Northern Ireland: Industrial Action - Private Notice Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:50 pm on 17 January 2024.

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Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown:

Asked by Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of planned industrial action in Northern Ireland, and what plans they have made to release funding for public sector pay awards.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the Government will continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which is leading the response to the widespread action. Tomorrow’s strike will be disruptive for people across Northern Ireland, and we know this is an extremely frustrating time for workers. While public sector pay is devolved, His Majesty’s Government have offered a generous package worth more than £3 billion that addresses public sector pay and would be available from day one to a restored Executive.

Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP

I thank the Minister for his reply. Thousands of workers across Northern Ireland are striking tomorrow because, despite unprecedented levels of inflation and pay agreements to reduce the impact of inflation on their living standards, they are still waiting for pay increases to be awarded. The Government have accepted that the Northern Ireland budget should be increased to finance these awards, but the Secretary of State claims that they cannot be paid because the Northern Ireland Assembly is not sitting. This is not true. Between December 2022 and December 2023, 30 different decisions in relation to pay were taken by civil servants in Northern Ireland.

The issue is whether the Secretary of State will release the money to enable the payments to be made. He seems to prefer to use workers as pawns to put pressure on my party to accept the Windsor Framework and the Northern Ireland protocol. Our call to release the money is supported by the unions, the head of the Civil Service and all political parties in Northern Ireland. Therefore, will the Minister inform the Secretary of State that he must stop using workers and their well- earned pay increases as pawns in his game of political brinkmanship and realise that bribery and bullying will not force unionists into accepting constitutional arrangements that will destroy the union in the long run by aligning Northern Ireland with the European Union instead of the United Kingdom?

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his many questions. In respect of the cost of living, I remind him that this Government have delivered on their pledge to halve inflation, and from the beginning of this year have cut taxes to ease pressures on household incomes.

The noble Lord will be aware that the Government do not have the powers directly to negotiate public sector pay in Northern Ireland. This is a devolved matter for a Northern Ireland Executive. The package to which I referred a few moments ago remains on the table for an incoming Executive. Of the £3.3 billion, somewhere in the region of £580 million is earmarked for relieving pressures on the public sector. So far as the Windsor Framework is concerned, he will not be surprised to hear that I do not share his characterisation. I believe the Windsor Framework is the right basis for reforming the Executive and having the devolved institutions back up and running in Northern Ireland, delivering for the entire community.

Photo of Baroness Hoey Baroness Hoey Non-affiliated

My Lords, the Minister knows Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland people very well, and he must know that Northern Ireland people are not going to be bullied and blackmailed. I am afraid the truth is that the Secretary of State—perhaps not just this one but previous Secretaries of State too—have pushed hard to use this as a weapon against the DUP. Even the trade unions know, despite their views differing on the DUP and whether the Assembly should be back, that this is not about that; it is about blackmailing and bullying. I am very disappointed. I know this is above his pay grade, but the Minister must know that what is happening to the trade unions and people in working positions in Northern Ireland is quite disgraceful. He and the Secretary of State are allowing the people of Northern Ireland to suffer for something that could be solved today.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank the noble Baroness. She will not be surprised to hear that I do not share her characterisation of the Government’s approach as one of bullying and blackmail. In fact, as I set out a moment ago, the funding package on the table is extremely generous and would allow an incoming Executive to deal with all these matters and help the transformation of public services. The imperative in Northern Ireland is to get the Executive back up and running and functioning.

Photo of Lord Swire Lord Swire Conservative

This is not intended to be either blackmailing or bullying, but is there not a case for re-examining the pay for MLAs? I know they already receive a reduced amount, but the longer the Assembly is not sitting, surely the stronger the case for further reducing the amount they are paid not to attend.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My noble friend will be aware that MLAs’ pay has already been reduced by 27%. I assure him that this is a matter that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State keeps under constant review.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated

My Lords, public sector workers in Northern Ireland demand pay parity with their colleagues right across the UK, and are undoubtedly justified in that demand, but they have been penalised because of a lack of local government in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that it is now high time for the DUP to return to Stormont and ensure that the institutions that we all voted for in 1998 are up and running, reflecting the political togetherness of everybody, rather than dancing on the pin of political purism?

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, for her question. She is aware, and I have stated this a number of times from this Dispatch Box, that since April 1998 I have always been a strong supporter of the Belfast agreement and the institutions that it established. I entirely agree with her that the right thing to do is to restore the Northern Ireland Executive with immediate effect.

