All 2 contributions to the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017 (Ministerial Extracts Only)

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Mon 13th Nov 2017
Northern Ireland Budget Bill
Commons Chamber

2nd reading: House of Commons & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage: House of Commons
Tue 14th Nov 2017
Northern Ireland Budget Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords

Northern Ireland Budget Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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2nd reading: House of Commons & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage: House of Commons
Monday 13th November 2017

(6 years, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017 Read Hansard Text

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

James Brokenshire Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (James Brokenshire)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Before I explain the details of the Bill, let me make some brief comments about events that took place yesterday. People who are intent on killing and harming others left a small but lethal bomb in Omagh before the Remembrance Sunday commemorations. Their actions stand in stark contrast to those of the brave men and women whom the community were gathering to honour—the men and women from all backgrounds who made the ultimate sacrifice to allow us all to live in a democracy.

I pay tribute to the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and others who dealt with that incident. I think that it underlines the continuing level of threat that we face, but, equally, what a repugnant and appalling act this was, taking place on Remembrance Sunday when people were gathering to pay their respects in the traditional way. I am sure that all Members on both sides of the House will condemn it utterly. If anyone has any information about the incident, I strongly urge them to do what they can, and bring it to the attention of the PSNI so that it can be pursued with all rigour.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
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My colleagues and I echo the Secretary of State’s comments about the incident that took place in Omagh yesterday. In view of what happened at Enniskillen in similar circumstances, with tragic loss of life, perhaps the most effective action that can be taken at this time is the publication by the Secretary of State of the proposals to deal with the legacy of our troubled past, which would enable the victims to have a say in the process and enable us to get on with the business of seeking to bring to justice those responsible for that atrocity. I think that that is a very powerful message that the Secretary of State could send in the wake of what happened in Omagh yesterday.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point, and for drawing attention to the incident that took place in Enniskillen 30 years ago, when 12 people lost their lives in an appalling bombing. I was in Enniskillen yesterday, as I had been on Wednesday, to remember and to mark the 30th anniversary of that appalling incident. I know full well the pain, the hurt and the suffering that many people still feel. Yes, many look for justice still to this day, and it is a matter of great regret that no one has yet been brought to justice for that appalling incident. I also note the equally strong feelings among many for reconciliation and the need for us to continue to work to bring communities together.

The right hon. Gentleman highlights the issues around the Stormont House legacy institutions. I want to progress that through to a public consultation, as it is the most effective way in which we can seek real focus on how to move forward and see those legacy institutions come into effect. I am not able today to confirm the timing of the publication of that consultation, but I want to get on with it. I know that the victim groups want that, and I take the point that the right hon. Gentleman has made very clearly and firmly.

Turning to the Bill, as I set out for the House a fortnight ago, it is now nine months since there has been a properly functioning Executive and Assembly. Despite the tireless efforts over the past 11 weeks—the most recent phase of the talks—the parties have not yet reached an agreement that would enable a sustainable Executive to be formed. In bringing the parties together for this most recent phase of the political talks, I have sought to help both the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin to bridge the gap on a small number of outstanding matters, including language and culture, as well as on issues in relation to the continuing sustainability of the Executive. In doing so, I have worked closely with the Irish Government in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach. I remain prepared to bring forth legislation that would allow for an Executive to be formed should the parties reach an agreement.

My strong preference would be for a restored Executive in Northern Ireland to take forward its own budget, so I am introducing this measure today with the utmost reluctance and only because there is no other choice available. Let me be clear: the passage of legislation to set a budget should not be a barrier to negotiations continuing. However, the ongoing lack of agreement has had tangible consequences for people and public services in Northern Ireland, for, without an Executive, there has been no budget, and without a budget, civil servants have been without political direction to take decisions on spending and public services in Northern Ireland.

I want to pay particular tribute to all those who have been engaged in the civil service seeking to manage the current events. The Northern Ireland civil service has demonstrated the utmost professionalism in protecting and preserving public services throughout these difficult times, and I wish to put on record my recognition of the work it has been doing.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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I echo the Secretary of State’s comments on the civil service and the role it plays. Will he make it clear from the Dispatch Box tonight who the head of the Northern Ireland civil service will be accountable to in political terms after this decision is taken?

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the accountability gap we have at present. At this time, the Northern Ireland civil service is effectively having to act based on its assessment of the political priorities of the outgoing Executive. There is no direct accountability. I will come on to certain steps I intend to take to seek to surface some of the issues, such as how any reports from the Northern Ireland Audit Office could be brought to the attention of this House. Ultimately, what we want is an Executive in place able to provide that accountability, and we do not want a move to any other alternatives because of all the issues that will bring about. There is an issue here, therefore, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley
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The Secretary of State is well known for being generous in giving way, and I thank him. He has highlighted the central issue: on taking this decision, there will be no political accountability in Northern Ireland either to a non-functioning Executive or, importantly, to him and his ministerial team in Northern Ireland. That is not sustainable for any period of time. There must be political accountability, and he must move urgently to appoint Ministers and take political control.

--- Later in debate ---
James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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As the hon. Gentleman will know, that is not a step that I intend to take while there is an opportunity for an Executive to be formed. Discussions have been ongoing—as they were even last week—between his party and Sinn Féin to try to find a resolution to the outstanding issues between the parties that can form such an Executive. I think it is right that we continue to pursue that, but he is right to say that this situation is not sustainable into the long term. It is absolutely in the best interests of Northern Ireland and more generally that we continue to do all we can to restore an Executive and to ensure that the parties are able to resolve the outstanding issues and get devolved government back up and running at the earliest opportunity.

David Hanson Portrait David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab)
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Following on from the point made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), I would like the Secretary of State to clarify something for me. If parliamentary questions were tabled in this House later this week about the details of this budget, if Adjournment debates on the subject were to take place later this week, or if early-day motions or other parliamentary accountability mechanisms were deployed on the subject, would he see it as his role to answer such questions? Or is there a mechanism whereby Members elected in Northern Ireland could also table and answer similar questions?

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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The right hon. Gentleman has made this point on a previous occasion. I understand the question of accountability, and I feel this issue very keenly at this point. At this stage, these issues remain devolved. We are seeking to set a headline, outline budget of top-line numbers for each of the different Departments of the Northern Ireland civil service, but we are not seeking to provide a higher level of specificity or detail. Of course I will continue to raise issues with David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, but ultimately he remains accountable under the emergency provisions in the Northern Ireland legislation. He remains subject to the duties outlined in that mechanism. That is the unsatisfactory situation that we remain in. I say to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) that this might be sustainable for a time, but it cannot continue for an extended period.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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The Secretary of State has expressed some optimism and does not wish to appoint direct rule Ministers at present, because he thinks that there is some hope, but does he accept that we are debating this budget Bill today because Sinn Féin refused to introduce a budget this time last year and refused to take any hard decisions when they had ministerial positions in the Assembly? Really, they have no interest in devolution when it requires them to make tough decisions. They would rather those decisions were made here, so that they can point the finger of blame at the Secretary of State and the Government in Westminster, than do the job they were elected to do in Northern Ireland, leaving the Secretary of State no alternative but to appoint direct rule Ministers.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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Yes, we are in the position that we are in today because it has not been possible to form an Executive and because we do not have functioning devolved government. That is why, regrettably, I am having to introduce this Bill today: to put a legal framework in place to enable the Northern Ireland civil service to continue to spend in the way that it has done, to ensure that public services are able to operate. I believe that a solution remains possible, and that we must use all efforts and endeavours to restore devolved government. I know that the hon. Gentleman’s party and Sinn Féin have indicated firmly that they want to see an Executive restored and up and running, serving the people of Northern Ireland. That is where all our efforts and endeavours must firmly remain.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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The Secretary of State is right to say that it is necessary to pass this Bill in order for the machinery of government to continue operating, and for that reason, the Liberal Democrats will support him this evening, but surely more has to be said about how the machinery of government operates. For example, higher education in Northern Ireland is looking at a reduction in student places in excess of 2,200 by 2018-19 on the basis of this budget. Surely that illustrates better than anything else the need for this budget to be the subject of proper political accountability.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on accountability. The difficult job that the Northern Ireland civil service has had to do is effectively make its best assessment of the outgoing priorities of the outgoing Executive. It is worth noting that a lot of work was obviously done in the relation to the budget before the Executive collapsed at the start of the year—work that the parties had been engaged in closely with the Northern Ireland civil service. None the less, there are challenges and pressures in respect of how the civil service is having to operate under the emergency provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and issues about accountability and political decision making are felt keenly. There is a lack of accountability at the moment, which is why we want to see the Executive back up and running. Indeed, if an Assembly were restored quickly, the Assembly would be able to do that job. It would be able to look back at the budgeting arrangements and to carry out the normal level of scrutiny. I agree, however, that the situation is unsatisfactory, and we need to see progress and get the devolved Government back up and running at the earliest opportunity.

