My Lords, I will speak to both Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper. When I last brought forward a budget Bill for Northern Ireland, I stated that it would be the last time. Events have made a liar of me. I apologise for that.
In the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland, the UK Government have a responsibility to ensure good governance and to safeguard public services and public finances. I therefore ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading to two pieces of necessary legislation.
The Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) (No. 2) Bill will have all its stages in your Lordships’ House today. However, following engagement with a number of noble Lords, the regional rates and energy Bill will have only its Second Reading here today. All further stages will take place on
With your Lordships’ permission, I will discuss each Bill in turn, The Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) (No. 2) Bill would put Northern Ireland finances for the 2018-19 financial year on a legal footing and enable Northern Ireland’s departments to continue to deliver public services into the first half of 2019-20. Your Lordships will recall that the UK Government legislated for the 2018-19 budget for Northern Ireland last year. This legislation was necessary to provide a clear legal basis to Northern Ireland departments, enabling them to manage their resources. The resulting Northern Ireland Budget Act 2018, which passed in July, did not direct any spending but rather allocated funds to departments to be spent by the Permanent Secretaries according to departmental commitments. As we approach the end of the financial year, those spends need to be placed on to a legal footing, as is standard practice in any budgetary process. That is what this Bill does.
In addition, the Bill provides for a vote on account for the first half of next year, which will give legal authority for managing the day-to-day spending in the run-up to the main estimates process. This year, following discussion with the Northern Ireland Civil Service, the Bill provides a higher than normal level of vote on account, some 70%. This is in recognition of the known increased spending pressures and the lack of Ministers in place to react and respond to emerging or escalating pressures. It also recognises the uncertainty of the political situation in Northern Ireland in the coming months. A higher level of vote on account funding is prudent, providing the practical and legal certainties to protect public services in any and all circumstances up until the point that legislation on the Northern Ireland budget for 2019-20 is taken forward.
Your Lordships will recall that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland published a draft budget for 2019-20 in February. It is important to recognise that this budget Bill does not legislate for that budget position. Those allocations will require their own legislation later this year. The vote on account in this Bill and the draft Northern Ireland budget position for 2019-20 provide the necessary clarity and certainty to Northern Ireland departments to enable them to plan and take decisions in the coming year.
I will briefly turn to the Bill’s contents. In short, it authorises Northern Ireland departments and certain other bodies to incur expenditure and use resources for the financial year ending
The Bill would ordinarily have been taken through the Assembly. As such, at Clause 7, there are a series of adaptations that ensure that the Bill will be treated as an Assembly Budget Act once approved by this Parliament, enabling Northern Ireland public finances to continue to function notwithstanding the absence of an Executive.
Alongside the Bill is a set of supplementary estimates for the departments and bodies covered by the budget Bill, which was laid as a Command Paper in the Library of the House on
I also ask the House to give a Second Reading to the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill. This Bill would deliver two essential measures: it will enable the collection of regional rates in Northern Ireland, and will ensure fair and appropriate tariffs and cost-capping measures are in place for the renewable heat incentive scheme in Northern Ireland. The bills are not without their controversies, as noble Lords will be aware. However, the measures are necessary.
The first clause of the Bill addresses the issue of regional rates. In the absence of an Executive, the UK Government have set this rate for the past two years. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland intimated the rate—an increase of 3% plus inflation on the domestic rate and an inflation-only increase on the non-domestic rate—in her budget Statement of
The second section of the Bill, specifically Clauses 2 to 5, concerns the administration of Northern Ireland’s renewable heat incentive scheme. I need to be clear that this is a devolved matter. We are taking forward legislation at the behest of the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy. Without legislation, there will be no legal basis to maintain the payments to participants in the scheme.
The tariff levels set out in this legislation are based upon analyses of the additional costs and savings of operating a biomass boiler in Northern Ireland following extensive consultation, assessment and analysis under- taken by the devolved Department for the Economy and through detailed discussions with the European Commission. These rates are significantly lower than previous tariffs. The European Commission is clear: the tariff rate cannot deliver a return higher than 12% per annum. For participants with lower usage needs or higher capital costs who have returns below 12%, the Bill introduces a voluntary buy-out scheme.
As I have said, these tariffs, and indeed this scheme, are not without controversy; I appreciate the desire of noble Lords to consider this significant and complex subject in more detail. There will be a Committee stage, on Tuesday of next week, where these proposed RHI measures and the amendments that noble Lords have tabled can be addressed separately. I will ensure in the intervening period that my officials, together with officials from the Northern Ireland Civil Service, are available to engage directly with issues that your Lordships may wish to raise on this matter. In addition, my officials will issue a detailed question-and-answer script addressing commonly asked questions; this note will be distributed to interested Peers shortly.
In conclusion, I hope your Lordships will recognise the necessity of the actions that I have presented today. On that basis, I beg to move.
My Lords, noble Lords will of course understand why, as he said, the Minister has made a liar of himself and had to come back to the House. It is fair to say that it is not the Minister who has made a liar of himself but the circumstances in which we find ourselves. But to be asked to pass these two Bills—and certainly the budget Bill—at Second Reading, through all their stages, only a week or so after the documentation became available and where the detailed publication, as he says, is very hefty indeed, falls way below what I would regard as any acceptable level of scrutiny. It starts to cause real concern as to who is checking what is going on with respect to the money allocated to Northern Ireland.
Will the Minister consider whether steps could be taken to provide some comfort—and more than that, oversight? For example, the Public Accounts Committee could have a specific role to look at the follow-through from what we have voted. I do not believe that the Select Committee in the Commons has the resources to do that. It was not set up for those purposes; indeed, the second Bill may in any case be the subject of an inquiry being conducted by the House of Commons committee. It will probably have its hands full. I say that to the Minister in all seriousness; many of us are concerned that £20 billion is being voted on for Northern Ireland. We understand that it is necessary, but we have no clear, detailed oversight as to how that will be spent and whether it will be spent properly. Given the problem of the renewable heating scandal, we have every reason to be concerned about scrutiny.
That is my first point. The second concerns more specific questions on issues that do not appear in the budget, which people might have hoped to see: for example, the Hart inquiry into historical institutional abuse, which has cross-party support, and which people had hoped would make progress. I would be grateful if the Minister could say something about that. There is also the issue of pensions for severely disabled victims. The last time this was raised, the Minister said that he had asked for a report from the Victims Commissioner. Can he give us some feedback on whether that report has been received? Let us bear in mind that these are elderly and sick people who, sadly, are dying, and need early action rather than considered delay.
A broader point is that there are issues not in the budget for which there appear to be all-party consensus. Might it be possible in the circumstances to see whether other decisions could be taken? When I raised this matter with officials they said that they could in principle but, before committing to something, one has to identify where the money is coming from or what else is being cut. I raise as an example—as it has been raised with me—the medical school at the McGill campus in Derry, which people had hoped would be progressing by now. The site and buildings are available, but students are leaving Northern Ireland to go to other universities, mostly in Scotland. As the Minister will know, the problem when students go outside of Northern Ireland for training, is that very often they do not come back. There is a need for places within the Province.
On the rates Bill, we accept that a simple decision has been taken to increase the business rates by inflation and the domestic rates by 3% plus inflation. Most of us recognise that as a fairly understandable formula and I suspect most people will accept it. Regarding the RHI, it is clear that, since the scheme was set up, the tariff has been set on two separate occasions at a value well outside either value for money or state aid criteria. This has led to the situation in which we now find ourselves. I am sure that all Members engaged in this debate will have received similar emails to the ones that I am receiving, from people who fear they will be substantially damaged and, indeed, distressed by the proposed cap. We will debate that in detail next week; I just make the point that it needs to be determined.
