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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:51 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 6:51 pm, 12th March 2019

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 19 March, primarily to allow time for further discussion and reflection.

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 31 March 2019. Clause 1 authorises the issue of £16.8 billion out of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. The allocation levels for each Northern Ireland department and the other bodies in receipt of these funds are set out in Schedule 1, which also states the purposes for which these funds are to be used. Clause 2 authorises the use of resources amounting to some £20 billion in the year ending 31 March 2019 by the Northern Ireland departments and other bodies listed in Clause 2(3). Clause 3 sets revised limits on the accruing resources, including both operating and non-operating accruing resources, in the current financial year. Clause 4 sets out the power for the Northern Ireland Civil Service to spend from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund some £11.8 billion for the forthcoming financial year. This is the vote on account provision I outlined earlier. It is linked to Clause 6, which does the same in terms of resources. The value is set at around 70% of the sums available in both regards in the previous financial year. Schedules 3 and 4 operate on the same basis, with each departmental allocation simply set at 70% of the previous year. Clause 5 permits certain temporary borrowing powers for cash management purposes.

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 28 February. These estimates, prepared by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance, break down the resource allocation in greater detail. For those who wish to delve in, they are thoroughly set out in the document of which I have a copy here. As your Lordships will recall, this process is different from estimates procedure at Westminster, where the estimates document precedes the formal Budget legislation, and is separately approved. However, this would also be the case were the Assembly in session.

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 28 February.

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.