My Lords, with regret and despite our best efforts to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland political parties have not yet been able to reach an agreement to enable an Executive to be formed. As a result, and as noble Lords will be aware, it has fallen to the Northern Ireland Civil Service to continue to deliver public services in the interests of all communities in Northern Ireland. I join my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in commending the Northern Ireland Civil Service’s ongoing professionalism and commitment in these trying circumstances.
I assure the House that the UK Government have noted the recent Buick ruling and the questions that it has raised on the wider ability of the Northern Ireland Civil Service to continue to take decisions in the absence of an Executive. Both the NICS and the UK Government are considering the judgment very carefully indeed.
In the continued absence of an Executive, the Government have taken all necessary steps to support the Civil Service, to ensure good governance and to protect the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland. Of course this is not the first time that I have asked the House to consider a budget for Northern Ireland and I therefore beg noble Lords’ forgiveness if the explanation that I am about to provide is a little familiar to some of you gathered here.
Noble Lords will recall that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State provided a Northern Ireland budget for 2018-19 in a Statement to Parliament on
Building on that certainty, Parliament then approved as part of the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipations and Adjustments) Act in late March 2018 a vote on account, which essentially provides the Northern Ireland Civil Service with the legal authority to actually incur expenditure and allocate funds in line with this budget position in the early months of the financial year. As is normal process with a vote on account, the limit is set to a maximum of 45% of the previous financial year’s allocations. As a consequence, further legislation is now required to provide the legal authority for the Northern Ireland departments to access the full funding available for the whole financial year. Without such legislation, the only avenue available would be for the Northern Ireland Civil Service to deploy the emergency powers under Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to allocate resources. The Government are committed to avoiding that necessity.
In order to put my right honourable friend the Secretary of State’s budget Statement on to a legal footing, to provide the Northern Ireland Civil Service with the legal authority to fully access available funds, and to avoid the need for the Northern Ireland Civil Service to resort to using emergency powers, I ask that noble Lords consider this necessary budget Bill.
This is a short, technical Bill. It would authorise the Northern Ireland departments and certain other bodies to incur expenditure of up to £8.9 billion and to use resources totalling up to £9.9 billion for the financial year ending
While the legislation sets the headline departmental allocations only, it does not prescribe how the Northern Ireland Civil Service departments allocate these funds. In the absence of an Executive, it is for the Northern Ireland departments to implement their own budgets. How the Northern Ireland departments allocate these budgets is set out in a detailed main estimates Command Paper.
While this is a Northern Ireland budget being brought forward by a UK Government, it does not and should not be taken as a move towards direct rule. Nor does it remove the pressing need to have locally accountable politicians in place to take the long-term decisions needed to secure the future for the people of Northern Ireland.
While this is a technical budget Bill, we recognise the constitutional significance of Parliament having to deliver this for Northern Ireland. I therefore draw noble Lords’ attention to two important issues that do not form a part of the Bill expressly but which will be of interest to your Lordships as we debate the Bill.
First, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State highlighted in her budget Statement, the overall figures allocated to departments include a further £410 million of UK Government money from the £1 billion supply and confidence agreement. To be clear, the figures in the Bill include the £410 million. The Bill is not legislating for this amount. It was approved by Parliament for release as part of the UK main estimates Bill. This Bill simply allows the £410 million to be spent by the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and details of how it will be spent are set out in the Northern Ireland main estimates document. It should be noted that this is on top of the £20 million already released in 2017-18 to help address pressures in the areas of health and education.
Secondly, there is the matter of the accountability structures in place. In addition to placing all NIAO audits and value-for-money reports and the associated departmental responses in the Libraries of both Houses to enable accessibility and visibility to all interested Members and committees, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will also write to the Northern Ireland political parties, highlighting publication of the reports and encouraging engagement with their findings. This is as robust a process as is possible in the circumstances. However, the best form of overall accountability and scrutiny of Northern Ireland’s public finances would, of course, be that undertaken by an Executive and a sitting Assembly in Northern Ireland.
The UK Government remain committed to providing Northern Ireland with good governance and political stability while efforts continue to restore devolved government at the earliest possible opportunity. Northern Ireland and its people deserve strong political leadership from a locally elected and locally accountable devolved Government. This remains our firm and absolute priority for the weeks and months to come. That said, in the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland, the UK Government will always deliver on their responsibilities for good governance and political stability. On that basis, I beg to move.
My Lords, before I begin my remarks today I will briefly pay tribute to my colleague, David Ford, the former leader of the Alliance Party and Justice Minister, who has stepped down as an MLA. David is a person of great integrity and honour, who made many personal sacrifices as leader of the Alliance Party. Given how controversial the devolution of policing and justice was at the time, it is thanks to David’s skill and leadership that it was so stable during his tenure as Minister for Justice. Northern Ireland will miss his political judgment and courage, and from these Benches we wish him all the best in his retirement.
I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill before the House today. However, I deeply regret that it has been necessary for him to do so. There seems to have been little, if any, progress made to restore the power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland since the last budget Bill was discussed in March.
In recent years, the run-up to the 12th has been largely peaceful. However, last week we witnessed levels of violence we have not seen for many years. I pay tribute to the bravery of the fire officers and police officers in Northern Ireland for their courage and professionalism in recent days and for all they did to protect the public during this upsurge in violence. This repugnant behaviour came from a minority of thugs who care nothing for their local communities. Local residents are sick and tired of violence, and the vast majority of people want this violence to be stopped—and as soon as possible. We know all too well in Northern Ireland that violence can easily fill the vacuum created by an absence of a political process.
I recognise and welcome the joint statement from the leaders of the main political parties to condemn the recent violence, but I am deeply concerned that most of the political parties, and indeed the Government, have shown very little leadership in recent months. It is extremely disappointing that there is virtually no visible evidence of any progress towards recreating an Executive since we debated the previous budget legislation in March. At that time the Minister stated:
“We are in a period of reflection”.—[Official Report, 27/3/18; col. 756.]
He hoped that this period would be short. That was four months ago, and I wonder how much longer we need to reflect on the issues in contention, when politicians in Northern Ireland, so many of them present in this Chamber today, have overcome much more difficult issues in the past. There currently appears to be no impetus for the parties to actually get round the table and resolve their differences. The obstacles to forming an Executive are minimal, but the political will is lacking and party-political advantage by both the DUP and Sinn Féin is being put ahead of the wider good.
In the meantime, it is the people of Northern Ireland who are bearing the brunt of the stalemate at Stormont. In the absence of an Executive, key decisions affecting economic planning, infrastructure, health, education, housing, transport and the local environment are not being taken. There is also no prospect of social issues, such as abortion and equal marriage—issues that affect ordinary people’s lives—being resolved at a devolved level. Does the Minister agree that a further consequence of the continued absence of an Executive is that important social issues, such as abortion, continue to be unresolved? The Minister previously said,
“we should not be relying on a Victorian law. It is time for change”.—[
So are the Government giving active consideration to taking some of these issues of disagreement off the table by legislating at Westminster?
The Minister told me during the debate on the previous budget Bill in March that,
“there is no alternative model ready to be pulled off the shelf”.—[
Can he now say whether serious consideration is being given to the proposals from the Alliance Party to kick-start the talks process? Can he say what concrete measures the Government are planning to take during the summer to bring the parties back around the table? In earlier legislation, the Government took powers to reduce MLA salaries. They have not yet used these powers. Alliance has produced detailed proposals to allow some functions of the Assembly to take place without an Executive. Have the Government given serious consideration to these proposals, which are made with the intention that they would operate in parallel with any talks? This would at least provide some sort of democratic oversight and engagement, which is, sadly, very much lacking at the moment. As has been said in many previous debates—indeed, it was said by the Minister this afternoon—the Civil Service in Northern Ireland is doing an excellent job, but continued government by civil service is neither desirable nor sustainable.
I asked the Minister in the debate in March whether the Government would consider legislating for the funding of legacy inquests, and to provide compensation for victims following the historical abuse inquiry, as well as pensions for victims and survivors. What consideration have the Government given to these matters in the intervening months?
The Good Friday/Belfast agreement was entrusted to the political parties in Northern Ireland, as well as to the British and Irish Governments, for safekeeping. On these Benches, we remain committed to devolution and we want to see the Executive restored, but we must beware of making the best the enemy of the good. The best solution is, of course, to have a fully restored Executive—I do not think that anybody in this Chamber would disagree with that—but doing nothing, or not giving proper consideration to all alternative proposals to bring back some confidence in the democratic process, is simply not sustainable.
As Brian Rowan wrote in the wake of the violence of the 12th:
“What happened was a reminder of a still imperfect peace and a wake-up call to shake all of us out of our complacency”.
For the sake of the people in Northern Ireland, the Government must now take urgent action to inject some urgency into the talks process and end the current political impasse.
