The UK Government take seriously our responsibility to uphold our commitment to govern in the interests of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland. To that end, there are three Bill before the House that represent a series of necessary steps now required to protect and preserve public services, ensure good governance and increase public confidence in Northern Ireland’s political institutions. We have deferred action on these measures for as long as possible in the hope that a restored Executive could take this legislation forward. That is now not possible. So, with the greatest reluctance, it is important that we proceed with the Bills.
With the leave of the House, I will discuss each Bill in turn, starting with the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill. Members of the House will recall that, last November, Parliament approved the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017. This was a step we took reluctantly. This Act gave the Northern Ireland Civil Service the clear legal basis required to manage resources and perform the important work it continues to do in the absence of an Executive. The Northern Ireland Civil Service has continued since then to assess where pressures lie across the system, taking decisions to reallocate resources as required. It has also requested since then to draw down £20 million in 2017-18—of the £50 million of support arising from the financial annexe to the confidence and supply agreement—which the Government committed to releasing for 2017-18 to help address immediate health and education pressures. The remainder of that £50 million will form part of the resource totals available in 2018-19.
Noble Lords will want to be reassured that the additional funding for 2017-18 was confirmed in the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2018, which received Royal Assent on
In addition, the Bill will provide for a vote on account in the early months of next year to give legal authority for managing day-to-day spending in the run-up to the estimates process. This will avoid the unorthodox need for the Northern Ireland Civil Service to rely on emergency powers set out in Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act and Section 7 of the Government Resources and Accounts Act (Northern Ireland) 2001 to issue cash and resources. For 2018-19, we do not consider it would be appropriate if we did not provide the usual vote on account facility to the Northern Ireland Civil Service—a facility provided to the UK Government departments through our own spring supplementary estimates process.
To be very clear, this is not a forward-looking budget for the year ahead. The Bill does not seek to set out in legislation the departmental allocations of the Secretary of State’s Budget Statement on
Instead, the Bill looks back to confirm spending totals for 2017-18 to ensure that the Northern Ireland Civil Service has a secure legal basis for its spending in the past year. As such, it formally allocates the £20 million of confidence and supply funding already committed for 2017-18; it is not concerned with any of the £410 million set out in the 2018-19 Budget Statement, which will be a matter for the UK estimates in the summer and for a Northern Ireland budget Bill thereafter.
I will turn briefly to the content of the Bill, as it largely rehearses what I set out to your Lordships in November when bringing forward the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017. In short, it authorises Northern Ireland departments and certain other bodies to incur expenditure and use resources for the financial year ending
Clause 1 of the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill authorises the issue of £16.1 billion out of the Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland. The allocation levels for each Northern Ireland department and the other bodies in receipt of these funds are set out in Schedule 1, which also states the purposes for which these funds are to be used.
Clause 2 authorises the use of resources amounting to £18 billion in the year ending
Clause 3 sets revised limits on the accruing resources, including both operating and non-operating accruing resources in the current financial year. These are all largely as they appeared in the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017, and the revised totals for departments appear in Schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill.
Clause 4 does not have a parallel in that Act. It sets out the power for the Northern Ireland Civil Service to issue out of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund some £7.35 billion in cash for the forthcoming financial year. This is the vote on account provision that I have already outlined. It is linked to Clause 6, which does the same in terms of resources. The value is set, as is standard, at around 45% of the sums available in both regards in the previous financial year. Schedules 3 and 4 operate on the same basis, with each departmental allocation simply set at 45% of the previous year.
Clause 5 permits some temporary borrowing powers for cash management purposes. As I have already noted, there is no new money contained within the Bill; there is simply the explicit authority to spend in full the moneys that have already been allocated and locally raised.
This Bill would ordinarily have been taken through the Assembly. As such, at Clause 7, there are a series of adaptations that ensure that, once approved by Parliament, the Bill will be treated as though it were an Assembly Budget Act, enabling Northern Ireland public finances to continue to function notwithstanding the absence of an Executive.
Noble Lords may already be aware from the Library that, alongside the Bill, a set of supplementary estimates for the departments and bodies covered by the budget Bill have also been laid as a Command Paper. These estimates, which have been prepared by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance, set out the breakdown of their resource allocation in greater detail. This is a different process from that which we might ordinarily see for estimates at Westminster, where the estimates document precedes the formal budget legislation and is separately approved. That would also be the case at the Assembly, but as was the case in November, the Bill provides that the laying of the Command Paper takes the place of an estimates document laid and approved before the Assembly, again to enable public finances to flow smoothly.
This Bill is very much a technical step as we approach the end of the financial year to provide a secure legal footing for the Northern Ireland Civil Service. It looks backwards rather than forward, although it avoids the use of emergency powers for the forthcoming financial year. It is on that platform that the Secretary of State’s 2018-19 Budget Statement of
Before we reach such a point and in addition to the technical steps of this Bill there are some further pressing steps proposed in the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill that need to be taken now to build on the Government’s efforts to safeguard public services and finances in Northern Ireland. I ask the House also to give a Second Reading to the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill.
Clause 1 of the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill addresses the collection of the regional rate, which represents more than 5% of the total revenue available to the Northern Ireland Executive. With a devolved Government in place, this would be set via an affirmative rates order in the Assembly, enabling bills to be issued in 10 instalments, providing certainty to ratepayers and allowing various payment reliefs to be applied. It would not be acceptable to allow uncertainty to linger in the absence of an Executive to set its own rates and begin collection from ratepayers. So while we are clear that this is a devolved matter, we are also clear that only the UK Government and Parliament can take this action to secure the interests of individuals and businesses in Northern Ireland.
This Bill therefore sets out rates, in pence per pound terms, for both domestic and non-domestic properties. For non-domestic properties, this reflects a 1.5% inflationary increase. For domestic properties, the rate will be raised by inflation plus 3%, as set out in the Secretary of State’s 2018-19 Budget Statement on
We have concluded that it is fair that we ask households to pay a little more—less than £1 per week for the average household—to help address pressures in health, education and elsewhere. In order to keep a focus on the growth that Northern Ireland needs to see, holding business rates in line with inflation is the right approach. This rates income, along with the flexibilities set out in the Secretary of State’s Statement, will represent an important contribution to delivering a sustainable budget picture for 2018-19, upholding the UK Government’s responsibilities to uphold good governance in Northern Ireland. Yet the Bill also makes clear that nothing we do cuts across the continuing right of a restored Executive to set a rate by order in the usual way.
The second element of the Bill concerns the administration of Northern Ireland’s renewable heat incentive scheme. The scheme was established in 2012 to support efforts to increase the uptake in the use of renewable energy. However, errors in the administration of the scheme led to substantial excess payments. Over the 20-year lifespan of the scheme, the projected overspends were well over £500 million, with £27 million of overspend in the 2016-17 year alone, putting the sustainable finances of the Northern Ireland Executive at significant risk. The administration of the scheme and the circumstances which led to the errors in its administration are subject to an ongoing public inquiry.
One of the last acts of the previous Executive was to make regulations in January 2017 that put robust cost controls in place. These made sure that the costs were sustainable, but they were put in place for one year only, to allow for a longer-term consideration of the scheme as a whole. They are now due to expire. If they are allowed to expire, there will be no legal basis not only for maintaining the current cost cap but also for paying all those who receive payments under the scheme and whose installations were accredited before November 2015. Neither of these would be acceptable outcomes. Nor would it be suitable for the Northern Ireland Civil Service to administer payments on an extra-statutory basis, which would create unnecessary legal uncertainty for all concerned. That is why Clause 2 will ensure that the present cost controls and the legal basis for payments can continue for the 2018-19 financial year. These are sunsetted for a year, as it is right that the longer-term approach is one for a restored Executive to decide. In the meantime, I am assured that the Northern Ireland Civil Service will undertake the detailed analysis to enable a new Executive to consider the right course for the future.
I hope noble Lords will agree that this is a modest Bill, doing two very discrete but necessary things in the interests of safeguarding public finances: setting a regional rate and extending the cost controls of the RHI scheme.
The third and final Bill before the House today is the Northern Ireland Assembly Members (Pay) Bill. Where the other Bills focus on increasing clarity and confidence in Northern Ireland’s finances, this Bill looks to increase public confidence in Northern Ireland’s political institutions. The continued payment of full salaries for Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, when the Assembly has not met for over a year and there has been no Executive for 14 months, is a matter of considerable public concern in Northern Ireland and there is a broad desire for action. The Bill will grant the Secretary of State the power to vary pay and allowances for Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the MLAs.