The powers that the Northern Ireland civil service has been exercising have their limits. Under section 59 of the 1998 Act and section 7 of the Government Resources and Accounts (Northern Ireland) Act 2001, the civil service may only issue cash and resources equal to 95% of the totals authorised in the previous financial year. The powers do not allow Departments to use accruing resources, meaning that the resources available to them are in reality significantly less than 95% of the previous year’s provision. Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that I set out in written statements in April and July an indicative budget position and set of departmental allocations based on the advice of the Northern Ireland civil service. In my written statement on 19 July, I said:

“The exercise of s59 powers cannot be sustained indefinitely”—[Official Report, 19 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 56WS.]

Although we had not then reached it, I also warned that that critical point was approaching. The resource limits in the absence of a budget are now fast approaching. Without further action, there are manifest risks that the civil service would simply begin to run out of resources by the end of November. That would mean no funding available for public services, with all of the negative impacts that would accompany such a cliff edge. No Government could simply stand by and allow that to happen, which is why we need to take forward this Bill today.

David Simpson Portrait David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP)
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The Secretary of State says that only 95% of the budget was allocated. My understanding is that that 5% equates to some £600 million that has been delayed in coming to Northern Ireland. Will he put it on the record today that the party to blame for that is Sinn Féin for not bringing the budget when it should have brought it?

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I understand the political point that the hon. Gentleman is making, and he highlights the challenges and pressures. The indicative budget arrangement has in effect meant that the Northern Ireland civil service has largely been able to operate on the basis of a full budget, which was one of the reasons why we set out the indicative arrangements with the affirmation that, should it come to it, we would bring forward a budget Bill. We are taking steps today to follow through on that, because of the need to have finances in place. We obviously have not had an Executive, which is why we are in this situation.

Efforts have been undertaken to find an agreement, and I commend the DUP for its work and the ongoing discussions with Sinn Féin to find that agreement. We want to see an enduring power-sharing Executive who are able to get on with the job and to make the high-level budget decisions that we are being forced to take in this Bill. I recognise, however, the frustrations that are felt right across Northern Ireland about not having an Executive in place that are able to make such decisions.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I will give way to the hon. Lady, because I have already given way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Emma Little Pengelly Portrait Emma Little Pengelly
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The Secretary of State references the fact that there is no budget because there is no Executive in place. This time last year I was chairperson of the Finance Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and this time last year the Finance Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, was due to bring forward a draft budget. He refused to do so, and he refused to come to the Committee to explain why—this was months before Sinn Féin pulled down the institutions. He did not produce the draft budget in October, November or December. We got into January, and I was writing to him week after week to ask for the budget to be brought forward. The reason why there is no budget in Northern Ireland today is that Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, the Sinn Féin Finance Minister, failed in his primary duty to bring forward that budget.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I welcome the insight and experience that the hon. Lady brings to this House from her time in the Assembly and from her contribution to politics in Northern Ireland. She and I had discussions on a range of issues during that time.

The point is that we do not have a budget in place, which is why we are having to take these steps today to ensure that the necessary financial stability is provided to the Northern Ireland civil service in the absence of an Executive, an Assembly and functioning devolved government. I am sure that various different political points can be made, but my focus is on seeing that we get the Executive back in place, and I encourage all parties, with renewed focus, to see that discussions continue and that we actually get the resolution that I believe Northern Ireland would like to see.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson
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The Secretary of State speaks of frustrations. The difficulty is that this is not just a matter of budgets for Government Departments. Earlier today he met some victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland. They are waiting still for the implementation of the inquiry’s report, which makes a number of recommendations, including on the payment of compensation to support those victims. The problem is that we have no one to give political direction on the Hart report. Will he commit to intervening to deal with the issue? The victims deserve that intervention.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for highlighting the real life impacts of historical institutional abuse. It is not some sterile debate on numbers. A whole range of decisions have not been taken. Impacts are being felt across Northern Ireland by public services, by the voluntary and community sector and by victims and survivors of incidents of the past.

I acknowledge the strength of feeling on the issue of historical institutional abuse—the inquiry reported earlier this year—and not just the frustration but the pain and hurt felt by those who want a response to the Hart inquiry’s recommendations. The lack of an Executive has meant that there has been no formal response. Obviously, it was the Executive who commissioned the report, and it was intended that the inquiry would report back to the Executive for their response.

I have met SAVIA, which advocates for survivors and victims, and I met it again in July 2017. I firmly recognise the points it raises. However, this remains a matter for devolved government in Northern Ireland. I understand the huge frustration, which is another significant reason why we need to see devolved government restored. This issue remains a firm priority.

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Lab)
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I echo the words of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), because my understanding is that there is cross-party agreement in Northern Ireland on this issue. I understand the Secretary of State’s reluctance to commit to legislating or to taking the competencies to deal with it, but surely he could look at making some sort of interim payment by using a specific provision in this budget. So many survivors of institutional abuse have died since the report’s recommendations were made.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful and important point about the impact on victims, but nothing in this Bill gives that authorisation to me; nothing changes in the day-to-day operations of decision making in Northern Ireland. This Bill is firmly not direct rule; we are seeking to give the headline approvals for Departments to operate within their usual flexibilities. The Northern Ireland civil service has published separate estimates, and we have published separate estimates on its behalf, but this is in that space that exists. I have met the victims and survivors groups on two occasions, and there has not been a response to the recommendations as yet. It is right that an Executive, having asked for that report, should be the one that responds to it. I know that this is something of great hurt and great pain, which is why I hope earnestly that we are able to see a resolution of it quickly. I believe the families want that sense of progress against the recommendations.

Owen Smith Portrait Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab)
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I hesitate to intervene, as I am about to make a speech, but I seek further clarity on this point. We have all met the SAVIA people today. Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s support for devolution and his desire not to start direct rule, is there anything stopping him legislating, as he is going to in respect of the extra moneys provided as a result of the Democratic Unionist party deal, for an interim payment in order to heal, to some extent, the wounds suffered by people who have been subject to historical abuse?

