Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:46 pm 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) 12:46, 18 May 2023

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.