My Lords, before I turn to the Bill, I pay tribute to Peter Brooke, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 1989 to 1992, who sadly passed away this week. I had the immense privilege of being Peter’s special adviser in the months before the 1992 general election and supported him before that as the Northern Ireland desk officer in the Conservative Research Department. He was, as has been pointed out, a man of profound personal integrity, learned, witty and unfailingly polite and courteous. Peter served as Secretary of State while the Troubles were still raging and—we should never forget—around 100 people a year were losing their lives as a result of the security situation. He cared deeply about Northern Ireland and, with infinite patience and determination, sought a better, more peaceful and stable future for all its people. His huge role in the origins of what became the peace process should never be underestimated. I am sure that I speak for everyone in the House in sending our sincere condolences to his widow Lindsay and the Brooke family at this difficult time.
I turn now to the Bill itself. It is, of course, with profound regret that I return once again to this Dispatch Box to bring forward legislation in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive. I am certain that noble Lords across the House will agree that this is not a position in which any of us would wish to find ourselves. In line with our steadfast commitment to the 1998 Belfast agreement, His Majesty’s Government remain committed to supporting the restoration of the Executive in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. In our view, a strong devolved Government, with elected representatives from across the community working together, is the surest foundation for the governance of Northern Ireland within our United Kingdom and the best outcome for all its people.
Last month, many of us came together, including Members of your Lordships’ House—including the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, on the Bench opposite—to reflect on the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement. We marked the progress that Northern Ireland has made over the past quarter of a century and the relative peace and prosperity that the agreement has brought. This anniversary remains an opportunity for all of us to recommit to building an even brighter future for Northern Ireland. Now is the time to decide how we want to move forward together, to create a better future for and deliver on the priorities of the people of Northern Ireland. That includes a more prosperous economy and better, more sustainable public finances and services.
On that note, and before I provide an overview of the Bill, I will say a few words on Northern Ireland’s public finances. As the provisions of the Bill will indicate, we are acutely concerned about the long-term stability of public finances in Northern Ireland. It was with considerable disappointment that, in the absence of devolved government, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland found it necessary, once again, to intervene and set a budget for 2023-24. I set out that budget in a Written Statement to your Lordships’ House on
As the UK Government, we stand ready to work with a restored Executive on these issues but, in the meantime, we have a responsibility to ensure that public services and management of public funds can continue. We will, in due course, introduce legislation that will put that budget on to a legal footing, if the Executive are not restored to do so. Members of your Lordships’ House will have the opportunity to debate in more detail those allocations if and when we have to introduce that legislation.
Today, though, I will focus on the Bill and its provisions. The Bill is of course a short one and I will seek to be brief in recognition of that. I once again express my sincere thanks to the Benches opposite for their continued co-operation as the Government seek to bring the Bill forward at the requisite pace. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for the constructive manner in which they and others intend to approach this legislation.
The Bill does three important things. First, it continues the provisions relating to decision-making for Northern Ireland civil servants which Parliament passed last December through the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022. These provisions, which clarified the decisions that civil servants in Northern Ireland departments can take in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers and an Executive, are due to expire on
The second main provision of the Bill—and the more novel provision in this legislation compared with previous Bills—is to provide for new powers for the Secretary of State to explore, with Northern Ireland departments, options for budget sustainability including further revenue raising in Northern Ireland. Alongside commissioning advice, the Bill will allow the Secretary of State to direct consultations to be held by Northern Ireland departments on those matters. These powers are, again, time limited and will apply only until an Executive are formed. These measures are deliberately focused on official advice and consultations on budget sustainability. Final decisions on any implementation are best taken by locally elected representatives; the Bill does not give the Secretary of State any power to direct implementation of any such measures.
Finally, the third thing that the Bill does is to ensure greater political oversight of the management of public money in the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Bill does that by providing for Northern Ireland department accounts and associated documents to be laid in the House of Commons, in the absence of the Assembly. In previous absences of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the law has provided for that scrutiny to fall to Parliament, and the provision in the Bill will do that again. This provision will be active only for this and any future periods where there is no functioning Assembly, on the basis that public bodies must always be scrutinised for their good management of public money.