The fact nevertheless is that the Minister and officials encouraged people to take up high borrowing. The banks participated in that encouragement, relying on a comfort letter from the Minister and the support of officials. Understandably, people are saying, “We took decisions in good faith on the basis of 20-year guarantees from government Ministers, which are now being reversed”. Naturally they feel angry. Having said that, I suspect some people were quite fly at the beginning, saw a good deal coming down the track and took advantage of it. This raises a second question: why were these deals not cross-checked in any way? Why were there not investigations to ensure that they were compliant with both the spirit and the letter of the scheme? That seems a legitimate concern.
I have two final points to raise. The first is one that officials explained to us but it would be helpful if the Minister could do the same: how does the Northern Ireland scheme differ from those on mainland GB? Certainly, all the letters and emails that I have received express concern that people in Northern Ireland feel disadvantaged compared with those in GB. I know there are reasons for it, but it would be good to have them put the record. The second point relates to the buy-out scheme, which the Government are proposing to introduce. On the face of it, it could resolve the problems for some people by enabling them to get a capital sum that could discharge their liabilities. But, given that the circumstances of different contracts are variable, there may well be people for whom that buy-out is not appropriate; I mean people who have acted in good faith and not unreasonably. The question is whether the Government may at some point have to consider some kind of distress help for genuine cases, although I appreciate that how you establish what is a genuine case might be quite difficult.
With these remarks, my message to the Minister is that I understand the reason this has been brought forward and I recognise that services in Northern Ireland have to be maintained, but I hope he will agree that quite a lot of questions need to be answered.
My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for bringing forward these essential Bills today. They ensure that public services continue to be provided in Northern Ireland and give departments some certainty going forward. In the unfortunate continued absence of decision-makers at a local level, I welcome the Government taking these necessary steps but I know that they too will recognise that this is far from an ideal situation. Regrettably, this is the third consecutive occasion that expenditure in Northern Ireland has been considered through an unusual, fast-track process in your Lordships’ House, with little scrutiny or knowledge of how allocations to specific departments have been decided. I would much prefer that Bills such as these were being presented in a fully functioning Stormont Assembly by a locally accountable Minister. Equally, I wish that local representatives were able regularly to debate, scrutinise and analyse specific spending, and raise matters relating to their areas. Unfortunately, this is impossible to the same degree right now.
One political party aside, all the other parties want to get back into government and into a functioning Assembly. MLAs were elected to serve the people, but unfortunately they are prevented from doing their jobs. None of us wants to be in this situation, but the people of Northern Ireland must not be punished further because of a political stalemate.
As with any budgetary allocations, challenges are presented—and specifically when allocations are based on historic decisions. When allocations are made by individual departments, we cannot always be certain that the finances will go towards areas that the public might expect to be prioritised. In addition to looking at the amounts being allocated, we must also look closely at how effectively that money is being spent. For example, significant additional money was secured for education as a result of the confidence and supply arrangement. This money was originally meant to go towards front-line services in education. After numerous inquiries, it was eventually revealed that the department allocated this money to finance the Education Authority, which was running a deficit. After further such inquiries to the department relating to spending, a number of my party colleagues met with a series of principals in the education sector. These principals were unanimous in the view that action, in the form of ministerial involvement in the decision-making process, needs to happen soon to rescue their sector from what they describe as an impending crisis.
While the current situation presents considerable challenges, those have been reduced significantly by the welcome additional money obtained for the reform of the health service and for front-line services. On health transformation, the Permanent Secretary to the Department of Health recently made it clear that £100 million was invested in health transformation funding last year, and a further £100 million will be invested this year, as a result of the confidence and supply arrangement. This must be welcomed by all, because it provides an opportunity for the rolling out of multidisciplinary teams and other measures that will save money in the long term. These substantial amounts of money are going directly into transforming the health service, and I welcome that.
While always remaining challenging, there is positive news for our schools, with increased spending on front-line services. I trust that key services such as health and schools can also benefit from regular monetary round allocation in year. For homes and businesses struggling with slow—or no—broadband, the ultra-fast broadband project is also moving forward, along with a clear pathway for spending the £150 million secured through the confidence and supply negotiations. I look forward to the tender process starting and the infrastructure being laid. This investment will make a real difference—according to independent estimates, it could be worth over £1 billion for our local economy.
There is also good news for areas of deprivation, with £20 million from the confidence and supply deal being allocated to help some of the most vulnerable communities. This budget reflects the priorities of an Executive of more than three years ago. Indeed, if we look closely at the heads of spending for 2018-19 and 2019-20, we see that they are virtually identical. Very little is new, because of the current situation.
This legislation allows permanent secretaries to take decisions that could redirect spending. Senior civil servants have been tasked with taking the majority of the decisions within departments for over two years. However, in a number of instances key decisions are still not being made. A growing number of key decisions still need to be made on health, education, infrastructure and public services. In many cases, these decisions are about prioritisation—for example, decisions still need to be taken on school places and teaching staff.
Given all available information, it is clear that further action is required in order to deliver good government for Northern Ireland. Can the Minister provide some assurances to the departments that the relevant ministerial direction and involvement in the decision-making process will be provided? The people of Northern Ireland require further assurances, because at the minute, they are only receiving the bare minimum level of governance. We cannot allow the decision-making process to grind to a halt.
My party will continue to work towards a return to locally accountable government. I am of the firm belief that, with political will on all sides, it is possible to see local government back up and running. In its absence, my party will continue to work hard, here and in the other place, as it has done in relation to the confidence and supply arrangements. We will continue to press the Government on all of these matters in the weeks and months ahead.
Turning to the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No.2) Bill, I have reservations about the level of the domestic rate increase, which is above the rate of inflation. In fact, it is the rate of inflation plus 3%. In some cases, this will cause considerable difficulty for households that do not qualify for housing benefit on their rates but are still in low-paid employment and wish to stay in employment. However, it was initially proposed that the increase would be much higher, and in that regard I am grateful to the Government for listening to the concerns expressed by my colleagues in the other place.
I welcome and appreciate the efforts made by the Government in relation to city deals. These projects could lead to a potential increase in employment and opportunities for local businesses; I hope and trust that the relevant measures will shortly come before the other place and your Lordships’ House.
On the renewables scheme, I thank the Minister for arranging briefings on this very complicated matter. The issue is controversial and far-reaching, and its consequences will be felt by a lot of people for a long time. I honestly do not know of anyone who can say that this scheme has in any way been a success. In fact, the way it was set up and ultimately abused by some was disgraceful; fundamental change was required. Why was this not stand-alone legislation?
It is important to say that the scheme was not abused by everyone. As we all know, some certainly did abuse it and their subsidies were rightly cut. However, many people entered into the scheme in genuine good faith and, as a result of the information they were given, ultimately installed more expensive boilers, expecting to get a return at some point in the future.
The historical problems associated with the RHI tariff are the subject of an ongoing public inquiry, so it would be wrong to press those matters in too much detail today. However, the Minister will be aware of our concern that there has been a lack of proper scrutiny of the new proposals. There needs to be further scrutiny, even after this has gone through, so that there can be an opportunity for revision if at any point the figures are proved to be wrong.
