northern Ireland Ministers to that end. I am grateful to him for highlighting this point and giving me the opportunity to say that the money will be spent in Northern Ireland.[This section has been corrected on 29 November 2023, column 7MC — read correction]

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

Following on from that question, communities across Northern Ireland are angry about the Government’s decision to exclude them from the latest round of levelling-up funding. The Government have said that is because Stormont is not sitting, but that is a poor excuse, because round 2 funding was allocated to 10 projects in Northern Ireland in January this year, when the Executive were also not in place. Only £120 million of the pot of £5 billion has been allocated to Northern Ireland so far. There is a huge additional need in communities, but millions is being held back, as the Minister has just said. Will the Secretary of State commit to reversing this unjust decision with immediate effect?

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

The hon. Lady makes her point with great force but, as I just said to my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland, the money will be spent in Northern Ireland. We are keen to work with Northern Ireland Ministers to that effect. When it comes to the overall level of money required, the hon. Lady will know that we have just put more than £700 million into PEACEPLUS, which will help support Northern Ireland. The reality is that we are working hard to ensure that Northern Ireland has the funding it needs, but in order to sort out the problems that Northern Ireland faces, we need a restored Executive and, I am afraid, revenue raising. We need to be working with Northern Ireland Ministers to make sure that we get the public service reform that is so urgently needed.

Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business)

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks on the anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings? Our thoughts continue to be with all who are affected by that tragedy to this day.

The UK Government, as we have just heard, are holding back levelling-up funding for Northern Ireland, ostensibly because of the lack of a functioning Executive. However, the UK Government are seemingly content to bypass the views of the Governments in place in Edinburgh and Cardiff in allocating levelling-up funding. Is the point of consistency not about a desire to level up, but just that there is a shortage of Conservative MPs in Northern Ireland who need to shore up their re-election prospects with public cash?

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

It is easy to throw out a cheap political line like that, but as the hon. Member has heard me say to my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland and Fleur Anderson, the reality is that that levelling up money will be spent in Northern Ireland. I can certainly assure him that none of that money has appeared in my marginal seat of Wycombe—even though the whole House will know it is undoubtedly the most deserving and most beautiful constituency in the nation.