All 1 Lindsay Hoyle contributions to the Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Act 2023

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Mon 4th Sep 2023

Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office

Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Bill

Lindsay Hoyle Excerpts
Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy (City of Durham) (Lab)
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I welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) to his new role. It should be the concern of the whole House that a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, rather than a Minister of Finance in Stormont, is delivering yet another budget for Northern Ireland. This has been happening for far too long. It should concern us, because it reflects a peace process that has become increasingly precarious.

I am a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which since February has been inquiring into the funding and delivery of public services in the north of Ireland. We have received evidence from a wide range of stakeholders throughout Northern Ireland. We have focused on the financial situation in areas such as education and health, and how the lack of a functioning Executive in Stormont is affecting those public services. To be clear, these are my views and not those of the Committee as a whole. My personal view is that the absence of an Executive in the north of Ireland, coupled with an austerity budget from Westminster, is a toxic mix, both politically and socially. For instance, we heard from the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland that health services are operating in “crisis mode”, which has taken its toll both on patients and on workers. Underlying that is a

“crumbling estate, with spiralling maintenance costs”.

The Royal College of Nursing argues:

“The health and social care system…is now beyond the point of crisis and is…visibly collapsing.”

It argues that that is due to “years of systematic under-funding”, compounded by the absence of accountability and leadership in Stormont. In addition, the Royal College of Surgeons has stated that one in four people in Northern Ireland are on a waiting list, either for a first-time appointment with a consultant or for surgery or treatment. The health and social care system needs stability, much like it does in Britain. Prevention is always better than cure. In one evidence session, I asked health professionals whether a significant cash injection now would reduce costs down the line. Austerity is never the cheaper option; it always leads to higher costs. I just wish the Government would realise that.

I want to touch on the impact on education, where, as with health, it is unacceptable that cuts are being made. A report in June entitled “The Consequences of the Cuts to Education for Children and Young People in Northern Ireland” argues that

“cuts will increase poverty, widen existing educational achievement gaps”

and “further exacerbate” the mental health crisis in Northern Ireland. Like the healthcare system, as we have heard, special educational needs provision is beyond the brink.

There is also a constitutional issue. My colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party have called on the British Government to consult the Irish Government on provisions for this budget as a plan B. That is a very sensible argument, although it is quite surprising that the British Government have not already attempted it. We cannot forget the vital role that the Irish Government played in the peace process. We should not forgo their advice, assistance, guidance and institutional knowledge.

In addition, the pressure on civil servants in Northern Ireland must be commented on. They are working in an extremely difficult environment, and we must recognise that there are unintended consequences. Civil servants are between a rock and hard place. The guidance states that some decisions should not be taken by civil servants, but without an Executive, those decisions must be made. As PCS Northern Ireland has argued, how can civil servants do their jobs effectively when they are worrying about putting food on the table for their families?

Underlying all this is a lack of democratic accountability. At the risk of making an obvious point, it was political parties who were elected in the May elections, not civil servants. If there is no Executive, who will fill those leadership roles in the community? We have heard in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that, sadly, some of those roles are already being filled by criminal gangs and paramilitaries. Those gangs are preying on vulnerable people, especially women in deprived communities. They know that there is an absence of statutory childcare, which is a huge barrier to women attaining employment. Those gangs are exploiting poverty. When people have not been able to pay their loans, for instance, they have been forced into transporting drugs and prostitution.

It is a case of austerity affecting services, and a deadlock affecting leadership, leading to cracks in civil society that demand our attention right now. We need the Executive back. To that extent, I must say to the Democratic Unionist party to honour the first word of its name. This boycott is doing real harm. Everyone can see it. I suspect it is not what their constituents want to see. Nothing can be achieved in this deadlock; it only wears people down. But we can achieve something working together. I will never forget the demonstration of cross-party unity that brought peace to an island that means so much to me, my family and so many people in my constituency and beyond. It would be a tragedy if that the spirit of co-operation was consigned to the history books.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call Jim Shannon.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is good to see that you and I are the Duracell batteries of Westminster; we keep going when others are starting to lag.