While we await the report of the public inquiry, one of the issues on which it makes recommendations may be how we scrutinise measures such as this going forward. We would have hoped that Parliament could set an example on that. Will the Minister address the concern about the timing of this proposal, coming as it does so close to the end of the financial year?
My Lords, I give my support to these Bills.
My Lords, when the business Motion was being discussed last week, I made the point that the method of dealing with Northern Ireland legislation in this place is entirely unsatisfactory. I support the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, to that effect. We know that budgets are annual events and we know that the setting of a regional rate is an annual event. Therefore, there are no surprises, and it is not as though the legislative business that we have had to deal with in the last few weeks has been so pressing that we could not have made time for these Bills to be dealt with in a proper way.
The other significant point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, was on the absence of any meaningful scrutiny. This is concerning, because for years—literally years—now, nobody has been looking at any of these things, other than the examinations conducted from time to time by the Auditor-General in Northern Ireland. Given that enormous amounts of money are going from this Parliament to Stormont, nobody there is accountable to anybody here, and there is nobody there for them to be accountable to. It is probably a new version of “accountable but not responsible”. Therefore, we have developed this limbo land, where the Government trundle on but without the checks and balances that are the hallmarks of a democracy. I appeal to the Minister, as I appealed to the Leader of the House last week, to prevail upon his colleagues that legislation dealing with Northern Ireland should at least be dealt with in a respectable way and at a respectable time, when we can scrutinise it to the best of our abilities, in the hope that it will find its proper place back in the devolved institutions.
The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, spoke about the estimates for the Executive Office for the next financial year. As they have for some considerable time, those estimates contain the phrase,
“actions associated with the preparation and implementation of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry Report and Findings”.
That report came out three years ago. I am aware that there has been a consultation, which has now closed. We have had a report and now a consultation, and so it goes on. These people were abused 40 or 50 years ago in some cases, and due to the political limbo that has been created—let us not blame whoever it is—they are being abused all over again, because they are not getting any help at all.
I know that, apart from the state having a responsibility, some of the churches and orders whose members were responsible for some of this abuse also have a responsibility, and their insurers clearly do as well. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that in the financial year about to begin, there is, at the very least, provision in that budget for interim payments to be made. These people are getting on in years and they are suffering again. There is unanimous support in the political parties for this matter to be resolved—not a single elected Member objects to this—yet we are still confronted by the fact that nothing has happened and these people have received nothing. It is inhuman and entirely unsatisfactory, and I appeal to the Minister to ensure that some progress is made in the financial year about to begin.
I agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, about bringing together the rates Bill and the RHI matter. They are two entirely separate matters, and they should not be in the same piece of legislation. I do not know how the Public Bill Office allowed it, and they should be separated; there is no reason for them to be linked.
Another issue in the estimates is that the Permanent Secretary in the Department of Health announced that he was going to start work on the development of a cancer strategy. This is something that Northern Ireland sorely lacks, and I welcome it, but as he said, there is no reason to believe, unless a Minister or somebody else is responsible at the end of the process, that decisions can be taken. I have repeatedly given statistics to this House on waiting lists—they are growing and growing and growing. In every category they are worse each quarter than they were the quarter before. They would not be tolerated in any other region of the United Kingdom. We are now up to 289,000 outpatients waiting for a consultant’s appointment. Of those, 95,000 have been waiting for over 12 months. For some procedures that are not life-threatening, people were told last week that they may have to wait 10 years. Where are we going with this? There is nobody there in a position to implement the many reports that have been produced and deal with things as they have been developing.
Another matter the Minister might address is that we are now getting into the habit of turning capital into resource, whereby we are taking money out of the capital budget to put into the revenue budget. The Treasury used to go mad if anybody proposed doing that, but now it seems to be the done thing—it is commonplace. On top of that, we are borrowing through the RRI initiative, and the interest payments in this budget are now up to £51 million a year. That is becoming a burden in itself. Something is radically wrong when we are in the position of having to move money from a capital budget into a revenue budget when we have huge infrastructure issues to resolve, such as our road system and many others. We are also confronted with large sums of money being allocated to the legacy proposals—£150 million is supposed to be ready to support the historical inquiries unit, which is a catastrophe, and that would not cover even half its life. Yet we are short of nurses: this week we are flying people from England into some of our hospitals in Belfast because there are no nurses to look after the wards. Think of the cost of that. We have got our priorities entirely wrong and I hope we can get some accountability and scrutiny into this place.
I appreciate that at least the RHI committee stage will be taking place next week, which will give us an opportunity to go into more detail because it is a complicated subject. It was a catastrophic failure of administration and incompetence, against the background—as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, said—of people being given guarantees by the Government. I do not quite know how we get out of this. It is a big problem, and it requires scrutiny.
We are dealing with such a complicated matter, with two Bills and all their stages being taken in one evening. I do not know about those who may have looked at it, but it is exceptionally complicated, and not something you can deal with on the hoof. It requires a committee to examine it in detail and resolve it, because there are big issues of principle involved. In all of this, there will be casualties if we do not watch how we handle this. I welcome that we will have a further opportunity to go into this in more detail next week, but I appeal to the Minister to prevail upon his colleagues to treat legislation regarding Northern Ireland with some parliamentary respect, so that at least in the interim, when we are waiting—we hope—for devolution to be resolved, people can feel that somebody is looking after their interests.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Empey, and I will be reiterating some of the points he has made in relation to proper scrutiny.
Our debates on Northern Ireland inevitably evoke feelings of the deepest concern and great sadness in all parts of our House. There is no prospect of a swift resumption of devolution, and politicians of all parties shrink from the prospect of direct rule for reasons that are frequently rehearsed. Over a year has now passed without the slightest glimmer of serious optimism regarding the restoration of devolution, and an end to the political limbo—unprecedented in our modern history—into which our fellow countrymen and countrywomen in Ulster have been cast. Even the principal public services that are the responsibility of local councils elsewhere in our country lie beyond their democratic control. In Northern Ireland, Stormont is the upper tier of local government as well as a devolved legislature—something I have often urged the Government to bear in mind.
It was in February last year that the last serious hope of progress came and went. Yet, astonishingly, the Budget Bill before the House today has been presented to Parliament accompanied by comments that anticipate the imminent return of devolved institutions. The Bill’s Explanatory Memorandum, prepared by the Northern Ireland Office, tells us that the Government,
“sought to defer legislation as long as possible to enable the final decisions on the allocations to be made by a restored Executive”, and to avoid,
“distracting from and undermining the work towards talks aimed at restoring an Executive”.
What work? What talks?
Fantasists must dwell in the Northern Ireland Office. Only they could believe that a breakthrough on devolution was possible while the Bill was in preparation. The House will surely decline to enter the office’s world of make-believe, and accept that, on the ludicrous grounds that it has given, the Bill should now be rushed through Parliament without serious scrutiny, in defiance of our long-standing opposition to unnecessary fast-track procedures, against which our Constitution Committee has so frequently warned.
How have financial allocations to the Northern Ireland departments been determined? How will increased spending affect those public services to which extra resources have been given? Above all, to what extent will this Bill help reverse the current “decay and stagnation” in the public services, of which Mr David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, has recently spoken. These questions cannot be answered because the necessary information has not been made available to Parliament, and the Northern Ireland Office’s unacceptable delay in producing the Bill has prevented its examination in committee. The Explanatory Memorandum states unapologetically:
“Due to the need to implement the Bill urgently, the Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has not scrutinised the Bill in draft”.