My Lords, one of the primary duties of any elected body, whether it is a local authority, a regional authority or a national parliament, is to deal with budgetary matters, to scrutinise them, to assess them and to determine how budgets are spent. This is the second occasion in a few months when a budget has come before this House which has not been scrutinised or subject to the views of elected representatives, but has been produced here as a fait accompli without any proper scrutiny. I accept the logistics of there being no alternative to having this measure before us today, but it is a sad reflection of the absolute, complete and total failure that has been the hallmark of events in Northern Ireland over the last couple of years—not the last few months. This is not a new phenomenon; it has been happening for some considerable time.
The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, has just reflected on some of the events that have occurred on the ground over the last few weeks. One of the outstanding issues is police pay. We depend on these people, who are out there being shot at, stoned and abused. I quote the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, which has now,
“formally submitted its pay claim for 2018 with no sign of Officers getting what they are entitled under the 2017 recommendations”.
What provision has been made in this budget for a possible pay rise? How is such a pay rise to be implemented, or will the issue just sit here while the morale and position of the police continue to be left in this vacuum? I do not believe that is satisfactory in any set of circumstances, and the House is entitled to hear a positive response from the Minister as to how this is to be dealt with. Other pay rises for other public sector workers have been resolved, but this one has not. There are few groups of people in public service, in Northern Ireland or anywhere else, who are entitled to have their pay rises resolved over the police.
The noble Baroness also mentioned the Hart inquiry, which dealt with historical abuse. We raised this in the debate we had in March. I entirely accept that there is more than state involvement here. There is the responsibility of various Churches and other organisations, which may have insurers, which have to play a role. However, the people who were abused are being abused all over again. Some of them are reaching advanced years. Some of the people who have suffered most have recently died. This is moving away from them, despite the absolute unanimity from all parties and MLAs. There is not a single one that disagrees with the distribution of resources as a result of Judge Hart’s inquiry, yet we are still sitting here paralysed and these people are suffering once again.
I also ask the noble Lord whether any provision has been made in this budget for an appeal that is to be heard on behalf of the RHI boiler owner-operators. They are appealing against the cap that was put on them by the Assembly last year. That appeal is coming up in October. Has any provision been made in these estimates for that appeal being lost because, if it is, we will go back to the regime that was originally installed by the then Minister, Mrs Foster? That could have significant budgetary implications. We know that that whole escapade is one of the most disgraceful and disreputable examples of grossly inefficient government. In fact, as the Minister and her £85,000-a-year adviser admitted that they had never even read these few pages of legislation, the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to some explanation and also to know whether any provision has been made for that.
We also have the biggest challenge of all, which has barely been mentioned. That of course is Brexit, which is coming up. I know the Prime Minister is visiting tomorrow and Friday, and I welcome that. I hope other people will not describe her arrival as a “distraction”, which happened on the last occasion she went. We keep being told by the Minister that the Government are consulting people in Northern Ireland. Are they consulting Members of this House? I do not know which people are being consulted. I hope the Government are consulting, but can they tell me who they are consulting? I do not know, apart obviously from Members of Parliament in the other place, which is right and proper. They are entitled to be consulted, and should be, but they are not the only people who represent or have a view. Who else is being consulted? We are at a critical point and, whatever the shenanigans at the other end of the building earlier this week, this matter is not resolved. There is no guarantee that the present proposals will resolve it. I believe that a functioning Assembly could unlock a series of opportunities to resolve the matters. Sadly, we seem to have abandoned any significant attempt to bring that about.
When we last debated these matters—this is going back into last year—the Minister said in a number of interventions that the Government were going to think outside the box. The sad thing is that the Northern Ireland Office does not have a box outside which one can think. It has a sarcophagus, which was sealed hermetically in ancient times, and no one dares let any light or fresh air into that box to bring in new ideas. There are no new ideas. Has anybody heard of a new idea coming forward in the last number of months? I have heard nothing. We are at a complete standstill and this is being allowed to go on and on. Great damage is being done. When it could be so helpful to the Government’s efforts on Brexit, you would surely think that a serious effort would be made to resolve it and find alternative ways forward. There is no new thinking; that is the problem.
I want to move to another serious matter, which is the question of health. In the last statistics, produced on
There is one step that the Government could take on health, which would not take a lot of new thinking or set a precedent. The Minister will recall that when Stormont got into trouble over welfare reform, the power over welfare was brought back here and, when the matter had been resolved, it was then sent back to Stormont. We are talking about a Northern Ireland budget, which is the job of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and we have had to take that back here because it is the only way to keep the lights on. I appeal to the Minister, on humanitarian grounds, to do something for these people whose lives are endangered. I have heard anecdotally of cases where I am absolutely convinced that the delays have caused deaths. On humanitarian grounds, I ask him and the Government to take the power over health back here in the short term, pending the final re-establishment of devolution. What more important issue could there possibly be? What political sacrifice are we making? Who is going to be annoyed? Who do we not want to upset by taking the health power, so as to have a Minister who can take decisions—after the decision of the court in the Buick case, which means that civil servants cannot take decisions?
I believe that it would be appropriate to bring that health power back here now. It could be done in September. We could then at least resolve some of the worst aspects of the health issue back home, by having somebody who could take decisions. When devolution is restored—we hope—the power can go back. We have already done that with welfare, and we are now in the middle of doing it for finance. There is no reason why it cannot be done for health. This should not be a political thing; it is a humanitarian thing, and I think there are lots of people back in Northern Ireland who would warmly welcome it.
I appeal to the Minister: if there is any new thinking, please tell us what it is. Even if there is none, this is not something that would arouse great hostility in this House or in the other place, and I believe that it would be warmly welcomed by the people of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I first thank the Minister for giving us the statement today. I know how reluctant he was to do that, and he has done the best that can be done with what is essentially an impossible and depressing task. My remarks are designed to help ensure that a year from now he does not have to do it again, and I hope that he will accept them in that context, and that spirit.
The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, mentioned the retirement of David Ford. May I say how strongly I echo those remarks? I, and other Members of your Lordships’ House who sit on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, will greatly miss him. I am glad that the noble Baroness paid him that tribute, because she was absolutely right. The devolution of policing and justice was a difficult, complex, dangerous task, and he played a major role in getting it right.
I support the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, about health, and I add one footnote, which is a comment on devolution as well as on the period of direct rule. Everybody in the United Kingdom knows that we are told that we have such major problems with our health service because of our ageing population. But that does not apply in Northern Ireland. Ours is a relatively youthful population, so there is a question mark over why the figures are as dire as the noble Lord said—and they are dire. This is as difficult and sensitive an issue as the noble Lord said, and the need for a policy is pressing. His analogy with how welfare reform was handled not long ago was interesting and powerful.
As is openly stated in paragraph 43 of the helpful explanatory notes to the Bill, we are meeting on the wilder shores of the Sewel principle. This has been made an even more difficult moment by the recent judgment of the judiciary in the Buick case, which basically means that, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has just said, civil servants can no longer make decisions. The judgment was provoked by a relatively small case involving an incinerator in County Antrim, but the implications are massive.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, also mentioned Brexit. It is the big problem about the restoration of devolution, which we all wish to see. Everybody knows there are a number of other issues. In recent times, the Irish language Act has possibly been the most difficult, but there is also equal marriage, abortion law reform, legacy issues and, in my opinion, libel law reform. They could technically all be dealt with by this House at this time. It would be better if they were dealt with locally as a means of moving this forward, but difficult as all those issues are, the thing that is really causing the blockage is the mood of politics as it is affected by Brexit. It has been polarising in Northern Ireland, not so much, as some speculate, because the unionist middle classes have suddenly decided that they would rather be in the European Union and in Ireland, but the stunning rise in the DUP vote in some of the most prosperous areas of Northern Ireland in the general election makes one realise that there has not been a great mental shift among that class of people, but that Brexit has inflamed and aggravated large sections of even the moderate Catholic and nationalist community. That creates an opportunity for Sinn Féin and therefore it is quite likely that we will not see a return to devolution until this question is moved to a safer place.
I want to put it on record to see whether the Minister agrees that the Chequers White Paper has many problems. People hate it and love it from different angles, but I do not want to engage in that line of debate. I simply want to make the point that the section on Ireland has been taken by many serious commentators north and south, unionist and nationalist, as moving the question of the Irish border towards a saner and better place. Until that is done, we are unlikely to get progress in the talks. I really hope I am wrong, but it is a merit of that paper that many people of different views in Dublin and Belfast seem to be saying that it is going make handling the Northern Ireland border easier. I say that as somebody who believes that it is a serious question but that it has been exaggerated.
