Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:49 am on 18 May 2023.

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Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 11:49, 18 May 2023

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 27 April. As he has made clear on multiple occasions, the extent of the budget pressures facing Northern Ireland departments is, to put it mildly, extremely challenging. Departments are facing difficult decisions in the current circumstances. The Government recognise that, and it is one of the overriding reasons why we need an Executive in place to take some of these decisions and make choices on budget priorities.

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 5 June. Through the Bill, these powers will continue until the Executive are reformed. That will avoid a governance gap arising if an Executive are not in place by 5 June. As before, senior officers will be required to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State; the Government published an updated draft of that guidance on 10 May. We would, of course, welcome any representations that noble Lords or others may have on that guidance before we finalise it.

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.