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but it presupposes that there is broad agreement on the recommendations from the Hart report—

Owen Smith Portrait Owen Smith
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There is.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I am talking about all the recommendations contained in it. My understanding is that we do not have that formal response back, because we have not had the Executive in place. Therefore, this Bill is not about specifying how the Northern Ireland civil service should operate and take certain actions—that takes us down the pathway on day-to-day decision making and what the Northern Ireland civil service should do. That is why I say firmly and clearly that what needs to happen is that we have that Executive back in place to receive that report. I know, from what the head of the Northern Ireland civil service David Sterling has said to me, that it had been preparing advice and a response that an incoming Executive can take up very quickly. That is the right way to respond, but of course I recognise keenly the frustrations that victims and survivors have felt. I know that from the direct exchanges I have had with them.

Owen Smith Portrait Owen Smith
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It is clear that there is cross-party support for the Hart report recommendations—certainly for the compensation and for the notion of an interim payment. I believe all the party leaders sent a letter to that effect in the summer, and we have heard again here today support from representatives of the DUP. Only today I have seen an email from David Sterling to SAVIA saying that he wants to act quickly, so may I ask the Secretary of State to do all he can, including potentially legislating, so that he does indeed act quickly?

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I am sure David Sterling will hear keenly what is being said across the House today on the points that SAVIA has been making to all of us in its meetings and on the desire to see the Hart recommendations advanced, responded to and, where they have been accepted, taken forward. I am sure this House has given that message to David Sterling in relation to what has been said. As I say, and as the hon. Gentleman will know, David Sterling has equally been receiving representations from political parties in Northern Ireland and from SAVIA directly. We have heard about the response he has given and the situation we are currently in—not having an Executive or other means by which to provide direct political instruction. None the less, I know that the Northern Ireland civil service takes its responsibilities and its duties within the law—within the framework in which it is operating—keenly to heart. I am sure it will act appropriately, recognising the points that parties in Northern Ireland have made on this issue, and will do what it can to advance this issue in the difficult and frustrating circumstances we find ourselves in.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I am going to make some progress if I may. I have been generous in taking interventions, as I hope Members will recognise.

To be clear, this Bill is a measure we have deferred for as long as was possible. We wanted to see the parties reach an agreement and take a budget through themselves. In the absence of agreement, this Bill is necessary to keep public services running in Northern Ireland. Although it is a Government Bill, it is not a UK Government Budget; it does not reflect the priorities or spending decisions of me or any other Minister. Rather, it sets out the departmental allocations and ambits that have been recommended by the Northern Ireland civil service. In turn, it has sought as far as is possible to reflect the priorities of the previous Executive—albeit updated to reflect the changed circumstances as far as has been required. In short, this is the budget that a returning Executive—had one been formed—would have been presented with. Taken as a whole, the Bill represents a necessary measure, taken at the latest possible point, to secure public finances in Northern Ireland.

We should be absolutely clear: passing this budget in Westminster does not mean a move to direct rule, any more than did this Parliament legislating to set a regional rate in April. Once the budget is passed, the detailed decisions on how it is spent will be made by the Northern Ireland civil service. If, as I hope will be the case, the parties come together to form an Executive in the weeks ahead, those decisions would fall to them, so nothing we are doing today precludes talks from continuing and an agreement being reached.

I propose to turn briefly to the contents of this rather technical Bill. In short, it authorises Northern Ireland Departments and certain other bodies to incur expenditure and use resources for the financial year ending on 31 March 2018. Clause 1 authorises the issue of £16.17 billion out of the Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland. The allocation levels for each Northern Ireland Department and the other bodies in receipt of these funds are set out in schedule 1, which also states the purposes for which these funds are to be used. Clause 2 permits some temporary borrowing powers for cash management purposes. Clause 3 authorises the use of resources amounting to £18 billion in the year ending 31 March 2018 by the Northern Ireland Departments and other bodies listed in clause 3(2). These figures and those in clause 1 supersede the allocations of cash and resources made by the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance up to the end of this month, under the powers I have already mentioned.

Similarly to clause 1, the breakdown between these Departments and bodies, and the purposes for the authorised use of resources under clause 3, is set out in the Bill—in the first two columns of schedule 2. Clause 4 sets limits on the accruing resources, including both operating and non-operating accruing resources in the current financial year. These sums relate to those which have already been voted by Parliament via the main estimates, together with revenue generated locally within Northern Ireland. There is no new money contained within this Bill: there is simply the explicit authority to spend in full the moneys that have already been allocated.

Lord Coaker Portrait Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab)
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I just seek to understand the figures that the Secretary of State has given out, and this relates to the question raised by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). Our understanding is that we can be talking only about 95%. Does that amount to a £600 million reduction in spending ability for the Departments in Northern Ireland? Who will decide which Departments face the reductions to make that £600 million reduction?

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I say to the hon. Gentleman that what we are actually dealing with here is the full utilisation of the resources set out by this House through the block grant. Although there are emergency powers operating that can only cover 95% of the previous year’s budget, by passing this Bill we are authorising the full amount—in effect, allowing a spend to 100%. In practice, the Northern Ireland civil service has effectively been operating to that level by virtue of the assurance that we provided by saying that if a budget was not set, we would set a budget. We are therefore now following through on the commitment that we gave to the Northern Ireland civil service.

I refer the hon. Gentleman back to the statements I made earlier in the year in respect of the indicative budget figures, and therefore the resources that were available to the Northern Ireland civil service and, effectively, the main estimates position. In essence, the difference between the 2016-17 budget position and the main estimates position for this year, once certain figures that relate to a voluntary exit scheme are stripped out to make it more comparable, is a 3.2% increase in the non-ring-fenced resource departmental expenditure limits. That is effectively what we are doing through the measures we are taking through the House today.

I appreciate that there is a sense of, “Well, what is the 95%? What is the 100%?”. The 95% is effectively the restriction that has been placed on the Northern Ireland civil service in its operations to date. We have received advice from the Northern Ireland civil service, and it has been confirmed by the Treasury as well, that that threshold—those limitations—would risk being exceeded at the end of this month, because that 95% does not deal with certain accruals and certain other numbers, which means that the 95% number is actually less than one would imagine it to be. I appreciate that there is a lot of technicality and that a lot of accounting issues are obviously engaged here, but that is what we are seeking to do. In other words, there is no new money beyond what Parliament has already authorised through the main estimates and through votes in this House. I hope that, as best as I can do, I have made that point clear for right hon. and hon. Members.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I am happy to try again with the hon. Gentleman.

Lord Coaker Portrait Vernon Coaker
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I think there is probably only one person in the House who properly understood all of that, and I will not say who it was. I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. What the people of Northern Ireland and Members of this House want to know is, if we strip out all the technicalities the Secretary of State has outlined, what is he actually saying? Is there a cash freeze? Is there a real-terms reduction? We read in the press that health spending is to rise and education spending is flat. We heard the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) mention the £600 million figure, which has been raised on several occasions. If we strip away all the technicalities, what is the Secretary of State actually saying about the spending power for each Department up until 31 March next year?