I groaned when I had to listen to the Irish Foreign Minister saying on “The Andrew Marr Show” a few weeks ago that there could be no checks on the island of Ireland. Anybody who knows anything about travelling in Ireland knows that at this moment, before Brexit, there are significant checks on the Irish side of the border. I am quite certain that many millions of people listening to Marr simply did not realise how inflated that rhetoric was. I can see that the debate around the border has been inflated, but that does not mean it is not a real problem. A lot of people previously alarmed by it believe that the proposals in the White Paper help shift us towards a better, safer place in terms of the Irish debate on the border. This may be helpful. I will be interested in the Minister’s views.
Finally, the Government have decided, quite correctly, to hold a meeting of British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference with the Irish Government later this month. It is in the Good Friday agreement, and for that reason, among others, this meeting should be held. It is perfectly clear—I will be interested in the Minister’s views—that fundamentally in the agreement that body is designed to focus on east-west issues rather than on the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. Let me remind the House, as this document does with its talk of £8 billion or £9 billion, that without the UK subvention, which is probably somewhat more than that, Northern Ireland just does not function. It is paid by the United Kingdom taxpayer, not by taxpayers of any other country. It is true that the Irish Republic could take up this slack but, as Irish papers have said in recent days, that would require paying no pensions to anybody in the island of Ireland, and no Irish Government are going to decide to take up the slack from the UK taxpayer and not pay any pensions to anybody in the island of Ireland. For economic reasons alone, it is appropriate that the focus of this meeting should primarily be on east-west grounds. That would be entirely right and within the context of the Good Friday agreement.
My Lords, I welcome the Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Bill and I acknowledge that, in the continued absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland, this legislation is essential, as it will secure money allocated to departments to keep them operational. It also provides departments with the necessary reassurance that full funding will be available until the end of the financial year.
This is now the second budget Bill that has been laid before your Lordships’ House for consideration. Although this is welcome, it is far from ideal. Issues such as specific budgetary allocations and the monitoring of money—how the money is spent—require detailed scrutiny, analysis and examination. This is the standard level of accountability one should expect when dealing with a budget. Naturally I would much prefer if we were in a situation where Bills such as this were being presented in the Stormont Assembly by a locally accountable Minister.
For a lengthy period, we had devolved government where such accountability existed. Contrary to what some people would wish us to believe, it is worth repeating that much progress and much work has been achieved. Northern Ireland has travelled a considerable distance during the last 10 years. This is progress we must continue. Equally, during that time, we had a situation where locally elected representatives were regularly able to debate and analyse spending, and were thus able to raise specific matters relating to local areas. Unfortunately, this is not now possible to the same degree. The reality is that there is little prospect of a return to local decision-making at present. Most of the parties in Northern Ireland, however, want to get back into government and into the Assembly, but one party is preventing this. Regrettably, instead of a fair and balanced solution, the party that collapsed the devolved institution 17 months ago and refused to return to it, continues to halt progress in re-establishing devolved government.
MLAs were elected to serve the people. However, unless all the parties agree to one party’s list of preconditions, they are prevented from doing their jobs fully. Sinn Féin has placed the fulfilment of its demands ahead of governing in the interests of everyone. None of us wants to be in this situation. However, the people of Northern Ireland should not be punished further because of one party’s agenda.
This budget, as with any budget, presents challenges. Specifically, challenges are presented here when allocations are based on historical decisions taken by the Assembly. When allocations are made by individual departments, we cannot always be certain that the finances will go to areas that the public might expect to be prioritised. For example, after inquiries with the Department of Education, my party discovered that some of the additional money that was made available for education and was meant to go towards front-line schooling, had been allocated by the department to finance the deficit of the Education Authority. This is one instance where civil servants prioritised administration first.
While the budget and the current situation present their challenges, those challenges have been reduced considerably by the £410 million of extra new money as part of the Democratic Unionist Party confidence and supply agreement with the Government. The DUP has sought to deliver for everyone in Northern Ireland, not just for narrow sectional interests. There is £100 million to progress health transformation, £20 million to tackle deprivation, £10 million for mental health services and £80 million to tackle health and education pressures. Had this money not been included in this budget, the public would have felt the impact of a much more severe settlement.
Senior civil servants have been tasked with taking the majority of the decisions within departments for the past 17 months. However, in a number of instances, decisions are not being made. We have a situation where a growing number of decisions still need to be made on education, health, infrastructure and public services. These decisions in many cases are about allocation and prioritisation. Decisions need to be taken on school places and teaching staff, and new school enhancement and development programmes have been paused. When inquiries are made with the various departments regarding decisions that have yet to be taken, the reply is often the same: “There are no Ministers in place. We cannot make a decision at this time”.
Reference has been made to a recent High Court judgment. The examples that I mentioned previously referred to decisions taken before that case ever reached court. The court ruling could impact departments further and could have far-reaching implications for the decision-making processes. So I ask the Minister: do the Government intend to appeal the court ruling as it deals directly with a key decision being taken by a Permanent Secretary, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, has referred to? Equally, has that court case now set a precedent? Could we see further such cases being taken to trial and decisions already made by civil servants being reversed?
I am sure all Members of this House will wish to condemn the violence of the last few weeks in Londonderry and east Belfast, which have been orchestrated by sinister elements in the paramilitaries. Budgetary decisions need to be taken urgently on policing. This is a vital issue, raised by the chief constable of the PSNI when addressing the committee in the other place. Additional money is urgently required to train more officers. I join the noble Lord, Lord Empey, in asking the Minister whether there is any special mechanism that can be invoked to obtain additional money to help the much pressurised Police Service of Northern Ireland.
I recognise and have previously welcomed the actions taken and commitments given by the Government. Given these recent developments, though, further action is required to deliver good government in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister today provide some assurances to departments that relevant ministerial guidance, direction and decision-making authority will be provided? The people of Northern Ireland need these assurances because, when urgent decisions are not being made, this impacts on them. We must not allow a situation to develop where the decision-making process grinds to a halt.
We will all continue to work hard towards our aim of seeing a return to locally accountable government in Northern Ireland. In its absence, my party will continue to work hard for everyone, as it has done in relation to the confidence and supply agreement. We will also continue to press the Government on all these important matters in the coming days and weeks. I support the Bill and trust that the Government will make every effort to restore the Assembly and Executive as soon as possible.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the briefing that he gave us yesterday. It was very helpful although it did not actually come to any firm conclusions. I find this whole process rather curious. I cannot think of any other topic in the British Parliament where neither individual Members nor the Minister can have any influence at all on what we are debating. As I understand it, the Minister has no power to change anything. We have no powers; we cannot vote anything down or change any of the headings. I cannot think of any other occasion when we are completely neutered in terms of what we would like to achieve and the Minister cannot do anything either. Of course this is a consequence of the very sad situation in Northern Ireland where we do not have a functioning Executive. All of us would like the Executive and the Assembly to be up and running so that these decisions could then be made speedily by locally elected politicians. I would just like to ask the Minister this: is there any method by which the people of Northern Ireland can actually have an input into the process whereby the budget is set or will be set in future? In other words, has there been—or could there be—any consultation that would enable the people of Northern Ireland to take up the issues? Some of those issues have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey—for example about the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Other noble Lords have raised other issues. Is it not important that the people of Northern Ireland should have some chance at least of an input into what is going on? At the moment, nothing can be done.
I would like to raise two specific issues. I understand that the Assembly was reasonably supportive of integrated education. I think that it is a key issue indeed. By leaving it to officials, are we not denying the wishes of the Assembly to increase the resources going into the development of integrated education in Northern Ireland? The Minister will argue that people can listen to what we are saying and, when the Assembly and Executive are restored, they will perhaps take note of what was said. If that is so, it is a very complicated process. But at any rate, I would like to put on record my belief, shared by many people I know in Northern Ireland, that integrated education is important and that as many parents as possible should be given a choice over whether or not they would like their children to be in an integrated school. The evidence is that the majority of parents would like to have that choice, but many are not able to exercise that choice at the moment.
My other policy issue is a slightly different one. It concerns refugees, and child refugees in particular. I do not want to go into the whole debate about child refugees, except to say this. The Government—the Ministers close to this issue—have wanted to get local authorities to offer to provide foster places for child refugees up and down the country. There has been a response, and I believe it has been a much more positive response than the Government have acknowledged, certainly in the cases of England and Wales and to a certain extent in Scotland, where I understand there is also a willingness. But my question concerns Northern Ireland, where I understand people are willing to be more supportive of refugees and to accept them into local communities. Even if district councils in Northern Ireland want to do more on behalf of child refugees, is there any way for money to be made available for it?
