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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland) 7:00 pm, 12th March 2019

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.