What a pleasure it is to speak on this issue today. Yet again, I come to the House to ask for fairness and equitable treatment for Northern Ireland. I ask for it to be treated and funded the way that Wales is, for the sake of my constituents and all other constituents in Northern Ireland. I ask for our schools to be able to pay for their teachers’ pay rise and for toiletries in school facilities. I ask for a budget that can address the waiting list for hip replacements, and for vital roadworks to be carried out, to provide the bare minimum standard of infrastructure and connectivity. I ask the Secretary of State respectfully to advocate working with us and for the betterment of everyone in Northern Ireland. I believe we can do that together if we all commit to that process.

The people of Ballynahinch and the surrounding areas in my constituency of Strangford have been waiting my entire tenure—I have been an MP since 2010—and long before that for the promised Ballynahinch bypass, which has been deferred yet again. Along with my MLA colleagues Michelle McIlveen and Harry Harvey, I hope to meet the Department for Infrastructure on 6 October to discuss that very issue. It has been on the books for 45 years. And should the hon. Member for South Down (Chris Hazzard) ever decide to take his seat in this place and do his job here, he would be advocating for the same thing: for the funding to be allocated for this vital piece of work. Not to be blunt, but any claim that work can be carried out in whatever way the Department sees fit does not cut it when the current budget does not cover the cost for roads to be resurfaced, never mind major capital projects. Let us be truthful here: the budget allocation for roads is inadequate.

On a slightly more positive note, I highlight Ardglass harbour as a Northern Ireland fishing industry success story. However, the fact is that if we are to build on that success and accommodate the next generation of fishing boats, the harbour needs to be deepened. Kilkeel is also well placed to be a hub for the offshore energy industry. Investment there will see Northern Ireland capitalise on our growing blue economy. The fishing and seafood development programme of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs recommends investment in all three harbours, and that takes funding. I am delighted to report that funding has been secured for both an enhanced training centre and an improved slipway in Portavogie in my constituency of Strangford. We can build on that and do more. We should have aspirations to grow a powerhouse of a blue economy. Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel give us the building blocks, and the FSDP recommendations give us the tools. What we now need is to add a further budget that has the appetite and ambition to match that of our coastal communities, and that empowers them to meet the next generation of opportunities in the Irish sea and beyond.

We need funding for schools to deal with the substantial rise in special needs assessment and support. The hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) referred to that and he is absolutely right. Every one of us in this House knows that special needs education is under incredible pressure. Funding is needed to create sensory rooms, whose enhancements will give children the opportunity to excel. I have met them in many of the schools in my constituency, and I recognise that that is something we should all sign up to. I sign up to the vision for schools that is operating on the mainland, but I would like our children to be treated the same way as children here and to have the same options. That is not the case because while spending per head is more, so is cost and so is need.

Policies that impact on how our children are taught about religion and sexual issues should not be implemented without a mechanism and space to consult boards of governors or without the opportunity to implement normal practices. Let me be clear: parents and teachers do not consent or comply, and that will be made clear in the days to come. There was a rally where a large group of people came together with some of their elected representatives to make that point.

I conclude with this, because I am very conscious of the long hour. I say this to the Secretary of State and the Minister of State: please, in the interest of fairness and equity, work with us to make changes to the framework that allow us to do what we want to do, which is to take our seats and for our colleagues to be in a working Assembly, with a fit-for-purpose budget and changes in place. That is not only in our hands; it is in the hands of the Government, the Secretary of State, the Minister of State, the Brexit Minister and the Prime Minister. Do the right thing and start to take that action, so we can move forward together in a positive fashion.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Minister.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Baker
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With the leave of the House, Mr Speaker, given that I made a number of interventions during the debate, and given the late hour and a desire not to repeat arguments that we advanced on Second Reading, I think I should just say, “I beg to move.”

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.