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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:51 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 8:51 pm, 12th March 2019

My Lords, no matter how much homework I do before I come here, I am always confronted by new questions, so I will try as best I can to do justice to all of the questions that have been presented this evening. I also stress that the opportunity next week to examine in greater detail the renewable heat incentive will give us a further opportunity to discuss that issue.

I start on a positive note and I will try to weave my way through all of the other questions. A number of noble Lords mentioned the medical centre in Derry. Derry/Londonderry will secure significant funding through the city deal initiative. Noble Lords will be aware that the Belfast city deal has been set at around £350 million. There will be substantial funds going into Derry/Londonderry and into the medical centre. If it is able to secure the correct construction of its bid, that is exactly the sort of thing that the city deal should be able to move forward. I am not across the details, but I will be, and I will report back when I have more to say. It is a useful initiative to take forward.

The common theme from noble Lords this evening was to ask why we always seem to do this at the last moment and at short notice. It is important to place this in context. The Bills before us are, in a sense, a reconciliation of the moneys broadly spent in the financial year soon to close. The budget for that was set before and we are now reconciling it. It is happening now because we had to wait until the figures were available, and that happened only within the last month. That is why we are doing this today.

On the question of the rates, again, noble Lords were right to flag up that this could have been examined at a different time, but the two issues have been put together in this package. The heating initiative concept also falls into this debate because we face a time limit of the deadline by which we must introduce an adjustment to the scheme because of the grandfather clause that will bring it to an end.

The point noble Lords are making is different: if this is how we are doing things, why are there not more opportunities for further scrutiny by different parts of this House and others, either through committees or elsewhere? I am going to take that away from the discussion this evening because I agree. We should be looking at how to move that forward in a fashion that does not rely on the methods we have used thus far. I do not think they are adequate. When we are spending such sums of money, there should be thorough, careful and detailed scrutiny—not in one evening, not even spread over the two opportunities we have—to ensure that those who are tasked with examining these things are capable of doing so.

I will try to move forward on several of these smaller but important questions. I have had several meetings with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, about pensions. I recognise how important this is and that we need to move forward for the very reasons that a number of noble Lords have struck upon this evening, not least the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. These people are ageing and dying off. We are awaiting the information from the Victims Commissioner. We believe that it will come very soon and hope that we will be able to move forward on this initiative once we receive that. I will come back when I have more details and am in a better position to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, raised the wider question of the Hart inquiry. I wanted to get the exact wording, so forgive me if I read it out. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made it clear that, in the absence of an Executive, she will consider the next stages when she receives advice from the Northern Ireland Executive. We need to move this forward—I recognise how urgent and important it is—and we will do so when we have received that information. Even if there is no Executive, we will not let this settle. We need to make progress now.

I will touch on one of the other, bigger issues, the role of an Assembly, not necessarily as a generator of legislation but as a place where debate and discussion can take place. There is no impediment to the Assembly meeting. It would have to select and elect its own Speaker and its own Presiding Officer, but it could do so. One noble Lord flagged up one of the difficulties: to be an appropriate place for this discussion to take place, it would need to bring together all of those parties. I am aware of the challenge that that may represent. Perhaps noble Lords here gathered can do something to help. On a cross-party basis, they could write to each of the MLAs and ask if they would be willing to sit and meet in such an Assembly now.

There is no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has flagged up an important point. Just along the corridor in the other place, an extraordinary event has unfolded. It has centred on Northern Ireland, yet the voices of Northern Ireland have been remarkably quiet in this process. It is not just about flags outside but voices in here. Any small progress will be a step in the right direction.