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

I will make sure the letter covers that point as well. On the housing association aspect, I have assurances from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that we will find time, and this will move forward as quickly as we can. Whether it will be by the summer will slightly depend upon events, but there will be an ambition to move forward quickly. The longer we delay in moving this aspect forward, the greater the cost to the Exchequer, as the noble Lord will know. If we do not make progress by the end of the financial year, it will have cost us £45 million, which is money we could better spend on a thousand different areas.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, reminds us of the challenges we face if we are not able to deliver, and he is right to point out the challenges of a vacuum, and who will fill it. It is a stark reminder, and we are living through that reality now. We need to make sure we can make some progress, because it is too important an issue for it to fall into that particular abyss, from which it will be harder and harder to extricate ourselves.

The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, as ever, brought forward a useful summary, and trenchant criticism, which lands upon us as the Government. It is important that we recognise the issues we have tried to take forward, and how we can improve the way we do business. He asked a specific question about the small towns initiative, to which I do not have an answer, but I will get an answer and I will write to him, lodging my answer in the Library for those who wish to have that information at their disposal.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, posed a question on scrutiny, and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, touched on this. The actual spend is scrutinised by the Northern Ireland Audit Office, but there is a difference between scrutinising post facto spend and the other way around. I take that on board, as I hope he will understand. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, also asked why the flaws in the RHI scheme were not caught earlier. It is a good question, and there have been attempts throughout the process to ameliorate what has become a significant problem. When the scheme was set up, the figures being discussed were in the £20 million range, but when we look at the simple costs now for this scheme, were it to have run the full distance, we would already be at £500 million, which is a significant overshoot. The reason why the judicial review, which is going to appeal and will report soon, found that there should be reform of this is because we need to balance the commitments we make to individual participants in this scheme, and the wider sense of common good and public finances, which are challenging in this regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, also raised proxy voting. It is important that we get clarity on this, and I will write to him and will share that information with others.

I think I have answered all the questions I can. If I have not answered particular questions, noble Lords should grab a hold of me, and I will answer them. If I cannot do that, we will arrange a meeting where I can answer properly.

Bill read a second time.