All 1 Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee contributions to the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2023

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Tue 7th Feb 2023
Northern Ireland Budget Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading: Part 2 & Committee negatived: Part 2 & 3rd reading: Part 2

Northern Ireland Budget Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office

Northern Ireland Budget Bill

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Excerpts
2nd reading & Committee negatived & 3rd reading
Tuesday 7th February 2023

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Northern Ireland Budget Act 2023 Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 23 January 2023 - (23 Jan 2023)
Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my register of interests, in particular the fact that I am a member of the board of governors of Enniskillen Royal Grammar School and that a member of my family is a serving member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

I begin my contribution in perhaps an unexpected way. I pay tribute to all those who have made Northern Ireland the place it is today: an innovative, exciting place to do business, with a well-educated, energised population looking to the future and living in what I think is the most beautiful part of the United Kingdom.

Some of us got involved in politics to advance Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and to protect it from those who sought to destroy it. That is the context in which I make these remarks. It saddens me greatly that we are where we are, but I believe we need to refocus on what we can achieve if and when the protocol’s intrusion on the Belfast agreement is resolved.

We have been told that the Northern Ireland protocol was designed to do two things: protect the internal market of the European Union and the Belfast agreement. It has been hugely effective in the first of those, to the point that you cannot get a sandwich across the border, but it has had the opposite impact on the Belfast agreement, as indicated in the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn. The protocol has undermined, misrepresented and inserted words and phrases into the Belfast agreement, and left us with a breakdown in the delicate balance created by it 25 years ago.

The European Union’s response to all this has been to put its fingers in its ears and its head in the sand. In an echo of David Cameron’s negotiations prior to the referendum in 2016, the answer to any challenge is “more Europe” and, in our case, “more protocol”. For decades, the European Union just ignored the Irish constitutional claim on Northern Ireland—part of another member state. Now, it does not just ignore the plain fact that it is interfering in an independent third country, the United Kingdom, but actively pursues interference in the United Kingdom’s internal market.

Minister, when will His Majesty’s Government realise that the European Union does not respect the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom as per the Belfast agreement? What actions are His Majesty’s Government going to take to educate the European Union on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland? What actions have His Majesty’s Government taken to educate the European Union about the actual contents of the Belfast agreement, as opposed to those made up, which have apparently taken hold? And when will His Majesty’s Government honour the commitment in New Decade, New Approach to protect the internal market of the United Kingdom?

All these answers would help inform the return of devolution, but the return to devolution is when the real challenges actually begin. The Minister of State speaking in another place said that the pressures on the Northern Ireland finances did not happen overnight. He is absolute correct. In 2016, the then Health Minister Michelle O’Neill, received a review of the Northern Ireland health service by a team led by Rafael Bengoa. The report made it clear that unless there was reform, health service need would continue to grow as a percentage of the block grant. We were told that reform was not an option but a necessity. Despite that warning, Sinn Féin collapsed the Executive in January 2017 and we were without devolved institutions for not one, not two, but three years as Sinn Féin refused to deal with real and meaningful pressures on everyday citizens. Health service need did indeed continue to grow, while Sinn Féin kept government down in order to achieve additional language rights. Regarding the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, I note that, as the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, has already commented, there was no pressure to have Sinn Féin back in government during the three years when there were huge pressures, particularly on our health service. I remember it very well.

Another reason for the huge deficit in the Northern Ireland finances referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Caine, is that no Sinn Féin Minister of Finance has ever succeeded in presenting a Budget which other parties could support. Given the nature of mandatory coalition in our devolution in Stormont, Finance Ministers have to look for support and consensus on the Budget that they bring forward. Every other coalition Finance Minister was able to achieve that, but no Sinn Féin Minister was able to—neither Máirtín Ó Muilleoir nor Conor Murphy.

Those of us who live in local government areas controlled by Sinn Féin know only too well of their actions when they are in the lead. Last month, in Mid Ulster District Council they even blocked a letter to His Majesty The King, such is their hatred for all things British. So I say very deliberately that if devolution is to return, real, sustainable power-sharing will require a complete change in attitude from Sinn Féin. Consensus and collaboration are not ideas which come easily to them. Noble Lords should not forget that the then Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, currently styling herself as “first Minister for all”, blocked the victims payment to innocent victims of the Troubles until the matter was ruled upon by the High Court in Belfast. Just let that sink in: blocking a payment to innocent victims of the Troubles. I listen to Ministers in the other place saying that devolution should return, implying that that will solve all the governance problems in Northern Ireland, but unless and until Sinn Féin embraces power-sharing, I am afraid the problems will remain.

Turning to matters in the Northern Ireland Budget Bill, on policing, under the New Decade, New Approach agreement of January 2020, Police Service of Northern Ireland numbers were to increase to 7,500. As this Budget takes hold, the chief constable has indicated that the number of officers will fall to 6,700, making the service the smallest it has ever been. As the Northern Ireland population continues to grow, our police service diminishes. Workload is increasing and police numbers are reducing, meaning policing is smaller, less visible, less accessible and less responsive, with slower investigations, reduced services to victims and, of course, knock-on delays in the criminal justice system. Service to the public is under threat.

Individual police officers will be under even more pressure from a welfare and well-being point of view, and I am sure the Minister knows that cost of living pressures are already biting on a number of the more junior police officers in our service. Many are having to take second jobs, something completely unheard of in past days, to make ends meet. It is absolutely incredible.

While government is investing in more officers in England and Wales—and recruitment is increasing in the Republic of Ireland, I understand—in Northern Ireland numbers are decreasing to their lowest ever level. It is simply unsustainable. Even during the worst times of the Troubles, policing happened right across Northern Ireland. Now, “many rural areas have virtually non-existent police forces”—not my words but those of an experienced officer who recently spoke to the Police Federation of Northern Ireland.

The Minister knows Northern Ireland probably better than any other government Minister, having spent a long time there in various guises; he knows its geography. I want him to really think about this and to give a commitment to those of us who live in rural areas in Northern Ireland that, regardless of where you live, you will be able to have effective and sustainable policing. It is very worrying. The federation is very concerned about what is going on at the moment, and it is important that Members of this House hear those concerns.

Turning briefly to education, I am proud that we have the best results in the United Kingdom. That does not happen by accident; I pay tribute to our leaders, teachers and governors across Northern Ireland, and of course to the hard work of our brilliant young people. Northern Ireland has invested in our young people, and our investment record shows that many of our foreign investors are impressed by the level of education and ability available to them when they come to invest in Northern Ireland. However, that is all at risk if the education budget goes ahead in the manner suggested by this Bill. We will be damaging our most successful system. Most importantly, I am concerned that we will be damaging our young people as well.

No one should shy away from reform or savings anywhere in public service but, as the Minister knows, when some in government try to bring forward reform in Northern Ireland, it is usually blocked by those who are afraid to make the argument to their voters. I regret that, because much more reform should have taken place. We could have begun the change to our health service in a planned and open way in 2017, but that was not done for the reason I have already referred to—the collapse of the Executive for three years due to the action of Sinn Féin. Noble Lords should remember that when they make their contributions today.

In closing, I regret the necessity for this Bill. I say this to the Minister as gently as I can: I very much look forward to His Majesty’s Government giving the citizens of Northern Ireland the same rights as those in the rest of the United Kingdom.