It seems to me that we are in a total logjam on this one. It is the wish of the Government that local authorities do more for child refugees. I believe it is the wish of most people in this country that we support doing more, yet in Northern Ireland there is no mechanism for taking it further. We can wait until the Assembly is restored, but I think the situation is more urgent. I would like to feel that the people of Northern Ireland can share their commitment and do as people up and down the country in England have done by making more resources available to child refugees. I think I have made my point; it is just a pity. If there were an up-and-running Assembly, some of us would make a beeline for Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive and ask them: “What about child refugees? What are you going to do about them?” At the moment, all we can do is voice our concerns here in the House.
My Lords, I echo the remarks of my noble friend Lady Suttie and the noble Lord, Lord Bew, in respect of the contribution made by David Ford during his time as a Member of the Legislative Assembly and, indeed, as Minister of Justice. I also echo the concerns that have been raised in respect of the recent violence in my own part of Belfast and in other parts of Northern Ireland. These two things are not unconnected. One thing that we all recognised, throughout past years, was that when politics was not working, other people stepped into the vacuum. Power was exercised by some people outside of democratic politics.
When David Ford was the Minister of Justice, there was remarkably little debate about justice. He addressed policing and—not always to people’s pleasure—he addressed the legal system and how much lawyers were paid. He also did a lot of work on prisons. In many ways, public debate became much more thoughtful, reflective and quiet because he was there. It is easy to forget that he was there because he was prepared to take a considerable hit and a lot of criticism, as those in the two major components of politics—unionism and nationalism—were unable to reach an agreement about who the Justice Minister should be. He was prepared to make sacrifices to ensure that the Executive and the Assembly continued.
Now that we do not have that contribution, we have drifted into a totally unsatisfactory situation. Let us just reflect. Clause 5 says that the provisions in the Bill are to take effect as though this was the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is not the Northern Ireland Assembly and it is not even remotely like it. Let us remember that there are no nationalists at all in this Chamber. When people talk about alternatives to devolution and think about some or all powers being brought back to this Parliament, we need to remind ourselves that the solution that would be proposed by nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland would indeed be that powers should be taken back but taken back to joint authority with the Irish Government. If we had a reasonable representation of the people of Northern Ireland in this House or the other place, that would be the debate that would be had, and we must not forget it. I do not say that because I support that position— I do not—but we have to be realistic about it.
We have drifted into this situation. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, rightly pointed out, it is now 17 or 18 months since we had a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. In January 2017 the Assembly was stood down. We had a debate about Northern Ireland in February, in which I spoke. We then had a debate in March, in which I again spoke, and we had another debate in April. We did not have one in May because we had an election. We debated it again in June, and on
However, there is worse news than that. In the Northern Ireland Act 1998, to which the Minister referred, there is a very clear injunction on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that if the Executive falls, within seven days—not seven weeks, seven months or indeed 17 months—he or she will propose a date for an election. There might be a delay in that election of a reasonable period, but no judge anywhere would in any way regard the period that there has been as reasonable. Does that mean that one cannot move to direct rule? It would be very difficult to carry support across the community in Northern Ireland for a move to direct rule without at least implementing what was in previous agreements and in the Northern Ireland Act 1998—that is, an election. If an election did not produce or result in the formation of an Executive, I could then understand how there would be a need to move to direct rule or whatever arrangement was proposed, but I think that it would be very difficult politically, and possibly even legally.
My personal view is that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has effectively been operating ultra vires for months. On any reasonable reading of the 1998 Act, it is quite clear that there should have been a decision to have an election long before now. Would an election bring about any change? I have no idea. In the last few years I have given up predicting the outcome of elections in any part of the world, and not just elections but referendums as well. We have no idea whether it would bring about a change. The last election did change the overall political balance in Northern Ireland, but whether that was or was not a good thing is open to question. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked whether there is any way in which the people of Northern Ireland can have a say about some of these issues. There is a very obvious way in which they can have a say and that is by having an election, whatever the result—good, bad or indifferent.
This legislation carries us through in terms of the budget until
I ask the Minister what undertakings have been given. Enda Kenny, the former Taoiseach, said that the Prime Minister, Theresa May, gave an undertaking that there would not be a move to direct rule. We have legislation that makes it clear that a date should be set for elections. How can Her Majesty’s Government justify not making any moves and allowing drift? And there is a further problem. If there were a move to hold elections, that would not immediately give civil servants political accountability unless a Government were formed.
A lot of nice things have been said about those in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and I am not going to say nasty things about them. However, all my experience of them has been that they are very conservative in their decisions. They do not take risks. The last time they took a serious risk was probably over DeLorean, and that did not work out terribly well. It is not a question of whether or not something is legal, but this case referred to by other noble Lords puts a blight on any creativity by civil servants. They are not going to take a risk that they might be out of order. Whatever the legalities, and even if there were an appeal against them and the appeal was won, it would not take that sense of caution away from civil servants.
The Government, if they do not move, are simply creating more and more problems for themselves and for the people of Northern Ireland. The Government have to take a decision. Although I am sure that he is not in a position to take such decisions when he gets to his feet today, I plead with the Minister to tell his colleagues, including those at the most senior levels, that whatever their preoccupations about Brexit for the United Kingdom as whole, there are things going on in Northern Ireland that cannot be allowed to drift if there is going to be any responsible government and any reasonable outcome.
My Lords, I commence by agreeing with the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, in the tribute she and other noble Lords paid to David Ford, as Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland. As a former Minister of Home Affairs in Northern Ireland, I know very well the challenges that he faced, and the dangers he would have experienced. It is right we place on record a tribute to what he did. I did not belong to the political party that he belonged to, but in politics one has to respect things when they qualify for respect, and he should be respected.
The background to this debate is that we have no Assembly or Executive at Stormont. Why is that? It is because the Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister, Mr Martin McGuinness, resigned, and that automatically meant the resignation of the Executive and the downfall of the power-sharing Assembly. This Bill, as pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, means that funds end on
One of the reasons why no Executive has been formed in the last 18 months is the red lines stated by the Sinn Féin party. Some in Northern Ireland say that Sinn Féin does not want to be in the Executive until after the next southern Irish general election, because it does not want to have responsibility for making governmental decisions prior to that election. However, other reasons have been given. The red lines include same-sex marriage, abortion, and, as has been mentioned, an Irish language Act. For me, the first two—the marriage and abortion issues—are matters of individual conscience and should not be party policies. When we negotiated the Belfast agreement, in which the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Alderdice, and I were involved, we made sure that there would be a petition of concern, whereby no one community could impose its will on the other community. But when it comes to matters of personal conscience, it is not about one community imposing its will on another. For example, today in Northern Ireland, many Roman Catholics and Protestants are united against abortion, while many other Roman Catholics and Protestants are united for it. It is not an issue that should be subject to a petition of concern but should be a matter of personal conscience.
When it comes to the Irish language, you would think that it did not exist in Northern Ireland, but of course it does. Unionist Governments and subsequent systems of government in Northern Ireland have financed the teaching of the Irish language in every school that wants it. Not only that: they have financed and promoted the creation of schools where Irish is the only medium of teaching and learning. Irish is promoted in a big way across Northern Ireland. So what is this Irish language Act that Sinn Féin wants? What more does it want than the teaching of Irish and the creation of all-Irish schools? Is it a quota system for Irish speakers in the Civil Service? That would be discrimination. Is it the provision of Irish interpreters in hospitals and GP practices? We need to have clarification, because the people in Northern Ireland do not know what is meant by the Irish language Act. If these provisions for people who speak Irish are made, others will require similar interpreters. After all, more people in Northern Ireland today speak Polish or Chinese than Irish on a daily basis. That is the position on the ground.
As one who helped to negotiate the Belfast agreement, of course I prefer devolution as the basis for the system of government in Northern Ireland: a power-sharing devolution, with local people making local decisions. But if that cannot be until after the next Irish election or until the red lines are removed or met, the only two ways forward are a new election, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, mentioned, or direct rule. Contrary to what the Minister said, I see the measure before this House today as another step towards direct rule. After all, it is a decision being made by us here in Westminster and not by a devolved Assembly in Stormont. In practice it is already direct rule.
If we had another election in Northern Ireland—and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has already yielded the fact that he is not a good judge of election results, and we know why—I doubt very much whether there would be real change in the political situation there. Secondly, I think it would be a very divisive election because of the Brexit issue, which has divided Northern Ireland. Thirdly, I fear that the election turnout would be very small indeed. Elections to Stormont have been having reduced turnouts in recent years because people on the ground are getting bored and tired of the deadlock in Northern Ireland.
Regrettably, I have to say, as someone who prefers devolution, the way ahead must be to grasp the challenge of direct rule soon. Although it will be criticised by nationalists, as has been mentioned, it will be welcomed by the large majority of Catholic and Protestant people on the ground. They want to see the deadlock broken.
Mention has been made of the £1 billion for Northern Ireland gained by the DUP in their supply and confidence agreement with the Conservative Government. How much has already been transferred to Northern Ireland? I have heard the figure of £410 million. When will the balance be made available? No one has ever mentioned that. I suppose it will be before the next election, but the problem is that the next election could be sooner than we expect. So when will we get this £590 million that was promised us? I do not want to see it slipping away, because of a general election.