In conclusion, the measures in the Bill will ensure a continuation of the current governance arrangements in Northern Ireland, should there be no Executive when they expire next month. However, these measures are not, and cannot be, a substitute for devolved government in Northern Ireland. We acknowledge that the current arrangements are by no means desirable—to put it mildly—particularly in the context of Northern Ireland’s difficult financial position. I also recognise that the Bill is not a long-term solution to the wider issues with which Northern Ireland is grappling: they are matters for a newly reconstituted Executive and Assembly to address. The marking of the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement has reminded us all of the importance of making the institutions in Northern Ireland work, and work for the entire community. His Majesty’s Government believes that having an effective and functioning devolved Government is crucial to showing that the union itself works for the whole community in Northern Ireland. That is why the restoration of the Executive remains our top government priority in Northern Ireland. We will continue to do everything that we can to make that happen in as short a timeframe as possible and, as we do that, we will keep these arrangements under review. For now, I commend the Bill to the House.
My Lords, we certainly agree with the Minister when he says that it is regrettable that the Northern Ireland Assembly is not up and operating—but we all know perfectly well why. My party gave much notice—in fact, I think that we gave 13 months’ notice—in this House and elsewhere that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive were on life support. Now the whole thing has collapsed due to these red lanes, green lanes and border controls. We are no longer strictly a part of the United Kingdom in the same sense as Scotland and Wales.
But the main point I want to make today pertains to Clause 2 in relation to advice and information on options for raising public revenue. The Government are right to be alive to the fact that Northern Ireland needs more public revenue, but the implication of this is that the way forward is through local means. That, however, is to distract attention from the key point at issue. On
Using the formula, the Fiscal Council demonstrated that in order for needs to be met in Northern Ireland on the same basis as England, Northern Ireland needs to receive £124 per head. Crucially, however, the Treasury block grant transparency document shows that spending per head in Northern Ireland for the spending review period of 2022 to 2025 is £121 per head. It is, therefore, no surprise that Northern Ireland is currently in the midst of a very serious funding crisis, with Stormont departments having to make cuts right, left and centre. Today, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK to be in receipt of below-needs block grant funding. Northern Ireland thus finds itself in a similar position to Wales in 2009-10, but, rather than just being £1 below need for one year, Northern Ireland is £3 below, and not just for this financial year but for the last financial year and for the next financial year.
If we extrapolate for the three-year funding review period, the Fiscal Council report demonstrates that we are currently underfunded to the tune of just over £1.2 billion. The critical point in all this is that after Wales went below need for funding in 2009-10, the UK Government responded in a way that established three critical precedents. First, they accepted the Holtham formula as a definition of need. Secondly, they introduced a 5% transitional needs adjustment for Wales, whose purpose it is to slow down the Barnett squeeze up until reaching the Holtham formula definition of need. This applies when funding per head has not fallen below need. Thirdly, it introduced a Barnett floor for Wales on the basis of the Holtham formula definition of need to introduce a complete needs adjustment at the point where funding per head reaches need and threatens to go below.
In making that arrangement, the UK Government have agreed that it would be wrong for funding per head ever to fall below need, and made provision to prevent this ever happening again. The Government are now duty bound to afford the people of Northern Ireland the same courtesy. As we have already fallen below need, this should result in a full needs adjustment backdated to the beginning of the spending review period. In recent weeks, the Government have sought to press the DUP back into government in various ways. I ask that they reflect very carefully about the implications of trying to use the current funding crisis as a means of doing so. The reason we had to withdraw from Stormont is that we were not prepared to settle for, and thus effectively cement in, a second-class citizenship in which we no longer have the right to stand for election to make the laws to which we are subject and in which we are forced to be presented to the rest of our home economy as if we are a foreign country. I do not think it would reflect well on the Government to do that and I do not think it would be wise.
Finally, in the normal sense of events there would be an opportunity to ask the Minister for a meeting between Committee and Report to discuss the need for a comparable Barnett floor provision for Northern Ireland to that which exists in Wales. However, there will be no time between Committee and Report, as all remaining stages are to be taken on one day, so I will take this opportunity of asking for such a meeting to discuss this ahead of the remaining stages.
My Lords, I support the Bill, but I want briefly to echo the words of the Minister on Lord Brooke and the major contribution he made to the affairs of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
There is no alternative at this moment to the appearance of the Bill, which I think I can say safely that the whole House regrets. I welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee in the other place is taking a closer look at the general question of Northern Ireland funding and the longer-term problems of the financing of Northern Ireland. I note with great interest the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, that there may be lessons to learn from Wales: I think we should listen carefully to what he said on that.
