Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:32 pm on 18 May 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Suttie Baroness Suttie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 12:32, 18 May 2023

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?