This £1 billion was dishonestly presented by nationalists as funds for the DUP. It was called the “DUP money”. That is dishonest politics at its worst. It was stated clearly at the time that it was to be for the benefit of all traditions in Northern Ireland for programmes such as infrastructure. I am no defender of the DUP. More than any other person in Northern Ireland, I have contested elections against the DUP: in local elections, in Stormont elections, in European parliamentary elections, and for 20 years in our national Parliament here in the House of Commons. So I do not defend the DUP, but in fairness, I think we should hear when the rest of that money, which it successfully negotiated with the Conservative Government, will be coming to Northern Ireland. It was mentioned that some of that money was to go into infrastructure. Living near the border in Armagh, I know about the traffic deadlocks in that old city. I am horrified to find that of the MLAs—Newry and Armagh had six of them, but there are now five, and they claim they are all working even though Stormont is not in session—not one has asked for any of that £1 billion to be spent on required bypasses at Armagh city.
I keep saying southern Ireland, because I live on the border and what is called Ireland these days makes no sense to me. Living on the border suggests I am going to travel down to Ireland and that is crazy. I am travelling down to the south of Ireland—that is where it is and always will be geographically. The reason Ireland came into being was due to the Conservatives. The 1948 Act said it was the Republic of Ireland, but on the day in which the United Kingdom signed up to join the treaty of Rome, Jack Lynch—because the Republic of Ireland was joining the same day—asked the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, if he minded Lynch signing as the Prime Minister of Ireland. Heath agreed. Up to then, legally, it was the Republic of Ireland. From that day onwards, the country to the south of where I live became known as Ireland. I find that odd, because I live on the island of Ireland, and I am proud of it.
I regret that the Dublin Government refuse to discuss the economic challenge of Brexit with our Government, because the Republic, more than any of the other 27 nations in the European Union, will suffer most. It is a challenge that needs to be met and discussed. I was recently at a meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Sligo, just south of the border. I was interested to find that people there, from Sligo, Monaghan, Leitrim and Cavan, were saying that they would suffer much from Brexit and were tired of listening to the Dublin politicians talking about the border. It was interesting for me as a unionist to hear nationalists in that area say this. They said, “It’s all right for the people in Dublin and Dún Laoghaire to complain about the border, but we live at the border and we are the ones who are going to suffer, because the common agricultural policy allocations from Brussels to Irish farms will be reduced in our area”. There are no farms in Dublin or Dún Laoghaire; it is easy for them to ignore the issue.
I welcome the new British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference—some people objected to it. I hope that, when it meets, it will consider the issue of Brexit and how it affects the economy on our island: Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There are major problems there. An impoverished Republic of Ireland is not to the advantage of Northern Ireland. Before the conference meets, I want to remind people of the relevant chapter of the Belfast agreement.
When we negotiated the agreement—as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, will know because he was in charge of strand 1 talks on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party—we expelled and excluded the Dublin Government from all strand 1 talks. They were not allowed to be involved in the internal affairs and devolved issues of Northern Ireland. I specifically and successfully argued—it was included in the Belfast agreement—that, when it came to reference to the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, it should state clearly that there can be no talks at the conference about the structure of devolution. That is stated clearly in part 5 of the agreement, which deals with the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. I advise anyone who thinks that the Dublin Government can use that conference to discuss devolution or the internal affairs of Northern Ireland to look carefully at page 15 of the Belfast agreement. This conference should be a matter of co-operation between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland and certainly not a forum in which to raise the issue of devolution in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I echo the warm remarks made about David Ford by my noble friends and the noble Lords, Lord Bew and Lord Kilclooney, for which I thank them. He is a remarkable politician who has served Northern Ireland well over many years. I wish him a long and very happy retirement from Northern Ireland politics.
Almost everyone in Northern Ireland voted in support of the Good Friday agreement. That brilliant piece of political architecture led to the intervening years of relative peace and stability. So much was achieved by a coming together of widely differing views that Northern Ireland was looking forward to a bright future—that is, until the leadership of the country broke down in mutual recriminations and name calling, fit for a children’s playground, which I would liken it to were the consequences of their actions not so appalling for the very people they purport to serve. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin must carry the blame for the consequential mess that they have left behind—their leaders are entirely responsible for it. Something needs to be done to make them both see sense, and urgently.
It seems to me that the only party advocating sensible solutions to break the impasse is the Alliance Party. Under the leadership of Naomi Long, it is suggesting a range of measures needed to bring the Assembly and the Executive together again. These include the Secretary of State legislating quickly to help in devolved matters such as the Irish language and equal marriage, which we have heard about from noble Lords this afternoon. On reserved matters, reform of the petition of concern could see it be limited to matters of a constitutional nature and to institutions which were established under the Good Friday agreement.
It is felt that significant reform of the petition of concern would future-proof the Assembly to deal with other social policies and equality issues and prevent any one party being able to evade scrutiny or accountability to the Assembly. In fact, as we have heard from a number of noble Lords today, scrutiny and accountability have gone by the board since January 2017. This is an absolute disgrace considering the amount of money given to Northern Ireland to enable it just to function without proper government.
Is the Minister prepared to seek multi-party talks, which should be led by a totally independent facilitator? The time has certainly come for this to be considered: so bad have things become in Northern Ireland now, it is imperative that this is quickly implemented. Alongside this attempt to bring the two factions together, there is a need to reconvene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which we have heard about; to reconstitute the Assembly departmental scrutiny committees; to re-establish the Northern Ireland Policing Board; to recall the Assembly to meet in plenary to vote on the legislation that had almost reached the statute books; and, finally, to establish a cross-party Brexit committee. The latter suggestion would enable MLAs to re-engage on issues of substance and make them take some responsibility in return for their large salaries.
That brings me to the budget. A great deal of money goes to Northern Ireland and I very much want to know what has been happening to it since January 2017, when the Assembly collapsed. In fact, the total budget for Norther Ireland is around £10 billion. This amount is for an area not much bigger than my county of North Yorkshire—how it would love to get even a small portion of that. According to the figures for 2016-17, Northern Ireland gets public spending per head of £11,042, versus the UK average of £9,159 and the England average of £8,898.
Noble Lords may say that there is not a lot of comparison between these figures and my county, but what I do know is that, had the absolutely disgraceful scenes we have seen in Northern Ireland in the past days happened anywhere else on this side of the Irish Sea, major questions would have been asked about our security. The fact that hooligans, ludicrously calling themselves “loyalists”, could get away with building an enormous bonfire close to houses—80 pallets high, I was told—beggars belief. Then we have dissident republicans throwing dangerous fireworks at Gerry Adams’ home—what an outrageous act—when there were young children nearby.
Once again, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has had to take the brunt of all this mayhem—the noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to this. Their numbers have dropped to around 6,600, nearly 400 below what their chief constable said he needed in his 2014 resilience review and 900 below the number recommended by Patten. Also, as we have heard, the PSNI has been due a pay rise, which has been delayed yet again, probably due to the lack of an Administration. Nevertheless, that is extremely poor, given the amount of pressure the police are constantly under in Northern Ireland. The chief constable has asked for extra funding— £60 million over five years—to deal with current legacy issues and, of course, Brexit. Underresourcing has left them unable to cope with any surges or increases in terrorist activity or serious public order incidents. The police need more funding. The Police Federation for Northern Ireland is already paying for its well-being projects out of its own funds, whereas those in England and Wales are being paid for by the Government here. Will the Minister please look into this and give the PSNI the same consideration as England and Wales?
Another major concern is education in Northern Ireland. A huge amount of money is provided for this—rightly so—but how much of it is going into integrated education? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that major consideration should be given to this. Shared education in Northern Ireland is not the same as integrated education. It means using others’ facilities; it does not mean shared in the sense that students of both schools use those facilities together at the same time. Only integrated education can overcome the years of segregation that Northern Ireland schools have had to endure, with their consequent underpinning of difference between the communities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blood, who is not in her place today, has been the greatest supporter and instigator of integrated education, and her wise words and total commitment to it will be sorely missed in this House when she retires in a few days’ time. Northern Ireland owes her a massive debt of gratitude for all she has done to promote these schools for future generations of Northern Irish children. They are all fortunate indeed to have had her as their champion and will continue to do so.
Some of the funds authorised in this budget are drawn from the £1 billion agreed as part of the Government’s confidence and supply arrangements with the DUP, as we have heard. How has this expenditure been authorised? Apart from the debates in this House and the other place, what other scrutiny has been, or will be, applied to this expenditure—indeed, not just to this expenditure, but to all spending decisions that will flow from this budget? Can the Minister inform us what the current status is of the remainder of that £1 billion? If it is not going to be spent to help all the people of Northern Ireland, I hope it is sitting in a bank account gaining a decent amount of interest. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, commented on that.
