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

The night is still young, exactly.

Returning to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. In stressing the notion of the cancer strategy, he placed his finger on one of the more important questions: in the previous Act we set out our ability to offer guidance to civil servants in Northern Ireland but at what point does a civil servant in receipt of information feel he is comfortable to implement it or not? There is no doubt in my mind that there is a strong difference between a civil servant who feels so empowered and a Minister who wishes to move things forward, and there is no point pretending that one is the same as the other. I recognise that a cancer strategy is only as valuable as it is implemented in all its manifest forms, and I also recognise how important that will be.

The noble Lord asked about turning capital funding into resource funding. In the current arrangements there will be £130 million of that, and he is absolutely right that the Treasury has in the past not been overly fond of this approach. This particular approach is one method of trying to balance out that budget, but I recognise that there will be other challenges. He rightly points out that there are enough capital projects in Northern Ireland to keep Northern Ireland busy for some time, which is again why there will be £200 million from the confidence and supply arrangements, focused primarily upon infrastructure. That should in some sense help to recognise how we can balance out these particular aspects.

My noble friend Lord Lexden was very critical, and I accept his criticisms in the spirit in which they were given. We deserve some criticism in this area. We should be doing better, so I will take that on board. Again, he flags up the vital role undertaken by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which should have a stronger role in all the things which we are discussing. There is no point in having a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee if the only thing it does not discuss is what you are up to in Northern Ireland in this context, so I shall take that on board. He was right also to remind us of the role of Airey Neave, and the tragic circumstances in which he died. There is much to learn from that period about how we can move things forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, asked several questions. The first one, which he has touched upon previously, was: has the reform of the council structure had any benefit? I do not have an answer to that but I am going to find one and report it to him directly. He also asked what the role of state aid will be after the point at which we depart. The reality is that the state aid approach will be adopted broadly by a UK-based entity called the Competition and Markets Authority, which will apply common rules. I will write to him with more detail so that I can set out at greater length the information which I am here slightly gliding over the top of.

I hope I have answered the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, so I will glide over the top of those and move on.

The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, like many others, raised the very serious point of scrutiny. I hope we can find a way of doing this differently. This time last year, I somewhat foolishly made a bold promise, which I will not be doing it again, as I have discovered that Northern Ireland is not the place to make bold promises—certainly not as far as I am concerned. However, I believe we need to find a different way of scrutinising. It is right and necessary that the people of Northern Ireland have faith and confidence in the way that their money is being administered, and that is going to be done only if they have genuine confidence. The notion of using expedited or emergency powers creates this sense of emergency, which in itself is self-defeating, so we want to move away from that as best we can.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, asked certain questions on proxy voting. I will chase up the responses tomorrow and ensure that the noble Lord gets them. He read into the record one of the letters from the responsible devolved Minister, reminding us again that all those individuals who have written to each of us about the RHI scheme did so on the basis of very clear, simple, straightforward guidance. They did the right thing, and so it is important that is on the record and part of the wider discussions that, I do not doubt, will follow on from the report which will be published. That echoes the points raised by my noble friend Lord Cormack, and I am pleased he was able to raise the issue of pensions on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, which we should be able to move forward on, once we are receipt of that information from the victims’ commissioner.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, asked about how much the Scappaticci affair cost. I do not know, but I will find out and report back to him. I hope I was able to give him some comfort on the Derry medical school.