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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As I indicated to the hon. Gentleman, we are effectively talking about a sum of £10.6 billion for the departmental expenditure limits. For that figure, he will be able to refer back to previous statements I have made. The Northern Ireland civil service has made a further adjustment of £54 million, within that envelope, and it has allocated that money primarily to health and education: an additional £40 million to health and an additional £10 million to education. As I indicated to him earlier, if we look at the distinction between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 resource departmental expenditure limits, we see that it shows a movement from around £10.2 billion to £10.6 billion, which is where the 3.2% figure I quoted to him comes from—that year-on-year comparison. That means that, for example, on the budget lines of health there is a 5.4% increase, and for education there is a 1.5% increase. The Northern Ireland civil service and the Department of Finance have published full numbers in relation to the estimates and a further budget briefing. That briefing has been provided to all the political parties in Northern Ireland, in recognition that this is ultimately about a devolved budget, not a budget that is being set here in Westminster.

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con)
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May I take this opportunity to chide my right hon. Friend ever so gently? Had right hon. and hon. Members received a copy of the Bill in a more timely manner, they might have been able to refer to schedules 1 and 2, in which the departmental allocations are clearly laid out.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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I understand the point that the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee makes. Equally, though, we brought the Bill before the House in such a way as to allow as much flexibility as possible for potential alternative legislation to be debated in the House today. Nevertheless, we are taking this budget Bill through the House, so the detailed information that the Northern Ireland civil service has provided—and, obviously, the allocations—is provided in the Bill.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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Does the Secretary of State accept that, even taking into account the information in those schedules, the answer to the question that has been asked is not available in the information that has been presented to the House today, because it gives the figure for this year but does not contain information on the figures for last year, and nor indeed is there briefing material on that? It really is impossible to compare departmental allocation with departmental allocation, or the overall allocation available to Northern Ireland.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
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The details were published in the main estimates document that has been published as a Command Paper. We have sought to provide information on the detailed breakdown to right hon. and hon. Members, but I can nevertheless assure the hon. Gentleman about the nature of the work that has been undertaken. We have relied on the advice from and input of the Northern Ireland civil service in respect of these matters. As I have already indicated, the numbers and figures effectively point back to the indicative statements that I published for the House earlier in the year, with the addition of the adjustments in relation to the £54 million that I have sought to explain to the House today.

The Bill would ordinarily have been taken through the Assembly. I recognise that there are imperfections and that we are having to do this in this House in a way that does not reflect how the Assembly itself would have considered the legislation and taken it through. That is why, for example, there are in clause 5 a series of adaptations that ensure that, once approved by both Houses in Westminster, the Bill will effectively be treated as if it had been taken through the Assembly, thereby enabling Northern Ireland’s public finances to continue to function, notwithstanding the absence of an Executive. Clause 6 repeals previous Assembly budget Acts relating to the financial years 2013-14 and 2014-15, which are no longer operative. Such repeals are regularly included in Assembly budget Bills.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Secretary of State and I had a discussion on this point earlier, but can he confirm that the clauses he has outlined contain nothing that would enable the accounting officers in Northern Ireland to advance the already agreed and already resourced national pay awards for our public sector workers? Earlier, he referred to the Police Service of Northern Ireland; nationally agreed pay awards, which should be under the control of accounting officers, cannot be advanced while we wait in limbo.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman and I did have a conversation outside the House before we entered the Chamber, and I understand the point he makes about pay awards—particularly with respect to the PSNI, although it is not simply limited to the PSNI—and the issues with being able to advance where there has not been a previous political policy or agreement on those awards. I recognise the point that he makes very firmly. I will have further discussions with David Sterling about whether there is any way to resolve that issue in the absence of an Executive. I know that this issue has been and continues to be a particular concern among a number of public sector employees. It is a result of the gap that we are currently in, so we need to get this resolved quickly.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I accept the Secretary of State’s explanation. Of course this is not the ideal way to deal with the issue. That is not his fault, but the fault of Sinn Féin, which has blocked the proper scrutiny of the Assembly. Can he explain this: one figure that hits me when I look at these estimates is that the Executive Office, which is not functioning at the moment, has had a 32% increase in its budget? I do not know how much detail he went into with civil servants when he was looking at this, but has he had any explanation as to why a non-functioning office should have the biggest increase of all the Departments?

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Although there is not a functioning Executive—in other words, we do not have the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in place—work is still going on. The civil service has to manage the process in the absence of that political decision-making. I will certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s point to the head of the Northern Ireland civil service and commit to write to him with a more detailed response, a justification for the increases and an explanation of why, on that particular budget line, there was a need for such a decision. Certainly, the civil service has stated very clearly that it has acted on the basis of the outgoing priorities of the outgoing Executive.

As the debate this evening has demonstrated, this is clearly an unusual Bill to be taken through the House, marking as it does an approval by Parliament of spending in the devolved sphere. While being proportionate, I want to ensure that, in the absence of an Assembly, there can be appropriate scrutiny by Parliament of how the money it has voted is subsequently spent.

In addition to the provisions in the Bill for scrutiny by the Northern Ireland Audit Office of the Northern Ireland Departments, I will be writing to the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland asking him to send me a copy of all the NIAO audits and value-for-money reports that he produces after the Bill gains Royal Assent, which will contain his view on any shortcomings and his recommendations for improvement. I will be asking the Northern Ireland civil service to make its responses to those reports available to me. Copies of those reports and correspondence will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses to allow scrutiny by all interested Members and Committees.

I have also laid before the House as a Command Paper a set of estimates for the Departments and bodies covered by the budget Bill. Those estimates, which have been prepared by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance, set out the breakdown of its resource allocation in greater detail. As hon. and right hon. Members may note, this is a different process from that which we might ordinarily see for estimates at Westminster, where the estimates document precedes the formal budget legislation, and is approved separately.

That would also be the case at the Assembly, but in these unusual circumstances, the Bill provides that the laying of the Command Paper takes the place of an estimates document laid and approved before the Assembly, again to enable public finances to flow smoothly. To aid the understanding of these main estimates and the spending impacts they will have, the Northern Ireland civil service has produced a budget briefing paper, which was published on the Department of Finance website earlier today. It is also important to note that the Northern Ireland political parties have been briefed on this budget in detail. That is everything in the Bill, dealing with moneys already voted for by Parliament or raised within Northern Ireland. Those figures do not deal with any other items.

Lady Hermon Portrait Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Secretary of State will know that, for family reasons, we have had a very difficult weekend. I apologise most sincerely to the House for coming into the debate late; it is a tale of delayed flights and tubes.

Will the Secretary of State enlighten the House and the people of Northern Ireland as to why no reference is made to the reduction in MLAs’ salaries? That is what the people at home want to see. We have not had a functioning Assembly for almost 11 months now, but MLAs continue to take their full salary and full staffing allowance. People at home hoped that there would be a signal today in this budget Bill of a reduction in salaries. Will there be such a reduction?

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I intend to say something about that issue later in my comments.

Before I do so, I will comment on issues outside the Bill. The figures contained in the Bill do not secure the financial position for the long term, because real challenges remain: there is a health service in significant need of transformation; there are further steps to take to build the truly connected infrastructure that can boost growth and prosperity throughout Northern Ireland; and there are other steps, too. It was in recognition of those unique circumstances that the UK Government were prepared to make available additional financial support earlier this year, following the confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist party. That agreement made it clear that we wanted to see that money made available to a restored Executive, which would decide on a cross-community basis how best to use the funding for the benefit of all in Northern Ireland. However, Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances cannot simply be ignored in the meantime, especially given the pressures that we have seen in the continued absence of an Executive.

Therefore, in addition to the Bill, this Government will make available the £50 million for addressing immediate health and education pressures in the agreement in this financial year. Those sums are not contained in this Bill, because they have not yet been voted on by Parliament. If the Northern Ireland Administration confirm that they wish to access them, they will be subject to the full authorisation of this House, as with all sums discharged from the UK Consolidated Fund, via the estimates process in the new year. From there they will be transferred, along with other sums forming part of the Northern Ireland block grant, into the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund.