It is extraordinary that the Secretary of State should have approved such conduct.
The same criticisms apply, perhaps even more forcibly, to the other Bill being rushed through Parliament. It will make drastic changes to the Province’s renewable heat scheme, adding still further to the huge controversy with which the scheme has been surrounded since its start. The livelihoods of small businessmen are being placed in jeopardy. Yet this Bill is to be denied full examination by Parliament. However, it is good news that there is to be a separate Committee stage in this House next week. The Government should give an unequivocal pledge today that these are the last major Northern Ireland Bills that they will bring forward without making adequate information and time available to enable both Houses of Parliament to carry out their work of scrutiny and debate, which is all the more essential in the absence of devolved government.
I referred at the outset to the feelings of sadness with which the affairs of Northern Ireland are surrounded. I feel especial personal sadness this month. On
My Lords, I will speak on the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill in particular. I declare an interest, as shown in the register, as the owner of two non-domestic properties in the cities of Armagh and Belfast and the chairman of a company that owns 14 properties in different towns across Northern Ireland. The issue of rates is, therefore, important to me and those who work with me.
The subject of this Bill should, of course, be for the Stormont Assembly, as several noble Lords have already stressed. I am a strong supporter of devolution and was very much involved in the negotiations that led to the Belfast agreement. I believe in shared government at Stormont—a cross-community Government comprising Catholics and Protestants, Unionists and Nationalists. That is the best way forward for Northern Ireland. The imposition of GB rule on Northern Ireland is not a solution, but Sinn Féin makes this devolution unlikely. For at least one year it has stalled the creation of devolution. It does not want responsibility for unpopular decisions at Stormont as it prepares for the southern Irish general election, which could be within the next year. The campaign for equality of Irish with English is only an excuse for delaying the restoration of the Executive at Stormont, as only 1% of the people of Northern Ireland speak Irish daily—much less than those who speak Chinese, Polish and Portuguese. It was wrong to link rates and the renewable heat incentive scheme together in the Bill. The RHI scheme is a major and controversial subject in itself and I am glad that the Minister—I hope that he still is a Minister because I have just heard that the Government were heavily defeated by 149 votes in the House of Commons—has decided that the Committee stage of the Bill will be next Tuesday and not rushed through tonight. That is appreciated.
I welcome the decision to keep rates on non-domestic properties to zero plus inflation, as some retailers in Ulster towns—like elsewhere in the United Kingdom—are suffering from online competition and closing down. In contrast, life is buoyant in border cities such as Newry and Armagh, as the Irish cross the border in their thousands each day to do their shopping. The reason for that is, of course, the change in exchange rates following the Brexit referendum. Last year, Irish shoppers spent £415 million in Northern Ireland. It is expected that this year they will spend a further £500 million on daily shopping in Northern Ireland.
Has the reorganisation of local government, from 26 councils down to 11 super-councils, resulted in savings, as was suggested at the time? There seems to be a growing democratic deficit in local government in Northern Ireland. People no longer know who their local councillors are; it used to be that they were known individually. Some of the new super-councils are making major decisions in committee, where even the media are often excluded. Approval of the committee’s decisions is at monthly council meetings by a nod of the head, without proper public debate. There needs to be greater transparency in the affairs of some of the 11 new super-councils in Northern Ireland.
“As I said, this situation has resulted from a decision of the European Commission on state aid rules, and failure to do this”— to pass the Bill—
“will mean no subsidies being paid to anybody”.—[
The European Commission, therefore, is very much a problem when we discuss the whole of the RHI scheme. As the decision on the scheme must be made by
Finally, the problem with the RHI is that almost 2,000 businesses feel that they were badly misled by decisions made by both the DUP and Sinn Féin at Stormont. Both were involved, not just one. The problem appears worse, as people in the rest of the United Kingdom will be getting £20,000 per year for a biomass incinerator, whereas their equivalents in Northern Ireland will be getting only £2,000 per year. Likewise, the scheme in the Republic of Ireland will be more favourable than that in Northern Ireland.
People in Northern Ireland who got involved in this scheme on the recommendation of politicians now feel very aggrieved at this unfair treatment. These RHI proposals are very complicated and we will debate them at greater length in Committee next week. However, many feel that they were misled. A number might be forced into bankruptcy—it is as serious as that. The form in which the changes in the RHI scheme are presented, almost as an afterthought to announcing the annual rates, is mischievous, to say the least.
I oppose this Bill, and should either Her Majesty’s Opposition, who are not particularly present this evening, or the Liberal Democrats, who also are not noticeable by their presence—there must be something going on in the other place—propose amendments next Tuesday, I will probably vote with them.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his presentation of these Bills. He commands considerable respect and affection in this House because he is assiduous in his work, he is committed to the business and he is a man of integrity. He clearly demonstrates that by what he says. At the start of the debate, he admitted that the commitment that he had made last year was not one that he was in a position to deliver. We all have some sympathy with him. However, I associate myself with comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, when we last discussed some of these matters just a week or so ago. He said that he would be persistent in raising the same question and the same issue in respect of Northern Ireland until the Government addressed it.
The truth is that there is nothing at all surprising about the tragic state of affairs in which we find ourselves in the politics of Northern Ireland, because most of us here have been predicting it time after time, debate after debate, for almost two years now. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, pointed out that there is not a huge array of people on all the various Benches, but this is not a question of this House. Not only noble Lords and other representatives here from Northern Ireland but the people of Northern Ireland need to understand that the lack of presence is a representation of how people on this side of the water feel about things. I see on the other side of the road hundreds of EU flags, lots of union flags, and flags of Scotland, Wales and lots of other places. In the last few weeks, however, I have not seen a single flag of Northern Ireland, and it is not because we are short of them in Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord must have brought them with him himself, because certainly nobody over here would even have known what they were, never mind be displaying them. The truth is that the interests of the people on this side of the water have moved on for a whole series of reasons, and we have to take this extremely seriously, because when people are frustrated, disadvantaged and do not have the opportunity of making a difference—and many people over here feel they have no chance of making a difference to the difficulties in Northern Ireland—then they move on in their minds and in their feelings. This is a very real danger in Northern Ireland.
We have no devolution and we understand the reasons for that. It would be perfectly possible, however—as the noble Lords, Lord Trimble and Lord Empey, and I have pointed out repeatedly in this place—for the Government to permit the Assembly to sit and debate these issues, and that would inform the conversations that we have on this side of the water in two ways. First, it would mean that there was some holding to public account, if not to legal account, of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. When I was growing up, I had a relatively implicit trust in both the competence and the integrity of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. That has been shattered and blown apart repeatedly over the last number of years, as a combination of incompetence and a lack of integrity has been demonstrated over and over again. If there were Northern Ireland politicians from right across the parties demonstrating in debate their concern for these issues, that would hold Northern Ireland civil servants to account in a way that has not been the case for a long time.
Secondly, if Northern Ireland representatives in Belfast were having to hold the discussion and the arguments in public, even if they were not able to make decisions, people from Northern Ireland would start holding them to account for the fact that many of these adverse decisions were made by those very representatives. When they are not meeting and there is no debate, it is far too easy to pass it across the water to somebody else. I do not, for the life of me, see why the Government are not prepared to allow that degree of accountability, even though it does not have legal force. It would also say to many people in Northern Ireland that those who are being paid to be Members of the Legislative Assembly should be doing not just constituency business in their offices but constituents’ business on the Hill.
