Northern Ireland Budget Bill - Second Reading (and remaining stages)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:45 am on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 11:45 am, 31st October 2019

My Lords, although this House is strongly averse to fast-tracking, there can be no doubt that this budget, essential to the well-being of the people of Northern Ireland, must be passed before the Dissolution of Parliament. I want to address just three matters to which the budget is relevant. All were raised during our important Northern Ireland debates at the start of the week, but without eliciting full responses from the Government.

The first is the renewable heating incentive scheme, which went so disastrously wrong. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, pointed out on Monday, the report of the independent inquiry, chaired by Sir Patrick Coghlin, was completed some months ago. When I last asked in a Written Question when the report would be published, I was told rather curtly to get in touch with the relevant Northern Ireland department. That has not proved a profitable line of inquiry. Are the Government able to provide some indication of when the report will appear, particularly now that the sorry episode has been described in a book by a leading Northern Ireland journalist, Sam McBride? It is a report which will provide vital lessons for the future.

The reforms that have recently been made to this unfortunate scheme have created hardship among a considerable number of participants who joined it in good faith in its original form. This House discussed at some length the need to provide relief to those enduring hardship at the time the Northern Ireland budget was last before the House. Widespread support for action was expressed across the House in an impassioned debate on 19 March. We were assured by my noble friend Lord Duncan that a hardship scheme would be constructed. He said that he would lay a written report before your Lordships’ House so that your Lordships could see what it would look like in practice. He added, perfectly fairly and reasonably:

“There is no point in pretending that this can be achieved in a fortnight”.—[Official Report, 19/3/19; col. 1408.]

Well, a number of fortnights have passed since then and it would be good to have news of progress.

Secondly, perhaps I may touch on the severe crisis in the health service with which Northern Ireland is afflicted. It is truly shocking that in Northern Ireland someone in need of treatment is 3,000 times more likely to have been on a waiting list for a year or more than his or her counterpart in England, as my noble friend Lord Empey told the House on Monday. Over the past year or so, my noble friend has put a number of suggestions for improvement to the Government, including the appointment on a purely temporary basis of a Minister of Health. We have been given no indication of a positive response to his imaginative ideas. It should be remembered that in Northern Ireland, unlike other parts of the country, there are no elected local councillors to assist in overseeing health services, since Stormont is both an upper tier of local government and a devolved legislature.

I come finally to welfare and the deeply troubling point raised on Monday by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, who cannot be in the House today. She drew our attention to the fact that arrangements that have been made to mitigate the effect of welfare reforms on the very poorest will expire in March next year unless action is taken swiftly to extend them. She pointed out that some 35,000 low-income families would be made worse off overnight unless the Government deal with the issue. It has now been agreed, I think, that a report will be laid before Parliament by 1 December under the 2019 Act. That report should contain the firm commitments that the noble Baroness and others are seeking.

I draw from these three issues one general conclusion, which I will put in the form of two questions. Should not this Parliament endeavour to devise more effective arrangements to safeguard the interests of our fellow country men and women in Northern Ireland in circumstances where their own democratic institutions are suspended for a protracted period? Should we perhaps seek, through constructive constitutional thought, to make provision in these circumstances for some form of halfway house between full devolution and full direct rule, to which so many people are ill disposed?

It would be rash to think that the prolonged impasse in Ulster’s affairs, which has not yet been resolved, will not recur after a better dispensation has finally been made. For wholly understandable reasons, we made devolution in Northern Ireland dependent on the willingness of parties with diametrically opposed constitutional objectives to share power together. I was struck by some words of my noble friend Lord Empey last Monday:

“As a Parliament, we have an obligation to protect our citizens which supersedes parties and all issues”.—[Official Report, 28/10/19; col. 822.]

These are words, I think, on which we can usefully reflect.