Photo of Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Non-affiliated

My Lords, it is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. This is not the first time that His Majesty’s Government have used this sort of tactic to try to push people who have a mandate in Northern Ireland to do something that it would go against their mandate to do. I am sure that my former colleagues in the DUP will not be bullied into making a decision that they believe is the wrong one. I am sorry to say that I disagree with what my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Swire, had to say on this matter as well. Bullying and blackmail do not work in Northern Ireland, and it is insanity to think they will. I therefore say to the Minister, who I know has Northern Ireland’s place very close to his heart, to please press on the Secretary of State that we need a different way forward for our public sector workers.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am grateful to my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, for her question. She referred to the mandate of the Democratic Unionist Party. Of course everybody respects every party’s mandate in Northern Ireland. I repeat that bullying and blackmail are not the approach of His Majesty’s Government. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the whole ministerial team have spent a lot of time in recent months engaging with the DUP to try to work through the outstanding issues that are preventing the establishment of an Executive. The substantive negotiations on those issues came to an end in December but, as we have made clear, we are happy to clarify where clarification is needed. I repeat that the imperative in respect of public sector pay and resolving these issues is to get the institutions back.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Devolved Issues)

My Lords, it is an absolutely terrible situation at the moment. We have public sector workers in Northern Ireland being paid less than their counterparts across the rest of the UK. I am sure the Minister will understand the absolute frustration of the people of Northern Ireland, who saw their Assembly meet today and, yet again, be unable to elect a Speaker. The Secretary of State has been clear that he does not intend to directly release money available for public sector pay, but the people who are suffering are the public sector workers and the public they serve. It is not just the weather that is frozen in Northern Ireland at the moment. Given that the Government take that position, what steps do they intend to take next and can the Minister confirm to the House whether the Secretary of State intends to bring forward legislation—even as early as next week—to postpone further Assembly elections?

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, who has great experience in these affairs as a former Northern Ireland Office Minister. I put on record my praise for public sector workers in Northern Ireland, who do an outstanding job, often in very difficult circumstances. I understand the frustrations that they face at this time. In respect of the noble Baroness’s point about parity, she will be unsurprised to hear that I am a unionist. I want parity across the United Kingdom for public sector workers, but the answer to this is not for the UK Government directly to intervene; we do not have those powers. It is for the Executive, backed by the very generous funding offer that is on the table, to deal with these challenges. On legislation, this morning my right honourable friend said at Northern Ireland Questions in the other place that he will bring forward legislation next week to deal with some of the issues to which the noble Baroness referred. She will forgive me if I do not pre-empt what he is going to announce next week.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

My Lords, the Minister has a good working knowledge of Northern Ireland, and I will be surprised if he does not agree with me that the public sector workers should receive their entitlement, bearing in mind that the money has already been made available. What makes the situation more untenable is the fact that Northern Ireland has been funded below the UK Government’s own definition of need, as set out in the Holtham formula—not just since the beginning of the financial year but since the previous financial year, 2022. I am sure he agrees that this is not acceptable, so maybe he can tell the House again why this is happening.

While I am on my feet, I commend the unions for their responsible approach to all this. They have not fallen into the trap that some of my colleagues in this House have today, in that they blame a political party for it. That is not what they are saying. On this threat of reducing the MLAs’ money, I never heard that said once in the three years that Sinn Féin held everybody to ransom in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I would like to think that, after 35 years of involvement, I have a slightly better than working knowledge of some of these matters. In respect of funding, the noble Lord repeated a point that he has made a number of times before in your Lordships’ House. I remind him that as part of the financial package on the table there is an updated Barnett formula, which is worth an estimated £785 million over five years. On need, he will also be aware that the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council stated in May 2023:

“Based on our updated calculation, the relative level of public spending in NI per head of population … is … broadly in line with … need”.

Photo of Lord Clarke of Nottingham Lord Clarke of Nottingham Conservative

My Lords, the plight of the public sector workers in Northern Ireland is one of the worst consequences of the dreadful deadlock that has gripped that part of the United Kingdom for some time. It is plain that the Windsor agreement is working perfectly well and not damaging the Irish economy or the union, but the present deadlock will not be resolved because the DUP will never agree to set up a local Administration headed by a Sinn Féin leader. If this deadlock continues after the next Ulster election, will the Government see whether we can tackle the appallingly difficult process of seeing how an Executive can be set up with the other political parties that avoids the DUP’s determination to maintain a permanent veto?

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am grateful to my noble friend. I entirely agree with his first points about the Windsor Framework. From everything I have seen, the framework appears to be working very well. On his second point, I am afraid I part company in that I see no evidence to support the proposition he made. In respect of reform, we have always made it clear that we will look at any sensible reforms to the system that are consistent with the underlying principles of the Belfast agreement.

Photo of Baroness Suttie Baroness Suttie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

My Lords, the continued lack of an Assembly and Executive is now reaching crisis point, and the people of Northern Ireland are being badly let down. Clearly, as the parties in Northern Ireland have said, the funds should be released. Further to his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, can the Minister confirm that, in the forthcoming legislation to deal with the situation in Northern Ireland, nothing should be left off the table in terms of reform?

Photo of Lord Caine Lord Caine Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness. I repeat what I said to my noble friend Lord Clarke of Nottingham; sensible reforms will always be considered so long as they can command widespread consent across the community and are consistent with the principles of the agreement. On the legislation, I am afraid I cannot pre-empt what my right honourable friend is likely to announce next week. All I can do is urge the noble Baroness to contain her excitement for a few days.