Is the noble Lord aware that there was no greater opportunity than to use the MLAs in the run-up to this budget? Instead, there were two or three very brief and perfunctory meetings, of little import, between the civil servants and representatives of the parties. Surely it would have been a golden opportunity to let them go through the process, even if it were for guidance, if for no other reason.
The noble Lord knows that I agree entirely with him. I simply cannot see that there is any sound reason at all for the Government to hold back on this. My noble friend Lord Bruce of Bennachie has insisted, quite rightly, that there is now deep concern that large amounts of money are being allocated and spent in Northern Ireland without proper accountability and with increasing concerns that they are not being properly dealt with, spent and accounted for. It is not possible for us in this place, in the absence of direct rule, to hold to account, and even if we had direct rule, it would not be a satisfactory holding to account. Why? It is because neither in this place nor in the other place is there a representation of the nationalist community.
Now, one might well say that some of that is the nationalist community’s own choice; that is not the point. The point is that there is not satisfactory representation and therefore the degree of accountability is not one that is going to be acceptable to large proportions of the population. Many of the arguments will not be satisfactorily adverted and adduced. I do not want to see direct rule, but I also do not want to see a continued drift and I have to say that, not just on this issue but on the issue that has just been debated and voted down at the other end of this building, the Government have shown an absolutely clear habit of kicking the can down the road and not making the decisions, even when it is manifestly clear that it is long past the time when the decisions should be made.
So we come to these Bills. Why do they go through some kind of emergency procedure? Was it some great shock or surprise that these Bills were going to have to be brought forward? Of course it was not, but it looks like every piece of Northern Ireland legislation is now going through an emergency process, even when it is known six months in advance that the matter must be dealt with in this place. This is not an acceptable way of going about things. Why do we have democratic processes? We have them because it is the way that we find to disagree with each other, as much as to agree, but to do so democratically and without violence. If people are left with no way of affecting process inside the democratic process then they will be encouraged to look beyond it, and that is not something that we should preside over.
It is not enough for Governments to suggest that strand 1 of the Good Friday agreement is the key strand and is not being implemented because of political disagreements in Northern Ireland. Strand 3 of the Good Friday agreement, the British-Irish Inter- governmental Conference, did not meet at a top level for 10 years and neither of the Governments asked the other, or insisted on having it. So when people talk about the Good Friday agreement not being implemented, it is not being implemented by the two Governments who are still in operation, in some fashion or other, and that has led to a deterioration in their relationship and in the whole process that we were supposed to be trying to make work. I say it not to the noble Lord, because I suspect he has some sympathy, coming as he does from north of the border himself, but it is really important to be clear to the Government: they are not governing in a satisfactory way, neither in this place, nor in terms of insisting on devolution, nor in the relationship between the British and Irish Governments.
I ask the Minister one specific thing in respect of RHI: I ask not that we have a debate next week and put material through, but will we have a serious debate in this place when the report of the RHI inquiry comes out, when we will have a serious piece of business to address which will make public, in this place and elsewise, the kind of exceptional inefficiency and perhaps even corruption that has gone on in Northern Ireland? Will he undertake that we will have that debate and that we will not be told that it is a devolved matter and not something that we should be debating in this place?
My Lords, it is with some regret that I speak on this issue today. Indeed, I feel that this is the sort of debate that we should not have to have. I find myself in general agreement with everyone who has spoken and with some of the things that have been said, if not all of them. However, I think the Minister knows and understands clearly where we are coming from, those of us who reside and come from Northern Ireland, when we see this type of debate. This debate should be taking place either not at all or in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but regrettably that is not the case. I recognise that the Minister has to do what he has to do. I am not sure that he has to do it at the 11th hour, but it has to be done nevertheless. He may be the one in the firing line—if that is a bad choice of words, I apologise—and has to take the flak here today, but it can come as no surprise to him or to this House that we find ourselves debating this issue this evening.
I could commence by saying, “Here we go again”. We have been here on other rushed pieces of legislation at the 11th hour, which is something I do not understand. I cannot understand why it is that way. We accept, of course, the reason for this Bill because we do not have a functioning Executive and Assembly. That is most regrettable. I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, say that he is not a fan of direct rule. Neither am I, but it would be infinitely better than what we are getting at the moment, because, basically, we are not getting rule. My first choice would be to have a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland with a functioning Executive. I suspect that even those who have yet to speak would say that that would be their first choice too.
We were told quite expressly that the Belfast agreement was a great compromise, that it was how Northern Ireland would be governed in future and that all future decisions would be made around the table, either in an Executive or in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Everyone signed up to it, some perhaps more reluctantly than others, but nevertheless we were told that this was as good as it was going to get. Hence, we had devolution for upwards of 20 years. Was it perfect? Not at all. Were there aspects of it that I did not like? There were many aspects I did not like. Indeed, it was the most convoluted and complicated piece of work that I ever witnessed in my political life, but we do not have an Executive today, we do not have a Northern Ireland Assembly, and I make it very clear to this House that I tire of people saying, “Oh, they are all to blame—they could never agree on anything over there”. I make it very clear that we have no Assembly today because Sinn Féin walked out of the Assembly and brought it crashing down. It was a calculated and deliberate piece of work. Surely there have been greater crises that have to be got over, but you do not bring government crashing to the ground to stress your point. You sit down, you debate it and you get on with it.
What have we been asked to do here this evening? The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, it was who put his finger right on it. He said that we are being asked to wave through £60 billion of budget with no scrutiny and virtually no questions asked. We are supposed to suck it up and get on with it. Would this happen in any other region of the United Kingdom? Would it be tolerated in any other part of the United Kingdom? I suspect it would not. Why does it have to be tolerated in Northern Ireland? Do we not deserve better?
Northern Ireland has gone through turbulent times, 30 or 40 years of horrendous times, and there was then a breath of fresh and a sigh of relief that maybe we were going into better times. Should we not be allowed to get on with that? If we cannot have devolution, let us have the second best, which is direct rule. I am not a fan of it any more than is the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, so let us have it on a temporary basis, until we get the restoration of devolution. Surely the Minister can tell us today; the previous time he was here, he said that it would be the last. I am not saying this to embarrass him—I know he said it in good faith—but I noticed he did not say that this time will be the last; he has learned his lesson. Someone has to take the initiative and inject some urgency into the whole situation and debate in Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is correct when he says that prospects of a swift return to the Northern Ireland Assembly do not look promising. That might not be what we want to hear, but it is very factual. The Government need to move with some degree of urgency and say, “Enough is enough; we can’t continue like this, we have to deal with the particular problem here”. That problem lies in the Belfast agreement: it allows a single party to pull down the whole edifice of government at a whim. That has to change; if we do not get that change, we will go in perpetuity into this uncertainty.
My Lords, very much along the lines of the previous speakers who have addressed this issue, I will start with a word or two about rates. The inequity is that domestic rates have yet again risen by 4.8%, whereas commercial rates have risen by 1.8%. While we continue to pay Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly for being idle as far as their public impact is concerned, the ordinary ratepayers—not least those on minimum wage—are being exploited by our so-called streamlined local government. We reduced 26 local councils to 11 in order to save money but, as my colleagues have already pointed out, local councillors are barely known; they are detached, and their decisions are made in enclosed committees and are merely accepted as faits accomplis in full council meetings.