As I said, there is no alternative at this moment, but of course there could be an alternative in quite quick order if the DUP were to take up its share of the co-premiership of Northern Ireland. Our briefing note from the Library is absolutely excellent—it is of very high quality—but it refers to the DUP taking up the deputy premiership as if it were, like the deputy premiership in the other place, a subordinate position, whereas of course Northern Ireland is a co-premiership and it is worth just making the point that the DUP would have half a share of the co-premiership were it to take up that position. Indeed, I remind the House that, on the basis of its previous work in this respect, it actually delivered 10 years of stability to Northern Ireland—something that is all too casually forgotten.
I conclude by briefly referring to the words of the Foreign Secretary at the Select Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, on the working of the protocol. That committee, which has done important work, will soon, I hope, be the Select Committee on the Working of the Windsor Framework. The Foreign Secretary stressed the way in which, if the DUP returned to government, it would not lose agency, it would actually gain agency. At this point, it is a passive spectator with respect to realities which, however objectionable, are actually not going to change.
It is worth remembering that we are on a road and on a process. The Theresa May iteration of the withdrawal agreement that arrived in this House contained absolutely no reference to the existence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Johnson iteration changed that, and it has been changed much more again by the new Windsor Framework. It is perfectly clear that the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly going forward in handling the relationship of these tricky problems—and they are tricky problems, to which there is no perfect solution—is now considerably enhanced. Parliament as a whole has moved very substantially on what is called the democratic deficit: indeed, the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, has laid a lot of emphasis on that.
I remind the House that the brake which has been introduced in the new arrangement is a new development. It is increasingly clear, from listening carefully to the debates, that it is not disputed on any side that it is of significance. There is an argument, given the totality of developments, about how important it is, but there is no argument any more about its specific effectiveness, on either side. That is one of the few points of clarity in what I think has been a very confused debate in Northern Ireland which has not focused enough on the exact details of what has been before the people of Northern Ireland over the last few weeks; it has become increasingly clear.
I draw brief attention to the unilateral declaration by the UK Government on the democratic consent mechanism in Article 18, posted on
So the alternatives are either to be a passive recipient of things that cannot be changed or to engage in genuine political debate about the future.
My Lords, the Minister said it was with profound regret that he was bringing forward this Bill; I think we all share that sentiment. I do not want to repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, said, but it is important that we remind ourselves why we are here: we are here because the United Kingdom Government decided that Northern Ireland could be treated differently, and our citizenship is being eroded in many ways. The internal market has gone and all the hype about the Windsor protocol, as I would call it, is being exposed more and more. Therefore, we are here through the Government’s own making, and because they are not committing to the whole of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union—which was what was on our ballot paper in Northern Ireland as well.
Of course, we have to go ahead with this Bill; it is important. However, I think we should also remind ourselves that the 1998 devolution process, which we have been commemorating recently, is inherently unstable. It may have enhanced peace, yet there have been over 150 terrorist murders in that period, mostly killings between terrorist groups and each other. None were caused by the state, although around five involved the deaths of security force and prison staff. You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given the ceaseless list of 1970s legacy cases going through the courts in Belfast—every week there is another one—all of which are trying to rewrite history by reallocating blame for killings from the IRA to some element of state forces. It is really important that your Lordships realise and remember that.
A working Executive could do various things. They could agree on dividing up the money from the block grant. However, as we know in this House, any issues which require the two communities to yield on their particular hard and fast views mean we in Parliament end up legislating time after time: on legacy, abortion, gay rights or welfare reform—anything that is really controversial ends up here. We need to remember that as well.
The 1998 consociational structure means that Stormont operates on two tracks that do not meet. Local government works because it operates more on a committee system that cannot be boycotted easily. We see, and it is quite sad, that the Government, having changed the date of the local council elections to today, then put Northern Ireland legislation on the agenda for today. My personal view is that we should be strengthening local government in Northern Ireland, increasing the numbers of Members of Parliament, and doing away with and abolishing the whole Stormont set-up.
The current Secretary of State will not remember it, unlike the Minister, but when David Trimble twice pulled down the Executive over decommissioning, or the lack of it, he experienced the same wave of outrage that we hear in the media in Northern Ireland about what is not happening and Stormont not sitting. Today that rage is compounded by the strategic budget cuts. I believe that Northern Ireland needs the same focus on the Barnett formula, and how it works, that Wales got—it really is time for that. People in Northern Ireland are not stupid. They know that some 98% of government spending in Northern Ireland will proceed, regardless of whether Stormont is sitting or not. The financial situation is dire, and of course some of that happened under Stormont. The Sinn Féin Finance Minister could not get his budget through Stormont, so the idea that if we all get back to Stormont tomorrow the finances would be sorted is rather silly.