MLAs’ salaries and allowances are rightly a devolved matter. In 2011, the Assembly appointed an independent body, the Independent Financial Review Panel, to set MLA pay and allowances by means of determinations. Its last determination was made in March 2016, before the election in May that year. As no members have been appointed since the first panel’s term of office ended in 2016, however, there is presently nobody with the power to change MLA pay to reflect the current extraordinary circumstances. The Bill would allow the Secretary of State to do that; that is, to vary the pay and allowances of MLAs by means of a determination. One important difference from the panel’s powers is that, while the panel also makes determinations on pensions, the Bill includes an explicit protection for MLAs’ pensions so that they are not affected by any changes to pay under this Bill.
Under the panel’s most recent determination, an automatic £500 per year inflationary increase in MLAs’ salaries is due on
More broadly, Mr Reaney’s advice provided an independent assessment of what action should be taken on MLA pay and allowances in the current circumstances, taking account of all of the important work that many Members continue to do in the absence of an Assembly. These recommendations included a 27.5% reduction in MLAs’ salaries. The Secretary of State has been clear that she is minded to follow Mr Reaney’s recommendations, with the exception of the proposed cut to the staff costs allowance. As the Secretary of State has said,
“The position of”,
“should not be prejudiced by what is happening with their political masters”.—[
Before making her final decision, however, she has asked for final representations from the political parties. This is a sensible approach that I hope noble Lords will support.
This Bill would not itself alter MLAs’ pay or allowances. It simply creates the power to make a determination during the current period without an Executive. Once an Executive is formed, the power to make a determination would return to being entirely a devolved matter. A future panel would, of course, be free to make a new determination as it sees fit, including to cover periods without an Executive. This determination would supersede any made by the Secretary of State under this Bill. To ensure that we do not again find ourselves in the situation where MLAs remain on full pay when there is no Executive and no panel determination covering the situation, the Bill allows a determination made by the Secretary of State in the current period to apply again should that situation arise. To be clear, it is the determination that would apply again: the power to make a new determination would in that situation remain devolved.
Overall, the focus of this Bill is narrow, and I consider that taking the power to set MLA pay is a necessary step to uphold public confidence in Northern Ireland in the absence of an Executive and sitting Assembly.
I recognise the extent of the ask of the House in considering all three Bills in one day. As I conclude, I would like to reaffirm that the Government have considered very carefully the necessity of and timing required for this legislation. We are doing this reluctantly in order to put Northern Ireland finances on a legal footing for the financial year 2017-18; to provide more certainty and a sustainable footing for the financial year 2018-19, in the interests of protecting public services; and to ensure good governance and uphold public confidence in Northern Ireland. I believe that these Bills reflect our approach of intervening only as necessary, and only at a point when it is critical that the measures are taken forward. I hope noble Lords will agree that it is important we now make progress to see the measures of each Bill passed into law. I beg to move.
My Lords, I, along with other noble Lords, was proud to be a member of a Government who devoted so much time and effort over a decade to help Northern Ireland move from the horror of its violent past towards a better future. The devolved institutions set up in 2007, after a settlement that I helped negotiate, have not functioned for the past 15 months, and there appears to be little prospect of a change in that position. I have heard nothing from the Government to suggest that they have a clue what to do. Former serving Ministers in Northern Ireland such as myself and my noble friends Lord Murphy of Torfaen, Lord Reid, Lord Mandelson, Lady Smith of Basildon, Lord Browne, Lord Rooker and Lord Dubs, feel passionately about the way that the enormous peace progress made has gone so badly into reverse.
It gives me absolutely no satisfaction to say that I really do not think this Government get Northern Ireland. I make no criticism of the Minister or the arguments he has made, or of the Secretary of State—they are both new Ministers and I wish them all the best. But I observe—as I have said before, as has my noble friend Lord Murphy—that the Prime Minister’s approach, which is a kind of fly-in, fly-out diplomacy of insufficient in-depth detailed negotiation and relationship-building with all the parties and their leaders in Northern Ireland, was never going to work. You cannot achieve success in an impasse such as the one we face with this kind of approach. I urge the Government—No. 10 in particular—to reconsider this.
The measures in these Bills should never have had to come to us in the first place. They represent direct rule in all but name. But I do not think we can simply nod them through as a matter of process without addressing some of the implications of the current political impasse. The people of Northern Ireland are left in limbo, facing, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has pointed out so graphically, a serious crisis in the National Health Service, probably worse than in any other part of the UK. Last week I had the privilege to meet a group of remarkable people for whom that limbo is particularly cruel. They were members of the WAVE Trauma Centre’s injured group, and I will briefly recount two of their stories.
Jennifer was 21 in 1972 when she and her sister, who was shopping for a wedding dress, went into a Belfast city centre cafe for a coffee. A no-warning IRA bomb tore both Jennifer’s legs off. Her sister lost both legs and an arm. Noble Lords from Northern Ireland will recall the horror of the Abercorn bomb. Peter was 26 when he was shot by a loyalist gang in 1979 in a case of mistaken identity. Because of the configuration of the flat where Peter lived, the ambulance crew could not manoeuvre a stretcher around the stairs. They brought Peter down in a body bag. His father Herbert arrived at the scene and thought that his son was dead. “Oh my poor Peter” were his last words. He had a heart attack and died as Peter was carried to the ambulance. Peter is paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.
There are many more similarly harrowing stories. It is estimated that around 500 people in Northern Ireland are classified as severely physically injured as a direct result of the Troubles, with injuries that are at the very top of the scale: bilateral amputees, paraplegic, those blinded. All the injuries are life-changing and permanent. Because of their injuries most have been unable to work to build up occupational pensions and today have to survive on benefits. The levels of compensation paid through the adversarial criminal injuries compensation scheme were wholly inadequate and there was no disability discrimination legislation in the early days to protect them. Frankly, these people were not expected to live beyond a few years. But they have and the passage of time has compounded their problems as many suffer increasing physical distress as a result of deteriorating health and chronic pain.
They are campaigning for a special pension of the type that is in place in most other countries that have suffered from conflicts similar to that in Northern Ireland. All they want is some semblance of financial security and independence as they grow into old age in the most difficult circumstances. I find their argument compelling. The pension has been costed by independent consultants at around only £3 million to £5 million per annum—a figure which will reduce year on year as the majority of the severely injured are moving into old age. I appeal to the Government to provide this money now. It is a small amount to rectify a big injustice.
All the Northern Ireland parties are on record as saying that they support the idea of a pension for severely injured people such as those who come to see them and argue their case. But saying they support it is about as far as it has gone because their support for the severely injured is not unconditional. Of the 500 severely injured, there are 10 or so who were injured by their own hand; for example, planting a bomb that exploded prematurely. Of the 10, six are loyalist and four republican. It is no surprise that the DUP and Sinn Féin are split. The DUP says there can be no pension for those injured by their own hand. Sinn Féin insists that they cannot support a pension that excludes them as this would be tantamount to accepting a hierarchy of victims.
The injured group, who are unfairly drawn into this toxic debate, argue that it is not for them to say who should or should not qualify. What they do insist is that it is unjust, unfair and immoral for politicians to say that because they cannot agree about 10 people the other 490 must get nothing. I totally agree with them, and I hope the Minister will respond positively. The injured group, all of whom have been injured through no fault of their own, regard their plight as being as much a part of the legacy of Northern Ireland’s violent past as anything else, and the legacy issues are not devolved entirely. But the Government refuse to accept that they are part of the legacy for which they have responsibility. If the devolved institutions are, for whatever reason, unable to deliver on this—and of course, suspended, they are unable to deliver on this; and tragically, we are unlikely to see those institutions in place for some considerable time—the Government at Westminster surely must step in now, because it would be shameful if the people who have suffered so much through no fault of their own were told that nothing can be done because of political buck-passing.
“provide better outcomes for victims and survivors—the people who suffered most during the troubles”.—[
I agree, and I appeal to her and to the Minister to act now. They have the power to do so. It is a very small amount; it would not be noticed on the overall allocation for Northern Ireland or, indeed, the Whitehall budget. It would not be noticed at all. I have met men and women in the WAVE trauma group who by any definition have “suffered most”, in the Secretary of State’s phrase. Unless both this Parliament and the Government accept that responsibility and act immediately to provide pensions for these 490 people, it will be to our eternal shame.
My Lords, I shall be fairly brief as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, has very eloquently and, if I may say so, movingly made many of the key political points.
There is general consensus that these three Bills are necessary in the continued absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland. The fact that these Bills continue to be necessary is deeply to be regretted, and it is all the more tragic as this is precisely a time where clear strategic direction and forward planning are needed to plan ahead for the economy in Northern Ireland, given the ongoing uncertainties and additional pressures as a result of Brexit and the lack of clarity about the progress in the negotiations relating to the island of Ireland. The Bills before us today are little more than sticking plaster Bills that do little to provide clarity on the priorities for the months or years ahead, but we shall support them from these Benches as another necessary measure to ensure the continuation of budgetary certainty in Northern Ireland.
