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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
I will give way to the hon. Lady, because I have already given way to the right hon. Gentleman.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but it presupposes that there is broad agreement on the recommendations from the Hart report—
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
I am happy to try again with the hon. Gentleman.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
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.
I join the Secretary of State in condemning the actions of the people who left a viable pipe bomb in Omagh on Remembrance Sunday—on a day and in a place designed to cause maximum harm and shock. It is truly contemptible of those people. I equally condemn the actions of the men who conducted what can only be described as a knee-capping last night in Londonderry-Derry—a city where, even as we speak, there is apparently another incident involving what the police believe to be a viable pipe bomb.
All these awful events are a timely and salutary reminder of Northern Ireland’s past—a past that we all hoped that we had long since left behind, but which I fear we have not always left behind. These events are also a reminder of the propensity of violence in Northern Ireland to fill a vacuum when politics fails, and I am afraid that we are here today because politics has failed. This Bill is, unfortunately, a testament to political failure. It is a failure by the majority parties that were in government together, power sharing in Northern Ireland, and that have fallen out and been unable to come back together. I am afraid that it is also a failure of the Secretary of State’s Government to bring about the restitution of trust and the reconstitution of the Assembly and its institutions.
The Secretary of State has been at pains to say that this is not direct rule. I understand why he wants to emphasise that point—technically, of course, he is right—but that is not what nationalists in Northern Ireland will see in today’s events. That is not how they will characterise it, and that needs to be reflected as they unfortunately now lack a voice in this place for the first time in a long time. The reality is that we are living in something of a twilight zone between devolution and direct rule, with real problems for accountability and transparency, as so many Democratic Unionist party Members described earlier in the debate.
Today’s budget is only a quick fix until the end of March, so there will be a further one. It is difficult to credit the Secretary of State saying that this is the budget that the Northern Ireland Executive would have brought forward in the event of devolution and that this is effectively a continuation of the trajectory set in the budget in December last year. Twelve months have now passed, and it is quite hard to see a direct line of accountability between that indicative budget and the sums before us now.
Let me be clear that we will support the Bill tonight. We absolutely believe that the Secretary of State has no choice but to bring forward this budget, and we accept all the arguments he has made in that regard. Northern Ireland’s public services need to be supported. The roads budget is running out of the money to fill the potholes, and there are significant problems in housing, health and education, all of which need to be addressed with extra resources in Northern Ireland. However, this budget does raise questions about the transparency, accountability and sustainability of this approach. DUP colleagues who raise such questions are right to do so, and other hon. Members across the House will also raise these points.
The hon. Gentleman has signalled his support for the Bill. Will he also signal to the House his support for the issue raised, quite rightly, by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds)? When the matter is brought before the House, will the hon. Gentleman, his colleagues and the leader of his party firmly support the termination of representative money to Sinn Féin MPs, who do not take their seats and represent their people in this House?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, that is a slightly separate issue from those we are discussing today. We can discuss that matter on another day, and I will be happy to address it at that point.
I hope to address the profound concerns about the Government’s mishandling of the wider political process, but I will first talk a bit about the budget. The Secretary of State has effectively said that this is a flat budget for the Northern Ireland Departments in aggregate, with perhaps a 3% uplift to reflect inflationary pressures over the period. But within that headline figure, there are shifts between Departments, with cuts for some and increases for others. I cannot help but bring to the attention of the House—although my thunder was stolen—the quite extraordinary 32% increase on last year’s figure received by the Executive Office, compared with a 3% reduction in the budget for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and a 0.3% reduction in the budget for the Department for the Economy. Those are curious decisions that the Secretary of State was not able adequately to explain away to the House. I accept that this is complicated, but those decisions seem to be fairly fundamental.
Such decisions raise real questions about the accountability of decision making in this twilight zone. It is true that there is an increase for education in this budget versus the education recommendations made by the Secretary of State in April and the summer, but that raises a question that the House should ask: who has made the decision to increase education spending in Northern Ireland? There was a decision to cut it, and I am very pleased that that decision was reversed and that there has been a slight uplift in education spending. But someone made that decision. If it was not a Northern Ireland Executive Minister or the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, it was a civil servant. That civil servant is wholly unaccountable and does not have a clear line of accountability now to elected politicians in Northern Ireland or to the Secretary of State. So while we may well support the decision, we must ask questions about it.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is easy to blame the Secretary of State or the civil servants? Does he also accept that if, this time last year, the then Sinn Féin Minister, who was responsible, and who should have taken responsibility, for laying out the budget for this year, had done his job, it would have been clear who was responsible for the ups and downs of spending in that Department, and that the same is true of other Departments? The fact that Sinn Féin was scared of making budget decisions, and brought the Executive down rather than take hard decisions, means that we are in this situation today. I know that the Labour party has an association with Sinn Féin, but could the hon. Gentleman find it in his heart to at least acknowledge that Sinn Féin is responsible for the problem we face today?
I have no idea what the hon. Gentleman is referring to in terms of a connection between the Labour party and Sinn Féin—that is certainly not something I recognise, and it is certainly not a connection I speak to. I am not blaming the Secretary of State, and I am certainly not blaming hard-working civil servants, for making these decisions. I am merely pointing out, as the hon. Gentleman did, that decisions have been taken, not by Ministers and not by the Secretary of State, but by civil servants, and we have no means of questioning those civil servants or holding them accountable for those decisions.
A further decision—it is not included in the fine print, but I understand it is on the stocks in Northern Ireland—involves closing four out of the eight children’s outdoor education centres there. That is an important decision for the children of Northern Ireland, and it is apparently to be made by civil servants in the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly. The question for the Secretary of State is, does he support that decision to cut outdoor education centres? If he does not, is he at least lobbying David Sterling and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland civil service to tell them that he is not in favour of it?
The Secretary of State talked earlier about SAVIA and the need quickly to bring forward changes and interim payments for the victims in the historical institutional abuse inquiry. Is he lobbying David Sterling to say he should get on with that and find the money for those people, who have joined us today in the Gallery? If the Secretary of State is absolving himself of responsibility for these decisions, or if he is accurately presenting the fact that he does not have responsibility for them at present, what is he doing to influence the decision making that is taking place?
I gently put it to the Secretary of State that people in Northern Ireland will not accept it as entirely credible that Northern Ireland Office Ministers have no influence over these decisions, especially in this twilight zone. In the invent of a major economic or security crisis in Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State would, of course, expect to be held accountable for helping to solve it—Northern Ireland Ministers would not be responsible for that. I hope that the Secretary of State would recognise that. I also hope that he would recognise that, in this curious period we are in, he will need to step up to the plate and take more responsibility.
The hon. Gentleman is making the point that commenced this debate: from tonight, there is effectively no political accountability for the head of the Northern Ireland civil service. No matter how good or objective he is, he is not answerable to the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Northern Ireland Executive. More importantly, from tonight, he is not answerable to this place or to the Secretary of State. That is not tenable for any more than a few days, let alone weeks or months. I urge the shadow Secretary of State to join in urging that we appoint Ministers urgently from this place and get on with administering Northern Ireland and accounting for it properly.
I accept the point the hon. Gentleman makes—that the NICS is currently effectively unaccountable is an unarguable fact—but I do not share his view that the remedy is instantly to bring in direct rule Ministers. The answer we have to seek, in keeping with the guiding light for us all in this process—the Good Friday/ Belfast agreement—is to get devolution back up and running. That has to be the key focus of the Secretary of State and us all, because he is right that direct rule will be a massive backward step for Northern Ireland. Some parties may be more sanguine about the prospect of direct rule Ministers stepping in in Northern Ireland, but I am not. We in the Labour party are not sanguine about that, and we think it would be a hugely retrograde step. Experience tells us that as soon as we have direct rule Ministers back in Stormont, it will be the devil’s own job to get them out, and we will want to get them out, because the hon. Gentleman will want Northern Ireland’s local politicians to take local decisions.
Can we be clear about this? The alternative to a functioning Executive and Assembly is not a consultative Assembly and not direct rule; it is the onward implementation of strands 2 and 3 of the Good Friday agreement. There will not be direct rule in isolation. An intergovernmental conference will have to be convened, and Northern Ireland would be governed in partnership between the Irish Government and the UK Government, as envisaged in the provisions of the Good Friday agreement.
I would not put it exactly like that, but my hon. Friend is right to say that we are in untried, untested waters. We will need to see that the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday agreement are preserved, however we take forward the talks process, and that means, crucially, that a way must be found for those north-south institutions, and for east-west institutions, to work. That may require a greater role for the Assembly than we have had in previous periods of direct rule. We may need to be imaginative about that, and I hope that the Secretary of State is thinking about that.
The shadow Secretary of State knows my personal commitment to devolution. I would love to see it working, but at some point we have to stand up and say, “The emperor has no clothes.” That is essentially what is happening in Northern Ireland. The worst thing this Parliament can allow to happen in Ulster is for a sense of drift to take hold. Leadership has to be respected. A firm grip has to be taken of the situation, and it must be taken by Her Majesty’s Government. I urge the shadow Secretary of State to urge that that happens quickly.
I am encouraged to hear the hon. Gentleman remind the House of his support for devolution. I remind the House that the DUP has always strongly supported devolution, even in periods when some in Unionism were less keen on the prospect of devolution. History is important in all this.
The question for us, therefore, is how we see devolution restored, and there is a question here for the Secretary of State. It is not a matter of blame but a statement of fact that we are almost 11 months on from the collapse of the Northern Ireland institutions: 11 months of dialogue, largely behind closed doors, between the two largest parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, which has come to nought; 11 months, effectively, of banging our heads against a brick wall and failing to make substantive progress. The Secretary of State will tell us we have made progress, but people in Northern Ireland want to know where it is, because it has not been spelled out to them—or to me—at any point over the past 11 months. It is clear that what we have been doing repeatedly over those 11 months has not being working, and there is no reason for us to assume that it will be 12th time lucky.
The question for the Secretary of State, therefore, is what is he going to do differently—not what is he going to do the same as he has been doing for the past 11 months —to take this process forward? My colleagues and I would like to urge him to do some specific things and to consider some extra ways in which he can take the process forward. We do so built on the experience we have with our proud record of helping to facilitate breakthroughs in devolution, including the establishment, of course, of the Good Friday agreement and all the institutions that stem from it.
I urge the Secretary of State, first, to set out a road map for how he is going to get the institutions back up and running and how he is going to provide us with some clarity on the steps he plans to take over the next few months. Keeping us in the dark and, out of thin air, having a series of meetings behind closed doors between the two parties is not working and is not delivering a breakthrough.
Secondly, and most importantly perhaps, will the Secretary of State consider the prospect of an independent chair to come in to help to give new energy and impetus to the talks? Labour Members know that that was incredibly important as a vehicle for taking things forward. Indeed, I think that it is true to say that without Senator George Mitchell, in particular, we might not have seen the Good Friday/Belfast agreement—that is how important independent eyes have been in this process. If he is not prepared to learn from the experience of George Mitchell and others, such as my right hon. Friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen, why not? Why are we not considering that step, because it has worked in the past and should be considered in the future?
As a veteran of many talks processes, I urge caution on the part of the hon. Gentleman about the idea that an independent chair would be a panacea in resolving these issues. That has not been so in the past—I have sat under independent chairmanships —and it is unlikely to be so now. In fairness to the Secretary of State, the current impasse is not of his doing. Other parties really do need to step up to the mark and show their commitment to devolution in Northern Ireland. In that respect, the DUP will not be found wanting.
The right hon. Gentleman is right, of course, that the Secretary of State is not exclusively—or, indeed, primarily—responsible for the impasse. That is down to the political parties in Northern Ireland that have failed to come to an agreement—that, too, I am afraid, is a statement of fact. The right hon. Gentleman is also right that independent chairs have not always taken things forward. As he will know, the Haass talks, for example, were an attempt to get someone with experience of making progress in Northern Ireland to do so again, but that failed. However, there are other instances from the past. George Mitchell, the example that I cited, was important in taking things forward, as indeed was Richard Haass in his first incarnation in Northern Ireland.