We have a legislative lockdown, but with only the minimum of law changes needed to keep the show on the road and to stop the lack of money supply actually wrecking sections of the economy. However, I feel the Secretary of State has perhaps decided that punishing the Northern Ireland people is the way to get devolved government back. We have seen senior civil servants—who I am sure are taking soundings from government Ministers—choose the most conspicuous cuts, such as this week’s cut to nurse-training funding, to frighten the public. I am sure this is being given the green light by certain people in certain positions. That health cut is going to inflict a major workforce shortfall in three years’ time, when those nurses who should have been graduating and entering the local profession will not do so—and of course there is a huge shortage of trained nurses in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
There is some common sense in the Bill. Clause 2 gives powers for the Secretary of State to direct departments to provide advice or information, and even to oblige them to carry out a consultation. There might be a seed of a possible return to what I think would be a more sensible solution, and that would be a form of direct rule.
I know the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, on the Front Bench, will probably have a different view, but I think the Orders in Council system could have been a better way. We are going to find it extremely difficult to get Stormont set up and working well. It is time we started to think about that and to realise that Northern Ireland does need the direct attention of this place, and not treat devolution as some way of getting rid of it. We need to remember that while we have the Windsor protocol we will not have devolution.
My Lords, I share the regret expressed by the Minister and other Members that we are discussing this Bill today. It is deeply unfortunate that this legislation is necessary. However, rather than repeat the argument about how we got here—I am no fan of either the Northern Ireland protocol or the Windsor Framework—I wish to concentrate my remarks on the perilous financial position the people of the Province now find themselves in.
His Majesty’s Government have committed to bring forward a separate Bill to put the draft budget recently set by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the statute book. That budget could have been part of the Bill before us today, but I am pleased it is not because it at least holds open the possibility of a change of approach from Mr Heaton-Harris.
I know the Secretary of State is a fan of sport, and indeed a qualified football referee. However, I do not know if he is a poker player. If he is, I would not expect him to be a particularly successful one. It is perfectly obvious to see what he is attempting to achieve, both by publishing his draft budget and by his comments surrounding its content.
To be fair to Mr Heaton-Harris, I understand his frustration at the lack of a functioning Executive and Assembly at Stormont. It is a frustration held by a great number of people in Northern Ireland, albeit for an assortment of different reasons. However, I do not believe it is right for him to place such fear and worry in the minds of so many individuals, families and organisations across the Province because of the failure of politicians in Belfast and London, and indeed Dublin.
According to the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council, Stormont departments—now run solely by unelected civil servants—will be expected to find £800 million in cuts and revenue-raising measures as a result of what has become known locally as the “punishment budget”. The fiscal council calculates that the draft budget amounts to a reduction of some 3.3% in real terms this year. That is a much harsher cut than that faced by Whitehall departments, which have been handed a 0.7% real-terms budgetary reduction.
In education—I declare an interest as my wife is a retired principal of a leading primary school in south Belfast—schools in Northern Ireland are facing a 2.7% cut in funding. In contrast, the budget for schools in England is due to rise by 6.5%. I fail to see how that is in any way justifiable, particularly in the wake of the pandemic and the challenges pupils in Northern Ireland, as indeed elsewhere, have had to face.
There are other areas of grave concern for me regarding the Government’s planned budget cuts, but I will highlight just two. First, on policing, speaking at the end of last month, Assistant Chief Constable Bobby Singleton told the BBC that the PSNI expected to be hit by a budget cut of £150 million. He said this figure was based on indications he had been given by the Department of Justice, which, as the Minister confirmed to me in a recent Written Answer, is responsible for its funding. Given the recent and thankfully failed attempt by dissident republicans to murder DCI John Caldwell, and the increase in the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland from “substantial” to “severe”—a decision taken by MI5, independent of Ministers—I believe the cut to PSNI funding is particularly ill-advised and a reckless path to tread.
His Majesty’s Government have had few achievements to proclaim over the past few months, but one has been meeting their target of recruiting 20,000 additional police officers in England and Wales since 2019. Meanwhile, earlier this year in Northern Ireland, the chief constable announced plans to reduce numbers by 6% to just 6,700 officers, making it the smallest force it has ever been. Given the ongoing terrorist threat and the time it takes to train new officers, that is an appalling state of affairs which is neither acceptable nor sustainable.
I also want to speak about health. Here in England, barely a day goes past without another story in the media about the dire state of NHS waiting lists, but waiting lists in Northern Ireland are by far the worst in the entire United Kingdom. In figures released in March, 122,267 Northern Ireland patients were on waiting lists in the in-patient and day case categories, with 66,302 waiting a year or more for their surgeries. Further, 6,000 had been waiting for five years or more—long before the world had even heard of Covid-19. Yet, in the Secretary of State’s draft budget, NHS funding in the Province is due to rise by a mere 0.5%, far below the increased amounts for health in Great Britain.
