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.