I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. However, we have indicated, in our willingness to break the current impasse, that we would form an Executive today and continue the negotiations in parallel. The problem is not that the DUP is holding back the formation of an Executive; it is that Sinn Féin refuses to form an Executive until its demands are met. There is a clear difference, and the hon. Gentleman does a disservice to the talks by failing to make that distinction.
I am not sure that that is entirely fair. As I said, in the absence of a nationalist voice in this House, we need to make sure that we seek fairly to represent both sides of the debate. The nationalists have argued that an aspect of the current impasse is the failure to make progress on the issue of the Irish language, and in particular on a stand-alone Irish language Act.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to tell me that we will make progress on that and that the prospect of a stand-alone Irish language Act is on the cards, that would obviously be a breakthrough, but I am not sure that he is going to do so.
What I am going to say to the hon. Gentleman is that for me and my constituents, health and education are far more important than the Irish language. They want our Assembly Members back in there taking decisions while they work through outstanding issues such as the Irish language.
I would not disagree with that. I am sure that that is the view of constituents from all parts of the community in Northern Ireland. It is certainly a reflection of what I hear from constituents from all parts of Northern Ireland.
I say to the right hon. Gentleman, to his party and to the Secretary of State that this perhaps illustrates that we are not making a breakthrough by simply relying on dialogue between the two major parties. Those parties clearly have a mandate—a commanding mandate—in Northern Ireland, but they do not have a veto on the process, so one of the other options that the Secretary of State should be considering is roundtable talks. Such talks have also been difficult. They have sometimes been unwieldy and sometimes very, very problematic, but they have also been the reason for breakthrough. They have been points at which pressure and public scrutiny have been brought to bear. They have allowed the smaller parties to have their say and, perhaps more importantly, to bring in their ideas and put pressure on the other parties. I urge him to consider whether roundtable talks could have the role in the future that worked in the past.
Thirdly, such roundtable talks have worked particularly well when the authority and power of the office of the Prime Minister has been brought to bear to try to bring about a breakthrough. Whatever power and authority the current Prime Minister might have—some might think that she has a little less than some previous incumbents in the role—she should be deploying every last ounce of it to try to achieve a breakthrough. We are often told that she still persists in her difficult role at this difficult time because she has a great sense of duty and public service. I can think of no greater public service that she could do right now than serving the peace process in Northern Ireland by intervening personally —getting her hands dirty—to try to bring about the breakthrough that we all so desperately require. If she will not do so—if she persists in having only long-distance telephone calls, which, as I have said, I fear are neither use nor ornament in this process—why not? Why will she not invest more of her time and effort in trying to bring about a breakthrough? If this Government are so paralysed by the debacle that is Brexit that they cannot deploy their Prime Minister, it says something pretty damning about them.
I support my hon. Friend’s comments. He will know that I was one of the last direct rule Ministers. The then Prime Minister, the right hon. Tony Blair MP, as he was at that stage, spent five whole days at St Andrews with all political parties, with junior Ministers, and with the Foreign Minister and Taoiseach of the Irish Republic to try to get devolution restored. Devolution was restored because of the intensive effort of the Prime Minister of the day to barter on some of the difficult challenges. I urge the current Prime Minister, even in these difficult circumstances, to set aside a period of time to meet the parties and hammer out some of the difficult issues that all parties face so that we ensure that devolution is restored and that people like me are not direct rule Ministers again.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks, because he speaks with real, lived experience of this. He knows exactly what happened at St Andrews, and he knows that it has been precisely the role of Prime Ministers in trying to push through change and to get people to find agreement that has led to a breakthrough.
It is entirely true that not all the instances when we have deployed Prime Ministers have been successful. It may be that Prime Ministers in the current era enjoy less power and influence. Indeed, the Taoiseach may enjoy less power and influence over some of the players in this, too. However, this is another tool in the Secretary of State’s armoury, so I cannot understand why he will not deploy it. It is utterly inexplicable that the Prime Minister has been to Northern Ireland only once—and then for a scant 20 minutes—during her entire period in office. It is beholden on her now to get involved. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State is interjecting from a sedentary position. I do not think he has said anything that would lead me to believe that the Prime Minister has engaged personally in any of the talks process. She has made a few phone calls, but she has not, in any substantive fashion, sat down face to face in Belfast with any of the leaders of the parties, and she is not involved in a roundtable. There is a duty on the Secretary of State to lead—
Surely the importance of the Prime Minister bothering to visit Northern Ireland is that it would give hope to the people of Northern Ireland that someone beyond the failed Executive—from the highest level in this Parliament—has their best interests at heart, and is prepared do something about the abhorrent situation that we are facing.
I think that people in Northern Ireland will not understand why their Prime Minister—the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—seems so distant from this process. I cannot understand why she is not getting stuck in. I think she ought to, and I think the Secretary of State should urge her to.
If the Secretary of State fails, and if the other avenues that I propose do not work, he needs to start spelling out what he is going to do. DUP Members have stressed that they want him to spell out when he is going to introduce direct rule Ministers. If he does that, he will also need to spell out what he is going to do to try to keep the institutions alive, to allow such things as the north-south arrangements to persist and to be properly served, and to enable proper input from the Irish Government during direct rule. That needs to be considered so that the spirit as well as the letter of the Good Friday agreement is adhered to.
I point the Secretary of State to the experience of the previous Labour Government in the period before d’Hondt had been deployed and before we had Ministers and an Executive in Northern Ireland. In 1999, a budget was given to the Northern Ireland Assembly by the then Minister, of whom questions were asked beforehand. The Secretary of State could perhaps deliver the next iteration of this budget in April to a shadow Assembly so that he could be properly scrutinised, with people with a really detailed understanding of the minutiae asking him the correct questions. I think that that would be a step forward.
Let me make some suggestions about the priorities that the Secretary of State should have in the event of his failure to bring into being the new institutions. First, he should consider the victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland, some of whom are sitting in the Gallery tonight. This is a desperate state of affairs. Just two days after the Hart report came up with clear recommendations, the Assembly collapsed. The victims have sat for 10 months without any progress being made on those recommendations. I put it to the Secretary of State that there is widespread agreement across the parties about the way forward, particularly in respect of the notion of an interim payment for the victims. I cannot understand why he will not deploy all his best efforts to bring about quick action. As I have said, David Sterling has indicated in an email to the victims today that he wants to act quickly. I urge the Secretary of State to support him in doing so.
Secondly, may I ask the Secretary of State to consider the plight of another group of victims in Northern Ireland: the victims of the troubles? He will know that there has been a very live debate about the notion of a victims’ pension for the 500 or so people who are most mentally and physically scarred by the troubles. There is political disagreement about whether we can afford to allow that to capture a few people who were injured, as it were, by their own hand. That is controversial in Northern Ireland, but I think there is a moral imperative to look beyond the political difficulty. If the Secretary of State is in the position of being a direct ruler, I urge him to act on that moral imperative and provide a pension for all victims of the troubles in Northern Ireland.
I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but if the Secretary of State were to act on the hon. Gentleman’s advice about a pension for people who injured themselves by their own hand, it would be met with absolute dismay by the innocent victims in Northern Ireland. They would not be able to understand or countenance the use of taxpayers’ money to pay a pension to people who went out to commit murder. That would simply be wrong.
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.
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.
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.
Will the hon. Gentleman spell out his party’s Northern Ireland policy? In order to avoid the hard border that he talks about, does he agree with the EU and others that Northern Ireland should remain in the customs union and single market while the rest of the UK departs from them? Is that his policy?
I agree with the EU that it is absolutely essential that we avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland—that is absolutely clear. I agree with the EU that the Government do not seem to have serious or realistic proposals for fixing the problem. I agree with the EU that one potential outcome that would solve the problem would be if Northern Ireland remained in the customs union and had some sort of special arrangement. That is a very interesting idea that we ought to consider.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise, as the Northern Ireland Committee found out on its recent visit to Newry, that the bulk of Northern Ireland’s trade is with Great Britain? What does he think his proposals would do to that?
I will give way to my hon. Friend and then I will respond to the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison).
Order. The hon. Gentleman has to do one and then the other.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I stand corrected.
In no way, shape or form should we damage trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland through Northern Ireland. Nor should we damage trade across the border. Both would damage the Northern Irish economy. At present, we have no clarity from the Government about how they are going to square that circle. It is for the Government to tell the country and the people of Northern Ireland how they will fix the problem that they have created.
Of course there is a very simple way to meet the DUP’s stated objectives—two objectives I share—of not having a hard border on the island of Ireland and not having a new border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain: for the whole United Kingdom to stay in the single market and the customs union.
I have some sympathy with that very interesting idea, but I am not sure that it is entirely within the purview of this debate. Perhaps we will debate that in the Chamber tomorrow.
If this is not direct rule, it is getting perilously close. We are getting close to the landing strip on the Secretary of State’s famous glide path. If the Secretary of State is to have one more go, as I believe he wants to and must, at getting Northern Ireland’s Assembly back up and running, he has to consider the changes that we have outlined today. He must think about whether he needs an independent chair, lay out a real road map, get the Prime Minister to get her hands dirty in Northern Ireland, and make sure that we have a clear indication of what his priorities will be if he fails. We heard at the beginning of the debate about a bomb being placed in Omagh on Remembrance Sunday. We know that there is a bomb in Derry right now and that there was a kneecapping in Londonderry last night. These are echoes of Northern Ireland’s terrible past, but they must not be harbingers of its future. It is for us in this generation, and for the Secretary of State and his Government, to make sure that they are not.
I very much welcome the remarks made by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the violence in Northern Ireland at the weekend. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that it is an echo of a terrible past, and we must do everything in our power to ensure that those events are not replicated. Northern Ireland has come on so much in recent years, and it would be a terrible betrayal if we allowed these dreadful people to get any further purchase than they have.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his patience over the past several months. He has been an exemplar to us all. His patience has been matched only by that of right hon. and hon. Members waiting for the publication of the Bill we are discussing this afternoon; I received my copy at 3.56 pm. Particularly when we are dealing with a public policy area where there is a democratic deficit at the moment, it is vital that Members of the House have such materials in good time to be able to give them proper scrutiny, as I am sure he agrees.
The Bill is largely technical, and it is unobjectionable. I very much welcome the remarks of the hon. Gentleman who speaks for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) in, broadly speaking, supporting the Bill. We may disagree on certain elements of the way in which things are conducted and I would expect him to hold the Government to account, but it is very clear that there is consensus across the House on this important measure, which will enable the pay cheques to go out at the end of the month.
On 18 October, the Secretary of State gave a very helpful update and a time line on the way ahead to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, and he reiterated a lot of that on 2 November, but I must press him again on contingency planning, since this process cannot simply be one of kicking the can down the road.
As we have already heard today—I will touch on this in my speech—right hon. and hon. Members have concerns about the important political decisions that must be made and the consequences of not making them in a timely manner. This matters to people’s lives. We can discuss things such as an Irish language Act, but the truth of the matter is that for most people for most of the time, their imperatives are about health and education. We must ensure, as far as we possibly can, that those things can be addressed, and that ultimately means having political accountability. I very much appreciate my right hon. Friend’s efforts to do what he can, within the constraints placed on him by this extraordinary situation, but we ultimately need ministerial accountability, in whatever form it may take.
May I, however, counsel caution? On the face of it, it sounds as though direct rule is a way out. I suspect that direct rule would be fairly easy to enter into, but it would be murderously difficult to unpick. I am also worried that once we have direct rule, there will not be the pressure, which currently exists, to restore the Executive. I am very concerned that we will do something with the very best of intentions that is not actually in the long-term interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
On 18 October, the Secretary of State stated that he was in fact planning on the basis of David Sterling’s “best estimates”. I want to press him a little on what those best estimates are, because they form the basis of the Bill before us. They are apparently based on the intentions of the ministerial intent of the pre-collapse Ministers, as stated at the tail end of last year. I am interested in what methodology has been used to determine that ministerial intent: is it simply a case of “suck it and see”, or is the process a little more rigorous and objective? If there is such a process, it really needs to be exposed to the scrutiny of this House.