I shall concentrate my remarks this afternoon on issues surrounding legacy and legacy institutions, especially following the decision of a High Court judge on Friday to compel authorities in Belfast and London to reconsider providing funds for legacy inquests in Northern Ireland, and I will make a few comments on issues surrounding scrutiny and oversight, most particularly during the critical months ahead to ensure that a Northern Ireland voice is heard during the Brexit negotiations. The Minister will be aware that during the debate in the other place, Owen Smith MP, like the noble Lord, Lord Hain, today, raised many valid points regarding legacy issues and stressed the continued very great need for reconciliation between communities in Northern Ireland.
There is now a very large backlog of legacy inquests. In February 2016, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Sir Declan Morgan, concluded a review into the remaining legacy inquests in Northern Ireland and said that they could be dealt with in five years if he received the necessary funding from the Stormont Executive. That was costed at £35 million over those five years. He proposed setting up a specialist unit with its own staffing and resources to complete 54 inquests into 94 deaths.
The Lord Chief Justice’s proposals were blocked in the Executive by the then First Minister, Arlene Foster. That decision was recently declared unlawful by the High Court in Belfast. There is an overwhelming case to proceed with this funding immediately. While the issues surrounding legacy inquests have become heavily contested in terms of narratives surrounding the past, there is a very real danger of these matters becoming even more polarised if they are further delayed. It is critical to maintain a shared and cohesive approach.
The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry conducted by Sir Anthony Hart was the largest inquiry into child abuse in children’s homes in the UK. Its recommendations have political agreement, yet because the Executive collapsed at virtually the same time as the report’s publication, there has been no action. Some victims have now been waiting since the 1970s for compensation, and we are sadly seeing these generations passing away before receiving the compensation they are due. In the continued absence of an Executive, will the Minister confirm that the Government will at some stage before the summer introduce the necessary legislation to give effect to the recommendations contained in the Hart inquiry?
It is welcome that on several occasions in recent debates the Minister has made a point of stressing that nothing is being ruled out in the current circumstances, with the talks having collapsed once again. However, the time is surely coming when we have to look at alternative and creative solutions to ensure that there is at least some degree of democratic accountability in the absence of an Executive.
The Minister may be aware that the Alliance Party has published a set of proposals on the next steps forward. One proposal that is particularly interesting is that a cross-party Brexit Committee be established to allow Northern Ireland’s voice to be heard during the Brexit negotiations. It also suggest reconstituting the Assembly’s departmental scrutiny committees to allow policy development, and some level of scrutiny and reform, to proceed.
In his concluding remarks, it would be very helpful to hear from the Minister not just that nothing is being ruled out but when alternative models could be ruled in. Could he also say what concrete measures the Government are currently taking to restart the talks—and, to repeat an earlier question I have posed now several times to the Minister, are the Government actively considering the involvement of an external mediator?
In relation to the Bill on MLA pay, I am extremely pleased to hear from the Minister this afternoon that he has confirmed that it is not the Government’s intention to cut staffing budgets or office costs for constituency offices. As he said, members of the public are continuing to contact MLAs and to look for their assistance with problems. There is no reason why staff should be penalised because there is currently no political agreement on the formation of an Executive.
Finally, in relation to the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill, there was no consultation before the 2017 regulations were implemented because of the urgency of the matter at that time. Indeed, paragraph 4.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum attached to the original Northern Ireland legislation on the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme Regulations states:
“There has been no opportunity to consult on the introduction of these first stage measures. As part of the next stage, the Department will give consideration to consultation”.
In the continued absence of an Executive, can the Minister say whether it is the intention of the UK Government to carry out this consultation now?
It is deeply to be regretted that we need to be passing these Bills at all today—but, in the interests of ordinary people in Northern Ireland, for the continued provision of public services and with a heavy heart, we give them our support.
My Lords, what the Minister has brought before your Lordships’ House today in these three Bills should of course be going to the Northern Ireland Assembly—but, regrettably, due to the intransigence in particular of Sinn Féin, which brought the Assembly and Executive crashing down, this cannot happen. Indeed, had the Executive Minister of Finance Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, a Sinn Féin Member, carried out his responsibilities, we would not be in the position that we are today. When the Finance Minister was being pressed by the finance committee in the Assembly to bring forward measures in the budget, he refused to do so. He would not even bring issues to the Executive. He of course always had the full knowledge that Sinn Féin was planning to crash the Assembly and the Executive. Sinn Féin has demonstrated that it does not like making hard decisions—but, due to the way that the Assembly is set up, its support is required because of the veto principle.
The Assembly was allegedly stalled because of the RHI scheme. This was undoubtedly a flawed project, but did it merit pulling apart the whole edifice of the Assembly and Executive? I certainly do not think so. It is well known that Sinn Féin was under pressure to bring down the Assembly and the Executive, as the message was beginning to filter out slowly but surely that Northern Ireland was beginning to prosper and was a good place to do business. This of course was something that Sinn Féin and its support base did not want to hear. So a device had to be found to paralyse the governing of Northern Ireland, and the excuse or cunning plan was the RHI scheme that is presently being investigated. The pressing need, of course, was the setting of a budget to direct money to the different departments for the running of Northern Ireland.
I must stress that my party, the DUP, is ready to return to the Assembly tomorrow and get round the table to discuss any issues that other parties feel should be discussed. These can be time-limited. I emphasise that the DUP has no red lines in getting an Executive and Assembly up and running. Unlike Sinn Féin, we certainly have no unreasonable demands to make.
However, with devolution not operating, it is the responsibility of this House and the other place to govern and ensure that Northern Ireland is not left behind. I suspect that this will not be the only occasion on which the Minister and other Ministers will be bringing to this House matters relating to Northern Ireland. I am of the firm opinion that other issues relating to our schools and health service, to name but two, will become even more pressing in the very near future. Indeed, I feel that the decision cannot be far away when direct-rule Ministers should be put in place to run all the departments in Northern Ireland in the continued absence of an Executive.
Much has been said, particularly in media circles, about MLAs being paid for a job that they are not doing. It merits saying that those who say these things conveniently ignore the fact that Sinn Féin has been paid almost £1 million in expenses, despite the fact that its MPs do not take their seats in the other place. These expenses of £1 million relate to the period of 2008-09 to 2016-17.Surely it is time that the Government applied themselves to tackling this glaring and indefensible farce, which has been allowed to carry on for far too long. It also has to be said that MLAs in my party, and I suspect in others, are getting on with their constituency work, so I am pleased that the legislation before the House does not propose to reduce MLAs’ staffing and other related expenses. Permanent Secretaries need to be given more power in the absence of the Assembly or Ministers taking responsibility for spending money that is allocated.
I take some comfort from what is happening today. I hope that it is the commencement of decision-making, and perhaps from here on the drift will end. I support these three Bills.
My Lords, I wish to speak primarily on the budget Bill and the regional rates and energy Bill. The third Bill on Assembly Members’ pay requires little debate and its provisions are inevitable in the current circumstances. The sad thing is that we are, as usual, punishing the innocent along with the guilty, but the Bill will pass.
Dealing with the budget Bill first, apart from the totally avoidable circumstances which have brought us to the present impasse, I want to focus on one issue which is causing many people in Northern Ireland great concern and anxiety. It has already been touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie.
In January 2017, Sir Anthony Hart submitted his report on his findings following the historical institutional abuse inquiry over which he presided. Among his recommendations was that compensation should be paid to survivors of abuse, including in homes and institutions not covered by his inquiry, and that relatives of the deceased should also be taken into account. In the Bill, for both 2017-18 and 2018-19 under the allocations for the Executive Office, provision is made for,
“actions associated with the preparation and implementation of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry Report and Findings”.
This gives the Executive Office authority to make expenditure to implement the findings of the HIA inquiry.
To put this in context for your Lordships, the inquiry covered the period beginning in 1922, and I think it went up to 1996. Some of the evidence of the abuse was shocking. It ranged from vulnerable children being scrubbed with Jeyes Fluid by nuns to the notorious sexual abuse committed in the Kincora Boys’ Home: years and years of all sorts of physical, psychological and sexual abuse conducted by those who were supposed to help children and vulnerable young people at difficult times in their lives.
In excess of 500 people came forward to Sir Anthony’s inquiry—and more have since indicated that they wish they had. However, as the noble Baroness rightly said, many have also died during the period and more continue to do so. Having fought for years to get this inquiry, the victims are now being subjected to a second—if different—form of abuse. As my party colleague at Stormont Mike Nesbitt MLA said:
“They have no Executive in place in Belfast to ratify the inquiry report and nobody is planning to implement its findings. This is totally unacceptable”.
Does the Minister agree with me that the Bill gives the Executive Office power to spend money to implement the findings of the report? Secondly, do he or his ministerial colleagues have any plans to persuade the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service to get on and implement the findings of Sir Anthony Hart’s report? Thirdly, does he believe that this matter should be above politics and other political and constitutional concerns and be treated as a humanitarian measure which has unanimous political support in Belfast?