Lord Dodds of Duncairn Portrait Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way and for announcing today the first instalment of the extra money coming to Northern Ireland as a result of the confidence and supply agreement. Some people said that it depended on the Executive, but, clearly, that was not the case. The people of Northern Ireland—Unionists and nationalists—will welcome the fact that extra money is going into the health service and into education, and indeed will eventually go into infrastructure and all the rest of it as a result of the deal that the DUP did with the Government. I warmly welcome what he has said. This is a very significant moment in the history of this Parliament and in terms of our relationship as it goes forward.

--- Later in debate ---
James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, we recognise the particular case that has been made by Northern Ireland about the pressures in the health service that stem from the need for reform. The sums are still subject to a formal vote in the House, but that cannot be dealt with today. It can be dealt with only through the subsequent estimates process. In the absence of an Executive, it would be for the Northern Ireland civil service, bound by a range of equality and propriety duties, to make the decisions as to whether and how to take account of this funding for the benefit of the whole community. I say to the House that we want to see a restored Executive back in place and deciding on how the additional financial support can best be used for the benefit of the whole community. That remains the case now as much as ever. As a party, we believe in devolution. We want to see locally elected politicians taking the strategic decisions about the future direction of their local areas.

Let me come back to the point made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). In this context, I understand the disappointment that so many feel that, despite the election more than eight months ago, there remains no functioning Assembly in which all those elected may serve. I also know that, in turn, many in Northern Ireland are concerned that full salaries continue to be paid to Assembly Members despite the impasse. I understand that concern, but recognise, too, that many of those elected have been desperate to serve since March, and have continued to provide valuable constituency functions in the meantime. That is why I have been keen to seek independent advice on the subject in determining what actions may be appropriate. I can tell the House that Mr Trevor Reaney, a former Clerk of the Northern Ireland Assembly, has agreed to take on that task. He will provide an independent assessment of the case for action and the steps he would consider appropriate, and will report back to me by 15 December. This will not prejudge any particular course of action, not least as further steps would require primary legislation, but his advice will help to inform the best way to proceed.

Lord Dodds of Duncairn Portrait Nigel Dodds
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Secretary of State has previously indicated—quite rightly—that this matter should be addressed, and we agree. But as far as we on these Benches are concerned, the matter of those who get paid and who do not come to Westminster to fulfil their obligations here also needs to be addressed. It is clear that, in announcing this look at Assembly Members, which is quite right, all hon. Members should focus on those who deliberately abstain, refuse to do their job in Parliament and get paid hundreds of thousands every year in back-up and parliamentary resources to spend on propaganda and political purposes. That, too, must be looked at and must end in tandem with what the Secretary of State is doing in relation to the Assembly.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This point has been raised on the Floor of the House before. The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful presentation of his point. Equally, although I note his firm point, he has sought to advance this case in the past and knows that the matter is one for the House to determine.

I very much hope that the work I outlined—the recommendations or review that I will receive regarding MLA pay—will not be needed. That is because I still believe and hope that the parties can resolve their differences and an Executive can be formed that will come together and take the strategic decisions needed on health transformation, education reform and building a world-class infrastructure to deliver a better future in Northern Ireland. That is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for and want to see. We will continue to work with the parties and support them in their efforts to reach a resolution.

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Secretary of State give way?

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will give way later, but I am just going to finish my comments.

Together with the Irish Government, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the 1998 Belfast agreement and its successors, and to the institutions they established. It remains firmly in the interests of Northern Ireland to see devolved government restored, with locally-elected politicians making decisions for the people of Northern Ireland on key local matters. Northern Ireland and its people need a properly functioning and inclusive devolved Government, along with effective structures for co-operation, north-south and east-west. But at the same time, the Government are ultimately responsible for good governance in Northern Ireland and will do whatever is necessary to provide that. The Bill is a reminder of that underlying obligation, which we will continue to uphold. I commend it to the House.

--- Later in debate ---
Owen Smith Portrait Owen Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point—indeed, I mentioned the political disagreement. Equally, however, many victims on all sides of the troubles find it difficult to accept that the actions of a few people who injured themselves by their own hand should hold up the process for all victims—including the many hundreds who are innocent—and preclude them from getting the pensions that they need to support themselves, especially as they get older and more infirm. I understand his point, but a moral argument needs to be made. Perhaps it will take a period of direct rule to introduce that argument.

Thirdly, may I raise something else that I suspect will prompt some interventions: the so-called moral issues in Northern Ireland, particularly equal marriage and abortion rights? Those two areas are incredibly divisive, complex and politically parlous, but I urge the Secretary of State to think hard about them, not least in the light of the referendum that is being held in the Republic. He needs to think about how he might consult in Northern Ireland so that progress is made on those important issues.

One of the greatest tragedies of the recent period of impasse in Northern Ireland is that Northern Ireland does not have a voice on the thorny issue of Brexit and the border. Northern Ireland is likely to be strongly affected by Brexit economically, socially and politically, and perhaps even in terms of the peace process. It is tragic that Northern Ireland has remained voiceless throughout the process. I fear that the Government have engaged in reckless gunboat diplomacy on Brexit, and although the Northern Ireland Secretary voices platitudes about not wanting a hard border on the island of Ireland—we all support that view—he has unfortunately not proposed any substantive ways of preventing that from happening—[Interruption.] He says that that is nonsense. If he wants to stand up and tell us exactly how he will prevent the introduction of a hard border on the island of Ireland, I will be pleased to take that intervention, because I have heard nothing substantive from the Government.

James Brokenshire Portrait James Brokenshire
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I point the hon. Gentleman firmly towards our proposals on customs and agriculture, as well as on issues such as the common transit convention. On a whole raft of issues, we have set out our determination to achieve that aim and how we believe it will be achieved. We are engaging in the first phase and into the second phase to make sure that that happens.

Owen Smith Portrait Owen Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

None of those proposals has been taken remotely seriously by our interlocutors in Brussels. None of them answers the question of how we avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. None of them is currently thought to be a serious runner—[Interruption.] Well, I wait to see the Brexit negotiations reaching the conclusion that the Secretary of State is right and we do not need to consider some sort of special arrangement for Northern Ireland. At the moment, the country can see that no progress is being made on the matter, that the Government are employing gunboat diplomacy and that, unfortunately, we are not in a position to tell the people of Northern Ireland that they can remain safe and secure in the knowledge that a hard border will not replace the current porous border.

--- Later in debate ---
Chloe Smith Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Chloe Smith)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) for his sober words, and for his party’s support for the Bill. I also thank the Scottish National party for its support.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Alan Mak), the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly), the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) for their contributions. I thank the House for its support in general for this necessary although regrettable step that will keep public services running in Northern Ireland in the continued absence of a devolved Government.

I do not think that anyone in the House has welcomed the fact that the UK Parliament is debating the Northern Ireland budget. This step has been held off for as long as possible to allow a Northern Ireland Executive to bring forward its own budget in the usual way. However, the point at which that was possible has passed and no Executive have been formed so, in those circumstances, the step we propose today is the only appropriate and right one.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the Bill provides certainty and a measure of financial stability. By providing a full budget for this financial year, it ensures that civil servants—we owe them our thanks for working so hard to administer public services in the absence of Ministers—do not have to tackle the kind of cliff edge we might otherwise have faced. Although this is a Government Bill, it is not the Government’s budget. It is based entirely on the advice of Northern Ireland civil servants, and the decisions that follow will remain for them to take.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, asked why there was not more notice of our proposals. I would only repeat that we have tried as hard as possible to provide as much space as possible for a different course. We sought to allow the space for an Executive-formation Bill to be brought forward instead, and we then endeavoured to inform right hon. and hon. Members as much as possible about the detail of what we faced, albeit during a truncated period of time.