In schedules 1 and 2, we have a shopping list of things, by Department, that might be done. The Bill allows for a fair amount of virement, and my worry is that the Northern Ireland civil service is being expected to do far too much. Ultimately, we need to have some degree of ministerial accountability, and that is completely lacking at the moment. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) mentioned that point in his comments about higher education, where ministerial decision making will be needed, and the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) did so, too.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee heard a couple of weeks ago from the Chief Constable about how difficult it is to budget from month to month. Given that we are entering the new budget-setting process for the next year, does my hon. Friend not agree that we should look at setting the budget for the next financial year as well as for this one?
I certainly share the concern about long-term planning. In general, we do such planning through the normal budget system, but it is not clear to me how that is going to be achieved for the financial year 2018-19. I suspect our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be considering how that can best be achieved in short order, since we have only a matter of weeks in which to determine the budget for Northern Ireland, as for the rest of the United Kingdom, for future years.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to refer to our evidence session with the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, when he expressed his concern not just about finance, but about general accountability. Given that the Northern Ireland Policing Board has not been properly constituted, because of the impasse at Stormont, he is very concerned, as she will recall, about the democratic deficit and what that implies for accountability.
On testing the methodology on which the estimates are based, for me the most important thing to do is to look at the biggest spending Department. The biggest spending Department and the one with the second largest cash departmental expenditure limit is of course the Department of Health. Until the end of last year, the Minister in charge of the Department was Michelle O’Neill. She said last October, in response to Professor Bengoa’s health sector reform plan, that it was
“a foundation for my vision”—
we could not hope for a clearer statement of ministerial intent—and formed the basis of her 10-year vision.
It is not clear to me where and how that vision is captured in the budget presented, but we know that David Sterling has relied on what he understood to be the ministerial intent up to the point at which the Executive collapsed. It would be useful to know in greater detail how the purposes listed under the Department of Health in schedule 1 are being addressed with Bengoa’s plans in mind, given that they have been endorsed by the last Minister of Health in Northern Ireland. As it happens, those purposes are remarkably broad, but it is one of the smallest paragraphs in the schedule, which is somewhat strange given the extent of the health budget in Northern Ireland.
I declare an interest in that my husband is the permanent secretary of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the report looked forward in terms of transformation, which requires hard decisions and many years of preparation and hard work if we are to have efficiencies and savings without any impact on frontline services? We are now in November, and this money must be spent this financial year. Does he agree that the terrible situation we have been put in, because a budget was not put forward this time last year when it should have been, means that those decisions and the outcomes in the report are now very difficult to achieve?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. That is what I mean by kicking the can down the road. Those decisions have to be made by Ministers; it is unreasonable to put civil servants in that position, particularly given that we learnt today—I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s announcement—that the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office will be given powers to submit reports, which will be open to the scrutiny of both Houses. I would not want to be in the position, as a civil servant, of having to make such decisions and bear that accountability, with no ministerial top cover, for any length of time, notwithstanding my earlier remarks about direct rule. I fear the consequences of such a position. It is the dilemma with which the Government are struggling.
On the Department of Health—this could also apply to other Departments—is my hon. Friend concerned that, although the budgets will be approved for continuing its work, there will be no room for any new initiative or flexibility, given that no Minister oversees it?
My right hon. Friend, who served in a distinguished way in the Northern Ireland Office, knows that full well. Decisions have to be made by Ministers, and my question is about the elements of the report, which I have highlighted simply as an exemplar, that would require ministerial direction, and the extent to which supplementary estimates might be introduced. Notwithstanding the welcome announcement of funding that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made today, to what extent can those estimates be laid before the House to achieve the purposes I described? I ask that with a certain trepidation, because I would counsel against the constant tabling of supplementary estimates, which would have the effect of introducing direct rule in dribs and drabs. If we need to look to direct rule, notwithstanding the risks, that must be clear, and not done by stealth and gradually, which would be a recipe for confusion.
The hon. Gentleman has made interesting comments about direct rule and some of its dangers. Does he see a role for the Select Committee in considering how devolution could be restored, or how initiatives might be developed, perhaps along the lines that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) mentioned, as well as others, to try to support the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive? Has the Committee given any thought to that, or to scrutinising how the budget process works if the Executive are not restored?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is right on two counts. First, my Committee is mindful of its responsibility at this difficult time to scrutinise. Although constitutionally our position is to scrutinise the Northern Ireland Office’s work, we feel it incumbent upon us to be part of the process of scrutiny in a way that perhaps did not previously apply.
I know that investigating possible future models exercises the minds of members of my Committee, and the hon. Gentleman may think that we would like to work further on that. I do not want to pre-empt the Committee’s determinations, but when we have completed our current inquiry into the land border and Brexit, we would perhaps wish to consider and contribute to the debate on those possible models. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his tacit endorsement of such a position.
I also sit on the Committee, and in support of my hon. Friend’s comments, I point out that we are trying to find a way of policing the border without its being obvious. We will suggest that in our report, and our way of looking at that seems fruitful.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend tempts me down a path, with which you might have some issue, Madam Deputy Speaker, but he is right, and our inquiry will continue to consider how we can make that border as invisible as possible. I referred earlier to the Committee’s recent visit to Newry, when we took the opportunity of eyeballing the border. It is a remarkably unexciting experience since the border is invisible—beautiful, but invisible—and we need to ensure that that continues to be the case.
Hon. Members have mentioned the Hart report into historical institutional abuse. The point is well made that there will be decisions that have some financial consequences—perhaps not primarily financial, but they need ministerial input in the weeks ahead. It is difficult to see how civil servants can make those determinations, given that the subject is so politically loaded. Little that happens in and around Northern Ireland does not have a political element, but something so clearly political requires ministerial input. I therefore gently suggest that it is unfair and unwise to put civil servants in the position of making such decisions.
I am interested to learn of the work of my hon. Friend’s Committee, which becomes more important during this tricky period. In the run-up to Brexit, Northern Ireland’s economy is perhaps more important than ever. Will the Committee take a very real interest in the infrastructure, the inward investment and the development of Northern Ireland’s economy, especially in the Brexit period?
Yes. I share the concerns of many about Northern Ireland’s voice at this time. Northern Ireland is at the forefront of what will happen to this country after we leave the European Union, for better or for worse—in my opinion, for better, but I am prepared to admit that there are risks and opportunities in the process. It is vital that Northern Ireland, of all the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, has its voice heard, loud and clear. It is a dereliction of duty by the institutions and political parties in Northern Ireland that that is not happening. It seems to me a betrayal of the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
I mentioned Michelle O’Neill in my remarks about the Bengoa report and her stewardship of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. It is a sad state of affairs that she appears to be willing the ends in her 10-year vision for healthcare in Northern Ireland without willing the means. Hon. Members have made the point today that things like health and education really worry people in Northern Ireland—it is exactly the same for all our constituents—yet we seem prepared to put other things before those extraordinarily important services. I do not think that that represents the needs and aspirations of people at all well. I hope that those parties that are not prepared to come to the table to discuss those matters sufficiently to restore the Executive reflect on that.
I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State shares my fears that, the budget process having been achieved, nothing much will happen. There is an impasse at Stormont and I see no immediate prospect of the restoration of the Executive. We therefore need to start considering what we now do to ensure that the important objectives, such as for health and education, that we have discussed this afternoon, and the apportionment of funds this year, let alone next financial year, are achieved. To do that, it seems to me that we need to look at historical precedent. The Northern Ireland Act 1974 gave special powers to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, which could scrutinise and comment on draft Orders in Council.
I suspect that the Secretary of State is giving some thought to measures that can be taken to ensure some input from people in Northern Ireland—those elected to represent views in Northern Ireland from civic society and so on. That will become urgent as we tip into the new year and start to consider the financial year 2018-19. It would be useful to hear from the Secretary of State what measures will be taken to consult Northern Ireland generally, and particularly elected representatives, to ensure that that voice is heard.
Accountability is a difficult concept with which to grapple. We are accountable to our constituents. Ministers are not accountable for much of the grey area that we have been discussing today. Sadly, that is falling between the cracks. However, we need to make as best a stab at it as we can before the Executive are restored. To do that, we need to look at institutions in Northern Ireland and try to work out how they can best give voice to public opinion and at least keep the flame of accountability alive in the Province.
Does my hon. Friend not think it is particularly important that the voice of the nationalist community is heard, given that they do not have representation in this place or in the Assembly? Theirs is a voice unheard in terms of electoral representation.
Yes, I really do. Although it is of course Sinn Féin’s choice not to take its seats here—one that, as a democrat, I regret. Nevertheless, we need to ensure that both communities are heard. The Assembly may be one way of doing that and it would at least give MLAs something to do.
The last time we discussed this matter, on 2 November, the hon. Member for Pontypridd was very keen for MLAs to continue to draw their pay and rations. I do not agree with that and the bulk of people in Northern Ireland do not agree with it either, but I welcome today’s announcement that Mr Trevor Reaney will be appointed to discuss the matter further with interested parties. He will come up with recommendations on how MLAs should be paid, given that this could go on for a considerable time. We try to restore faith in politics in Northern Ireland, as we do in the rest of the United Kingdom, and it is very difficult to see how that process is enhanced or advanced in the event that we are paying individuals largely for sitting at home. I accept that many of them will be working hard to try to represent and help their constituents as well as they possibly can; nevertheless, their primary role is to attend Stormont and represent those views there, and that is just not happening.
The hon. Gentleman talks, from his esteemed position as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, about the primary role of MLAs being to attend the Assembly, but that goes for Members of Parliament too. Their primary role is to attend Parliament, so I take it that he will apply the logic of his argument to public representatives who do not attend this place. They are elected to attend this place and they do not do their job. We have had this scandalous situation for many, many years. I presume people would not stand for many, many years of Assembly Members being in that position, so I look forward to hearing his view on that.
I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] It is sort of a cop out, if he would like to see it that way, in that it is primarily a matter for the House and it is for the House to determine. I made my views on Sinn Féin not taking its seats in this place very, very clear. There should be no confusion about that. In my opinion, they are letting down those who elect them to do a job of work. They are clearly not doing it and people should draw their own conclusions. At the end of the day, however, it is a matter for the House. I hope he will be satisfied with that—I suspect he will not.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene, particularly as he is drawing his remarks to a conclusion. May I just say to him ever so gently that a large number of people in Northern Ireland would not be crying into their hankies if direct rule were introduced in Northern Ireland tomorrow? I would like him to explain to the people of Northern Ireland, who are extremely angry and very aggrieved that the MLAs received their full salary and their full staffing allowance, what he seems to be advocating: that the Assembly should have some sort of advisory role in Northern Ireland and some sort of direct rule Ministers here. Is he advocating that MLAs will be paid for that advisory role? The people of Northern Ireland will not be amused by that.