I turn now to the regional rates and energy Bill. The proposal for rates, as it affects ordinary householders, imposes a 4.5% increase on ratepayers, well above inflation. For the benefit of your Lordships, I say that local government finance in Northern Ireland is vastly different from that in Great Britain. A domestic householder still pays rates levied on capital values. Part of the rates is levied by local councils— approximately half—and the balance by Stormont. All major services are delivered by central government—that includes social services, welfare, housing, roads and education. No local council in Northern Ireland has delivered such a high increase this year, confining their increases to from nil to just over 3%. While councillors have tried to ease the burden on people, central government has not. This is another example of Stormont letting people down.
However, the main item in this Bill that I want to address is the RHI scandal that has left a trail of destruction in its wake. We know that the inquiry into the RHI is ongoing with Judge Patrick Coghlin presiding. The Bill proposes to continue the tariff regime that was introduced last year by the Assembly as its dying gasp, in an attempt to staunch the flow of money out of the system due to a botched scheme. The Assembly decided to impose a cap for one year, and this expires on
Members need to know, however, that this was a blunt and badly prepared instrument. That it was time limited for a scheme that will be ongoing for years illustrates the fact that the intervening period was to be used to consult stakeholders and reflect on the best way ahead. This has not happened. No business case was presented to the Assembly to justify the new tariffs, and the relevant Assembly committee twice refused to endorse the new cap, due to lack of information. The Minister, Mr Hamilton, confirmed to the Assembly on
“I have not yet received approval for the business case that underpins the regulations before us, and that is deeply troubling”.
The former First Minister who introduced the scheme described it as a “debacle”, and so it has proved to be.
Some Members will have received heartfelt emails from a range of participants in the scheme. These are people who, quite legitimately, took up the offer to convert from fossil fuels to renewable fuel, as the scheme intended. But they have been betrayed. I wish to quote from a letter to the banks in Northern Ireland from the then Minister, Arlene Foster. On
“The tariffs have been calculated to cover the cost difference between traditional fossil fuel heating systems and a renewable heat alternative. The tariffs account for the variances in both capital and operating costs, as well as seeking to address non-financial ‘hassle’ costs. In addition, a rate of return is also included on the net capital expenditure to ensure the renewable energy technology is attractive to investors. The rate of return has been set at 12% for all technologies incentivised under the NI RHI”.
This is an interesting bit. She continues:
“Tariffs are ‘grandfathered’ providing certainty for investors by setting a guaranteed support level for projects for their lifetime in a scheme, regardless of future reviews”.
It goes on:
“I am therefore writing to encourage you”— the banks—
“to look favourably on approaches from businesses that are seeking finance to install renewable technologies. The government support, on offer through the incentive schemes, is reliable, long term and offers a good return on investment”.
It goes on to offer the opportunity for officials to arrange seminars to promote the scheme to the banks’ customers.
The language and undertakings in that letter could not be clearer. People have been badly let down, and many are facing financial ruin. They have been conned. Be under no doubt about the consequences of the measures in this Bill. They will confine some businesses to ruin and their owners to a further year of worry and torment. While a focus has naturally been on the potential for some people to profit from RHI by abusing it, and it is right that such cases are investigated, we must remember that the vast majority of applicants are bona fide businesspeople who responded to a government initiative that has left them in financial peril.
I hope that the RHI inquiry looks into the suspicious cases. I suggest it looks at those who subsequently made alterations to what legitimate installers did. In the few cases that look questionable, were workmen asked to run pipes from commercial buildings containing these boilers to other private property? Does that appear on invoices or have workmen perhaps been asked to modify invoices to conceal such actions? I suspect at the end of the day such cases will be few and far between.
I propose that the Minister asks the NI Civil Service to begin work on a strategy for alleviating the hardship being suffered by many, as was the original intention. Such a hardship scheme was suggested by an academic last year in a submission to MLAs. I urge the Government to respond positively to this request.
The real problem with the RHI scheme was that the former Executive set a target to achieve electricity generation from renewables but no adequate budget was provided. Today, legitimate businesses are paying the price for that blunder and it is unfair and unjust. I hope the Government have considered the implications of introducing retrospective tariffs for other schemes in the UK’s energy generation market. This is dangerous territory.
To those who seek a return to direct rule in Northern Ireland, I point out that we are being asked to pass all stages of three Bills in one afternoon, with no ability to delve into the detail. I ask those people: is this the way ahead? I think not.
Will the Minister, together with his NIO colleagues in the other place, also investigate with urgency the statement from the head of the Civil Service on
“Ministers liked to have a safe space where they could think the unthinkable and not necessarily have it all recorded”.
He went on to say that the DUP and Sinn Fein were sensitive to criticism and, in that context, senior civil servants had “got into the habit” of not recording all meetings. He said this was done on the basis that it was sometimes “safer” not to have a record which might be released under FOI.
Does the Minister agree that Mr Sterling’s comments must leave the former Administration at Stormont teetering on the brink of illegality? Was he admitting to a conspiracy to thwart the law? These are serious matters and I look forward to the Government’s reply.
My Lords, I offer my support to the Government for the broad thrust of the legislation this afternoon. I want to address two aspects. On the Northern Ireland Assembly Members (Pay) Bill, the Government have been very careful and have calibrated not to take action that would precipitately destroy the Northern Irish political class. On one level it looks vaguely absurd to pay people not to do their jobs, but we have a genuinely difficult situation in Northern Ireland and it is not the individual responsibility of a very large number of the Assembly Members that no accommodation has been reached between Sinn Féin and the DUP to allow the Assembly to be reinstated. The Government have taken a careful and wise approach to this. In particular, the point already made about research staff is a good one.
Having said that, I listened carefully to the Minister’s words and I understand completely why the Government do not want to do anything that smells of fully fledged, all-singing, all-dancing direct rule. On the other hand, he said that the Government will not ignore or walk away from their responsibility to govern Northern Ireland. A number of legacy issues have been discussed in this House this afternoon on which there is cross-party support in Westminster and Northern Ireland. There is also a smaller issue, of interest to quite a few of us, which is simply a decision on whether the Commonwealth Youth Games can take place in Belfast in 2021. It again has cross-party support in the other place. I should like to hear from the Minister whether, for example, on an issue such as that, the Government acknowledge that they may well have to take the decision themselves, although we all hope that they will not have to.
My most important point this afternoon concerns the transparency of this legislation. The Government have little choice but to move ahead on the budget in this way, but the Minister may be aware that there has been comment in the local press about the terseness of information. John Simpson, the distinguished economist, formerly of Queen’s University Belfast, made the point that it is difficult to assess some of these meanings without five-year tables and to work out exactly what we are talking about in real-terms expenditure. Indeed, he poses the question: seven of the nine departments are suffering real-terms cuts, so what does that actually mean?
The Government are entirely right not to want to move towards anything that looks like all-singing, all-dancing direct rule. On the other hand, to provide information about the public finances of Northern Ireland to the people of Northern Ireland is a positive thing, and more could be done here. The blog “Research Matters”, produced by the Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service, again makes the point that the latest government statement makes proper full comparisons very difficult. In this interim period, it may be helpful to debate some of those issues to spell out exactly what is going on in the public finances of Northern Ireland.
By the way, there are difficult questions for the people of Northern Ireland. Why is our health service expenditure rising? We all know that health service expenditure rises in the rest of the UK largely on the grounds of the ageing population. We have a younger population, but still our health service expenditure rises. Why, when our unemployment is now so relatively low, are we spending 20% more on social security than the rest of the United Kingdom? Those are real issues—and, in the interim, the transparency debate and the production of more figures showing what the budget really means are not stopping the return of Stormont. Those are all things that will mean, when the new Ministers come back, as I firmly believe and devoutly hope they will, that they are better informed than they currently are. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, is right: one of the essential points about the RHI scandal is an unusual degree of illiteracy about the public finances that seems to affect the administrative and political class of Northern Ireland. This period should be used at least to address and challenge it more than we are doing. Certainly, the figures that are now being released are just too terse and do not perform the service that the public need. I have already raised with the Minister the question of knowing the education figures but not the balance between higher education and the rest of the sector. I look for some help from the Minister on this matter.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in strongly supporting the three Bills before us today. I fully appreciate that their fast-tracking is unavoidable in the present circumstances, as there has been 15 months of absence from the Northern Ireland Assembly Chamber.
As regards the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill, the Government’s timely intervention has provided much-needed certainty for the Northern Ireland departments. The Secretary of State has already set the departmental spending limits and provided us with a budget statement. Last year’s expenditure will now be authorised in this technical Bill and the departments will be granted the legal authority to spend, since 45% of the budget is allocated in this Bill.