When I was a councillor during direct rule, things were different. We had Secretaries of State—experienced politicians, such as the late Jim Prior, Peter Mandelson and Tom King, to name but three—who knew their councillors and worked through them, and who, bluntly, took no nonsense. I thought I was in a minority, but I am relieved to find that I am not, when I say: let us stop this current pandering to Sinn Féin and let us reintroduce active direct rule with the likes of those three I have just mentioned—there were others—for periods of 12 months, with an obligation on Assembly Members to give four months’ indication if and when they are prepared to assume the responsibilities for which they sought election. That means that if, on
A second point that has not been made tonight is on the issue of accountability, concern and caring about our nation—that, sadly, has been missing, at least in that part of our nation to which I belong and from where I come. Why have I not yet received straight answers to my Written Parliamentary Questions of June, September and December 2017 about the scandalous proxy voting scandal that saw the number of applications for proxy votes rise from just over 2,000 in 2010 to almost 12,000 in 2017—a 555% increase? It was a ploy that succeeded in Sinn Féin unseating all the SDLP sitting Members—Durkan, McDonald and Ritchie—with respective proxy vote increases of 806%, 677% and 434%, and in Ulster Unionist Member Tom Elliott losing in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Bluntly, it is fairly obvious—I do not include the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, in this—that, in general, the Government did not give a tinker’s curse. They dismissed the outcome to some vague and never followed-up exclusive responsibility that was passed to the Chief Electoral Officer and the PSNI, without, as far as I am aware—no one has ever bothered to update me on this—a single successful prosecution; that is, if any even occurred. How could they when few were pursued and those whose votes were violated were informed that they—elderly ladies—would be obliged to appear in court to give evidence against Sinn Féin? Most would still see that in historical terms as the Provisional IRA camp. No doubt, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, will endeavour to enlighten our Chamber—if not today, by next week.
Of course, the most hurtful element within the debate this evening is that of the renewable heat initiative. That brings me to the infamous RHI con game being played against bona fide farmers who were induced to invest huge sums of mainly borrowed money. I will not enlarge on what my colleagues, the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Kilclooney, and others have so graphically explained, except to point out that I was shocked to find Northern Ireland Members in the other place being so utterly mealy-mouthed in their acquiescence to this proposed legislation a week ago.
I will, however, put on record the letter written to the banks by the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, when she encouraged and endorsed the very scheme that the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is blithely dismantling. I will also acquaint your Lordships with one brief letter of the dozens I have received from despairing farmers who literally fear for their and their family’s futures.
First, the Minister wrote to the banks in these terms and I think it is important that this goes on the record so that next week we will know exactly what promises were made—promises now being broken. The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment wrote:
“I would also like to draw your attention to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) which my Department launched in November 2012. This scheme supports the installation of renewable heat technologies in businesses throughout Northern Ireland. Under the RHI, eligible and accredited technologies can expect to receive quarterly payments for the lifetime of the technology (to a maximum of 20 years). The level of payment will be dependent on the heat output of the installation and the eligible tariff for the specific technology. The tariffs have been calculated to cover the cost difference between traditional fossil fuel heating systems and a renewable heat alternative. The tariffs account for the variances in both capital and operating costs, as well as seeking to address non-financial ‘hassle’ costs. In addition, a rate of return is also included on the net capital expenditure to ensure the renewable energy technology is attractive to investors. The rate of return has been set at 12% for all technologies incentivised under the NI RHI (barring solar thermal which has a rate of return of 6%). These rates of return reflect, amongst other things, the potential financing costs of the investment. Tariffs are ‘grandfathered’, providing certainty for investors by setting a guaranteed support level for projects for their lifetime in a scheme, regardless of future reviews. However they will be amended on a yearly basis, for existing installers and new schemes, to reflect the rate of inflation. DETI believes that the RHI is a real opportunity for consumers and investors to install new renewable heating systems and enjoy lower energy costs and ongoing incentive payments. Traditionally the operating costs of renewable systems have been less than conventional oil systems however the capital costs have been somewhat prohibitive. The RHI aims to bridge that gap and provide a return on investment.
It is intended that the NIRO and the RHI will help to incentivise the market to achieve the ambitious renewable targets mentioned above. However, I am aware that in many cases the uptake of the schemes is dependent on potential installations being able to access the appropriate finance to cover the initial capital outlay. I am therefore writing to encourage you to look favourably on approaches from businesses that are seeking finance to install renewable technologies. The government support, on offer through the incentive schemes, is reliable, long term and offers a good return on investment. If you would find it useful, DETI officials would be happy to arrange a seminar for financial institutions, to explain further the current and proposed financial mechanisms.
Your support in working towards a more secure and sustainable energy future would be much appreciated”.
That was signed by the Minister.
In contrast to that, I will conclude by mentioning one letter that I received from a farmer who I know and trust—a middle-aged man with a young son who hopes to succeed him on the farm. He wrote:
“It was this time last year I emailed you regarding last year’s cuts. I know you did your best to try and stop it. I believe the latest bill is going before the House of Lords on Tuesday. This one must be stopped. It will be nothing but mental cruelty to hundreds of participants and their families. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since the first cuts in 2017. I also have had to get the help of Rural Support. My costs (bank repayments, servicing and extra electricity) not including wood pellets are approx. £65,000 per year, and now I will receive approx £8,000”— he has four burners. He continues:
“Could you please lobby other members of the House of Lords on our behalf as I am not great at using the computer”.
He borrowed £205,000 over a five-year period. Noble Lords can work it out; he is paying about £47,000 or £48,000 per year to repay that. He has been hoodwinked.
I will stop there but will add only that as a Parliament, we cannot do other than meet our moral obligations to RHI investors.
My Lords, unlike most of the speakers in this debate, I do not come from Northern Ireland. It is a part of our United Kingdom that I got to know and love when I was chairing the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place. The people are marvellous; the countryside is beautiful and I fell in love with it.
I shall always have two particular memories, because 2005-10 was a very interesting, formative time. One was in 2008, when Ian Paisley—the late Lord Bannside—retired. I was at Hillsborough. Perhaps some of your Lordships were as well. It was a remarkable occasion. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was there to pay tribute. The Taoiseach was there. The most moving and amazing part of that evening was the wonderful address, delivered to his friend and mentor, by Martin McGuinness. We have come a long way since then—and not in the right direction.
There is another event I shall always remember and which is printed on my mind. There was a particularly brutal murder of a young man called Paul Quinn. His parents came to see me and some members of the committee and we were invited to Crossmaglen. I was informed that I was the first British politician from this part of the United Kingdom to address a meeting in Crossmaglen since 1901. The warmth of the people, suffused on that occasion by very considerable anger, was palpable.
I feel very sad indeed that neither the Executive that was created nor the Assembly that met regularly exists for the moment. I do not go along with the desire for direct rule. I believe this would be a terribly unfortunate development. I do, however, associate myself with those who have talked about the way in which we are dealing with Northern Ireland legislation in this place and in another place. It is nothing less than an insult to the people of Northern Ireland for us to fast-track the two Bills that are before your Lordships’ House tonight. Frankly, there is no need for it. I am delighted and grateful that we have another day next week on the second of these Bills. I will endeavour to be present and to take part in the debate. I am sure that your Lordships who are here will all do likewise.