I look forward to Mr Trevor Reaney’s conclusions and it would be wrong to pre-empt them, but we will certainly need to have some way to consult the people of Northern Ireland if we take further direct rule powers. It seems to me that that is right and proper. It is very difficult to see, as a democrat, how one would object to such a thing. It has been tried in the past and it has had some effect. That is the sort of thing I am looking for and the MLAs are elected people. What are the alternatives? One can consult civic society—of course one can and one should—but at the end of the day MLAs are elected and I hope they might be involved in some way, shape or form prior to the restoration of the institutions. Nothing must be done to replace the imperative to get the Executive back up and running. I fear that all the stop-gap solutions may have the unintended consequence of delaying the day the institutions are restored at Stormont, and that would be a great pity. We must always beware of such unintended consequences.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his announcement about the Comptroller and the National Audit Office for Northern Ireland. He is absolutely right, as we try to pick our way through this, that we should have measures to allow this House to scrutinise what is going on, particularly the methodology of the apportionment of funds to Departments in Northern Ireland. I look forward to seeing the documents in the Libraries of both Houses and to the restoration of the Executive in Stormont. May that happen sooner rather than later.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). I am sure we will hear more from him in the coming weeks in his role as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
I would like to begin by adding my voice to those of other hon. Members who expressed outrage and condemnation at the events at the weekend—in particular the viable device left at the Omagh cenotaph, an appalling act which brought to mind the atrocious and despicable attack on the Enniskillen cenotaph 30 years ago almost to the day—and the other events referred to by the shadow Secretary of State. We think of the weekend and the remembrance of those who died giving their lives in the defence of freedom and liberty, and we think of the despicable act of terrorism in Omagh. At the same time, we think of the great side of Northern Ireland as displayed by the Northern Ireland football team and their supporters in Switzerland, who were great ambassadors for Northern Ireland. We saw the worst examples of activities by people in Northern Ireland and the best.
I think all of us in this House, whatever our party affiliation and whatever side of the House we sit on, commend those from Northern Ireland who went to Switzerland to follow the Northern Ireland football team. Indeed, we commend those fans from the Republic of Ireland who went out to Denmark. I was gratified to read about Northern Ireland fans flying out from Dublin airport and meeting Republic fans who were flying out to Denmark. The two sets of fans shook hands, wished each other well and applauded each other. That is an example of what is best about Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and we want to see more of it.
I thank the Secretary of State for his efforts. I know there has been criticism of him. There has been criticism of the Prime Minister, I have to say, from those on the DUP Benches. In my view, however, there has been very good engagement at all levels of Government. The Prime Minister has been to Northern Ireland more than once since she assumed office, and she has had a series of meetings and engagements here with us and others in this House, so I think it is wrong to portray this situation as the fault of the Government. DUP Members have spelled out how we got to this point in the process.
This is a very significant day in the history of the political process in recent years. There is no doubt about that. It is a day we did not want to see happen. We did not want the Northern Ireland budget to be passed at Westminster; we wanted it to be passed by the Northern Ireland Executive. We still do, but, as hon. Members have pointed out, this is the budget that the Sinn Féin Minister was supposed to bring forward before Christmas for consultation and to have the Assembly implement, and he point blank refused to do so. Remember, this was before the so-called crisis that emerged in the latter part of 2016, which led, ostensibly, according to Sinn Féin, to the collapse of the Executive. Clearly, there was something afoot long before that. That gives rise to some concern on our part about the true motives of Sinn Féin in collapsing the Executive in the first place and in refusing to set it up subsequently.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the failure of the Sinn Féin Finance Minister in the Assembly to set the budget over a year ago—as he rightly says, before the renewable heat incentive scandal broke and before the issue of an Irish language Act and LGBT rights brought down the Government in Stormont—proves that these seem to have been a series of fronts to bring down our Government for bogus reasons?
Many people in Northern Ireland, not only Unionists but commentators, particularly in the Irish Republic, and leading members of political parties in the Irish Republic, are increasingly of the view not only that this was planned but that, as a result of the Brexit decision and the hard decisions that need to be made in government, and in advance of a possible general election in the Irish Republic next year, Sinn Féin simply wanted to opt out of government and was looking for any excuse to do so.
It is our sincere hope that that is not the case. As someone pointed out—possibly the shadow Secretary of State—the DUP was a devolutionist party long before it was fashionable among the majority of Unionists. I remember that the Ulster Unionist party, when it was represented in the House and represented the vast bulk of Unionists, had a strong integrationist wing and was very lukewarm about proposals in the mid-80s for devolution. It even went so far as to boycott the then Northern Ireland Assembly. The DUP remained in the Assembly because it believed in the principle that the people of Northern Ireland, nationalist and Unionist, should reach those decisions for themselves in Northern Ireland.
We remain committed to devolution and want to see it happen, and that is why we have set no red lines or preconditions for the formation of the Executive. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) pointed out, we have said that we are prepared to form an Executive, and my understanding is that the other parties eligible to form it also stand ready to do so immediately. The one party that refuses to do so is Sinn Féin. We are prepared to form an Executive and hold the talks in tandem. Our leader went even further and spelled out that she would accept a date being set on which the Executive would fall if the talks did not lead to a successful outcome.
We were not, then, asking Sinn Féin to take us on trust, hoping to get them into the talks and then to talk forever; we were saying, “Let’s get the Executive formed, let’s make the decisions on health and education, infrastructure, investment, housing and all the rest of it, let’s have the talks, but with the guarantee that if they do not go anywhere, it will not go on forever.” Within 20 minutes of that suggestion being proposed—a suggestion welcomed by the Irish Taoiseach and other members of minority parties in Northern Ireland—it was rejected out of hand by Sinn Féin, in our view because they do not want a way forward except on the hardest republican lines.
If my right hon. Friend’s thesis is right and Sinn Féin has no desire to return to power sharing this side of a possible election in the Republic, is he actually saying that there is no prospect of the Executive being reformed until at least the other side of that election?
I am saying that many people believe that. I am told by Sinn Féin leaders—we hear it constantly —that they do not subscribe to that view and that they want devolution up and running. I am simply pointing out that there have been opportunities in the last 10 months to move things forward in a sensible way but that they have not been taken by Sinn Féin, which makes some of us doubt the sincerity of its words. I hope that the analysis of others I have quoted is proved wrong. I remain to be convinced of the truth of the matter.
My personal view is that Sinn Féin does not give a damn and wants to destroy the entire concept of devolved power and that its long-term aim is the destruction of Government in Northern Ireland and unification. That is what it has always wanted, and that is its plan.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I have to say that the last 10 years, during which time the DUP has been in government, along with Sinn Féin and other parties in Northern Ireland, have been a period of great progress. Good things have been done for Northern Ireland. It now has the second highest level of foreign direct investment in the UK, outside London and the south-east, and we have seen big increases in the number of tourists coming to Northern Ireland and in investment from that source. There are opportunities to move Northern Ireland forward, and I hope that we can get devolved government up and running again in partnership with Sinn Féin and other parties in Northern Ireland, but we have to take cognisance of where we are. We have to take sensible, practical measures in the meantime to ensure that Northern Ireland Departments do not run out of money, which is why I warmly welcome what the Secretary of State has done today and the way he has spelled it out. The fact is that unless we take this measure, we will not have the money to maintain our hospitals, schools and roads.
One measure still available to the Secretary of State is to call another election. What would the right hon. Gentleman’s view on that be, should the impasse continue?
The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. As things stand—under current legislation—the Secretary of State is under a legal obligation to call an election. He does not have to call it immediately, but the Northern Ireland Executive cannot legally be restored, as things stand, unless new primary legislation is introduced, and, in fact, there is an obligation to consider another election. The question arises, of course, as to whether another election would change anything or improve the prospects of an agreement.
In the June general election, our party received the highest vote of any single party in Northern Ireland since 1985, so we do not fear another election. We do not fear another general election here either. We are probably the only party in the House that can confidently say, if there was a general election tomorrow, that it would have no difficulties with the result. [Interruption.] Labour Members, from a sedentary position, mention a possible deal. I vividly remember the conversations with the Labour party in 2010 and 2015—it is interesting to recall all that. That said, we do not want a general election, and we do not necessarily expect an Assembly election to change much in Northern Ireland. The main focus has to be on getting the Assembly and the Executive up and running as quickly as possible.
I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman could just clarify an interesting point: he and his colleagues, particularly his party leader, have detected within Sinn Féin some disagreement between the party president, Gerry Adams, sitting as a Teachta Dála in the Republic, and the leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill. Are her decisions being repeatedly overridden by the party president?
The hon. Lady raises an interesting question. Certainly, the Irish Prime Minister has had something to say on that in recent weeks and has accused Gerry Adams of doing exactly what she implies, although it remains a dubious proposition in my view. Given that Gerry Adams appointed the Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland unilaterally—there was no election, not even among the Sinn Féin elected representatives—to ensure that his voice was heard, it is questionable whether there is any independence there or any diverse view between them and within Sinn Féin about the way forward.
I know that others want to speak, and I will end my speech shortly, but let me say this. When we describe the Bill as a move towards direct rule, we should remember that we experienced a form of direct rule intervention not so long ago, in the context of welfare reform. The House of Commons has control, powers and authority over welfare policy and legislation in Northern Ireland until the end of this year, and that is a policy to which Sinn Féin agreed. When people hear Sinn Féin rail against direct rule nowadays, they should remember that, as part of the Stormont House agreement, Sinn Féin agreed that welfare policy should be transferred back to Westminster. Why was that? Because Sinn Féin did not want to make the hard decisions on welfare that Assembly membership required them to make; they preferred others to make those decisions for them. We hear people talking about the downsides of direct rule and saying that it is a terrible, backward step, but in the case of some issues they are quite happy to pass the powers to Westminster.
I concur entirely with those who have said that the current semi-direct rule cannot be sustained for a lengthy period. I think there is no real dispute about that. We must have Ministers, because Ministers prioritise and Ministers allocate, but this budget does not solve the problem of who is prioritising and who is allocating. At some point very soon we will need Ministers, but that does not mean that we should give up on the negotiations, the talks, and the efforts to get devolution up and running. We will continue to do that, and we will play our full part in it. It would be a travesty, and a big mistake, to allow Northern Ireland to continue in a limbo in which decisions cannot be made. Reference has already been made to the historical investigations inquiry, and community groups and others come to me all the time wanting guidance and certainty about future funding. It is unfair and wrong for people not to be able to have some certainty.
In that context, this House of Parliament must be the place where decisions are made and where Ministers will be accountable. Of course there is a role for the Irish Republic’s Government in respect of strand 2 and strand 3 issues. According to the fundamental principles of the political process that have existed from the outset, strand 1 issues—internal Northern Ireland affairs—are a matter for the United Kingdom Government and the parties in Northern Ireland alone. Strand 2 issues—north-south issues—are matters for discussion between representatives in Northern Ireland and those in the Republic, and strand 3 issues are matters for discussion between the Irish and British Governments. The principles of that three-strand approach must and will be maintained. There will be no role for the Irish Republic in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland in the future. That is enshrined in the Belfast agreement, under the principle of consent.
We look forward to this budget allowing the Departments in Northern Ireland to spend the money that it is necessary for them to spend over the coming weeks and months. We also look forward to working with the Government and continuing to engage with the other parties, particularly Sinn Féin, to try to get devolution up and running as quickly as we possibly can.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds). I endorse his comments, as well as those of the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), and the Secretary of State, about the shocking events that occurred at the weekend. There is absolutely no place in Northern Ireland for pipe bombs. Following all the work and all the struggles of all the political parties in recent years to establish these arrangements, there is every possible means to express political opinion and no place for such behaviour, and I am delighted to note that the House condemns it wholeheartedly.
I became Secretary of State after the long process that preceded the Belfast agreement. Policing and justice had just been devolved, and incredibly difficult decisions had been made by John Major, followed by those of Tony Blair. We really, really tried to make the system work. I saw a need to balance the political arrangements with help for the economy through the devolution of corporation tax. We had the complete support of all the political parties and the business community, but corporation tax has still not been devolved. We have done our bit in the House—we have given the Assembly and the Executive the power to do that—but, tragically for all those businesses in Northern Ireland and all the people working in them, it has not been delivered.
I am as disappointed as anyone in the Chamber that we are having to pass a Bill that will directly deliver money to keep things going in Northern Ireland. I entirely endorse what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done; I think that his patience in recent months has been extraordinary, and I fully understand why he intends to continue to do his best to persuade the local parties to agree. Sadly, however, we have reached this point. The Bill is technical and I hope that it will be passed shortly without amendment, although I know that other Members intend to speak.