Your Lordships’ House recently agreed the Northern Ireland budget, which provided a significant boost to future resource spending on frontline health and education as well as an increase in infrastructure spending across Northern Ireland. A significant part of this spending, which will benefit both communities in Northern Ireland, was made possible by the confidence and supply arrangements agreed with the Democratic Unionist Party. I am certain that noble Lords will agree that this will provide welcome relief from pressures on the front line.
On the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill, although the increase in the regional rate is slightly above the rate of consumer price inflation, it is considerably less than the figure of 10% above inflation recommended in the options paper drawn up by the Northern Ireland Civil Service. As regards the business rate, the increase has been kept in line with inflation, and the small business rates relief scheme has been retained for the time being. Can the Minister indicate whether this scheme will be continued after the present scheme comes to an end later in the year? On the subject of the renewable heat incentive scheme, I welcome the retention of the cap on costs, which should prevent any future overspend.
Moving on to the Northern Ireland Assembly Members (Pay) Bill, I support the Secretary of State’s decision to take the power to vary MLAs’ pay and allowances. The Government are also correct to say that they will take the appropriate steps to stop the £500 MLA salary increase due in April. Again, this must be welcomed as a sensible move. I believe that the court of public opinion will be on the Government’s side here. I also welcome the decision to seek representations on this subject and to take full account of the independent report published recently.
Given the unfortunate continued absence of decision-makers at a local level, I am pleased that the Government have now acted to provide some much-needed clarity. Nevertheless, the restoration of a sustainable and fully functioning local Government for all the people of Northern Ireland must remain our focus. To the vast majority, it would be much more desirable for work to be able to continue across government with locally elected Ministers, who know what decisions will work and what decisions will not work in a local context. I would prefer that Bills such as those we are discussing today were laid before the Stormont Assembly in Belfast by a locally accountable Minister. Regrettably, instead of a sensible and balanced approach and a coherent way forward, the party that collapsed the devolved institutions 15 months ago set out a list of absolute preconditions, thereby prioritising the fulfilment of certain demands over governing in the interests of all the people.
However, the people of Northern Ireland still need key decisions to be made on education, health and public services. Although the legislation discussed today is welcome, it is vital to remember that during the past 15 months many key decisions have had to be postponed. In the absence of a functioning Assembly, will the Government be prepared to give permanent secretaries the power, or, in the last resort, to have Ministers provide guidance, direction and authority, and to make specific decisions on how the money allocated is to be spent? The current situation is not sustainable in the long term. There are examples—such as a number of decisions that will be made within the Department of Health and the Department for the Economy—that will require ministerial direction. These decisions are about allocation and prioritisation.
Since the breakdown of the Stormont talks there have been too many negative statements about the possibility of restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland. It is important that all parties return to the negotiating table as soon as possible, preferably without setting any preconditions. I am sure that the Secretary of State will spare no effort in trying to achieve this outcome, and that all noble Lords in this House will give her every possible encouragement and support in this difficult task.
My Lords, I have to admit that when I first looked at these Bills, I did not find myself being particularly enthusiastic. I thank our Front-Bench spokesmen and the new Secretary of State for at least endeavouring to meet to discuss the problems that I encounter. First and foremost, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Browne, in hoping that the Assembly will be back in place.
It has become very clear that Taoiseach Varadkar has actually encouraged Sinn Féin not to complete the talks, conditional on what happens in terms of Brexit. I supplied evidence of that to the Front-Bench Northern Ireland Office spokesman. For us then to find that the case is argued on the basis that one day everything in the garden will be rosy is a bit ridiculous and does not help us to sort out some of the problems.
Another area where I have to be blunt—some noble Lords have touched on this already—concerns civil servants in the Northern Ireland Office who have advised consecutive Secretaries of State. Many of these civil servants are not qualified to do that job. They quite literally do not know what they are talking about. To think that the head of the Civil Service permitted and encouraged no minute-taking, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, is the height of ridiculousness. Other people who have been employed are not qualified to deal with RHI. Some of them have literally no qualifications whatever. One has been described as not knowing his right hand from his left. I will not name Mr Hughes. Oh dear, I have. Anyhow, the reality is that the RHI scheme has been flawed from the outset. There is a similar scheme in Great Britain where the returns on lower consumption are about 150% of what they are in Northern Ireland. The returns on higher consumption are almost three times less in Northern Ireland than they are in Great Britain. Again, I have furnished the Minister with those figures. He has them in front of him. However we move forward, I want to see those matters addressed. The DfE originally projected a £490 million overspend on RHI over 20 years. Then that figure jumped to £700 million, but there has been no sign of the calculations that brought those figures about. An independent economist from Scotland has said that the overspend will be £100 million, and that figure has been supplied with evidence. How can the Government move us forward against all the hindrances that we face in Northern Ireland?
I digress for a moment. I hear more people claiming to be experts on border control in terms of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations than I believe know where Northern Ireland is. The reality is that it is frightening.
I come back to RHI. The amended tasks were set solely to bring the scheme back within budget with no regard to the tariffs required to pay debt and running costs. No business impact assessment was carried out before the 2017 regulations were passed. Nevertheless, we are about to run into the irreparable damage of taking that scheme and turning it into primary legislation. I have been reassured that, when the Assembly gets up and going, that can all be reversed—but when? In a year, two years, three years, four years? How are our farmers, who have borrowed money, expected to keep going if we have this open-ended threat to their livelihoods?
The whole basis on which Northern Ireland is being governed now is probably as good as we can get. I was encouraged to hear what the Secretary of State said this morning. But while we have so many new-found experts on Northern Ireland and on border controls, those who brought about the Belfast agreement—even those who disapproved of it initially but who made it work, and work well while it worked—and are now sitting in this House are seldom consulted. I hope that, with the new Secretary of State, that is going to change. Consider this: if we are to have direct rule in all but name, there are people here—I will not name them all—such as the noble Lords, Lord Bew, Lord Alderdice and Lord Kilclooney, and many others—who know exactly what is happening, who have loyalty to Northern Ireland and to the efficient running of Northern Ireland and who will, at no cost, be able to reinforce a direct rule, whether we call it that or not.
There are other aspects in relation to which I find a degree of almost-hypocrisy. One relates to elections in Northern Ireland, a matter which I have raised again and again through Questions in this House and on which I have not had a satisfactory answer. It astonishes me to hear Ministers lamenting that we do not have nationalists in Parliament. We did have Mark Durkan, Margaret Ritchie and Alasdair McDonnell, but they lost their seats because of cheating by Sinn Féin. I have never said that publicly before; I have hinted at it. That the number of proxy votes in Durkan’s constituency increased by 800% between 2010 and 2017 is almost unbelievable. When I asked what was being done, what did the chief electoral officer do? She said that we would eventually get a report. We all know that when the election took place in 2017, we got a one-and-a-half page report to the Secretary of State that was placed in the Library. It tells us absolutely nothing: it does not indicate how many times the PSNI has been asked to investigate this illegal voting. Are we afraid? Have successive Governments been afraid to face up to the reality that Sinn Féin abused the system, and did so to the extent that it does not matter whether you are a unionist or a nationalist? I worked in local government for many years, and I worked in peace and harmony with my nationalist colleagues. But Sinn Féin does not approve of that.
I will leave those thoughts with noble Lords today, specifically on RHI and the abuse of our 1,100 or so farmers, who are being impoverished because we have a scheme that is less efficient and has lower returns for them than the scheme throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.
In conclusion, I return to what I started with—the abuse of the border issue by Taoiseach Varadkar and by those here who try to tell us things that we know. I was born 80 years ago and grew up within a mile of the border. I know the border. It was no major problem until the IRA started shooting and importing arms and so on, and we can get that back. As I said before, there are good negotiators here who could sort that out if somebody had the courage and the common sense to come to speak to us about how matters could be addressed.
My Lords, I welcome the three Bills coming to the House today. Obviously, you can talk about almost anything on those Bills.
I will touch on an issue raised by several Members: Judge Hart’s inquiry into institutional abuse in Northern Ireland. We all sympathise with the need to find a way to resolve this issue. However, I have a question not only for the Minister but for Members of this House. Do they agree that the institutions that carried out the abuse should also be held to account and should have to look at providing some funding to resolve this issue? It is unfair that wholly taxpayers’ money is going to resolve this issue for victims. I sympathise with what Members have said, but the issue needs to be raised with the institutions that first created the abuse of the many victims out there today. Ministers, the Government and Members who raised this need to think about this.
The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, raised the border in Northern Ireland, which was discussed recently in this House. I never thought there were so many experts in this House on how we might resolve the border issue. I also said that the border issue has been used in some aspect as a political stick to beat the Prime Minister with. I think I am right in saying that; we have not come into some debates in this Chamber because of the way some Members of this House have abused this whole issue of the border. We can get a resolution to the border: it is not about hard border or soft border but about getting a reasonable settlement on the border. I probably live closer to the border than any other Member of this House. I know its importance and know about the goods traffic and the pedestrians that come across that border on a daily basis. All that is important, and certainly none of us on the island of Ireland want a hard border.
