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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:28 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 7:28 pm, 12th March 2019

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 30 March it will be exactly 40 years since Airey Neave was murdered. I had been his political adviser for nearly two years. Those who killed him have never been brought to justice, and the crime has taken its place alongside so many other terrorist atrocities for which no one has been punished. Forty years ago, efforts to restore power-sharing devolution had failed. Thanks to Airey Neave, the Conservative Party had a plan to put the public services vested in Northern Ireland as the upper tier of local government back under the control of elected representatives, pending the return of devolved government. After the 1979 general election, the Northern Ireland Office scotched that plan. It would not necessarily serve as an exact blueprint for Ulster today, but perhaps the initiative that Airey Neave proposed should spur us to contemplate new approaches to the government of a part of our country which meant a great deal to him, and which deserves better government than it possesses today.