Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:43 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour 8:43 pm, 12th March 2019

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. Where there is an absence of democratic government, particularly in Northern Ireland, that gap will be filled by the men of violence. That is an interesting point on which to start this final but one speech in your Lordships’ House.

There has been a theme throughout this evening’s short debate concerning the way in which we scrutinise legislation, particularly of this sort, in Parliament. It was a theme in the other place as well. I hope the Minister will take back to his boss that constantly relying on emergency legislation for Northern Ireland, when we know the timetable in front of us, really is not good enough. When we consider that the meetings that apparently were held with the political parties in Belfast were rather perfunctory, that adds to the difficulties we face.

Northern Ireland is now the least democratic part of the United Kingdom—possibly the least democratic part of the European Union. The local authorities will be elected in a few months’ time but they have very minor powers in comparison with their British counterparts. All other decisions regarding education, health, planning and the rest are now taken by a bureaucracy. I suspect that there is nowhere else in Europe where such huge decisions, involving billions of pounds, are taken by unelected administrators and civil servants. I do not envy them because whatever they do will be criticised. But it is not their job. In a democracy, such decisions should be taken by elected politicians, which has not been the case in Northern Ireland.

A number of your Lordships mentioned the possibility of the Assembly being used for deliberative purposes. Brexit would have been an ideal subject for the Assembly to discuss, as the budget would certainly have been. I might have mentioned before in your Lordships’ House that when I was Minister of Finance in Northern Ireland before an Executive was set up, I took the budget to the new Assembly that had only just been elected. All Members of that Assembly were able to question me about that budget. Such an arrangement would not have legal standing, other than the fact that the Members have been elected legally, but the Assembly would have a deliberative function. I am sure that two of its former Speakers who are here, the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Hay, would agree that the opportunity would be enormous and that the people of Northern Ireland would regard it as a first step, particularly given that Members of the Assembly are still being paid. It is a proposal worth considering.

The Opposition will not oppose these Bills. As regards the budget, a number of your Lordships have raised different issues. I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about the interest of the noble Lord, Lord Hain—we are all interested in this issue—in pensions for the victims of the Troubles, and the fact that a lot of those people are now old. Indeed, some have died. Around 500 would qualify. A tiny handful would be people about whom there may be controversy. We must not allow that vast majority to be affected by issues of definition of victim; rather, we must address the mental and physical problems that those people face.

The proposal regarding the rates is fair. It is on a level with those affecting my local authority in Wales. There is nothing outrageous about the amount but the point has been made by some Members here that we should consider those who still cannot afford the rates. Although non-domestic rates are smaller, in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, there are small towns in difficulty and where business rates are a burden. I ask the Minister whether the new small towns initiative will apply to Northern Ireland, by way of the Barnett formula.

A lot of Members rightly raised the RHI, and it is good that next week we will have an opportunity to look at it in detail. We await the results of the inquiry. There might be a judicial review of the issue, which the Northern Ireland Select Committee will deal with next week. Although some people benefited a lot from the RHI, everyone who applied did so in good faith. A lot of farmers and small business people in Northern Ireland will be affected adversely by the results of this legislation. It has to go through, otherwise nothing would come to them at all; but we should scrutinise this issue in greater detail. It was a scandal and I hope that we will be able to rescue some of the people who have been caught up in it. However, I still come back to the fact that none of this should be happening. There should be an Assembly, an Executive, north-south bodies and indeed the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. The east-west aspect of the Good Friday agreement should be operating.

We are 312 hours from the first deadline for legislation—which this House approved, by the way, not long ago. I very much doubt that we shall achieve what we want by that time. The involvement of both Prime Ministers has been peripheral. The Government —to put it diplomatically—were less than energetic in this matter. I cannot see a plan ahead of us. There should be a plan for talks about talks, if nothing else, and there is none. There is no hope of it. We have had over two years without an Assembly or an Executive.

A few hours ago, the Government were defeated by 149 votes on an issue about Northern Ireland, effectively. The proper argument put in the other place was that the Good Friday agreement must not be affected by a hard border. The hard border would adversely affect everything that was agreed 20 years ago. Of course that is right. But here we are today in this Chamber discussing Northern Ireland and the restoration of the Assembly and Executive, and in reality this issue is as great a threat to the Good Friday agreement as that of the existence of a hard border, which has just resulted in a vast government defeat. The two are linked. Had an Assembly and Executive been functioning, a resolution of the backstop issue between both the nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland might well have been possible. These abject failures in negotiations, in both Brussels and Belfast, have had tragic consequences not just for Northern Ireland but for the whole of our country. The crisis we are currently in is partly about Northern Ireland and, frankly, the Government should do something about it.