As I said, I welcome the three Bills; certainly, with no Executive in place, they are required to give much-needed certainty for the Northern Ireland Civil Service in safeguarding public services for the people of Northern Ireland. The Bills provide a secure legal footing for the Northern Ireland Civil Service. This debate is really about how departments spent their money last year. By looking at the Bills, we can see that some spent more than was allocated to them and some spent significantly less. The debate looks back at the past—at what was allocated, what has been spent and what additional money has been given to some departments. For example, the Department of Health got more. Where did that money come from? It came from the underspend of other departments. The debate also looks forward because a budget for Northern Ireland was set by the Secretary of State a couple of weeks ago. Now, each department in Northern Ireland knows its expenditure and the limit it has for next year. Departments can spend with confidence, knowing that the money is available to them and the limits within which they must spend it.
My noble friend Lord Browne touched on the Secretary of State’s announcement in the budget a few weeks ago of the first tranche of £410 million of our confidence and supply arrangements with the Government, which I welcome. I know that some people in the media and elsewhere said that this money would never come to Northern Ireland. It has now been delivered. Others said it would not come if there was no Executive in place. Of course, that has been proven wrong as well. As my noble friend Lord Browne rightly said, this money will be spent right across the community in Northern Ireland. I remember the announcement on our agreement with the Government quite well. Some Members of this House almost believed that this money would go to only one side of the community. In fact, some Members said that this money was actually coming to the DUP. This money will now be spent right across Northern Ireland, in every community—on schools, on hospitals, on roads, on mental health and in deprived communities. This money is over and above what we normally get in the Northern Ireland block grant.
I want to touch briefly on an issue that I met the Minister about recently. The Belfast city deal was announced by the Chancellor in last year’s Budget. I very much welcome and support it. It is an opportunity for Belfast to grow for the future. I also want to thank the Minister, who met a consortium from Londonderry —an area I have lived in for many years and represent in the Northern Ireland Assembly—led by the local authority and the mayor. It was seeking a city deal for Londonderry and the wider north-west community. I know that more work needs to be done on that issue, in getting buy-in from other local authorities in the north-west, but I believe that work is progressing. As others will know, city deals have worked extremely well across the United Kingdom, where they have been implemented and managed with expertise. They have been a huge success for inward investment, job creation and economic development. So, we welcome the Belfast city deal announced by the Government but I am now batting for a city deal for my region and my city, to build on job creation and economic development there for the future.
I want to say something quickly on the political process at the moment and where we are. My noble friend Lord Morrow and other Members touched on the fact that we are very keen to restore the Assembly sooner rather than later. We have no preconditions. We have no red lines. As the former First Minister Peter Robinson said recently, we cannot squander the years that have got us to where we are now in Northern Ireland. Those are years to which people committed themselves. The only way these issues will be resolved is by people getting around the table. We are keen to get around that table, but we also need to remind Sinn Féin, especially, that whatever agreement we reach needs to be balanced and one that both communities can buy into and take ownership of. If it is not that type of agreement, it will not work. Sinn Féin has been told this over and over again. It cannot be an agreement where one side takes all and says, “Thank you very much, but we’ll be back for more in maybe six months or a year’s time”. We are at a point in Northern Ireland—we see it here today with the Government having to introduce these Bills to the House—where we need a settlement that all the people of Northern Ireland can buy into. I think we can get there by being reasonable about all this and trying to reach an accommodation. That is where we are coming from as a party. We have no preconditions; we have no red lines. We want to get around the table and resolve the remaining issues that are a stumbling block to getting the Executive and the Assembly up and running.
My Lords, as we all know, these Bills are the inevitable consequence of the deeply unfortunate circumstances in which our fellow countrymen and women in Northern Ireland find themselves as a result of the failure of their political parties to agree on the means by which devolved government can be restored. Sinn Féin, buoyed up by electoral advance, has over recent months raised its terms for returning to government, prompting a widespread suspicion that it does not really want to return at all, while seeking to foist the blame for continuing deadlock on the Democratic Unionist Party. Political stability in Ulster is never likely to be a high priority for an organisation dedicated ultimately to removing Northern Ireland from our country. When power-sharing was first conceived, the possibility of Sinn Féin entering the seats of power did not feature in anyone’s worst nightmares.
Fortunately, in today’s very different conditions, we have a United Kingdom Government to whom the union is precious, as Mrs May has repeatedly made clear. It is the duty of Parliament, and of the Government accountable to it, to provide directly for the Province’s good governance if it cannot be secured in any other way. Exactly the same duty would arise if devolved government in Scotland or Wales ran into serious difficulties.
When the Northern Ireland Assembly is absent, Ulster lacks not only democratically accountable devolved government but an upper tier of local government answerable to elected representatives. Shortly before their suspension in 1972, the last Ulster Unionist Government passed legislation as part of their ambitious reform programme—now generally forgotten—which transferred all the principal local government services from county and county borough councils to Stormont, leaving only minor powers with a new set of district councils, now 11 in number. No other part of our country is in a similar position.
The logic of the reform was impeccable, not least because of the controversy that had raged since the partition of Ireland about the tendency of both unionist and non-unionist councils to show undue favour towards their own supporters. It was agreed that an all-Ulster institution would be better placed to discharge responsibility fairly, particularly since, in a very modest way, power-sharing was now beginning to be considered by the Ulster Unionist Party under Brian Faulkner, a man whom I greatly admired and who was all too briefly a Member of this House before his sudden death in a riding accident in 1977.
However, that important reform more than 40 years ago means that, today, Ulster has a very large democratic deficit. The fact that a Bill is before us to set a regional rate in the Province, which still retains the old system of local government finance—as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, reminded us—is a stark reminder of Ulster’s double democratic misfortune. Officials in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, highly regarded for the most part but now unanswerable to elected representatives in Ulster or to Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, are in charge of all services above the district council level. Nothing quite like this has been seen in our country since the 19th century.
Plainly, Northern Ireland as it finds itself today needs these three measures. The pay of Members of the Assembly must of course be docked to an appropriate extent, as an independent review has advised, since they cannot perform their legislative role and are limited to providing an advisory service to their constituents and to acting as a conduit between them and civil servants in the Northern Ireland departments. Above all, Northern Ireland needs the elegantly phrased Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill. It provides full legal approval, as we have heard, for public spending in the financial year that is drawing to a close and will keep the money flowing into vital public services in the first part of the financial year that will begin shortly.
There is widespread agreement about the central question which now arises. As several Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies asked in the other place last week—the noble Lord, Lord Browne, raised the matter again today—who is to decide the allocation of money to ensure that sustained progress can be made in improving services: above all, education and health, where major reforms are so badly required? Acute controversy always and naturally arises in such circumstances. Are civil servants to be left to face it as best they can, or will serious reform once again be delayed in the continued absence of an Assembly, damaging vital services still further?
It was deeply disturbing to listen recently to a delegation of mental health experts from the Province who addressed a group of Members of both Houses. Issues that need to be settled so that an adequate service can be delivered to those suffering acute mental health problems are constantly deferred. Meanwhile, the suicide rate remains shockingly high. We have heard other serious instances from the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Empey, of important decisions delayed. The Government provide us with no assessment of the likelihood of restoring devolution and the upper tier of local government that is bound up with it. For 15 months they have kept on saying that they are working tirelessly to secure agreement among the Northern Ireland parties, and that they are focused entirely on that task, but nowhere is success keenly anticipated, to put it mildly. It is hard not to conclude that the impasse will continue unless Sinn Féin scales back its heightened demands, and of that there is, sadly, no sign.
Instead of waiting interminably for circumstances to change, is it not time to shift the focus so that it rests on the best means of securing the good governance of our fellow countrymen and women in Northern Ireland in the circumstances that actually face them and us today? Indeed, after 15 long months, is that not our duty?
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap. In the brief time I feel I ought to spend I want to speak about the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill. What we have had in Northern Ireland is Stormont rule, direct rule and now, civil servant rule. I am sure that when there was Stormont rule the Stormont Assembly would have had something akin to a public accounts committee, and therefore there would be some scrutiny of expenditures. I recall well during my 18 years in this place, when there was direct rule I spent many hours scrutinising the Northern Ireland budget—only scratching the surface, quite frankly; nevertheless, some work was done on that. My concern is that under this civil servant rule there is no scrutiny at all. This document tells us of many billions that have been spent in the 361 days of the current year and the four days that are left, and more billions for the beginning of next year.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, mentioned early in the debate his concern about money being available to assist people who were hurt and damaged in the early days of the Troubles. Surely, any form of scrutiny could have looked at that and insisted that money be put into the budget. Similarly, we do not know whether there is money in the forthcoming budget that will not be required—that wonderful phrase that I learnt in local government, “virement”, can be used here.
