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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:59 am on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 11:59 am, 31st October 2019

My Lords, I think that all of us, including the Minister, will agree that this is a very inadequate substitute for proper debate and decision-making by the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland. However, this is a necessary Bill that has to pass before the dissolution of Parliament if services are to be maintained in the Province.

My understanding is that this will maintain spending at the pre-agreed level. When the former Secretary of State Karen Bradley initiated the beginnings of this year’s budget, she said that there was a real increase in funding for health, yet the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has on many occasions—although not today—given us quite a lot of detail on the waiting lists, shortfalls and problems in the health service. Can the Minister explain how that is consistent with the assurances of the previous Secretary of State that the resources have been increased—or is it just that the increase is not adequate to the challenge?

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, has already sought assurance, which the Minister has given, on funding for the Bill that we hope to get through later this afternoon. Assuming it all goes through, we hope that it will enable interim payments to be made in very short order.

The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, mentioned the RHI situation. There are two issues here: one is the hardship which Mr Buglass was appointed to try to address—it would be interesting to know when he will be able actually to take action—and the other is the lack of a report. There is some suggestion that both of these things should be happening together, because clearly there must be some explanation of who is to blame and why it happened. At the same time, people facing financial crisis need assistance now, not at some time in the indefinite future.

We are rushing this through because we are on the verge of a general election. It is also taking place in Northern Ireland, and it may well be interesting to see whether it will reflect any indication of a change of mood there. I am certain that in hustings across the Province many of the questions that we have returned to time and again will be on the lips of the voters in Northern Ireland, who will be challenging all their politicians on why they are in this situation.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, knows that the prospect of direct rule has very serious implications. He says that, as far as he sees it, the Northern Ireland agreement has had a coach and horses driven through it, and it is certainly the view of these Benches that the agreement which the Prime Minister claims to be a new deal—it is actually the original deal that the EU offered and Theresa May rejected—is totally incompatible with the Good Friday agreement. The election may well flush that out, both in the Province and across the rest of the UK.

Perhaps the elephant in the room, which I think the Explanatory Notes and the Library Note say has nothing to do with this Bill, is Brexit. Although technically it has nothing to do with it, there are clearly serious implications for Northern Ireland if anything similar to this deal goes through—which could happen within the timeframe of the money that we are currently voting. My only question to the Minister is: if it becomes apparent that there are significant costs borne by the public purse or adding to public pressure in Northern Ireland as a result of any decisions that may be taken relating to Brexit, will there be a recognition that some additional measures may be required? It would be not just adding insult to injury but putting pressure on an already overpressured budget to try to cover contingencies which, by definition, cannot be fully anticipated.

That said, we all recognise that the simple logic is that, if we did not comply with the accelerated passage of the Bill, Northern Ireland would be left with no funds whatever, which of course would be totally unacceptable. The reality is that, as long as there is no Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland, this House—rather more than the other House, I have to say—will spend more and more time debating more and more aspects of policy issues that affect the people of Northern Ireland and may well have to make ad hoc decisions again and again, as we have done.

I understand the argument of the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, that we have enacted certain measures and not others. That, I suppose, is the nature of where we are in reality. It is not a satisfactory scenario, but my guess is that other issues, some of which may not be quite so contentious, will eventually reach such a critical situation that it will not be possible to make decisions without the intervention of UK Ministers. However, we are not there yet and, in the meantime, it is absolutely imperative that we get the Bill passed.