My right hon. Friend made a key point in his speech. He said that his real concern was for good governance in Northern Ireland. What worries me is that it is simply not fair for the civil service in Northern Ireland to have to run the place without political decision-making. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) mentioned that in an intervention. Who is responsible? To whom will the permanent secretary be accountable? Sadly, this arrangement can be only for the short term. We hope that the Secretary of State pulls it off and gets the institutions up and running. He has spoken of a “glide path”, and I think that he will have to deal with the problem of the declining public services in Northern Ireland.
Let me rattle off a few facts. This has nothing to do with money. Northern Ireland receives £14,018 per head, while England, where our constituents are, receives £11,579. That means that, in Northern Ireland, the state has £2,721 more to spend per head. Several Members have mentioned health and education; let me briefly deal with those.
Last month, the BBC conducted a major health study. When it comes to healthcare, Northern Ireland is the worst-performing region. In some specialisms such as orthopaedics, waiting lists for treatment now exceed three years. Patients suffering chronic pain can wait up to two years to be seen by a specialist, and cancer care targets have never been met. In 2015, the target for the health service was to complete 70% of routine procedures in three months; it did not meet that target. The response was to lower the target to 50%, and the health service failed to meet that as well.
In many critical areas, performance continues to get worse rather than better. In the Belfast Trust, which is not necessarily the worst-performing trust, 29,500 people are waiting more than 12 months for an out-patient appointment—the target is zero—and 25% of patients wait for a year to see a specialist, while in England and Wales the figure is 2%. Clinicians are voting with their feet. Doctors are refusing to work in some small A&E departments: they believe that they are unsafe to operate, because they do not have access to the full range of services and specialisms.
There is a way out. One thing that Northern Ireland is very good at is generating reports recommending reform. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) mentioned Professor Bengoa’s report, which recommended a complete restructuring of the health service. It was supported by clinicians and by the Sinn Féin Minister, but, of course, it has gone nowhere. Reform requires decisions. It needs leadership, and the political will to design and implement a healthcare system that can work and deliver for all the people. However, that inevitably means challenging local political interests, and the necessary political courage has simply not been there.
This partly comes down to the duplication of services. As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I was a strong supporter of Shared Future, especially in the context of education. Education is critical to the future of the whole of Northern Ireland, but the sectarian division in education is a terrible waste—not just of human talent, but of money. There are two teacher training colleges. A proposal to rationalise them met with furious opposition, and was abandoned. The education boards were abolished and replaced by a new unitary education authority, but there is still waste. The authority now absorbs about 30% of the education budget. Some of that is spent on transport, but it shows that this terrible duplication is costly.
In 2015, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools proposed the closure of St Mary’s High School in Brollagh, County Fermanagh. It had just 121 pupils, which was far below the 500 that it needed to be viable. What happened? Against his own Department’s advice, the Sinn Féin Minister refused to close it. The roll has now fallen to below 90, and it will finally close in 2018. This fiasco has cost between £550,000 and £700,000 a year to keep it open. So if we are going to get a shared future, we should seriously consider the benefits of direct rule. Direct rule Ministers could take difficult decisions. We could end this ludicrous duplication, this ludicrous cost and this ludicrous waste in the delivery of public services.
I go to Northern Ireland quite regularly privately. Time and again in recent visits people have come up to me and said, “When are we going to get direct rule?” I know that no Front Bencher wants this, the devolved parties do not want it, and nobody in this House wants it, but we must now face up to the requirement to balance the problems of failing public services because of lack of political direction and the need to recognise the achievements of the process and to keep the political institutions going. That is a very difficult balance to judge at present, but when we hear the figures I have cited—I have plenty more, which I could have read out if I had the time—we recognise that we are letting down the hard-working people of Northern Ireland if we expect them to put up with failing public services, despite very high levels of public expenditure, because there is simply not the political decision-making process.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
No, as others want to speak.
It is simply not fair on the civil service to expect it to deliver this. So, without any great enthusiasm, I will be voting for the Bill tonight. I wish the budget had gone out to the local Members and there had been institutions spending this money months ago, but I wholeheartedly support what the Secretary of State has done, and I wholeheartedly sympathise with the difficult position he has been in. However, I ask him to think about the balance between what is happening on the ground, and what services the people of Northern Ireland are actually getting, and whether this stasis at the moment is really delivering for them.
Perhaps the Secretary of State should now begin to get his slow glide in order, to begin to think about direct rule Ministers. I agree with Opposition Front Benchers that once we get going on that it might be very difficult to get out, but I ask us all to think of that balance. We owe it to those hard-working people in Northern Ireland that they should get proper decisions made with public money.
Tonight, I will support the Bill, but I ask the Secretary of State to think about what happens over the next few weeks.
First, I want to make clear my support for the Secretary of State’s comments regarding the PSNI and its commendable handling of, as he rightly described it, a repugnant act in Omagh, and the shadow Secretary of State’s remarks about the further outrages that have come to light today. I also want to make it clear that I will be confining myself to commenting on the budget Bill as presented by the Secretary of State, as I am aware that plenty of Members wish to speak in this debate.
I begin, too, by making clear my view that we are here doing something that should more properly be done in Belfast. Budgets affecting the people of Northern Ireland and the public services in Northern Ireland should be decided at Stormont, not here. No matter how good the intentions of Members in this Chamber—I do believe that the Secretary of State has good intentions in this—this cannot be a substitute for the proper consideration of the Assembly.
Northern Ireland has been without an Administration for far too long, and the negotiations over reforming that Administration seem bogged down in a way that previous leaders of the largest parties in the Assembly would never have allowed. I have respect for the current leaders, but if Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness could find a way to work together and move forward, I am certain that two intelligent women can find agreement and a future direction without blame or rancour. There are difficulties—no one would suggest that there are none—but surely there are no insurmountable difficulties, and there is nothing that should be holding up such vital negotiations for so long.
Assembly Members have been without a plenary for far too long and will, no doubt, have to answer ultimately to their constituents for that, although the Prime Minister might be looking enviously at Arlene Foster just now and thinking that the absence of Cabinet Ministers might be no bad thing. From looking at how things have been going so far, it seems likely that there is going to be a fair bit more push and pull before we see the Assembly back to work, particularly with the renewable heat initiative inquiry rumbling its way through public life over the water, but the focus of the Stormont parties must be on getting it back up and running.
Decisions about Northern Ireland should be taken in Northern Ireland by the people who know best what the communities there need; Belfast should decide. Decisions are best made by the people most directly affected. With all the certainty in our own best judgment that we are able to summon here and with all the noise that is generated on a regular basis, we still cannot offer, as the Secretary of State suggested, the scrutiny of the needs of the communities of Northern Ireland that Assembly Members can offer, even allowing for the considerable knowledge of Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies on the Back Benches here.
Scottish National party Members will not stand in the way of this Bill, which is important because it will keep the lights on in hospitals and the heating on in schools, and keep the police on the streets and local authorities working. So we will watch it through its proceedings today. It is certainly to be hoped, however, that this place does not need to do anything of this nature in the future and that the budgets for services in Northern Ireland will be decided and passed in Belfast.
It was good to hear some of the comments made today about the Northern Irish civil service. We do not mention the civil servants very much in any of our debates about Northern Ireland generally, but it would be remiss of us to go through the process of passing the Bill today without mentioning the contribution that they have made to keeping public services running in Northern Ireland, and we should note that with gratitude. Civil servants have carried on delivering even when they have been deprived of the political leadership that gives them cover as well as direction, and we should offer them additional support while they keep things running. The past months cannot have been easy for them and we owe them our thanks.
While we wait for the outcome of the negotiations to give those civil servants some respite, however, we should be clear about what is and is not acceptable for the future. The Secretary of State is clear that this Bill does not represent a return to direct rule. I certainly do not want that at all, and I appreciate his comments, but he has spoken about a glide path to increasing intervention by the UK Government. I urge him to do everything possible to avoid that. The continuation of the talks is essential and will be taking up a fair amount of his time, but I urge him to keep it in mind that restoring devolution must be the aim.
Stormont is adrift, but it would not be beneficial for it to flounder; the rocks upon which it would flounder might set back the peace process and the significant advances the communities of Northern Ireland have achieved during the years of peace. There must be no return to the entrenched attitudes and intransigent opinions that bedevilled those communities for decades.
I hope that passing the Bill is the last time we have to do something of this nature, rather than it being done in Belfast. With regret, but with hope as well, I support the Bill.
Order. To be absolutely sure that everybody has the opportunity to speak, I impose a time limit of 10 minutes.
I hope not to get too close to that time limit.
I also rise to support the Bill, although it is a shame to have to do so on the basis that it is the least worst option available to us, as we would all prefer a Bill that represents an attractive and sensible way forward, but that is where we are. I agree with all the praise that has been given to the Secretary of State for his great patience in waiting until the very last minute in order to try to get the institutions in Northern Ireland back up and running. None of us wants to have to set the budget here.
The options are as follows. The first is to have another election, but we have had two elections this year, after both of which the same two parties were the leading parties. It is hard to imagine that there is sufficient feeling in Northern Ireland that two different parties—or perhaps at least one different party—will be elected so that a different Government are formed. An election at this stage would therefore probably just see a further hardening of opinion, which would make the situation worse, so that option looks extremely unattractive.
The second option would have been to continue without setting the budget, using the gradual running out of money in the public services as a way of twisting the arms of the two main parties to find a deal. I suspect that we have been trying that for a few months now and it has not worked, so there is a real risk of harming ordinary people by trying that for a bit longer. That option was therefore not really on the table.
That leaves only moving quickly to full direct rule, which again has lots of downsides. To try to do so quickly, without any thought of what the local consultation would be, what the institutions would look like and how we could work through the long-term damage that would be caused to the institutions, would have been an aggressive step. I think that takes us back to the point that this is the least bad approach.
Let us be clear about what we are doing: we are setting the budget for Northern Ireland. We are choosing here how money should be spent in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Assembly’s most important power was to set budgets and control how much money was spent. A Parliament or Assembly that cannot set a budget or choose how to spend its money is not a Parliament or Assembly at all. Let us be clear that we are taking perhaps the most fundamental decision that Parliaments can take by choosing priorities and how much should be spent on them.
I know that we have tried in every possible way to show that this is as close as we can get to what we think the budget would have been, had the Executive been setting it, but this is not the Executive’s budget. There has been no Executive for 10 months. This is us and the civil service choosing how to spend the money, so it is a large step towards direct rule. Choosing how much is spent, and on what, is perhaps the most fundamental step we can take.
As other Members have said, we cannot leave Northern Ireland without any sensible government for very long. There are people who quite fancy the idea of a country being run without politicians, but I sense that when they suggest that, they do not envisage continuing to pay politicians as they try to run the country without them. We can see from what is happening in Northern Ireland that, without real government and without real accountable Ministers, no real decisions are taken. We do not get the progress that we want, and we do not get money spent on the priorities that we want.
A prolonged period without accountable Ministers or accountable decision taking is probably the worst form of government, and it cannot carry on for very long. I am not even sure that we can get past a year. If we get to the anniversary of the Executive falling without having put something in their place, that would be the final end point and we would have to put something in place. We cannot have two years of budgets being set like this and two years of no progress at all. I will happily support the Bill, but we have to find a better way forward as soon as possible.