It is not good enough. Billions of pounds are effectively being nodded through. There is nothing approaching scrutiny or detailed examination. If we are to have another year like this—and I suspect that we are—this must not be allowed to happen again. There must be proper, adequate scrutiny, even if it has to take place not on the Floor of your Lordships’ House but in the Moses Room, in Grand Committee. We must engage. The people of Northern Ireland are as deserving as the people of Lincoln—where I now live—or of my former constituency of South Staffordshire. They are not getting the government they deserve. They are being short changed. Unless and until the Assembly and the Executive are restored, we have to shoulder—and willingly—the burden of government. This does not mean an early imposition of direct rule.
In his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, took up a cry that we have made separately and jointly on many occasions. Why, oh why is the Assembly not meeting? He and I accept that it would not have legal, executive authority. Time and again, I have asked my noble friend why the Assembly cannot meet. I attach no blame whatever to him. My noble friend is an exemplary public servant. He conducts himself with great dignity and is exceptionally well-briefed. When I said it to him again last week, he was kind enough to say that he would try to give some sort of definitive answer this evening. I wait with real interest because it is very important indeed.
I want to touch on a couple of issues, one of which—this renewable heat incentive—has been touched on many times. I am not going to read anything into the record, because that has been done. I have received, as have many of your Lordships, a number of pleas—cris de coeurs—from people in Northern Ireland who believe that they have been badly let down and misled, encouraged to do things they would not otherwise have done and placed themselves in penury as a result. One of them was cited by a noble Lord a moment or two ago. We have all had those letters and I dare say that we will be referring to them again.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, was unable to be here this evening because of a long-standing previous engagement, but he talked me beforehand because I was one of a group of former Secretaries of State and others who went to see the Secretary of State some weeks ago. I also had a private meeting with the victims’ commissioner, who was over here. We were particularly concerned about the plight of those who, through no fault of their own, had their lives shattered—effectively destroyed—as a result of injury during the Troubles. Most of them are in their 60s or 70s. Many, alas, have already died. We have been told that there is a desire to give them pensions, but as my grandmother used to say, fine words butter no parsnips. These are people who are often living in the most straitened circumstances: their bodies pulverised, their futures destroyed decades ago. They deserve help, and I very much hope that when next we have a Bill before us, it will be a very short one that we can indeed fast-track, and which will enable those people to be recognised.
I finish where I began. It is very wrong that this legislation should be fast-tracked in this way. There is no excuse for it, there is no need for it and the people of Northern Ireland deserve better.
My Lords, I support the two Bills and thank the Minister for arranging the briefing from his officials in the Northern Ireland Office yesterday. During that discussion, I was struck by a point already raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, this evening: the possibility of a University of Ulster medical school in Magee. The cost mentioned in yesterday’s meeting was £30 million. I asked officials about the cost of the current inquiry into the Scappaticci affair, which according to press reports has cleared £35 million, but no one knew the answer.
I am here making a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, which is that the expense of these legacy inquiries really mounts up. In principle, at least, obvious social goods for the future of Northern Ireland might be obtained if money was not going in that direction on the dramatic scale it has in the past. The Bloody Sunday inquiry, for which I was proud to be an historical adviser, has cost £200 million and is still going on. At the time of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, I did not believe that we would still be having these inquiries, and there are many more to come unless, somehow or other, we get a grip on this. Otherwise, there will not be a medical school in Magee or many other social benefits in Northern Ireland in future.
I have one more point to make to the noble Lord the Minister. I think he is perfectly aware that Northern Ireland housing associations are restricted in their operation by a definition from the Office for National Statistics. This issue was raised in the other place when the legislation was debated, and on
My Lords, there has been a wide range of speeches on the Bills here this evening, all very much with a similar theme: the lack of transparency, scrutiny and certainly accountability. We might get a few hours in this House to debate a budget for Northern Ireland—a very unsatisfactory situation for all the people of Northern Ireland—with no real scrutiny or knowledge of how the allocations to departments have been reached. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said, this is the third year that expenditure in Northern Ireland has been debated through this House. Surely the people of Northern Ireland deserve better; they are in a very difficult position. We were told that the Bill has been fast-tracked because there was hope that an Executive, an Assembly, would have been restored to make these provisions. Over the past number of months, was there any real prospect of an Assembly being restored to go through the process of setting a budget? I think not.
While I believe that we have the mechanisms here within Parliament to scrutinise such Bills, I just do not know why those procedures are not used. We will all have known over the last several months that this Bill was coming. We also know that the Assembly would not be meeting to process such Bills. I think this is something the Northern Ireland Office needs to answer, because this is not the way to do business. It is just not possible. Yes, I understand that in the absence of a working devolved Government in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom Government have a responsibility to safeguard public services and public finances in Northern Ireland. I know that the Bill is putting spending on a statutory footing; that has already taken place. Of course, this is more or less a spending Bill giving departments in Northern Ireland the ability to continue to spend money with a higher than normal level vote on account of 70%. The tragedy of this process is that the Secretary of State cannot direct the spending with these departments or what programmes they can spend money on, so there is no real control over how our Civil Service in Northern Ireland spends money.
Of course I welcome the £140 million of new funding that will go to the health service, education and other projects in Northern Ireland. I place on the record my gratitude to the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Treasury for finding that extra £140 million. Education especially is in dire straits at the moment in Northern Ireland. The various principals of all our schools will tell you the seriousness of the education situation right across Northern Ireland. Our health service in Northern Ireland, which has been mentioned continually in this House, continues to suffer, and our waiting lists get longer and longer. Why? Because we have no Minister in place to lead and to decide policy. It is a total and absolute tragedy. Of course, the £140 million is on top of the £330 million of funding that comes from the Government’s confidence and supply agreement with the party.
I will move on quickly, because the evening is getting on, and raise the issue of a city deal, which has already been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Browne. I specifically raise the city deal that is very much ongoing in my own city of Londonderry and the region. The Minister will know that I have raised this with him on several occasions. My understanding is that there may be an announcement within the spring estimates. I am not too sure; I do not want to pre-empt that decision. He will know that it will certainly regenerate the region and create employment, economic development and inward investment. A city deal for the region has all of that connotation. Certainly, on two or three occasions someone has mentioned a medical school for the city, which is very much part of the wider city deal. It is something that the Minister knows about and that I have spoken to him about.
I also want to quickly raise the issue of RHI, which comes under the rates and energy Bill for Northern Ireland. The Bill deals mainly with the RHI scheme. We have all received emails and letters from individuals who feel aggrieved by the proposals in the Bill—and rightly so. They went into the scheme very much in good faith and now feel that they are being unfairly treated. I agree with them, and I will not stand here and defend the scheme: it was flawed from day one. We need to be honest enough to say that.
The Minister will be well aware of our concerns about the lack of proper scrutiny for these proposals, which will change the tariff to 12%. The Minister knows that MPs have challenged the figures that the civil servants have come up with. These, of course, are the same civil servants who got the scheme wrong from the start. They are now telling us that the figures are right. I am glad that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has decided to launch an inquiry into the figures and has called for representations; I hope that we can move forward that way. It is, however, a tragedy, and there will be a number of people out of pocket from all this.
The rest of the United Kingdom set a rate of return from the scheme of between 8% and 22%. Here we are told that because of the whole issue of legal aid and the European Commission, Northern Ireland can have only the 12% tariff. There are a number of questions about this. I hope that the ongoing Select Committee inquiry will tease out all these issues, because I and others are concerned that the figures presented to us are not correct and need to be challenged.