A number of hon. Members asked about the detail in the Bill. I emphasise that the decisions taken through the Bill remain a devolved matter. I will not go into the detail of the allocations, but I will respond to a few specific questions. The Chair of the Select Committee asked about the method by which the budget allocations have been set. To put it briefly, the House addresses the 2017-18 financial year through the Northern Ireland main estimates, which have been published today. The Northern Ireland Department of Finance prepared the estimates and made them available to hon. Members. They provide the line-by-line detail of how that civil service has allocated resources for this year. Further explanation has been made available to Members through additional briefing from the Northern Ireland Department of Finance.

I would make a further brief point in response to the hon. Member for East Antrim, who asked why there might be particular increases for the Department of Finance and the Executive Office. I emphasise again that those are matters for the devolved government to answer, but the hon. Gentleman will know, given his experience, that some of the figures are essentially transfers from one line item to another. He can address that further when he looks through the full detail of the estimates.

As we are delivering a budget on behalf of the Northern Ireland Assembly, some hon. Members have, of course, talked about accountability. We recognise that the situation is highly unusual, but that was why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State outlined a proportionate approach to accountability, which we have put in place. I particularly welcomed the endorsement of that approach by the Chair of the Select Committee, and I trust that hon. Members can look to it in the immediate next steps.

I echo my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s emphasis on the Government’s commitment to the restoration of devolved government. The debate reminds us that we need an Executive.

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There has been little or no discord tonight about the desire of all of us to see devolution restored. What is the Government’s plan for allowing that to happen? The Bill will pass tonight, but what will the Minister do tomorrow with the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister, the Irish Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland? Whatever has been done in the past 11 months has not worked, so something needs to change if the Assembly and the Executive are to be restored.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We have spent significant time on the future of devolution and what the next steps should be. That might have happened during our consideration of a technical budget Bill, but the House has discussed those matters tonight. The Government will continue to support the Northern Ireland political parties, working with the Irish Government as well, so that we move towards resolving the differences that have stopped an agreement from being reached. We are steadfast in that and in our commitment to the Belfast agreement. We will work tirelessly on that process from tomorrow morning.

Lord Coaker Portrait Vernon Coaker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The debate has been good; there is general good will across the House towards Northern Ireland. The House will rightly support the budget proposals, but there is an impasse at the moment. No matter whose fault that is, a number of us want the Government to take concrete steps to support the restoration of the Executive and the Assembly. This is about not just rhetoric or wishful thinking, but concrete steps that will give us a chance of believing that the matter can be resolved.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for that intervention. Several options remain under close consideration. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will continue his work with the kind of patience for which he has been roundly praised in the Chamber. Such work must continue. The Prime Minister will continue to give the process her wholehearted support and active attention. I will not go into further detail on the avenue down which the hon. Gentleman is trying to draw me, because our consideration of the Bill is not the appropriate vehicle for that. [Interruption.] Instead, we must pass this budget Bill and, with your support, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will conclude my remarks to allow us to do that.

The Bill is a necessary intervention in devolved matters, but it does not preclude the continuation of the talks. Indeed, it leaves spending decisions in the devolved space for a returning Executive to take, should the parties reach an agreement, which is what we all wish them to do. While leaving the decisions at a devolved level, the Bill none the less gives Northern Ireland Departments and other public bodies reassurance about their funding for the rest of the financial year. The people of Northern Ireland need that for their public services, and, as such, I propose that the Bill is read a Second time.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).

Bill considered in Committee (Order, this day).

[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]

Clauses 1 to 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Bill read the Third time and passed.

Northern Ireland Budget Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 14th November 2017

(6 years, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017 Read Hansard Text

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Moved by
Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office and Scotland Office (Lord Duncan of Springbank) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As noble Lords will know, it is now nine months since there has been a properly functioning Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland. Yet despite this Government’s efforts over the last 11 weeks, the parties have not yet reached an agreement that would enable a sustainable Executive to form. In bringing the parties together for this most recent phase of the political talks, we have sought to help the DUP and Sinn Fein to bridge the gap on a small number of outstanding matters, including language and culture. In doing so, we have worked closely with the Irish Government in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach. We remain prepared to bring forward legislation that would allow an Executive to be formed should the parties reach an agreement.

I share my right honourable friend the Secretary of State’s strong preference to see a restored Executive in Northern Ireland taking forward its own Budget. The Bill before us is one that we are taking forward with the utmost reluctance and only because there is no other choice available. We have been clear that the passage of legislation to set a Budget should not be a barrier to negotiations continuing, but the ongoing lack of agreement has had tangible consequences for people and public services in Northern Ireland. Without an Executive there has been no Budget, and without a Budget civil servants have been without political direction to take decisions on spending and public services in Northern Ireland.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which has demonstrated the utmost professionalism in protecting and preserving public services throughout these difficult times, but the powers it has been exercising have their limits. Under Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and Section 7 of the Government Resources and Accounts (Northern Ireland) Act 2001, they may issue cash and resources equal to only 95% of the totals authorised in the last financial year. These powers do not allow departments to use accruing resources, meaning that the resources available to departments are in reality significantly less than 95% of the previous year’s provision.

Noble Lords will recall that in Written Statements by my predecessors, the noble Lords, Lord Dunlop and Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, in April and July, the Government set out an indicative Budget position and a set of departmental allocations based on the advice of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The 19 July Statement said:

“The exercise of S59 powers cannot be sustained indefinitely”,


and warned that although we had not then reached that critical point, it was approaching. Those resource limits, in the absence of a Budget, are now fast approaching. Without further action there are manifest risks that the Northern Ireland Civil Service would simply begin to run out of resources by the end of this month. That would mean no funding available for public services, with all of the negative impacts that would accompany such a cliff edge. No Government could simply stand by and allow that to happen. That is why we need the Bill.

To be clear, this is a measure we have deferred for as long as possible. We wanted to see the parties reach an agreement and take a Budget through themselves. In the absence of agreement, the Bill is necessary to keep public services running in Northern Ireland and, while it is a government Bill, it is not a UK government Budget. It does not reflect the priorities or spending decisions of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or any other UK government Minister. Rather, it sets out the departmental allocations and ambits that have been recommended by the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which, in turn, has sought as far as is possible to reflect the priorities of the previous Executive, albeit updated to reflect the changed circumstances as far as has been required. In short, it is the Budget that a returning Executive—had one been formed—would have been presented with. Taken as a whole, it represents a necessary measure, taken at the latest possible point, to secure public finances in Northern Ireland.

We should be absolutely clear that passing this Budget in Westminster does not mean a move to direct rule, any more than did this Parliament legislating to set a regional rate in April. Once the Budget is passed, the detailed decisions on how it is spent will be made by the Northern Ireland Civil Service. If the parties come together to form an Executive in the weeks ahead—as I am sure all noble Lords hope will be the case—those decisions would fall to them. Nothing we are doing today precludes talks from continuing and an agreement being reached.