The Secretary of State has indicated the process by which the Bill has come before us tonight. We will support it, but I believe that it should have come before the House far sooner. The fact that we have lingered for so long before bringing this necessary Bill before the House is a reflection of the Northern Ireland Office’s attitude that we must not offend Sinn Féin. Let us make no mistake about this. It bears repeating that we are here today because of the political cowardice of the Sinn Féin Finance Minister. This time last year, he was faced with a challenging budget, but he would not have been the first Finance Minister to be faced with such a budget. All Finance Ministers since 2008 have had to bring forward budgets that were criticised by pressure groups and faced Departments screaming about cuts, but at least they brought those budgets before the Assembly, argued their case and made amendments when necessary so that the good governance of Northern Ireland could be continued. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir refused to do that.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) wanted to give Sinn Féin the benefit of the doubt, but I believe that it has opted out in this regard. We have only to look at the history. It opted out of the difficult choice on welfare reform. It let the hated Tories bring in welfare reform, but now it is critical every time there is an issue about universal credit, personal independence payments or any other aspect of welfare reform, although it abrogated their responsibility on that one. The same applies to the changes required in the health service. The Sinn Féin Minister had a report, which she accepted, but she then refused to do anything about it because that would have involved hard decisions about hospital closures. Now the same thing is happening with the budget. The Secretary of State should not be too optimistic that he will reach an agreement in the talks that leads to Sinn Féin going back into the Executive and re-establishment the Assembly. It will continue with its list of unrealistic demands as a cover for the fact that it does not want to get into the Assembly in the first place.
Is it not the case that Sinn Féin has opted out since the Brexit decision? It has played on that decision, making a calculation that it will stay out of the Northern Ireland Assembly while playing up fears of a hard border and a hard Brexit to provoke talk about a border poll, which plays well to their constituency. However, as the Secretary of State has often said, there is not going to be a border poll because there is no evidence that people want to change the status of Northern Ireland.
That brings me to my next point. The Secretary of State must be clear about Sinn Féin’s strategy. It prefers the chaos of having no Assembly and no direct rule. That suits it and its republican agenda. It is our preference to have Ministers appointed in Northern Ireland, but if we are not going to have that, we have to move towards a situation in which Ministers can take charge of the Departments in Northern Ireland and plan for the future, in the interests of good government and stability, and to ensure that Sinn Féin’s chaos theory of politics is not put into practice.
This is a challenging budget. There has been an increase in cash terms, but there is no real-terms increase. We accept that there have been difficulties in the rest of the United Kingdom, and that Northern Ireland cannot be totally exempt. However, we have put forward a good argument and been successful in highlighting the particular issues in Northern Ireland that need to be addressed, which are different from those in other parts of the United Kingdom. Some Labour Members argue that we need to spend more money on public services, but they seem to be reluctant to see it spent on public services in Northern Ireland. They must explain that inconsistency, however; I merely need to highlight it—[Interruption.] I see the Scottish National party’s spokesperson turning round. Her party makes exactly the same point, but perhaps its Members’ difficulty is that they are angry that they never got in on the act.
This is a challenging budget. I have posed a question to the Secretary of State, because I have experience of this. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister has always somehow been exempt from reductions when it comes to budgetary decisions. Many people will find it incomprehensible, at a time when we do not have a First or Deputy First Minister, that the Executive Office should get a 32% increase in its budget. I imagine that most of the budget was drawn up by the Department of Finance, and it is also significant, at a time when the Department of Education is getting only a 1.5% increase and the Justice and Agriculture departmental budgets are going down, that the Department of Finance should be getting a 10% increase. One wonders what influences there have been. These are questions that could and should have been dealt with by the Assembly. We would certainly like to hear the Secretary of State’s explanation of why public-facing Departments such as Education and Agriculture are facing reductions in their budget allocations.
The amount of waste in the education budget in Northern Ireland was mentioned earlier. The 1.5% increase in the education budget will be challenging for schools. I know this from representations that I have had from headmasters in my constituency. We rationalised the administration of education by doing away with five boards and having one education authority, but that still absorbs a disproportionate amount of the education budget. More money is held at the centre by the Department of Education and by the Education Authority.
There is of course another approach that would not involve spending another penny. The Secretary of State and the Chancellor could address the £500 million that was allocated under the Stormont House agreement for a shared future in education. That is not new money, yet the Treasury has tied it up in such a way that it cannot be spent on that shared future. Take the big joint campus at Omagh, which would have allowed for a huge amount of expenditure on education in western Northern Ireland. There is no clearer example of a shared future campus, yet the £140 million allocated under the shared future agreement cannot be spent. There are schools in my constituency with a mixture of Catholics and Protestants that are crying out for expenditure. They are integrated schools in all but name, but as they do not happen to have the right title ahead of their name, the money cannot be spent on them under the shared future programme. I want the Secretary of State to take that up with the Treasury. As we have heard today, even when there is a big problem in the education budget, we still have a huge number of school sites and a huge amount of land that are not being sold by the Department of Education, which could raise revenue that would be available to the public purse in Northern Ireland. We have a tough budget, and the Northern Ireland Assembly could have worked its way through it, but it has not. These are the sorts of questions that have to be asked.
As for the future, I know that the Secretary of State is reluctant to be the one who introduces full direct rule again, but we are going to hit the same problem next year due to Departments’ lack of ability to plan for spending if we do not have Ministers in place. If there is no Minister in place, how can Departments look at new initiatives that may cut expenditure or introduce efficiencies? They cannot. So what will we do? We will trundle along, spending money in the same way as we have always done, because that is all that the civil servants will be authorised to do. The Secretary of State will soon have to grasp the nettle and say that we need Ministers in place who can look through the programmes that Departments need to undertake, who can plan for the future, and who can tell civil servants that they can do things with ministerial authority.
We welcome the announcement that £50 million to deal with pressures in health and education will be available this year, but the hundreds of millions of pounds of infrastructure money can be spent only with planning, which can be done only if Ministers are in place. I tell the Secretary of State not to dally any longer. Do not hold out hope that the cowards in Sinn Féin will take the reins of government and make the tough decisions. They will not, which unfortunately means—we do not relish this—that decisions will be made by Ministers here.
I join the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State in condemning the actions of those responsible for the incidents at Omagh and Londonderry. I also join my right hon. Friend in commending the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. More broadly, I commend the Northern Ireland civil service for its work in the absence of the Executive and the Assembly.
I welcome today’s Bill. Speaking from the Benches of a one-nation Government and a Unionist party, I am interested in the wellbeing of the entire United Kingdom. I therefore welcome the Secretary of State’s efforts to restore Northern Ireland’s devolved Administration, its power-sharing Executive and its Assembly and to put Northern Ireland’s financial situation on securer footing, giving reassurance to businesses, community groups, residents and others with an interest in Northern Ireland having a secure and prosperous future. I also share his determination to see the negotiations make progress and to get back to a situation in which Northern Ireland is self-governing once more.
I want to make three brief points in my contribution. First, I want to restate how important it is that a budget is secured for Northern Ireland tonight. I hope that the whole House will join me and the Secretary of State in supporting the Bill and will give it fair passage so that we can safeguard public services in Northern Ireland. Secondly, the Bill reflects the Secretary of State’s desire to act with circumspection. I do not believe that he is acting lightly; he is acting in a reasonable and balanced manner and has ensured that he has exhausted all other options, from extending deadlines to chairing a variety of negotiations, and this is the best solution. The alternative is no budget, with funds being distributed by civil servants, which is effective in the short term but unsustainable. Thirdly, this situation is neither direct rule nor a step towards it; this is about the machinery of government and ensuring that the residents and businesses of Northern Ireland have a proper, functioning financial settlement.
The provision of good-quality public services is one of our citizens’ most basic expectations of Government, so the Bill must be passed because it will allow the Government to fulfil their side of the social contract, ensuring that Northern Ireland’s residents receive the services that they deserve and, quite frankly, for which they have already paid. It is important that good government functions well. As the Secretary of State outlined, the situation in Northern Ireland has meant that for some months civil servants have been responsible for distributing funds in the absence of a functioning Executive. While that is clearly better than no access to public services and no funding, it is not a sustainable, long-term plan for the economy. I therefore commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s efforts to get this Bill passed tonight. That system of civil service spending is no substitute for a budget passed by an Executive. As others have said, the prioritisation and allocation of funds must be decided by a democratic authority.
I hope that self-government and a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland are restored, but this budget Bill is a positive solution in the meantime given the situation in which we find ourselves. The Secretary of State, his Minister and the entire Northern Ireland Office are determined to put it into effect and have tried for a significant amount of time to effect the restoration of a power-sharing Administration. To that end, he has hosted discussions at Stormont on numerous occasions and progress has been made, but there are still some issues outstanding on all sides. While the negotiations continue, however, we in this House must act and this Bill is the proper way of doing so. The Secretary of State is right to say that if this House is to act to help with the affairs of Northern Ireland, we should do so on what he calls a “glide path.” We should do only what is necessary when it is necessary—no more, no less, and no sooner. Tonight’s Bill is the appropriate resolution given the situation facing the House.
While discussing devolution and self-government, we should note that up until this year we had experienced the longest period of unbroken devolution in Northern Ireland for some time. That is a significant achievement, and this House should congratulate all the parties involved. I hope that we can continue with that objective after this budget Bill is passed.
The United Kingdom is stronger, more united and better off when all our constituent nations, including Northern Ireland, have a secure and prosperous future and a strong relationship with this House. I am confident that the Bill’s measured approach, as outlined by the Secretary of State in his opening remarks, will mean that the people of Northern Ireland receive the public services that they deserve, that there is a strong and effective financial settlement for them and, of course, that the negotiations continue. It is for those reasons that I am pleased to support the Bill tonight, and I wish my right hon. Friend, his Ministers and the whole team all the best in ensuring that Northern Ireland has the secure financial footing that it deserves.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. The Secretary of State is not currently here, but I thank him and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for their hard work in bringing forward this legislation; we appreciate their efforts. Let me make it quite clear that this situation is not what I wanted, this is not what the DUP wanted, and this is not what the people of Northern Ireland wanted when they cast their votes for the second time in a year. The only people who want this stalemate and who should be here speaking about the situation that they have caused are those in Sinn Féin, but they are not here—although they might be found skulking in the corridors, hiding from people while supposedly earning their money. They refuse to do what they are elected to do both in this place and in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
For that reason, we are here in an impossible situation, and my heart rails against the injustice of the predicament that my constituents and the people of the Province have been strong-armed into by those who are not fit for purpose—those who are elected to represent and will not do so. I wonder how our schools would be if a teacher applied for a job, was granted the position, took the money and then proceeded to refuse to teach because they wanted the summer holiday to start in November and Christmas to be moved to July. Our education system would be in tatters, and that is a fact. The problem is that, due to the reticence of Sinn Féin to do their job over unmet, outrageous and unworkable demands, our education system will be in tatters.
The Killyleagh outdoor centre is in my constituency, and I have met the education authority to press for the centre to be retained. That will happen, but it will happen because of an arrangement with Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. There is the new building at Glastry College in my constituency, too. We are waiting on both those projects to happen.
I am my party’s health spokesperson in this place, and I have had an opportunity to meet some of the guys back home. We have longer waiting lists in almost every department because the moneys are not there to get them moving. People have come to me who have been waiting on a list for orthopaedics for three years and cannot get their operation or their examination. There is something wrong.
The issue of insulin pumps was in the press last week, and the pumps are sitting in cupboards up at the Ulster Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital and cannot be used. We have to ask ourselves what is happening. This week we have had the story that Bupa has moved out of Northern Ireland because it can no longer work with the NHS and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Those are just some examples. There is also infrastructure, the economy and every other Department.
My hon. Friend has raised a number of points about different Departments. Does he agree that it is regrettable that agriculture will face a reduction of some 3.7%? It is vital that the animal standards and welfare—all of that—is taken care of as we leave the European Union, and that there is enough funding to eradicate tuberculosis.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his hard work on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He is studious, and he tells me that he will be working even harder than normal this week. The Committee is doing a lot of work, and I commend him for it.
I proudly wear a remembrance pin in my lapel today. My colleague asked my why, and it is to remember the UDR four—four young men murdered on the boundary of my constituency by the IRA at Ballydugan. I knew three of those young men personally. Justice for their families remains unmet, in this world at least, but they will get their answer in the next world—that is the way it should be. There is a day of reckoning for everyone, and those who have carried out evil deeds will one day be held accountable. The things that should be important to anyone, regardless of creed, class, colour or ethnicity, are all sacrificed for an ideal of a greater good that cannot change one person’s life or enhance it in any way—and all because people who are supposedly so principled refuse to stand up for their people today.