I also have deep concerns about the problems faced by community pharmacies in Northern Ireland, many of which are struggling to stay afloat because of a range of problems, including the Northern Ireland drug tariff and the delayed implementation of the community pharmacy commissioning plan for Northern Ireland. Rather than go into the intricacies of the situation on the Floor of the House, I politely ask the Minister to meet with me and representatives of community pharmacies in the Province to hear their concerns directly. I hope that is an invitation he will accept.
Finally, today is local elections polling day in Northern Ireland. As politicians, we are more aware than most that it should be a day of excitement and hope for a better future. However, given the political vacuum people in the Province have found themselves in once again, there is no sense of optimism. Local voters face the prospect of a continuing absence of accountable political leadership, a seemingly endless stream of funding cuts to key services and little prospect of respite any time soon. Even the levelling up fund, which many local community groups and sports clubs were hoping would enable them to do something positive for their areas, allocated only a minimal amount for Northern Ireland in round 2 and left numerous applicants significantly out of pocket because of the expense of putting together their professional bids.
The Bill is before us today because His Majesty’s Government were left with few other options. However, if and when a budget Bill is brought forward, I hope Ministers, including the Prime Minister, will have the foresight and wisdom to look again at the figures, particularly in relation to health, education and policing. I accept the need to reform how Stormont operates, but in the depths of a cost of living crisis I appeal to the Government to do the right thing by protecting the people of Northern Ireland from the perils that the current draft budget graphically exposes them to.
My Lords, I shall not detain the House long nor repeat everything that has already been said, because it would be quite unnecessary. I have great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and I agree entirely with what he said: there is no alternative to this legislation. That is unfortunate but true.
I think this is the first occasion on which we have debated Northern Ireland business since the death of Lord Carswell, a former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. I raise his death and pay tribute to him because I remember being here during the Brexit debates, which were long, monotonous and varied, when he spoke about his childhood in Belfast and how he could bicycle down from Belfast to Dublin and never saw a border or a border guard. That was in his lifetime. We talked a lot of nonsense about how there might be a hard border in Northern Ireland, but there has never been a hard border across the island of Ireland. Friends of mine spent many years trying to stop illegal border crossings, mostly smuggling and terrorist-related, across the internal border, and they completely failed.
One should remember what Lord Carswell said because this is partly behind the whole issue about the Windsor Framework. My view is that the Windsor Framework is flawed but it is the best deal we will get. In addition, we live in the art of the possible; that is what the Windsor Framework is. In politics, much as we might wish to, we do not always get our own way on everything. I deprecate the fact that the European Union should have anything to do with a sovereign part of the United Kingdom, but that is the situation we are in.
To move on slightly to the broader issue, I very much deprecate the fact that Sinn Féin is the largest party in the Assembly now—or it would be if the Assembly was sitting. I hate it. Sinn Féin was always described as the political wing of the IRA, and I think it still is. Because of that, it sticks in my craw that anybody should vote for Sinn Féin, although a lot of very decent people do. The IRA is now somewhat romanticised in Northern Ireland, but in fact it is a bunch of ghastly, murderous thugs, and we should remember that—starting with Gerry Adams, who, not in this world but perhaps in the next, should answer for the deaths of people such as Jean McConville. However, I say to my fellow unionists that we live in the world as it is and we are in the art of the possible.
I will not digress too far, but after 1997, many people in the Conservative Party wished to go back and say, “Why didn’t these stupid people, the electorate, vote for us?” Finally, however, we worked out that you do not blame the electorate—you blame yourselves for why people do not vote for you. I say to my fellow unionists, we have to change. The world changes; we all have to change—unbelievably, I am less hard-line than I was. I say to my fellow unionists that we need political leadership to understand how to get the electorate’s confidence back, and political leadership to go back into the Assembly so that we have an Executive in Northern Ireland. For all its defects, that is the best way forward.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap and make one point, which is about the relationship of science to the Bill. I begin by associating myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Caine, about Lord Brooke. It is right that his contribution and the work he did over many years is acknowledged in a debate of this kind.
Science, and the science community in Northern Ireland, needs an Assembly as much as any other community. Much excellent work is done on science in Northern Ireland, as well as elsewhere in the UK. It was no coincidence that on the recent visit of the President of the United States, he went to the University of Ulster to open the new premises, because good work is done in Ulster, as well as elsewhere.
