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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:08 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP 7:08 pm, 12th March 2019

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.