This budget has no Administration to deal with it, only the Northern Ireland Office, and it has had to defer many decisions because there is absolutely no leadership from the politicians who should be held responsible for allocating the huge amounts of money we pass to Northern Ireland. I urge those politicians now to do the right thing: come together, iron out your differences around a negotiating table and get on with the job you were elected to do.
My Lords, this has, to say the least, been an interesting debate. Having listened to some of the speakers, I detect a degree of real honesty in attempting to deal with the issues that persist in Northern Ireland. I also detect a degree of misinformation from some of those who have spoken. However, not least, I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, reminisce about the times that he fought the DUP—and lost, incidentally. But that was then and this is now. Therefore we have to move on, as we are being constantly urged to do, and my party, the DUP, is up for that—for moving on and taking Northern Ireland forward and into a new place. The whole Province yearns for that, no matter which side of the debate people come from. Let us move on to a better place, a better future and better prospects for the future generations of Northern Ireland. The DUP is up for that—it has been and it continues to be.
The Bill before us today is vital because we have to pass this budget in order for general public services to function. It is vital to ensure that the day-to-day running of departments can continue. It is, however, a Bill that should have been brought forward by the Finance Minister for the Northern Ireland Executive and debated by the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is the proper place for it, and we regret that that is not happening.
It was perhaps an early warning sign of Sinn Féin’s unwillingness to govern for the good of everyone in Northern Ireland that the Sinn Féin Finance Minister in the Assembly, before it was collapsed, failed to bring forward a budget. It was the single most important job for any Finance Minister and for the then Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, and his party ducked taking tough decisions. Sinn Féin never liked taking tough decisions. Sometimes tough decisions, and indeed unpopular decisions, have to be taken, but Sinn Féin is not up for that.
Budgets will always contain making tough choices and prioritising often scarce financial resources. I am pleased that, as a result of the extra resources secured for Northern Ireland by the DUP, this is a better budget settlement than would otherwise have been the case. The increase in resources for health represents an extra £71 million for patients in Northern Ireland. We know that demand, as always, continues to increase, but it demonstrates not only the benefits of the extra funding secured but the need to ensure that the long-term process is carried out.
Similarly, the 4.3% increase for the Department of Education represents an extra £36.5 million for schools—and we do not exclude integrated education; we never have. The DUP has sought to deliver for everyone in Northern Ireland, not just for narrow sectional interests. We see some of that funding delivered through this budget. There is £100 million to progress health transformation, £20 million to tackle deprivation, £10 million for mental health services and £80 million to tackle health and education pressures. Had this money not been included in this budget, the public would have felt the impact of a much more severe budget settlement.
“the hon. Lady is right when she says there should be genuine choice. We do not want anyone to feel that they cannot have an abortion, any more than we want them to feel that they have to have one. We really want women to be able to make informed choices and to feel empowered to have the child, if that is what they would like to do. The important thing is that we empower women. That is the whole purpose of what we are trying to do here—to empower women and allow them to make choices that are safe for them”.—[
Given this very clear commitment on the part of the Government not to incentivise women to have abortions or not to have abortions but to empower them equally to make whatever choice they prefer, I would like to ask the Minister how this relates to the free abortion services provided for women from Northern Ireland in England.
When announcing the proposal in another place on
“The funding will be accessed via a grant scheme that will be administered by the Department of Health. The cost of this service will be met by the Government Equalities Office with additional funding provided by HM Treasury. A small number of procedures will continue to be provided through the NHS where this is necessary for medical reasons. NHS providers will also be reimbursed by the Department of Health”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/10/17; col. 6WS.]
In this context, will the Minister please explain how the relevant resource is being allocated to equally empower women from Northern Ireland to decide to continue their pregnancy as to terminate it? Clearly, if the Government in England are only offering finance through the Government Equalities Office, with additional funding provided by HM Treasury, to empower women to make a particular decision in relation to pregnancy—namely, termination—it is not about empowering women per se but rather concerned with incentivising them to abort. I am sure that the Minister would agree with me that that would be inappropriate.
In raising this issue, however, I note that in the Scottish Parliament on
“However, it is also important to recognise that the Scottish Government will receive consequentials because of the new spend that is required to fund the equivalent policy that the UK Government announced for England. Those consequentials will be used to fund the service in Scotland”.
Mindful of this, can the Minister tell us what the budget consequential is for Northern Ireland and whether, if the balance of resource in other UK jurisdictions is being spent on providing abortion rather than supporting women to continue with their pregnancy, the Northern Ireland consequential could not be spent to try to balance things out from the Whitehall perspective, empowering women to keep their babies, so that the net effect of the money across the UK as a whole is not effectively to incentivise abortion? I recognise that the Minister may not be able to answer that today, but I am quite prepared to accept an undertaking from him that he will write me on that matter.
My Lords, it has been an interesting, short and fascinating debate. I add my tribute to my noble friend Lady Blood, who is due to retire in the next week. I have known her for just over 21 years. She played an enormous role in the Good Friday agreement as a leading member of the Women’s Coalition, but since then as well. I know no one who is less prejudiced than May Blood and I wish her well. I know she will continue her good work in Northern Ireland even though she might not take a regular part in your Lordships’ proceedings. We will miss her.
Similarly, I add my tribute to David Ford. I have known him for over 20 years. He has been a great servant of the people of Northern Ireland and a great Minister. He introduced the changes in security and became the first homegrown Minister responsible for security in Northern Ireland. Again, I am quite convinced that David will play his part still, even though he might formally be retired.
I understand and accept that the Bill is necessary, but I do not welcome it. The Minister said that it is short and technical, and indeed it is—it is both those things. But it is also a monumental symbol of failure because, at the end of the day, this has to go through, but it is effectively going through because events have proved to have failed in Northern Ireland. It is a failure that civil servants have had to take big decisions affecting people’s lives for nearly two years in Northern Ireland. Even their decisions are now suspect because of a court case. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that there should be an appeal because if they cannot take decisions because of the law then no one will and, frankly, that is crazy.
If noble Lords read Hansard for the debate on the Bill in the other place, they will see that every single Member of Parliament—all, of course, on the unionist side in the House of Commons—referred to individual services in their constituencies and on a wider scale in Northern Ireland now being affected by the absence of an Executive and an Assembly: the health service, education service, planning, the environment, roads, highways and so forth. It is also, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, quite obvious that there is now no nationalist voice in either Chamber of the British Parliament, mainly because members of Sinn Féin decided not to take their seats in the House of Commons. It does not mean that there are not literally hundreds of thousands of Catholic and nationalist people who should be represented in our British Parliament but are not. Anything that we and the Government do must be predicated on the basis that both the nationalist and the unionist communities will be comfortable with it.
I noticed in the papers the other day that Derry City and Strabane Council was concerned about the future of its airport. It meant that the chief executive of the local authority had to write to the Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Civil Service to see if he could come up with a decision—I do not think he will—on the future of that airport. I had to take a decision on it myself when I was Secretary of State. It is hugely important to that part of Ireland, including the Republic of Ireland, which borders County Derry. Things are becoming intolerable.
One of the difficulties we have is that, in all these 18 months—and presumably in the months that lie ahead—there has been no accountability for the decisions that have been taken. There is no imagination to try to work out what sort of accountability there could be in the absence of devolution. Any Member of Parliament in the House of Commons or the House of Lords cannot table a Question about the domestic affairs of Northern Ireland, which is wrong. MPs and Members of this place should be able to do that. The Northern Ireland Select Committee could take a wider role in the absence of devolution. There is a case—the Alliance Party has made a good case, as has the Select Committee—that there is a role for Members of the legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland to meet at least to question Ministers on the budget and other issues that affect people in Northern Ireland. When I was Secretary of State with responsibility for finance in Northern Ireland there was no Executive, but I went to Stormont and was questioned for two days about the budget. Why can that not happen?
However, it is all inadequate because the only answer, inevitably, is the restoration of the institutions of the Good Friday agreement—the Executive and the Assembly. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, was absolutely right. We have not seen any new ideas. Nothing has changed over the last year as to how we can try to tackle this situation. I repeat some of the things that have been suggested and some of the things I have suggested over the last year.
The Prime Minister is engaged on other matters. I can understand the pressures she is under and the pressures that the Taoiseach is under. However, all the negotiations that led to success in Northern Ireland had the detailed involvement of two Prime Ministers in trying to persuade political parties to come to a deal. No proper attempt has been made by either Prime Minister to do anything thing like the Prime Ministers in the past, including John Major and Tony Blair, did to move the situation. That should happen despite Brexit.