In finishing, I mention the issue that the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Cormack, and others raised about why the Assembly is not meeting. There is some suggestion that the Assembly should meet in shadow mode. If all the parties could agree, we would be there in the morning, because at least that would be a start towards getting the Assembly to function as a fully devolved Government in Northern Ireland.
The answer to dealing with these issues is devolved government in Northern Ireland, and I hope that this is the last time that we deal with such important business—budget-related business in particular—for Northern Ireland. We should not give up hope of Stormont being brought back, perhaps sooner rather than later. Direct rule—and I know that at some point we may have to go to direct rule—has not been good for Northern Ireland. We had direct rule Ministers flying in and out of Northern Ireland with no accountability, making decisions that affected the lives of people in Northern Ireland with no responsibility to them. That cannot happen again. We need to get the Assembly and a workable Executive up and running, because direct rule Ministers, as good as they are, make decisions that affect the lives of all the people in Northern Ireland with no accountability. For me, therefore, it is devolution back at Stormont, and I hope that we redouble our efforts to get the Executive and the Assembly up and running.
I place on record my appreciation for the meetings, short as they may have been, that the Secretary of State and the Minister held to discuss these Bills. He and his officials took time out of a busy schedule to brief us as best they could; I thank him and the Secretary of State.
My Lords, I will speak briefly with what is, I hope, a simple message, one which has been expressed many times but needs to be repeated. The Explanatory Notes for the legislation before us this evening begin with the following statement:
“The Bill deals with matters arising from the continued absence of a Northern Ireland Executive, and the consequent inability of the Northern Ireland Assembly to pass legislation to provide the authority for departmental expenditure following the Assembly election on
It is clearly important that we support the legislation because, in its absence, government departments and public bodies in Northern Ireland will be unfunded; no one in your Lordships’ House would want that. However, the people of Northern Ireland should not be placed in this invidious position, with no prospect of the establishment of an accountable, devolved Administration anywhere in sight.
Last Saturday, I attended the Ulster Unionist Party’s annual general meeting in Belfast. It was standing room only, although I am happy to say that my noble friend Lord Empey and I were given seats. The mood was vibrant as candidates and supporters listened to an excellent speech from our party leader, Robin Swann, in advance of the council elections in May. There is real enthusiasm for the democratic process in Northern Ireland, and the absence of a Stormont Assembly and the ability to engage with locally elected Ministers is causing ever-increasing frustration, anger and dismay. As an aside, if we had devolution and the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, was Minister, I have every confidence that a bloody good job would be done.
I reiterate the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Bruce of Bennachie and Lord Hay of Ballyore, on the proposed medical school in Londonderry. In Northern Ireland, we are short of both doctors and nurses. Can special arrangements be put in place to at least allow this facility to become operational? On a personal note, last Friday I had an examination by a specialist for a minor ailment. Minor though it was, nevertheless an operation is required. It is expected that I will have that operation in two years’ time.
This morning it was announced that four viable parcel bombs targeting London and Glasgow over recent days were sent by a group calling itself the IRA. The perpetrators are thought to be so-called dissident republicans. I remind your Lordships that it was dissident republicans who were responsible for the 1998 Omagh bomb attack, which took the lives of 29 people, including a pregnant mother with twins. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, such evil terrorists exploit political vacuums for their own murderous ends, and always will do so.
I have a simple message for the Minister. I will support the Bill, but the current democratic deficit in Northern Ireland must be closed without any delay, and before the men of violence—according to their own sick mindset—get “lucky”.
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.
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.
I am very grateful to the Minister, but it feels as if he is giving a veto to one party. When Lord Prior was Secretary of State, an Assembly was able to meet for some years without any nationalist representation at all. We are not talking about that in this situation. I understand what he is saying very well. The Government would be very ill advised to hand out a veto in that kind of way.
The noble Lord is absolutely correct. That is why I am trying to be very careful in putting this forward.
I am most grateful. I would like to follow up: I think we see this as one. I appreciate the suggestion that we might take part in some way. However, I would ask that the Secretary of State herself writes to every single elected Member, saying that there will be a meeting on a particular day and inviting them to come. It would be wrong to allow any single segment or group to veto that initiative. It has to be taken at the highest level, by the Prime Minister or Secretary of State.
I accept the words of my venerable and noble friend. I am trying to find a way of moving this forward as best I can. I wonder whether there might be an opportunity for us to meet collectively in a different forum to discuss that very thing. I do not think I will be able to resolve it on my feet. I do not doubt that in a few moments or so I will be getting little notes from my assistants in the Box.
The noble Lord raises a question to which I do not have the answer, I am afraid; I do not have it to hand. That is why if we are in a position at a date soon hereafter to sit down and explore some of these issues in an effort to move them forward as best we can, that would not be a bad initiative. Let us revisit that. I am not trying to park it in any way.
I hope noble Lords will forgive me for being a little disorganised: I seem to have an awful lot of papers spread in front of me. I will try to take the points raised by each noble Lord in turn. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, asked about the RHI situation and how it compares with other parts of the United Kingdom. We are broadly agreed that the scheme in Northern Ireland was not well constructed; we can probably all accept that. The unfolding inquiry into that will set out clearly exactly what has gone on. In response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, yes, we can have that debate should your Lordships desire to have one at the stage when a report emerges; I am happy to say that.
The scheme set out a 12% return; that was at the heart of what was meant to be achieved by the initiative. It is indeed 12% in Great Britain itself; the scheme that we anticipate in the Republic would be 8%. One of the reasons that we end up with different figures is that there are different ingredients going in. For example, the scheme in Great Britain is a 20-year scheme, whereas that anticipated in Northern Ireland is a 15-year scheme. Some of the capital costs involved in the scheme depend on when the emergent technology became more cheaply available. The scheme in Northern Ireland that commenced in earnest in 2015—although it opened earlier—contrasts quite clearly with the scheme which opened in Great Britain in 2012, during which there were significant cost reductions.
The scheme construction also differs significantly between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not least the element of “tiering” which exists in British schemes but not in Northern Ireland and the digressive component. I will not go into greater detail on that; we will have an opportunity to do so next Tuesday evening. In the intervening period, I recommend that any of your Lordships who are minded to find further details meet my officials so that those who have serious concerns can have them addressed.
To put this into context, the 12% return that we talk of is the needful part within the state aid rules. The scheme in Northern Ireland as it initially emerged had a return rate of 55%—noble Lords will see the contrast between 55% and 12%. It is not difficult to see how those individuals, who, through clear guidance, accepted a scheme with its various component parts and invested on that basis, now find themselves in the invidious position of all their calculations being blatantly wrong, based as they were on incorrect information. It is important for me to stress that those who were responsible for the wrongness of that scheme, I do not doubt, will emerge from Patrick Coghlin’s report; we will have an opportunity to discuss that further.
I stress that those within the Northern Ireland Civil Service undertaking the work on the current proposals are not the same people. This has been conducted in a very different fashion, based on significant investment in looking at the actual data rather than forecast data. Rather than trying to anticipate what the figures will be, the report itself and the consultants who examined it looked at the actual data. Again, it might be worth getting into the detail of that at an opportunity that will be provided by my officials and by others, because noble Lords will be surprised how quickly this moves from a high-level discussion into extraordinary technicalities.
I have written at the top of this page: “still a Minister”. I think that must reflect on what was going on down the Corridor. I will check when I leave, obviously.
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.
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.