If a person in the street—nationalist or Unionist, Protestant or Catholic, or whatever their religion might be—were asked what is the most important thing, they will say education, health, the roads and getting the operations they want. Those are the issues in my office every day, as I suspect they are in the office of every Member here today; it is not the Irish language Act or those issues. The quicker that Sinn Féin catch on to what the issues are and, I say this with respect, the quicker the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) realises that, too, the better it will be and we will have an understanding in the Chamber of the real issues.
Sinn Féin are not here to speak for a solution. However, we are here, and we will continue to speak for the people of the Province in the best way we can. When I speak to constituents at home about the budget, they have highlighted many things, and my response has been steady and constant: direct rule is no good for Northern Ireland. It is not what I want, and I do not think it is what the people want. We are a party of devolution, as everyone in this House recognises. I am proud to be in this House, and this is the world’s greatest seat of democracy. I have watched direct rule, and I am of an age, as I suspect are many Opposition Members—with the odd exception or two; there might be a couple behind me—that remembers direct rule. Under direct rule we lost out on having an input on education and health, and most of our input was through the local councils or the Forum for Political Dialogue, as it started off, and then the Assembly. We lost out on those issues through direct rule.
I watched the Northern Ireland Office struggle under the weight of running an entire country, and I watched this place taken up with micromanagement, under which it is next to impossible to produce excellent results. I do not want direct rule, and neither do most people in this Chamber—most especially the Secretary of State in all likelihood—but we now have no other option unless good sense and a desire to do what is right appear.
I turn to today’s business and setting the budget. I have listened to my colleagues outline many of the pressing needs that must be addressed, and I wish to underline one of those needs in the short time I have remaining—the role of community funding. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) spoke about that, and I do not think there is one Northern Ireland MP sitting here who is not faced with it every day. It is essential that the good work within our communities is enabled to continue. I have been contacted by the Eastend residents association, a great group in my constituency that applied for community funding through the social investment fund to build an extension on the community flat. The group provides a homework club, a pensioners club and a craft club, and it hosts a benefits advice centre and cross-party surgeries by elected representatives. The group is very much part of the community, across party politics. The group needs the extension to continue its work, and at this moment in time we are sitting in limbo; we do not know what is going to happen. We have waiting for years for the extension, and the SIF funding was granted.
I am given to understand that all commitments will be honoured, but my issue is twofold. How many other groups will not be able to grow because they have no mechanism to access capital spending? How can underperforming young Protestant men in my constituency get out of the rut in which they find themselves if they do not have the community influence and the funding to help them find what they excel at? That applies to all the community groups in my constituency. It applies to the Glen Estate, the West Winds, Bowtown, Ballygowan, Scrabo Estate, Saintfield, Ballynahinch and Crossgar community associations. Every one of those groups has a project that it needs completed. If we cannot get the money into those projects, we cannot get that done.
What about Home Start and Positive Futures? They are also organisations that are waiting on funding. We need this money, and we need this budget in place to make things happen. That also applies to domiciliary care and other care packages.
My second issue lies in the actual funding formula. The £15.7 billion figure included in the Government’s main estimate represents the cash grant payable to the Northern Ireland consolidated fund, which is also supplemented by funding from other sources, including the locally raised regional rate and borrowing under the reinvestment and reform initiative. That does not allow for any additional funding to be secured or raised.
The Secretary of State has been at pains to say that this is not direct rule and that it is simply allowing the Northern Ireland civil service to be allocated the funding as it believes has been agreed by the Department, but I believe there is no scope for political representation to change minds or to bring new information to light—some of my hon. Friends have referred to that. We are left with little accountability, which has previously been a huge problem in Northern Ireland.
I ask the Under-Secretary, in the absence of the Secretary of State, how the Government intend to ensure that this interim measure does not prevent worthy projects —I have named a number—and the groups involved from getting funding, as they would have under the guidance of a Minister, had one been in place.
I know that few answers can be given at this stage, but the truth is that people need answers. My constituents need answers and they need certainty. All our constituents need those things. Unlike those who are notably absent, the DUP, the biggest voice of Unionism, is willing to work with the Government to bring about stability. That is important for the areas of health and education, but stability is also necessary in non-ring-fenced areas. We are looking to the Secretary of State and to the Government to provide it. The time is fast approaching when they will have to take firmer steps to deal with the issue of blatant non-compliance by Sinn Féin.
I wish to make some short remarks. What we are doing today is necessary, but this is a deeply disappointing day for Northern Ireland, particularly as since devolution in 2007 so many people have worked incredibly hard to build the peace and democratic stability in the Province, both publicly and privately, politically and in relation to civic society. Today is a disappointing day, given the huge amount of work people have put in to try to make devolution work. It did work for a decade but we are not in a good place now, so it is welcome that the Bill has been introduced today but it is also disappointing.
Significant challenges had to be overcome in the course of the past 10 years. The fragility of the fledgling Government meant that considerable care and development was required, and in the DUP we pulled our weight and played our part in doing that. We remain committed to trying to get devolution restored for the benefit of all across the communities in Northern Ireland. Many times we looked as if we were on the verge of collapse in Northern Ireland, as we were having to face some very difficult issues, but hard work, perseverance and good will overcame those difficulties. Until the collapse earlier this year, we had sustained the longest period of government in Northern Ireland since 1972, and that was not easy.
There has been a reluctance on the part of some to call out what we have today, but what we have seen is Sinn Féin bringing down government in Northern Ireland and refusing to re-establish it—it is that simple. For those who argue that Sinn Féin is basing that approach on a principle, I challenge them to look back to what was happening this time last year and consider a six-month period. I ask them to look at the oscillation within Sinn Féin as to the reasons it was bringing down government, what it was seeking in negotiation, what its requirements were and what its barriers were to re-establishing the Executive. It took Sinn Féin a considerable time to decide that the Irish language Act was its key red line, as we see when we look back at its various statements. We sat in rooms waiting for Sinn Féin to come down so that we could see what it wanted, but it was far from clear what its position was for many weeks and months.
That says to me that Sinn Féin is using this particular issue, having identified in those discussions that the Irish language Act was a particularly difficult area. That is not just my opinion; it is a reality. The likes of an Irish language Act is a deeply divisive cultural and identity issue in Northern Ireland, and it was always going to be difficult to overcome. That is precisely why those in Sinn Féin chose it as their single red line, emerging from that cacophony of decisions and discussions that they had at that time. Sinn Féin is holding the people of Northern Ireland to ransom as it stamps its feet with demands; it is putting a cultural agenda before issues such as health and education, and that is disgraceful. People are suffering: those on health waiting lists; parents needing special educational help; the homeless; the victims of historical institutional abuse, about whom we have heard; the businesses which need economic stability in order to grow; and the young people who need skills investment and jobs.
I will not go into the detail on the timetable of what happened again. As has been mentioned, I was the chairperson of the Finance Committee. Some people have said that this is a political point, but as chairperson of that Committee I can tell the House that there were a number of parties from across the Northern Ireland Assembly in that Committee and we agreed to send letter after letter to the Finance Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, showing our disgust and concern at the delay in bringing forward this draft budget. The current situation is not caused by the collapse of the Executive, because at the time of the collapse there should have been a budget in place.
That brings us to another critical point: Sinn Féin chose the timing of the collapse of the Assembly. Only Sinn Féin knew its plans and timings, and it could have produced a budget before it walked away. I made that point in the chamber of the Northern Ireland Assembly directly to Máirtín Ó Muilleoir; I asked why that timing was picked, given that in a matter of two weeks a budget would have been produced and put in place.
I worked with Sinn Féin for many years on the inquiry for victims of institutional abuse. Sinn Féin was acutely aware of the timing of that report coming out, but instead of waiting just another couple of weeks for the report to be produced and thereby facilitating the Executive making decisions before the collapse—let us face it: a couple of weeks either way would have made no difference to the public inquiry and the matter discussed at that time —it decided on that timing, without a budget, without considering the victims of historical institutional abuse and without giving that critical security and certainty to the Government Departments in Northern Ireland.
It was because of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir and Sinn Féin’s decision, particularly on timings, that Departments and public services were thrown into a period of uncertainty and extreme and unfair pressure. Consequently, it is the people of Northern Ireland, across all communities, who suffer the most. Sinn Féin’s decisions put us in the position we are in today of having to consider putting in place a budget in November, when no budget has been in place in Northern Ireland since right back in March. Even though we have heard some references to the indicative budget being put in place to allow Departments to plan, let us be in no doubt that the lack of certainty has fundamentally affected decision making and the roll-out of public services. Real people have been impacted by that.
I referred earlier to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Health services in particular have been put in a completely unsatisfactory, pressured and difficult situation. Let us be clear: this is a matter of life and death. People will have died because of the uncertainty and because decisions that Ministers needed to make and decisions that needed to be made about the budget could not be made. That is absolutely disgraceful.
I welcome the Bill, and I particularly welcome the decision to release £50 million from the DUP-Conservative party agreement funds. We have been making the case for some time that these funds are vital. Our public services in Northern Ireland are under huge pressure. It has already been mentioned, but in the discussions on that agreement and the funding, it was really important to the DUP that the money would go to public services to benefit absolutely everyone across all communities in Northern Ireland. The DUP will be there not to fight on narrow political issues or cultural agendas, but to do our utmost to deliver excellent public services for the people of Northern Ireland, regardless of their political view, religion, race or any other criteria. It is only if we work towards that that we will build.
I have heard reference to a shared future for Northern Ireland; we absolutely want a shared future in which the people of Northern Ireland are happy and healthy, living in a better and brighter Northern Ireland, within the United Kingdom. We will work to try to achieve that, but the challenge is for Sinn Féin: drop your red lines. We will go into government tomorrow morning. We have no asks and no demands. Get back to government and get delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) for setting out so clearly where we are. I shall not focus so much on the detail of the budget, but on the circumstances that have conspired to bring us to where we are this evening.
I must say to the Secretary of State that I have listened carefully to what he has said, and he is someone I admire, and his patience and resolve are undoubted, but it concerns me slightly, as a British Member of Parliament representing a British constituency in Northern Ireland, that some seem almost apologetic that this sovereign Parliament is taking decisions that affect the British citizens I represent in Northern Ireland. We should not apologise for that. It is through the fault of others who have negated their responsibility that we have been brought to this point.
I served in the Northern Ireland Assembly and in the Executive. The decision by the Democratic Unionist party, which I am proud to represent, to go into government with Sinn Féin was probably the most difficult political decision I have had to make in my political career. It was a challenging decision to go into government with a party that I knew had members who were responsible for the planning and perhaps even the carrying out of the murder of members of my family, people with whom I had served in the Ulster Defence Regiment, friends I had grown up with and neighbours. Yet I and others were willing to set that aside in the greater interests of Northern Ireland—for the next generation, the young people. We were prepared to set that aside and say, “We’ll give this a chance.” I have watched Sinn Féin squander that chance. Yes, there are issues and difficulties that have led us to where we are now, but what are they when set alongside the history of Northern Ireland and its troubled past?
We are now in a situation in which we in this House must take decisions that really should be taken by the devolved Assembly and Executive. I regret that. I am a devolutionist and believe that government is best served and delivered when it is close to the people, which is why I want to see Stormont functioning for my constituents of Lagan Valley. We cannot continue with this impasse indefinitely. We cannot continue with the situation in which that democracy and that government are not being delivered. They are not being delivered because one party—potentially a partner in the Government of Northern Ireland—refuses to deliver it, refuses to take up its responsibility, and refuses to sit down with the rest of us.