All the parties should meet in a proper round-table forum. I know that there has been a problem and the two main parties are reluctant to do that, but there would not have been a Good Friday agreement or a St Andrews agreement if all the parties had not met together, irrespective of their size. They can talk about significant issues relevant to the parties within their own community. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, mentioned the Alliance Party and gave us a list of possible things we could do to look at these matters. Why can they not be discussed in a proper forum of all parties? It has not been held.
Going into a couple of rooms in Stormont House and talking to the different parties for half an hour is not all-party talks. They have to be proper round-table talks and they have to go on and on. You cannot make peace and political process part-time. It has to be a full-time thing—that is what we have discovered in Northern Ireland. We have taught the world how peace processes can operate—in the Philippines and elsewhere. Of course, there should be the possibility of an independent chair. It has been dismissed for some reason; I have no idea why. We should be able to have another George Mitchell. No one will be quite as good as him but there must be a person somewhere in the world who is able to take on the task, if it is agreed by the parties, of course.
There have been occasions when parties have been taken elsewhere. Sometimes it works; sometimes it does not. It failed in Leeds Castle. I was there. It succeeded in St Andrews. I was not there. Perhaps there is a correlation between the two—I do not know. It is worth a try. The problem, of course, is trust—or lack of it. The political parties in Northern Ireland currently do not trust each other, but it was always thus. A number of Members of your Lordships’ House have said, “Look at the issues we had to deal with 20 years ago, or since”. They are hugely more significant than an Irish language Act and other issues that are now deadlocking the process. I think there is a role for this Parliament, possibly in taking on issues such as the Irish language Act. Perhaps there should be a commission on it and then this Parliament could take it through.
Perhaps this Parliament could deal with the legacy issues that the Minister has asked the people of Northern Ireland to look at. We can help out. It is right that the two Governments meet together. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is part of the Good Friday agreement. It is not—nor should it be—joint authority, but it gives opportunities for the two Governments, who are guarantors of the Good Friday agreement, to try to break a deadlock. No one is suggesting for one second that the Irish Government should suddenly take part in chairing the negotiations on strand 1 of the Good Friday agreement—the institutions. I chaired them for two years and would not allow any Irish Minister in; it was not their business. The business of the Irish Ministers was, together with the British Ministers, to try to persuade the political parties that they had to come to a deal—not to interfere with the internal affairs of the United Kingdom: that was for British Ministers alone—and talk about ways of breaking that deadlock.
I was a direct ruler for five years. I did not care for it much. In fact, the less pleasant parts of the media there called me “Direct Ruler Murphy” from time to time. I did not care to be doing it, but it had to be done. Somebody had to take a decision as a politician. I was a Welsh Member of Parliament taking decisions about issues of grave importance in Northern Ireland. I do not want direct rule. No one wants it because, once you get it, you cannot get out of it easily.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to health and to welfare. There is a slight difference because although welfare was technically part of the Northern Ireland budget, it was still effectively following the British model while the health service is totally devolved. These things are worth looking at. There is a possibility that you can bring in very limited direct rule, by bringing in a sunset clause that says you can have direct rule for six, seven or eight months and bring down the deadline. Let that be the deadline for the end of the talks. However, we must have new thinking because there is so much at stake. The Good Friday agreement itself is at stake. Every party that decides not to take part in the institutions of the Good Friday agreement is ignoring that agreement.
As a number of noble Lords have said, in Northern Ireland, more than in any other part of the United Kingdom, when there is instability and uncertainty, where there is a vacuum, violence will fill it. We have seen that in the last couple of weeks, from both sides, loyalists and dissident republicans. That would not happen if we did not have an Assembly in Cardiff or a Parliament in Scotland. It happens, though, if we do not have an Assembly in Northern Ireland. We cannot take any more risks. We cannot drift any more. We must come to a conclusion. I know we cannot do it in the next few weeks. There is Recess; it is summer. However, there is no reason in this wide world why, when September comes, Parliament starts again and politicians return from their holidays, there cannot be a renewed, proper effort to restore devolution and restore those institutions. In the absence of restoration, I cannot believe what is in front of the people of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I echo the tributes paid to the noble Baroness, Lady Blood. She grabbed hold of me in my first week in the Northern Ireland Office—I do not mean that figuratively; I mean quite literally—took me aside and explained some issues about education, which she was most passionate about. She will be missed here but I do not doubt that her voice will continue to be heard. I also pay tribute to David Ford. He fulfilled an extraordinary role in the Assembly and did good work. His voice also must continue to be heard in the counsels where his experience can be drawn on. I suspect both have long careers ahead of them where they may yet give great service to Northern Ireland.
It is not often that I get my own words repeated back to me but, again, it is a sign that I have been doing this for quite some time that my words are now being interpreted. It is in itself quite a pleasure. I am never quite sure if I did indeed say certain things but I will take them on board.
This was an extraordinarily wide-ranging debate. I think the best way I can address it is like building a jigsaw. I will start with the outside square edges and then try to build into the centre. I will begin with a very categorical statement. It is a rhetorical question. How many more times can I do this? The reality is not many. The budget that rests in Northern Ireland, and which we are moving forward today, is based on the priorities set by the outgoing Administration. However, we are moving further and further away from that particular piece of certainty. It is like pulling apart a piece of toffee. It is still holding together but it is getting more and more tenuous and it will break. We cannot extend it too far.
Some have said that nothing has changed, but actually a lot has. The people of Northern Ireland are growing weary of the situation there. Their priorities are not being acted on. We are having to interpret them—often within legally challenged constraints, with more constraints yet to come—and we are trying our best to deliver against objectives that are becoming more and more difficult to maintain and to deliver at the very time when there are greater challenges ahead.
I will come on to speak about the money within the budget, but I want to stress one other thing. It might seem an odd thing to say in the middle of a debate about the budget, but money is not everything. Money is not the whole answer to this dilemma. The reality remains that we need full scrutiny and a situation where the Civil Service is not exposed to legal challenge, where it is given the support of democratically elected politicians. We also need the nuances that are brought in when we have to interpret how money should be spent, rather than historically gazing over our shoulder at how it was once spent and how we might be able to continue to spend it.
I echo the words of many noble Lords today who said that they speak with some regret. There should be no doubt that I too speak with some regret: I have no desire to be taking forward a budget for Northern Ireland. That responsibility rests more naturally and sensibly elsewhere. I shall try to address some of the more fundamental points raised by a number of noble Lords. It is appropriate, in this week of all weeks, as we recall the violence of the past few days, to consider exactly what a struggle we are witnessing inside Northern Ireland. Many noble Lords have said today that if there is a vacuum, violence will fill it: we are seeing evidence of that again already.
I emphasise that the Government have spent a considerable sum of money. Since 2010, almost £250 million has been invested in additional security services in Northern Ireland. Since 2015, £25 million has been invested through the fresh start agreement. Would it not be great if the money did not have to be spent on those things? Think of what we could do with a quarter of a billion pounds. Yet, sensibly and necessarily, that money has been made available and will continue to be made available. On the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, about the wider legacy issue and pensions, which I know is a matter dear to the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who is of course not in his place today, we have referred this to the Victims Commissioner. We are looking for further guidance on this point, but we cannot lose time: we need to be able to move forward, so once we are in receipt of information from the Victims Commissioner we shall take that on board and move forward with it.
When we talk about the importance of re-establishing an Executive, these are matters that rest more comfortably in the devolved sphere, but in the absence of that, we cannot allow this simply to drift. I know that the word “drift” has been used by a number of noble Lords today: we cannot allow that drift to continue. In the past I have used the phrase “thinking outside the box”. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, condemned me by saying that it is not a box but a sarcophagus. From the papers over the last few days, I recall that a great, black sarcophagus has been found in the depths of Alexandria and there is a great fear of what will happen when it is opened. Will it be like some kind of Pandora’s box, when all the horrors of humanity pour forth? As I said a moment ago, I cannot keep doing this; we are at stage where change is coming. The question is what form that change will take.
The noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, put forward a number of issues, not least of which is whether there can be an independent chairman. I note that his noble friend Lord Hain has already referred a name to me in that regard. I emphasise, as I did in the past, that we cannot set aside any of these issues. A number of noble Lords asked about the evolution in Northern Ireland: what can happen next? Noble Lords will know that there are broadly three options: we are at that tripartite road. We can continue to try, as best we can, to string out that piece of toffee, hoping it does not snap in the middle: that is one option. I am the living embodiment of that today. The other options are, of course, to move towards an election, and that is certainly on the table—my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has not in any way ruled that out. The final option, of course, is direct rule. Some today have said that this budget itself represents a form of direct rule. In truth, it represents a necessary and essential step to preserve good government in Northern Ireland.