I have reason to share the view of the scientific community that it needs a working Assembly. For many years, in a former capacity, with colleagues in the science community, I used to organise the science event known as “Science and Stormont”, which was held every year in Stormont with a working Assembly. Science is a refreshingly non-partisan area of endeavour, and at those meetings, year after year, representatives of all the major parties would come to this event to speak: we would have a sort of round table. Sometimes we went to listen to the Assembly in action later. These were very successful events and they mattered to the scientific community in Northern Ireland.
I understand entirely why the Bill is necessary, and I support it. Beyond that, I simply wanted to use my moment to make the point that science really matters, and science needs a working Assembly, and I very much hope that it will not be too long before we see that.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, on the unusually important but not often raised issue of science in Northern Ireland and the role that Northern Ireland can play in that regard. I, too, begin by paying tribute to Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville for the invaluable work he did in paving the way towards the peace process. I was very moved by the Minister’s comments—I know he used to work for him—echo his sentiments and send my condolences to Lord Brooke’s family.
This has been a very interesting and, in terms of recent debates, relatively short debate. No doubt many colleagues are back in Northern Ireland today for the local election polling day. As ever, I thank the Minister and his private office for the very courteous way in which he consulted all parties ahead of Second Reading. As is customary and has been said by all noble Lords speaking in this debate, we support the need for the Bill but deeply regret that it remains necessary. One can but hope that with the results of the local elections in Northern Ireland at the weekend will come an end to this continued state of political paralysis and limbo. The continued absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly is hugely to be regretted and is having an extremely negative impact on ordinary people’s lives. It is causing financial, governance and constitutional issues that are of concern to us all.
A Northern Ireland friend told me this week that her mother had a fall last Thursday afternoon and ended up at A&E at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald. There were 165 people in the queue ahead of her, including children with broken bones, and nine ambulances were waiting outside. In Northern Ireland, as perhaps elsewhere in the UK, the NHS is in a state of crisis and, for as long as there remains no functioning Executive and Assembly, there is little or no opportunity to take major healthcare or other public sector decisions. The state of limbo is equally resulting in an inability to promote educational reforms, to move forward and make progress in dealing with the legacy of the past or to take long-term economic strategic and budgetary decisions for the future.
This is all the more tragic because there are potentially very positive economic opportunities for Northern Ireland. A major trade conference is planned for September and the US envoy has offered to bring a trade mission to Northern Ireland, but without a functioning Executive in place it will be hard to take full advantage of these opportunities. While praising the continued hard work and dedication of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, does not the Minister agree that this continued state of limbo is putting the Civil Service in a very awkward position? Although the Bill seeks to put sticking plaster over some of the difficult public sector finance issues facing Northern Ireland, does the Minister agree that the definition of public interest, as set out in the Bill, is ultimately a subjective political judgment?
It is not our intention on these Benches to table amendments to the Bill before us today, but I would like to ask some follow-up questions on reviewing public financing stemming from the amendments tabled by my friend Stephen Farry MP and the Alliance Party in the House of Commons last week. If the Minister is unable to give an immediate response to these questions, perhaps he would consider giving a more detailed response later in a letter.
First, would the Minister consider commissioning a report to provide an assessment of expenditure costs stemming from duplication as a result of divided communities, and its impact on public finances in Northern Ireland? Secondly, does he agree that it would be useful to engage with the Treasury on options to provide an “invest to save” fund to support the transformation and sustainability of public finances in Northern Ireland? Thirdly—an issue raised by other noble Lords already—will the Northern Ireland Secretary engage with Northern Ireland departments and the fiscal council in relation to the Barnett formula and a needs-based review?
The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement reminded us all that progress is made as a result of political leadership and courage, often at the highest level. The signing, welcome on these Benches, of the Windsor Framework agreement was also clearly driven by the Prime Minister. I appreciate that there are a great many other issues currently facing the Prime Minister, but does the Minister agree that finding a way to end the continued impasse and bring back a functioning Executive has to be a key priority for the Prime Minister and his team in the weeks ahead? If that does not happen and the current stalemate continues, can the Minister tell us what thought has been given to how and when the Government will decide that, for the sake of the people of Northern Ireland, enough is enough?
My Lords, obviously, I join the Minister and other Members of your Lordships’ House in referring to the work of Lord Brooke. Peter Brooke was a man of huge decency and integrity. He was a colleague of mine in the House of Commons, and obviously a very effective Secretary of State in the sense that he actually progressed the peace process. Also, and sometimes forgotten, he was a very effective chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee. He will be missed. He played his part in Northern Ireland history; there is no question about that.