This Bill talks about anticipation. What does the Minister anticipate can possibly be done? Can there be a new way of thinking about scrutiny—the creation somehow of a scrutiny body, whether it is made up of Members of this House, the other place or, indeed, Members of the Assembly, who are not being used fully at present? Surely, it is right that there should be some scrutiny of civil servant rule.
My Lords, it has been a fascinating if short debate. It has been a timely one, too, because this is the last occasion we will debate this issue in either House of Parliament before we celebrate or commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday or Belfast agreement in two or three weeks’ time. Looking around the Chamber, I see Members of your Lordships’ House who played a huge part in that agreement. The noble Lords, Lord Maginnis, Lord Trimble, Lord Empey and Lord Bew, and others brought that enormous triumph to fruition just two decades ago. Of course, these three Bills are the result of the institutions which the Good Friday agreement set up collapsing. That is the tragedy and reality of today’s proceedings. We should not have these Bills because there should be a functioning Assembly and a functioning Executive.
With regard to the Bill on the budget, my friend in the other place, who until recently was the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Smith—I deeply regret his departure from that job because he knew a great deal about Northern Ireland and had a lot of experience—as well as my noble friend Lord Hain and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to the pensions of victims of the Troubles. The opportunity for the Government to deal with this matter is before us. I know there is controversy on this point, but if controversy surrounds just 10 victims as opposed to 490 who are not subject to controversy, I see no reason why we cannot park the argument about the 10 and carry on giving compensation to the nearly 500 remaining victims. After all, as my noble friend Lord Hain said in his very moving speech, that number will inevitably reduce as the months and years go by.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to the inquiry under Sir Anthony Hart, and the compensation for victims of historical abuse in Northern Ireland. There seems to be no reason at all why the Government cannot under these powers ensure that compensation is paid to those people who have suffered abused in the decades gone by.
With regard to the rates, obviously we have to agree with the increase—I put them up myself when I was the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland a long time ago. It is not a very nice thing to do to the people of Northern Ireland but it is essential to ensure that services are maintained. I agree that we should support the Government on that Bill and, indeed, on the RHI issue. I hope that the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, with regard to that matter will be taken up by the Minister in his reply.
With regard to the pay for MLAs, obviously we agree with the Government’s intentions and with the indication in Trevor Reaney’s report that there should be a 27% reduction in their pay. It should not affect their constituency offices or their staff but of course it will be welcomed by public opinion in Northern Ireland. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that we have to take great care that we do not dismiss an entire political class that has arisen over the past 20 years. If we took away their pay completely we might have to start all over again, and I do not think that is a very good idea. In a sense, it is an admission of failure to have to reduce the pay of MLAs. Indeed, when I was Secretary of State for some years, although I reduced the pay of MLAs, I never stopped it. I was criticised for not stopping it but it was important to ensure that the political class that had grown up in Northern Ireland was maintained.
Of course, the answer to all this is the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive. The noble Lords, Lord Lexden and Lord Hay, both talked of the importance of that. I do not underestimate the difficulties in bringing the Assembly and the Executive back. After all, it has to do with trust and confidence on both sides. That is not always easy. Obviously, the sticking point is the Irish language but there are other issues as well. Members of your Lordships’ House who were involved in those negotiations over 20 years ago will remember the issues that we were discussing then—police, the release of prisoners, the issue of consent, the Assembly, the Executive, human rights, equality, criminal justice, the change of the Irish constitution, and so on—but we managed it. It took us a long time to do it but we managed it, so it does not seem a huge issue to be overcome.
I remind your Lordships’ House that in a way these three Bills are drifting towards real direct rule. I do not believe the Government want that. I do not believe that anybody in this Chamber actually wants direct rule. It certainly is not the answer. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, referred to the importance of having local people taking local decisions. Certainly, when I was a direct rule Minister for five years, I did not think I was the right person to be taking decisions on hospitals, schools and roads when I represented a Welsh constituency in the House of Commons. It was not right that I should be doing all those things; nor is it right now that civil servants, for all their effectiveness and knowledge, are taking decisions about the lives of people in Northern Ireland; nor should British Ministers be doing it.
The other problem is that when we have direct rule, politicians become supplicants. They do not take decisions, they ask for things. Sometimes it is easy to have direct rule—not to take the difficult and nasty decisions on closing a hospital or building a school somewhere or whatever it might be. Those are harsh, difficult decisions and sometimes it is easier to be the supplicant rather than the decision-maker.
It will be disastrous in the long term if there is direct rule. I just want to repeat some of the things that the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and my noble friend Lord Hain said about trying to ensure that none of this happens. The involvement of the Prime Minister is vital. As we look back on how we achieved the Good Friday agreement 20 years ago, it was because two Prime Ministers were negotiating these issues day by day and through the night, over a period not of months but of years. Perhaps we need an independent referee. In two weeks’ time Senator Mitchell will be in Belfast commemorating that anniversary—perhaps we need another Senator Mitchell.
It is important that all the parties in Northern Ireland should be involved in transparent talks, not just the two big parties—they are the most important ones, of course, but there are other parties in Northern Ireland and often issues can be raised and challenged in all-party meetings. You would have to involve the Irish Government as far as you could, constitutionally. As the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, touched on, we should not let Brexit distract us from the importance of ensuring that we restore our institutions in Northern Ireland.
The problem is that over two decades people have become a little complacent. They have taken things for granted. They forget what it was like 25 or 30 years ago in Northern Ireland. A whole generation has grown up not knowing the Troubles. You would have to be in your 40s in Northern Ireland to understand what it was like before we signed the Good Friday agreement, and then you were only a child.
I return finally to the fact that we are commemorating that agreement signed 20 years ago, which should be the spur to local politicians, the Government, the Irish Government and all of us in Parliament to ensure that we restore those institutions as quickly as we possibly can.
My Lords, this has been a very wide-ranging discussion, as it always is when we confront the serious issues we encounter in Northern Ireland. I am struck by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, who spoke of the Belfast city deal and the Derry/Longdonderry city deal. Would it not be great if that was all we were talking about today: the UK Government’s contribution to a deal determined by an Executive in Northern Ireland which was about jobs, growth, employment and prospects? Would that not be something that we could celebrate?
However, we are not doing that, and more is the pity. I do not detect any dispute among noble Lords today that we must take forward these three Bills. I recognise that we are doing so in an expedited manner, and for that I apologise on behalf of the Government, but that is what we must do today. I am conscious that a number of the issues that have been raised today are about future spend, and it is important to stress that the Bills before us here today are, in effect, about regularising the 2017-18 spend, the spend that we are currently engaged in delivering. A separate Bill will be brought before another place and this House with regard to specific provisions of future spend inside Northern Ireland. That will be an opportunity again to touch upon a number of these issues as we go forward.
Before I delve into the budget itself, it is important to talk a little about future talks and the future status as a number of noble Lords have raised those matters—I thank the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for doing so. We are in a period of reflection. That is sometimes used euphemistically, but it means to look inside and ask yourself what is going on and what should be going on. This period will be short, I hope. It is also important to stress that during the talks progress was made. We did not get to the other side of the chasm, but we made substantial progress, and it is on that basis that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland continues to emphasise that she is of the view that we will find the means of bringing about an agreement upon which we can build and which will, I hope, supersede all that we do here today.
As we consider the various elements that might help us move forward—the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, has raised a number of these points—we welcome Senator George Mitchell to our shores. We pay tribute to the service he rendered our country in helping bring about that agreement in the past. As I have said on more than one occasion, we are not ruling out an independent referee, to use that term. If I may be frank, I would welcome noble Lords’ thoughts in that regard. Nothing can be ruled out. We need to be conscious of that.
It is important for me to emphasise that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been very active in this regard, and I do not doubt that she will continue to be active. Indeed, as we mark and celebrate the Belfast agreement—the Good Friday agreement—the Prime Minister will be in Belfast taking part in those celebrations, marking that important moment and meeting participants at that time.
The core point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, was the notion of what model we can look at to see this afresh. Part of the challenge for anyone who listened to or read of the outcomes of the two recent conferences of the two principal parties in Northern Ireland is that it is clear that there is no alternative model ready to be pulled off the shelf. I am sad to say that, but it is a simple statement of fact. If there was, I believe we would have done so already. That does not mean that it cannot be found, but it certainly means that we have not yet found it. It is sad, but I must reflect upon that point.
