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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:18 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 7:18 pm, 12th March 2019

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.