We of course agree with the necessity of the Bill. It has a very innocuous name, the Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill. What it actually means is that we are going to carry on with a sort of direct rule until we can resolve the problems with regard to the restoration of the institutions. That is not good, of course—we deeply regret it and I will come to that in a second—but with regard to the Bill, particularly on the issue of finance, there are important questions that the Government have to address. They have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and others. There is a case—I speak as a former Finance Minister for Northern Ireland—for a re-look at, reform of and rethink of how the Barnett formula applies to Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, quite rightly referred to Northern Ireland, in the formula sense, being underfunded. He referred to the position of Wales, which I know a little about. It is quite interesting to reflect that the settlement changed for Wales because of the work that was done and the pressure that was put on the Government by the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government. Would that have happened without devolution? It might have done, but I doubt it. A sitting Government in Cardiff and a sitting Parliament could address these issues in detail and then negotiate with the United Kingdom Government. Therefore, the issue which the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, referred to is best addressed in the context of a restored Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland.
I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, that we could exist without an Executive and an Assembly in Northern Ireland. If we completely forget about the Good Friday agreement and the peace process, with a Parliament in Edinburgh and a Senedd in Cardiff, it would be impossible not to have a devolved Parliament in Northern Ireland, irrespective of the peace process. We must live with that, and we should, because it is the only answer to the problems of Northern Ireland. Every time a Member from Northern Ireland gets on their feet in the Commons or in this House, ultimately it is not good enough. Those people in the Assembly in Belfast are elected directly by the people of Northern Ireland to address the specific issues which are devolved to Belfast. The Minister knows that there are dozens and dozens of huge decisions which cannot be taken by civil servants. It is totally unfair, in a modern democracy, to put on the backs of people who are unelected the burden of having to make huge decisions which only politicians can decide, particularly regarding finance.
Obviously, we still understand the problems that the Democratic Unionist Party has with the settlement in Northern Ireland regarding the European Union. However, the Windsor Framework is a real step forward and should be the basis of proper negotiation to arrange a settlement. This morning I was looking, yet again, at Section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act1998, which I had the privilege of steering through the House of Commons a quarter of a century ago. It says specifically that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and will only cease to be so if the people of Northern Ireland so decide by a majority. I cannot see that happening for some time to come—who knows?—but that is what it says. The principle of consent—
I thank the noble Lord for giving way and I agree with that part of the 1998 Act. I am sorry for going on about a very simple thing, but it is the kind of basic thing that makes people in Northern Ireland feel very left out: duty-free. Why can people flying from Belfast to anywhere in the EU not get duty-free, when you can fly from the rest of the United Kingdom to anywhere in the EU and get it? I got an answer recently which almost implied that part of the reason was because you could fly from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland. Of course, as the noble Lord knows, you cannot fly from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, but that is just a simple thing that sets us apart.
I do not think that in any way alters the position that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. The noble Baroness will recall, because she comes from Northern Ireland and lived the early part of her life there, that there has always been a difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain in certain respects. For example, livestock and agriculture have always had to be checked as they came across the Irish Sea, for various reasons. There was a separate Government for decades in Northern Ireland which imposed various restrictions, but that in no way affected the fact that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, so long as the people in Northern Ireland decide it should be. I do not underestimate the problems that have arisen, frankly because of Brexit. Without Brexit, this dilemma would not be in front of us, but we have to live with it. It seems to me that the Windsor agreement is a good start.
There are elections today in Northern Ireland. We will not know the outcome for another day or so. The marching season will soon be upon us. The recess is not far away. However, that should not stop the Government from planning for proper structured negotiations with the political parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government, so far as they affect the agreement. There should be a big role for the Prime Minister in the weeks and months ahead to work with parties in Northern Ireland to get a settlement. Despite the problems which we have had in Northern Ireland over the last two years regarding the protocol and the difficulties about the suspension of the institutions, there is no doubt from when we celebrated the Good Friday agreement some weeks ago in Belfast and elsewhere—and I do mean celebrated—that there has been a huge change. The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, said quite rightly that, tragically, there have been 150 deaths in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years, mainly as a result of terrorism. However, that must be set against the 3,500 people who perished in the 25 years before the Good Friday agreement. That is the real measure of where we are in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who participated in this debate, which was relatively short by our recent standards. I thank noble Lords for their kind words about my late colleague, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, and for their general support for this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, referred to the title of the Bill including “Interim Arrangements”. When we were discussing this, I was very keen to avoid calling it “temporary arrangements”, given that everything in Northern Ireland that has had “temporary” attached it over many years has assumed an air of permanence.