I now turn briefly to the contents of this short but rather technical Bill. In short, it authorises Northern Ireland departments and certain other bodies to incur expenditure and use resources for the financial year ending on 31 March 2018. Clause 1 authorises the issue of £16.17 billion out of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. The allocation levels for each Northern Ireland department and the other bodies in receipt of these funds are set out in Schedule 1, which also states the purposes for which these funds are to be used.

Clause 2 permits some temporary borrowing powers for cash management purposes. Clause 3 authorises the use of resources amounting to £18 billion in the year ending 31 March 2018 by the Northern Ireland departments and other bodies listed in Clause 3(2). These figures and those in Clause 1 supersede the allocations of cash and resources made by the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Finance up to the end of this month, under the powers I have already mentioned. Similarly to Clause 1, the breakdown between these departments and bodies and the purposes for the authorised use of resources under Clause 3 are set out in the Bill, in the first two columns of Schedule 2.

Clause 4 sets limits on the accruing resources, including both operating and non-operating accruing resources, in the current financial year. These sums relate to those which have already been voted by Parliament via Main Estimates, together with revenue generated locally within Northern Ireland. There is no new money in the Bill: there is simply the explicit authority to spend in full the monies that have already been allocated.

Ordinarily, the Bill would have been taken through the Assembly. As such, in Clause 5, a series of adaptations ensure that—once approved by both Houses in Westminster—the Bill will be treated as such, enabling Northern Ireland public finances to continue to function notwithstanding the absence of an Executive. Clause 6 repeals previous Assembly Budget Acts, relating to the financial years 2013-14 and 2014-15 respectively, which are no longer operative. Such repeals are regularly included in Assembly Budget Bills.

Alongside the introduction of the Bill in the other place yesterday, a set of estimates for the departments and bodies covered by the Budget Bill was laid before the House as a Command Paper. These estimates, which have been prepared by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance, set out the breakdown of the resource allocation in greater detail. As noble Lords may note, this is a different process from that which we might ordinarily see for estimates at Westminster, where the estimates document precedes the formal Budget legislation and is separately approved. That would also be the case at the Assembly. But in these unusual circumstances, the Bill provides that the laying of the Command Paper takes the place of an estimates document laid and approved before the Assembly, again to enable public finances to flow smoothly.

To aid the understanding of these Main Estimates and how the spending will break down, the Northern Ireland Civil Service has published a Budget briefing paper, which was published on the Department of Finance website on Monday morning. It is important to note that the Northern Ireland political parties have also been briefed on this Budget position.

As those clauses demonstrate, this is clearly an unusual Bill to be taken through the UK Parliament, marking as it does an approval by Parliament of spending in the devolved sphere. While being proportionate, the UK Government want to ensure that in the absence of an Assembly there can be appropriate scrutiny by Parliament of how the money it has voted is subsequently spent. In addition to the provision in the Bill for scrutiny by the Northern Ireland Audit Office of the Northern Ireland departments, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be writing to the Comptroller and Auditor-General for Northern Ireland asking for a copy of each of the NIAO audit and value for money reports produced after the Bill gains Royal Assent, which will contain the Comptroller and Auditor-General’s view on any shortcomings and his recommendations for improvement. The Secretary of State will ask the Northern Ireland Civil Service to make its responses to those reports available to him. Copies of these reports and correspondence will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses to allow scrutiny by all interested Members and committees.

I have already noted that the Bill deals solely with moneys already voted for by Parliament or raised within Northern Ireland. Those figures do not, though, secure the financial picture for the long term, where real challenges remain. There is a health service in significant need of transformation; there are further steps to take to build the truly connected infrastructure that can boost growth and prosperity throughout Northern Ireland; and there is a need to continue to deal with the legacy of the past. It was in recognition of those unique circumstances that the UK Government were prepared to make additional financial support available earlier this year, following the confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative Party and the DUP. That agreement made it clear that we wanted to see that money made available to a restored Executive, which would decide on a cross-community basis how best to use the funding for the benefit of all in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances cannot simply be ignored in the meantime, especially given the pressures that we have seen in the continued absence of an Executive. So in addition to the Bill, this Government will commit to making available the £50 million in the agreement for addressing immediate health and education pressures in this financial year. Those sums are not contained in the Bill, because they have not yet been voted by Parliament. If the Northern Ireland Administration confirm their wish to access them, they will be subject to the full authorisation of the UK Parliament, as with all sums discharged from the UK Consolidated Fund, via the estimates process in the new year. From there they will be transferred, along with other sums forming part of the Northern Ireland block grant, into the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund.

In the absence of an Executive, it would be for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which is bound by a range of equality and propriety duties, to make the decisions as to whether and how to take account of this funding for the benefit of the whole community. We want to see a restored Executive back in place and deciding on how the additional financial support can best be used for the benefit—I stress again—of the whole community. That remains the case now, as much as it ever was. We believe in devolution. We want to see locally elected politicians taking the strategic decisions about the future direction of their local areas.

In this context, I know the disappointment so many feel that despite the election more than eight months ago, there remains no functioning Assembly in which all those elected may serve. The Government understand the concerns that many have that full salaries continue to be paid to Assembly Members, despite this impasse, but we also recognise that many of those elected have been desperate to serve since March and have continued to provide valuable constituency functions in the meantime. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State told the House of Commons yesterday that he is seeking independent advice on the subject from Mr Trevor Reaney, a former Clerk of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Mr Reaney has agreed to provide an independent assessment of the case for action and the steps he would consider appropriate. He will report to the Secretary of State by 15 December and his advice will help inform the best way to proceed.

I very much hope that his work will not be needed. That is because I still hope that the parties can resolve their differences and an Executive can be formed—an Executive that will come together and take the strategic decisions needed on health transformation, educational reform and building world-class infrastructure to deliver a better future in Northern Ireland. That is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for and want to see. We will continue to work with the parties and support them in their efforts to reach a resolution for, together with the Irish Government, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the 1998 Belfast agreement and its successors, and to the institutions they established.

It remains firmly in the interests of Northern Ireland to see devolved government restored and locally elected politicians making decisions for the people of Northern Ireland on key local matters. Northern Ireland and its people need a properly functioning and inclusive devolved Government, along with effective structures for co-operation—north-south and east-west. At the same time, the Government are ultimately responsible for good governance in Northern Ireland and we will do whatever is necessary to provide that. The Bill is a reminder of the underlying obligation that we will continue to uphold and I beg to move that it be read a second time.

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I thank noble Lords very much for their contributions this evening. It has been a wide-ranging discussion, at the heart of which has been a consensus and a recognition that, as my noble friend Lord Trimble said, it is only a matter of days before the money begins to run out. Let that be the focus of our endeavours today. It is important—indeed, it is vital—that the money does not run out, and I welcome the support for this Bill from across the entire House. However, that is only the beginning of the story that we have heard this evening.

A number of the points that have been made resonate particularly strongly. The first came from the noble Lord, Lord Browne: progress has been made and we have had stable governance for almost a generation. That is the ultimate prize—stable and sustainable government, not just for one generation but for all generations. That must be our driving force.

I was also struck by the words of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy: direct rule is not a solution; it is a tragedy. I think we all recognise that we wish to see the formation of an Executive who are stable and sustainable and who can deliver on the very issues that many noble Lords have flagged up concerning education, health and elsewhere. We need these decisions to be taken by people in Northern Ireland. That is critical and absolutely essential.

