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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:13 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 12:13 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, I welcome the support from across the House for the Bill. However, I have no wish to be standing here moving it and I recognise that your Lordships have no wish to be sitting here listening to me doing so. I fully appreciate that this will not be possible again.

The Executive formation statutory instrument that we shall consider shortly hereafter reminds us that there is a period until 13 January for the formation of an Executive. If we are unable to do that, I think that this House and the other place will be very reluctant to extend the period further. That will bring us into new territory in terms of what needs to happen next. I should have thought that, at that stage, there will then be an election in Northern Ireland. A lot will depend on its outcome: if an Executive can be formed, we are out of a hole; if it cannot, we are in a hole. Noble Lords here recognise what direct rule would look like and why it is not a preference that we wish to explore. None the less, we are discussing a budget, and certain questions were asked regarding both the budget and more broadly. I will try to answer them in turn.

Touching on comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, both today and in the past, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, asked whether there has been an increase in funding for the health service. There has been an increase of 3.8% in that funding. However, as the noble Lord conceded, the reality is that that amount of money has not been adequate to address the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, which require more than a 3.8% increase in funding. Although we have put a further £17 million into an in-year monitoring exercise, that too is inadequate to address these significant problems. Only an incoming Executive, or government by other means, can truly address these issues. The shocking statistic presented yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and echoed again today by other noble Lords, is chilling to consider. That alone should be reason enough for the parties in Northern Ireland to give due consideration to expediting their ability to get that Executive back up and running—I hope that it is. None the less, this budget must go forward.

I want briefly to touch on the renewable heating incentive. In March, I made statements in the light of a heated but sensible debate in this place about the need for independent assessment of the hardship in Northern Ireland as a consequence of the subsequent and serious failures in developing a workable approach to RHI. I made a number of commitments then. I am reminded of the quotation from the Duke of Wellington when he chaired his first Cabinet meeting. He said that he gave them the orders and discovered that they wanted to discuss them. I said very clearly what I felt was appropriate for the Northern Ireland Civil Service to move forward with, but I cannot order the Northern Ireland Civil Service to move forward on that basis. A protracted discussion then ensued on how to move this issue forward. Steps have been taken, some of which I will rehearse now, but I commit to writing to my noble friend Lord Lexden and placing in the Library a full and detailed assessment of this issue by tomorrow. I will share that assessment, because noble Lords deserve it and should have had it before now.

Let me put on record where we are on this approach. The responsible department in Northern Ireland held a call for evidence between 17 June and 10 July to examine the issues that should be brought forward for discussion. It published the responses to the consultation on 10 October. It has appointed an independent energy consultant by the name of, I think, Andrew Buglass. His responsibility will be to develop relevant definitions of “hardship” and engage directly with the participants, so that each case will be examined to ensure that we have that information. We expect that that will be responded to before the end of the year.

I will put all this in a detailed response to my noble friend Lord Lexden, to make sure that he has the information. I put on record an apology for this not happening beforehand—he deserved it before now. I should have informed the House of the steps being taken before the debate, rather than doing so now. I hope that noble Lords will accept the apology in the manner in which it is given.