I am also grateful to the noble Lord Murphy of Torfaen for reminding the House of Section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which makes clear that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and will never cease to be so without the consent of most of its people. Speaking for this Government, I would not want the current constitutional position to change. Regarding his point about the restoration of the institutions, and echoing other noble Lords across the House, including the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, I assure all noble Lords that, irrespective of the calendar, our focus will remain very firmly on restoring those institutions which, as I said at the outset, are in the best interests of the union and of the people of Northern Ireland.
I politely disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, who argued for the strengthening of local government and effectively the abolition of Stormont, which would be a fundamental change to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is not a position that the Government can support. We remain firmly committed to the agreement and to the institutions across all three strands that the agreement establishes. Our priority is to make the agreement and the institutions work for the good of the people of Northern Ireland.
Unsurprisingly, a number of noble Lords focused on the current budget situation in Northern Ireland. As I said in my opening speech, if there is no restored Executive, it will be our intention to bring forward a Bill at the appropriate time to put the current budget allocations on to a legal footing. We will have a further opportunity to discuss the budget at that stage. However, picking up on one or two points, we recognise that the current situation is unsustainable and that Northern Ireland departments, in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, will have to face very difficult decisions to live within their budget, but these are unavoidable.
I heard my noble friend Lord Rogan and the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, refer to the “punishment budget”, as some people have described it—but it is not a description that I accept for one second. The budget reflects the reality of the fiscal situation in which Northern Ireland currently finds itself.
It is for that reason that, over many years, the Government have recognised the unique challenges that Northern Ireland faces. I recall that the spending review in 2021 was the most generous since the restoration of the devolved Government in 1998-99. It gave Northern Ireland the possibility of multiyear budgets, as opposed to the single-year budgets that have bedevilled us over a number of recent years. Sadly that proved not to be possible.
In addition, we have seen billions of pounds of extra spending through the Stormont House agreement, the fresh start agreement, the confidence and supply agreement, and New Decade, New Approach. It is difficult to sustain the argument that Northern Ireland has been systematically underfunded by the Government. As the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, reminded us, public spending per head in Northern Ireland is still running at about 20% higher than the United Kingdom average.
However, I recognise that there is a discussion about the funding formula, which the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, raised in some detail. To echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, that discussion would be far better taking place between the United Kingdom Government and a restored Northern Ireland Executive. In the spirit of openness, I am of course more than happy to have a conversation with the noble Lord about these matters. Likewise, I am happy to respond positively to the invitation from my noble friend Lord Rogan to meet the pharmacists in Northern Ireland.
A number of noble Lords again raised issues with the Windsor Framework. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, feel very strongly about this. I gently remind noble Lords that the House of Commons approved the Windsor Framework by 513 votes to 29, and your Lordships by 227 votes to 14. It clearly represents the settled will of Parliament that the framework be carried forward and implemented. In our view, it delivers stability for the people of Northern Ireland, protects Northern Ireland’s place in the union and restores the balance of the Belfast agreement.
I agree with my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Bew, who made a powerful case in saying that the framework increases Northern Ireland’s agency. He referred to the role of the Stormont brake; it gives the Assembly a very powerful role in determining future EU legislation and regulations. For that brake to be effective and to be operated, we need a functioning Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. I referred also to the institutional reforms raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey.
The issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, reflected a number of amendments that were put forward in the other place in the name of her sister party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. She raises important points, such as the costs of division in Northern Ireland, which are substantial and need to be addressed, and the transformation funds. I will write to the noble Baroness in more detail, but my initial reaction is that it is wrong to commit the Secretary of State to exploring any particular options at this stage. The Bill gives my right honourable friend a degree of discretion around this and it would probably not be right, as the Alliance Party was trying to do in the House of Commons, to put some of these things into legislation. But I am very happy to discuss these issues further and to write to the noble Baroness.
The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, also referred to the position of civil servants under the legislation, as did the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen. I agree that it puts them in a very difficult situation, and these concerns have been voiced within Northern Ireland itself. We are asking a lot of civil servants under this legislation. In our view, this approach is unfortunately necessary. It strikes the right balance between ensuring that governance can continue while giving parties in Northern Ireland the time and space to form an Executive. I entirely agree that this is not a long-term fix; it cannot be a long-term fix or a substitute for the proper re-establishment of a functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland, in line with the Belfast agreement. On that note, I beg to move.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.