Noble Lords will be aware that we have reached a critical stage: the previous budget Bill allowed us to allocate funds—45%. We will reach the point over the summer where we will have spent those funds, and we therefore need to move forward to ensure full allocation of the total amount of money. That will be a critical reality check for the civil servants in Northern Ireland. Of those three routes, one will have to be taken: the question is when and how it will unfold. The greatest hope of all is the magic option: that each of the parties will come back together again and be able to broker a deal that will address all these issues. I note, as a slightly ironic comment, that the last time all the parties were gathered together in Belfast was at the PinkNews awards only a few weeks ago: that, in itself, is a reminder of how far many of those parties have come over the last short period.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, and many others, spoke of the importance of the court cases that are coming up, and the question of an appeal. That is being strongly and actively considered by the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which will have to move that forward. It is being actively considered by ourselves. As many noble Lords noted today, if we are found in any way not to be able to act in this regard, we will be in a very difficult position indeed. That is also true in regard to the RHI case: that would place even greater constraint upon us. We cannot be in a situation where good governance can be delivered neither by an absent Executive, nor by the UK Government in our current formation, so we will need to make progress to deliver, and to be cognisant of the realities of what those court cases will mean.
The noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Murphy of Torfaen, asked about the role of the Prime Minister. I can state today that the Prime Minister will be spending the next few days in Northern Ireland. I can also confirm that she has spent much time speaking with the parties. The point I make to noble Lords is that it is not just a question of what happens inside that room, and drawing the people into the room; it is how the individuals in the room communicate with their supporters outside the room. There is a bigger test here that we need to be able to wrestle and bring to the ground.
On the question of the supply and confidence money, the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, was quite right to stress that it does not rest in one single community; it is for all communities. Of the £1 billion total which has been set aside, £430 million will have been spent as we progress this budget Bill. Some £20 million was spent in the last period; that leaves £410 million. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, was quite right to stress that much of that money will rest inside the health spend and the education spend: that is additional spending that would not be in Northern Ireland but for the supply and confidence fund. Importantly, £10 million of that is for mental health issues. It is also important to stress that, as a consequence of the Prime Minister’s commitment to funding for the NHS, there will be a significant Barnett consequential uplift in Northern Ireland—a figure, I imagine, of around £760 million, if my maths is correct, during the period 2023-24. That is jam tomorrow, not jam today, but it represents a significant investment of money which I hope will be available for health in Northern Ireland.
On the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, the Government have made funds available for the accommodation and housing of refugees and refugee children in Northern Ireland. If the noble Lord will allow, I will write to him in greater detail, to make sure he has all the information he is looking for. I am also very cognisant of the importance of integrated education. It is important for me to stress that that is, of course, a devolved matter and one which I hope will be able to be progressed. I suspect that if the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, is taking some time off from here, she may well wrestle some of these issues to the ground in Northern Ireland—she will be welcome there, I hope. We are supportive of the idea of an integrated educational approach in Northern Ireland, cognisant of the devolution settlement itself.
The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, continues to ask me challenging questions, to which I do not always have appropriate answers. To take up some of his points, we cannot right now place upon the shoulders of civil servants the pressures they have had to withstand—the two impending court cases and appeals stand testimony to that—and we must therefore move forward with a new way of thinking. I am conscious, as he rightly points out, that civil servants are conservative—with a small C—and that is why we end up with very cautious spending, rather than the spending that elected representatives might be willing to embrace. I am conscious that we need to make sure that we are in a position where the realities of the challenges in Northern Ireland are dealt with.
I was struck by the note raised in the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Bew: the demographic time-bomb which many of the home nations are wrestling with is not actually the same challenge in Northern Ireland. I would be fascinated to understand more about that. I am going to do my own investigations to understand more about exactly how that will work in practice. In so recognising, it therefore means that the solutions to the challenges of Northern Ireland cannot be taken from a textbook. They need to be tailored to the situation that we witness.
The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, took us again into the back story that brings us to the point we have reached. It is a reminder that many of the challenges that we face today have a lengthier pedigree. Importantly, the noble Lord stresses the value to the communities of Northern Ireland of this additional supply and confidence money. We need to make sure, however, that that money can be spent. There will come points when we cannot, by our current methodology, create funding proprieties to spend all of the money. It simply will not be deliverable under our current arrangements so, although the £1 billion will remain an important sum of money, unless we can make some serious progress, it will remain at least partially underspent.
As to where the money that has not yet been spent is, I do not think it rests in a big bank account somewhere, but it might do. The reality is that it is money that is fully available to the communities of Northern Ireland, which will be spent delivering the very good work that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, stressed throughout his speech. It is important to remember that that money can indeed do good things. Making sure that we can spend it will be the ultimate test.
The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, raised a number of technical points about how we could move things forward. I admire the points that were being raised and I recognise that, if we could do them, we would make some progress. I fear that the first step in that process is a challenging one—how we get from where we are to delivering against them. We need to be in a situation soon, however, where a lot of these issues are addressed, I would hope, by an incoming, re-established, sustainable Executive. We need to be conscious that this is a necessary step.
The spending of monies will continue to be scrutinised, as it has been before, by the various bodies that are responsible for auditing in Northern Ireland. Those figures and reports are made public and I will ensure that, when they are published, a note of that publication is registered with your Lordships to make sure that they are fully aware of them.
I note with some curiosity the question of libel law reform from the noble Lord, Lord Bew. I would like to learn more of that, so I am going to invert tradition and ask him to write to me, so that I can learn more about what he had in mind. He was also correct in stressing the importance of how information can be used and misused. He was absolutely correct when he was talking about the checks around the Irish border. We need to be clear that we are not talking about a borderless border; there are still realities that interface between Northern Ireland and Ireland itself—or, as the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, would say, the Republic of Ireland—depending on how they touch together. The purpose of the British-Irish Council is to deal with east-west issues. That is its principal purpose and what it should continue to do, within the context of the Good Friday agreement.
The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, carefully raised the issue of abortion and wider abortion services. He also gave me an opportunity to write to him, and I will take him up on that kind offer. That is more appropriate, so that I can be absolutely clear what the answers are and make sure that I am not short-changing him in any way. I note again that the figures quoted are serious contributions to Northern Ireland financially, and that they stem from the passing of this particular budget Bill.
I conclude with the remarks of “Direct Ruler Murphy”, or the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. I like it as a term although I recognise exactly what it means. I hope there is a recognition that we are not going to shirk responsibilities. We have not been successful in delivering what needs to be delivered. There is enough blame to rest upon a number of shoulders, and we do not claim ownership rights over all of it. We will, however, need to make progress. I am not invoking the sarcophagus of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, but rather the needful elements that we must embrace; in the next few months each of the issues raised by the noble Lord will have to be seriously considered. We cannot continue to move forward on the basis that we have established so far. It is now without the underpinnings to give it the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland or, indeed, wider democratic confidence itself.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but he goes back to his analogy in his three-way split: the current position, direct rule or a restoration of devolution. That worries me, because it does not introduce any new thinking. The answer in the short term will have to be somewhere between those different options. I was hoping to hear that there would be a look at options, whatever they might be, before we close all those doors. I raised a question about police pay and the Hart inquiry. Perhaps the noble Lord would write to me on those matters.
I thank the noble Lord for this intervention. We have not reached a fork in the road; technically, we have reached a trident in the road as there are three options. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, we must find new ways to travel along those roads. There need to be new ways of thinking about this so I cannot, in good conscience, rule out any of the issues that I believe the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has brought to the debate today. Each of those may yet play its part and will have to do so sooner than might have been the case had we not been where we stand right now, cognisant of the challenges of delivering this budget within the timescale that we have. I am very aware of that.
I am aware that policing is a devolved matter, but it deserves a greater response than trying to swipe it away with that statement. I will again take the opportunity to write to the noble Lord and give a fuller answer.
In finally responding to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, I am aware and pleased that he is able to support the necessary steps, recognising that it is what it is, which is necessary. The measure is short and technical, but it also recognises that we do not wish to be where we are. That is something I am very conscious of. I have no desire to stand here and do this again, fun though it is.
I am going to slightly change the tone of the debate, because that might be useful. Many noble Lords will know one of the poets of Northern Ireland whose name is Carol Rumens. She wrote “Prayer for Belfast” and I am going to read it, because it is perhaps apropos today:
“Night, be starry-sensed for her,
Your bitter frost be fleece to her.
Comb the vale, slow mist, for her.
Lough, be a muscle, tensed for her.
And coals, the only fire in her,
And rain, the only news of her.
Small hills, keep sisters’ eyes on her.
Be reticent, desire for her.
Go, stories, leave the breath in her,
The last word to be said by her,
And leave no heart for dead in her.
Steer this ship of dread from her.
No husband lift a hand to her,
No daughter shut the blind on her.
May sails be sewn, seeds grown, for her.
May every kiss be kind to her”.
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time and passed.