I noted too the words of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who said that it is easy to walk down the steps of Stormont but hard to walk back up them. Let that be our watchword today. If we do indeed stumble down those steps from Stormont, it could well be a generation before we are able to climb our way back up to where we need to be, which is in peace and certainty delivered by the Government of Northern Ireland for the people of Northern Ireland. Let us be under no illusion about that. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, was very clear when he pointed out that, when the Belfast agreement referendum took place, over 70% of the people supported it. That is what the people want—again, let us be under no illusion about that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, set out very clearly that there are serious issues in Northern Ireland that must be solved. This evening we heard tributes from a number of noble Lords for the Civil Service in Northern Ireland. The word “integrity” was used, and it is right that we use it. We are placing upon its shoulders extraordinary pressures. As many have pointed out, the Civil Service cannot be held to account as a politician can be, and we cannot lose sight of that. As each of those civil servants seek to plot the trajectory of the Budgets from the last outgoing Administration, we must not fail to recognise how difficult that becomes the further you move from that moment. It is almost impossible to conceive of this state of affairs lasting. It cannot last. We are asking too much of that Civil Service. That is why we come back again to the central point that we have all acknowledged this evening: that out of these talks must emerge a certainty that gives a sustainable Executive that can deliver each of these items in Northern Ireland itself.

It is important that we recognise some of the particular elements that were raised tonight. Noble Lords will have noticed that I had to write a number of notes and send them off because I did not have all the answers. That is a reminder of how important it is to make sure. I hope, therefore, noble Lords will forgive me if there are occasions when I cannot respond adequately tonight. I will do so in writing, because it is important.

Let me touch upon some of the other points that are important for us to draw out. I am reminded of what the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said. Peace in Northern Ireland is the ultimate prize but as we have witnessed over the last few days, and as a number of other noble Lords have pointed out, peace is not at the heart of everyone. There are some who would seek to undermine it and pull it down. We saw in Omagh a reflection of the very worst of the horrors that could engulf Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, pointed out, if there is a vacuum, we do not know what will fill it. I return to my noble friend Lord Trimble, who recognised that what has to fill that vacuum is democracy. At heart, it has to be democracy, which recognises that the most important thing facing the people of Northern Ireland is a good health service, the right education and the ability to retire in peace and comfort—the things that we all wish for, whether we are in Northern Ireland, Scotland or elsewhere. Democracy must fill that vacuum. If it does not, we will consign a generation to the horrors that many here have lived through first hand and have seen devastate that Province. That is not the ambition of the UK Government.

It is important that I refer to some of the points brought up by the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy. I begin by saying that I welcome his support. He made a series of key points, including the question of an independent chair and round-table talks. Let me be frank: nothing is off the table right now. We cannot afford to consign anything to “off the table” because we are at an impasse. Whatever gets us moving is on the table. I assure him that we will not overlook any element.

It may be that we need to look at some of the larger statements that need to be made around transparently making recognisable offers—not concessions—to move things forward. That will not be easy. If it was easy, it would have been done by now. We are at the twilight moment. As the candle flame begins to flicker, we have an opportunity now still to make those moves. That must be done. I am conscious that, if we fail to do so, the opportunity may not arise again for a generation and we shall be engulfed in darkness.

I turn, then, to the question of scrutiny. As we go forward, there will be challenges for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, as I have acknowledged. There may be a role for an Assembly to examine in different ways how we might move this forward. As I said, nothing is off the table. If we can move things forward then let us get moving.

There are challenges. I appreciate that some may believe that the Prime Minister has not been active, but I can assure noble Lords that she has, and that she will continue to be, as we all must be, to make sure that no stone is left unturned as we seek to secure the outcome that I believe all in this House so desire. I am aware that it will not be easy, but as my noble friend Lord Maginnis rightly points out, there is knowledge in this House that must be drawn upon. We cannot turn our back upon it. Too many people here have lived through the realities and too many people here have been part of the change—those who have made that difference. Here, I acknowledge the work of my noble friend Lord Trimble, who has moved so much from where he began his journey to where we are now: moving towards, I hope, a recognition that we cannot simply start and stop but must see progress being made.

I should say in passing that I would not have believed that my noble friend Lord Maginnis is 75. He clearly has aged rather well.

On some of the more serious points raised, there is the question of the paramilitaries. There are notable achievements in this area. The establishment of the joint Paramilitary Crime Taskforce, featuring the PSNI, the NCA and HMRC, is an important step in that direction. It is testament not only to the priority we attach to this issue but to the importance of working closely together to tackle it. However, there are elements of it that I would like to put in writing, if I may, because they require a more detailed explanation. I have received a note from my advisers which simply says that on occasions it is very technical. Where the issues are very technical, I hope your Lordships will forgive me and allow me to write with technical answers. I do not want to mislead noble Lords in any way with my appreciation of this handwriting, which is quite difficult to read.

On the challenges, the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, has put his finger on one aspect: the perception. This is not only about the reality; sometimes it is about the shadow and not only the substance. We must recognise that the eyes of the world are on Northern Ireland now. The peace process has been used as a bastion and a guide in many other trouble spots around the world, and it is important that people can see that every possible effort is made as we go forward.

I can assure noble Lords that the reason we have moved in this particular fashion today and yesterday—seemingly, if you like, at the last possible minute—is that we believed that every possible moment had to be given to the talks; not a moment could be spared. I hope noble Lords will forgive the somewhat last-minute element of this debate. It has not been our intention to withhold it but, rather, to give every opportunity to the people sitting around the table.

It is right that we recognise that the talks have reached an impasse and that we now ask ourselves what we can now do differently. We are where we are. That is why I come back to the notion—as other noble Lords have mentioned—that we need to think outside the box. We need to think anew and afresh because we cannot rely on what we have done in the past.

I recognise the comments made by several noble Lords about the importance of transparency. As much transparency as possible should be cast on the talks because the people of Northern Ireland need to know what is going on inside those closed rooms. There needs to be greater communication so that people understand what is going on. They know what is at stake and they need to know exactly what is being done to address that by not only the two large parties but by all concerned. It is not just the Assembly Members who have roles in Northern Ireland; we should look at the council level, which continues to operate in adverse circumstances and under the self-same challenges. I am very conscious of how important that is.

I turn to what the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said about having spoken to one of the widows. That was the challenge and she was right to flag it up: politics needs to be about hope. There needs to be a belief that we are able to make progress, that compromises can be made and that the reach-out can be delivered. The very fact that the lady was a widow reminds us what happens when we fail to achieve progress. That is the level of risk we confront, as we have seen again in the device that blessedly did not take lives in Omagh. However, no doubt that vacuum could be filled by the very thing we do not wish to see.

I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I cut short my remarks with one final statement, which is that the Budget must be passed. I do not believe that direct rule is the right outcome for Northern Ireland, and I do not think that any of us here believes it. What must be assured for Northern Ireland is strong, stable and sure governance. The people of Northern Ireland deserve that and it must be at the heart of the discussions as they go forward. If it is not, we are going to enter that period of darkness.

I am aware as I conclude my remarks, given that language has been a part of our discussion, that it might be appropriate to repeat a line from the Scottish poet Robert Burns. He is talking about fleeting moments, those moments which can simply disappear:

“Or like the snow falls in the river,

A moment white—then melts for ever”.

That is where we are today: the fleeting moment as a snowflake hits the water. We have to recognise that now is the time and this Budget is necessary, but the next step is all the more necessary. The future of Northern Ireland must be decided by a strong and stable Executive, elected by the people of Northern Ireland and focused on the issues that affect them from day to day. We must make sure that the Executive can make their lives better. On that point, I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time, and passed.