If I may touch upon the Bills themselves, I am struck again by some of the very useful remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey—they always are useful. I will not go into the details of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, which I suspect are well known in our House, but it remains our overriding priority to see devolution restored—I cannot, frankly, say that often enough—so that a new Executive can take decisions on a range of strategic issues and respond directly to Sir Anthony’s report. For anyone who has read it and recognised what it contains, it makes challenging reading. Of that there is no doubt. The courage and dignity of those who have taken part in that particular inquiry are to be commended. I acknowledge the frustration so many feel about the lack of progress, particularly in the absence of an Executive to consider that particular report. But I welcome the preparatory work being taken forward by the Executive office to enable action to be taken swiftly once an Executive is restored.
As to the matter of the wider question of legacy, we do have a very clear duty to survivors and victims to bring forward proposals to address the legacy of the past. There is broad agreement among victims and survivors that the legacy institutions, as they are currently set up, are not working. That is a sad admission in itself. We continue to seek the implementation of the legacy institutions in the Stormont House agreement as the best way to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors. We believe that the institutions have the potential to provide better outcomes. We believe that very strongly. The proposed Stormont House legacy institutions would be under legal obligation to be balanced, proportionate, transparent, fair and equitable. The next phase is to consult publicly on the details of how the new institutions will work in practice. A public consultation will provide everyone with an interest the opportunity to see the proposed way forward and contribute to the discussion on the issues. The Government want to begin that consultation soon with the aim of building support and confidence in the new legacy institutions from across the community. We are obliged to move forward so that the victims and survivors are able to see progress—not just hope that it will occur in due course. We continue to support reforms of the legacy inquest system to provide the best way to address this. We are also committed to provide £150 million—
That was a question I did not anticipate. I thought you might ask when it would begin, but not how long it would be. On that basis, I will write to the noble Baroness with the specific duration, as I do not have that information to hand.
If I may turn my attention to the harrowing remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who opened the debate today. There are complex issues. A number of noble Lords have touched upon this. I have in front of me a very clear statement of the Government position, which I will read out. We will work to seek an acceptable way forward on the proposal for a pension for severely physically injured victims for a restored Executive to take forward. I hope a new Executive might bring forward a pension proposal that has the support of and meets the need of victims and survivors in Northern Ireland. I know that does not respond adequately to the points he raised in his remarks. If he will forgive me, might I suggest we meet after this point to discuss this further? That would be useful and important.
I am grateful for the Minister for his positive response. May I ask him to reflect before we meet—and I am grateful for that invitation—on the fact that we do not know how long it will take to restore the Executive? This Government and this Parliament have responsibility ultimately for legacy matters. There is no reason why the small cost could not be proceeded to at least rectify one injustice while the wider question of the legacy issues is addressed.
I thank the noble Lord for that point. Yes, I will reflect before we meet, and I hope we can meet soon.
If I may touch upon some of the wider issues raised, a number of noble Lords made the point about the question of particular meetings taking place without minutes being taken and so on. I thought I had better seek guidance from the wise people in the Box. They have come back simply saying it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the actions of the Northern Ireland Civil Service nor the ongoing public inquiry. What I can say in my own personal capacity is that minutes matter and should be taken.
I am conscious that a number of points were raised about the RHI question. There is an inquiry exploring how the scheme itself was constructed and put together, and I invite all noble Lords who contributed today to take the opportunity to make their points very clearly to that inquiry. I am aware, however, that the Bill before us today has a very specific purpose, which is to allow an extension of one year only to the current arrangements with a sunset clause. I am conscious that a number of individuals will be concerned about this initiative, and we need to find a way to bring some comfort to them as they contemplate what that will mean. I hope there will be a welcome outcome. I have specific notes here saying that there will be a 12-week consultation period—helpfully, this time I have the exact duration—between April and June, when these views can be put. We are working against the deadline of
The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, described himself as blunt. I think we can all endorse that view. The points that he made are none the less important. Specifically, he questioned how the Northern Ireland scheme compares to the scheme in the rest of the UK. If he will forgive me, I will write to him on that point so that we can set out in greater detail how the two schemes measure against each other. There are a number of technical aspects that I hope will be able to be addressed in that letter.
I emphasise again that the purpose of moving this forward for one year is not to enshrine this approach for ever but rather to provide an opportunity for the incoming Executive to focus quickly and carefully on what I believe are a number of the well-established flaws in this approach and to address them head-on. We have, I hope, time in which we can do that, and the notion that we are creating primary legislation in this instance should be no impediment to that because of the manner in which the Bills themselves are drafted. I hope that will help the noble Lord to address this.
I am aware that on more than one occasion the noble Lord has raised the point about the wisdom that is contained within this House. I too am grateful for that, even during today’s debate. I believe that, as the talks and discussions are ongoing, that wisdom should be drawn upon. I welcome again the meeting that took place between my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and some of your Lordships earlier today. I would like to see that happen with greater frequency so that we can ensure that, as the ideas begin to coalesce and crystallise, the views in this House are taken forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Bew, raised the issue of how we can understand the breakdown of the data. After the last time when we spoke on this matter, I am aware that I promised to give him that breakdown of the data but I fear that I may not have done so as yet. The noble Lord is right: it is important that we not only understand what we are doing at the moment but see it as part of a longer trend so that we understand exactly what is happening in Northern Ireland and interrogate the data where there appear to be things that on the surface do not look as if they are comparable with anywhere else. I would much rather see the five-year rolling cycle of data that can be fully interrogated. I commit again to breaking down the data with regard to the educational question, and I hope to be able to give some greater clarification in that regard.
As to the notion of the Commonwealth games, I am happy to give a personal commitment on that matter. I would like to think that the Government would join me in that commitment; that is an initiative that would be well worth taking forward.
I am conscious that the noble Lord, Lord Browne, raised an interesting point regarding the continuity of the business rate support scheme. Helpfully, the little note that I got back from the Box simply contained the word “Yes”, so I believe that that particular scheme will indeed be continuing. If the noble Lord requires further details, I can provide them as well.
I shall touch on some of the matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. I am aware that we have squeezed this debate into a very short time, and for that I apologise. I would much prefer a Northern Ireland Executive to take as long as they felt they needed to interrogate all this. I would much prefer that Executive to be dealing with it because they are living it, rather than sitting on burgundy Benches, but we are not quite there yet. I hope I have addressed the issues about the minutes to the noble Lord’s satisfaction—or as best I can. I am aware of the concern he raised about the heating initiative and I hope we can make some progress to give certainty there.
As for the wider questions of legacy, support for victims and so on, the noble Lord is absolutely correct: this needs to be above politics. It is humanitarian; it is not and should not be a matter for partisan division, and I hope we can take it forward on that basis. Progress will need to be made on that sooner rather than later.
My noble friend Lord Lexden raised an important issue about mental health. I can confirm that there will be £10 million in the budgetary cycle of 2018-19 to address those specific and serious issues, which I believe will be necessary.
Commenting on the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, we too, on this side, regret the departure of Owen Smith. He was an asset to the ongoing discussion and leaves behind a void. I am sorry to see that.
In conclusion, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, pointed out that he was not the right person to take forward direct rule in Northern Ireland. Nor am I. I am no better equipped—frankly, far less equipped—than he is.
Before the Minister sits down, I draw his attention to one thing that he and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said: perhaps it would be a good idea to have a second-generation George Mitchell. We do not want another George Mitchell. Much as we loved him, much as we worked under him and much as we sought to achieve an agreement, that agreement was voted on north and south. I have nothing more to concede as an Ulster Unionist, and I hope noble Lords will remember that.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, who makes his point clear, as always. I understand exactly what he is saying.
On that basis, I hope your Lordships will accept that this is not what we want to do, it is not how we want to do it and it is not when we want to do it, but it is what we must do.
Before the noble Lord sits down, I ask him to reflect on the Judge Hart inquiry. If I picked up him correctly, he indicated that this would await the return of an Executive. I point out to him that every solitary MLA I am aware of supports the implementation of that inquiry. Other parties represented here can say no if they disagree. Every party supports it. Some of the material in the report is very harrowing. One lady started off in the system at four years old. She is now 87. How much more do we have to put these people through? I therefore ask the Minister to discuss with his colleagues and reflect on that.
Secondly, on the RHI scheme, although I appreciate that this is a renewal, it was originally based on no substantive information. I suggest that the Minister again consult his colleagues and ensure that a proper working party is established to alleviate this, because people are losing their livelihoods as a result of this botched scheme.
Just before the Minister gets to his feet, I should like to say that I broadly agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said. There is no doubt that all the political parties in Northern Ireland want this issue resolved. The issue I raised earlier was that the institutions that carried out the abuse should be made to pay for some of that abuse and repent for all of it. I do not think there is an issue in resolving this, but it would be totally wrong if only taxpayers’ money was used to resolve it.
I thank both noble Lords for their interventions, and I will reflect on them.
As to the RHI scheme, there will be an opportunity to feed in about past failings. The key thing now is to ensure that its future workability is also examined in some detail. These are matters on which I hope we can move forward on that basis. Therefore, I beg to move.
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time, and passed.