If Sinn Féin members find it difficult to sit down with my party, they need to understand that we find it difficult to sit down with them, but we are prepared to do so in the interests of the people whom we represent. In the decisions that we have taken in our confidence and supply agreement with the Conservative party, we have demonstrated time and again a willingness to act in the greater interest, to set aside partisan advantage and narrow issues and to act for the greater good.
We cannot go on indefinitely like this; we cannot go on indefinitely with Government Departments in Northern Ireland having no political direction. It is simply unfair on the senior civil servants in Northern Ireland. It is unfair on those Departments that they do not have that political direction. As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South has said, this is literally costing people their lives. Decisions are not being made on interventions that would help people in desperate need of healthcare, and yet those people are waiting, waiting and waiting. The political decisions that are required are not being made.
There is, I suspect, a reluctance on the part of the Secretary of State and his colleagues to go any further than we are going tonight on direct rule. He has been at pains to say that this is not the first step towards direct rule. I understand where he is coming from. I understand the reason for the reluctance, but I say to him that I know the psychology of Sinn Féin. When we say to its members, “Don’t worry, we are not pushing towards direct rule,” does that encourage them to think, “Well, the Government aren’t going to take on their responsibility, so we will hang out a big longer, a bit longer and a bit longer”? Does it incentivise them to take on the responsibility that the people elected them to take on when we say, “Well, actually we are not moving towards direct rule.” It is not that we want to move towards direct rule, but Sinn Féin must face up to the reality, and the reality is that we cannot continue in a vacuum.
It is wrong that a part of the United Kingdom tonight does not have the political direction that the people expect and require and that my constituents deserve every bit as much as those who are represented by the party of the Secretary of State. We cannot sustain this position indefinitely—or even in the short term. There are too many crucial decisions, and too many lives that depend on those decisions, not least those of the victims of historical institutional abuse.
Earlier, I mentioned the victims and survivors of our troubled past who have been waiting for years for the establishment of institutions that will examine that past in more detail and that will enable those victims and survivors to go some way towards getting to the truth and gaining access to justice. Is it not cruelly ironic that the victims of the IRA are being prevented from having access to justice by the political party that supported the violence of the IRA for years? Where else would such a situation be tolerated? It is unacceptable.
Efforts are being made, and we will continue those efforts on these Benches—the DUP will redouble its efforts —to get agreement, but the Secretary of State needs to publish the proposals on legacy. He needs to put down a marker and say, “We’re going to wait but we won’t wait forever.” Let the public, the victims and survivors have their say on legacy issues. Let us get those proposals out; there is no good reason for delay. The Government need to act in taking the necessary measures and decisions —not because we want to wrong-foot others, but because it is what the people need and require, and it is what is in the best interests of everyone in Northern Ireland.
This budget is welcomed and the decisions that will flow from it are good and will be beneficial for many people, but we cannot continue with this impasse. The House must send a clear message this evening to the political parties in Northern Ireland, especially to Sinn Féin. If they are not prepared to step up to the mark, to take on the responsibility now and to start governing, this Parliament will do that job on behalf of the people of the United Kingdom and it will ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are provided with the political direction that they require within their Government Departments. There are people in this House who are prepared to step up to the mark and to play their role in supporting the Government in taking that forward, although we do so with some reluctance, because it is not our preferred outcome. Our preferred outcome is a functioning Executive; it is power sharing.
I find it rather ironic that I, as a Unionist, am the one in this House advocating power sharing in Northern Ireland, when for years it was the nationalists who told us that this was their key and core demand. And when it was delivered and they got it, what did they do? They walked out. They left. They abandoned power sharing. That leaves me wondering about the level of commitment. Are we in a situation where there are some who want to make Northern Ireland work, and others who conspire against making it work? Their credentials are on the line. I say to them, with the greatest of respect, that the DUP wants to be in government and we want to work with others, including Sinn Féin, to deliver for the people we represent. We are prepared to go into government today—no preconditions and no red lines. Let us get on with it. But this House has to send a clear message that if Sinn Féin is not prepared to do the same, this House is going to govern for the people of Northern Ireland.
I have had the opportunity to make a number of interventions throughout this evening’s debate, so I will make only some short remarks now.
I cast Members’ minds back to the middle of the last couple of decades, when we were going through the negotiation process. At that point, my party made it clear that it was reluctant to go into a particular government until certain demands were met. There were previous times before that when other Unionist parties made similar claims and drew similar red lines. The then Government party and the then Secretary of State, who is now in the other place, made it clear that a certain train was departing a certain station, and that if the Democratic Unionist party and other Unionist parties were not on board, that train would depart without them. Not only would it depart without them, but government would then happen without them and they would be left sitting on their hands. In Lloyd George blackmail mode, that was what was held out to people in Northern Ireland, and it was clearly meant that that was going to happen.
The interesting thing at the moment is that there does not seem to be the belief on Sinn Féin’s side that the Government are actually prepared to follow through with such an offer. If the train is leaving the station, Sinn Féin should be on board and it should play its role. If it is not prepared to be on board, the train should depart without it and we should be allowed to govern without it.
The Government do not want that to be the case; they do not want it to be on the agenda. They want everyone to be singing and on board the same little train going forward. Well, if the members of one party are blocking progress, they cannot be allowed to pull the safety cord on that train, bring things to a halt and say that nothing else happens without them.
It is incumbent on the Government to recognise that if they are not prepared to let the train of devolution go forward without Sinn Féin’s participation on its terms and its terms only, it is about time that they stepped in and allowed devolution without Sinn Féin or had direct rule. Tonight, we are standing at that point. Will it be direct rule, or will it be devolution without Sinn Féin’s active participation? I do not think the Government have the guts to go for the latter choice, and I think they are now timidly being pushed towards direct rule.
I said in one of my interventions that it is essential that we do not have drift in Northern Ireland, because there is a certain type of Irishman who will fill the vacuum. We saw a bit of that yesterday in Omagh, and we have seen a bit of it today in Londonderry. Certain people will try to fill the vacuum with violence, and that is not acceptable.
The Government have to move, and move expeditiously. They cannot allow themselves to be seen to be pussyfooting or taking this issue quietly and slowly. They have to make sure that they take strides with determination to implement this budget measure and then, within a matter of weeks, move to the next phase of direct rule. That will mean preparation and money being spent on preparing the Northern Ireland Office to have new Ministers drawn into it from this place and from the Government side of the House to help govern Northern Ireland.
The decisions my constituents want taken with regard to healthcare, education and infrastructure will require ministerial direction and ministerial determination. It is unacceptable that we have a situation, starting tonight, where, no matter how nice a gentleman he is, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service will be completely unanswerable and unaccountable to anyone in this democracy. That situation is not acceptable, and we cannot let it run for weeks on end. It has to end immediately, and the Secretary of State needs to take determined steps to see that that is the case.
When the Secretary of State spoke tonight, he made it clear that civil servants will act within certain boundaries, but they do not have to do that. If they made a decision the Secretary of State did not like, he would have to take the head of the civil service to court. That situation is unacceptable, and it cannot be allowed to continue or even to get off the ground. We need to make that very clear.
The decisions that are coming up are coming up rapidly. Police pay, police recruitment and police retention are key issues we hear about every day and will require political direction. On other issues, Northern Ireland wants to be an events location. Next year, a major golf tournament is coming to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). The year after that, there is the British open. Decisions will have to be made in January next year to let those events go ahead without any problem.
We will also have our Milk cup, or SuperCup, football tournament, and events to do with the North West 200. All the decisions on the finance of those events, and all the decisions to do with whether we have the Red Bull air races taking place in Northern Ireland, will have to be made in January. That will require political direction and political determination. Those decisions will not be taken by a civil servant; in fact, civil servants will be reluctant to go anywhere near those issues and to start making those decisions, because they might be too controversial for them.
As the independent chairman of the Northern Ireland taskforce on motorsport, I want to know, and I ask each week, what will happen to the needs of motorsport in Northern Ireland. It is a huge industry generating tens of millions of pounds for the local economy in many parts of our country, yet we do not have political decisions being made about how moneys will be allocated to events and events funding in Northern Ireland.
It is perverse in many ways that with tonight’s decision we will be having more British rule in Northern Ireland—and with no more of an Irish dimension. The fact of the matter is that Sinn Féin has brought about a situation where it now appears to be in a worse place, as an ideology, than it was in 1997 and in 1985. While Unionism was on the back foot and being pushed out of its sense of place and sense of nationhood, we now have Sinn Féin putting its community in a very difficult situation.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is supremely ironic that the decisions taken over the past few weeks and months by the party of “Brits out” has resulted tonight in “Brits in”?
I agree that it is a case of “Brits in”, but of course the British have never left, and could never be bombed out, bullied out, pushed out or got out, because it is our land—our country—and we are staying there, so I never really subscribed to the view that we were “out” in the first place.
The call to have an Irish dimension as part of this process has fallen on deaf ears. There is no role in the new mechanism that we are now in—this “twilight zone”, as it has been called—for the Irish dimension. That has left nationalists and republicans bereft of any sort of foothold in the process going forward. That is entirely their fault. We live in a divided community. We have a society that is split and we have to try to heal it. We can do that only when we have responsible politicians on the side of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and others coming forward and being prepared to lead their community away from the abyss that they have taken it to. It is sad that they have decided to do that, but they have done it and it is their responsibility.
My party is up for devolution. We put an awful lot of effort into it. I know the sacrifice that was made by many people in my party and many people on these Benches. I know the personal sacrifice that was made by my father to get devolution up and running. It saddens me that it is coming to an end, but I shed no tears for it when I see the mess that some people would try to make of it. If people want to squander it and make a mess of it, let us bring it to an end and finish it. Let us have direct rule and get on with governing our people in a sensible way.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has given a powerful coda to what has been, as those in all parts of the House would recognise, an extraordinarily well-informed and important debate on a desperately significant subject. There is not much doubt that an enormous amount of good will has been expressed towards the Secretary of State, and gratitude for the work he has done and the effort he has made.
If there is one thing that slightly depresses me about the debate, it is that we are probably going to have to do the whole thing all over again in a few months’ time. As we approach the next financial year, many of us will be thinking of the consequences of setting a new budget for it. I am not saying that my Christmas will be totally destroyed—that this will completely tarnish the gilt or dull the sparkle of tinsel—but it will certainly be slightly diverted by thinking of that prospect ahead.
Every speaker has referred to the appalling circumstances and situations that are prevailing today. Omagh has been mentioned. I have grown into having a great affection for the people of Omagh in the many years that I have attended the commemoration of the horrendous massacre that took place on 15 August 1998, when, as we all know, 29 adults and two unborn children were killed. I remind the House, as if it needs reminding, that next year is the 20th anniversary. I am sure that many of us will wish to be present there to show solidarity with the people of Omagh.
There has been an enormous amount of good will, and I am particularly grateful for the statement that has been issued since the start of this evening’s debate by Simon Coveney, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, who has committed the Irish Government to continuing to work to facilitate as much discussion as possible to support the talks. We are grateful for that north-south dimension. [Interruption.] I am not entirely sure where that noise came from. It was a little bit close.
All the speakers this afternoon have said pretty much the same thing: we do not want to be here, but we accept the fact that we have to be here to do something. The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) referred to the democratic deficit, and I think he put his finger on it. Most of the speakers referred to the fact that there is a lack of accountability, a lack of transparency and a democratic deficit. This may be a necessary evil, but it sticks in many people’s throats.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) for mentioning the appalling circumstances of the Northern Irish football team; I think he was the only person to do so. We express our gratitude and respect to Steven Davis, particularly for the dignity he showed when Stuart Dallas was chopped down with an absolute leg-breaker that did not attract a red card, whereas a ball on the upper shoulder was given as a penalty in a disgraceful and reprehensible display of bad refereeing. We are, I hope, united on that.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the wish to have a general election now, and he implied that there were those in the House who did not wish to have one now. I cannot always speak for my Labour friends, but we are more than willing to have a general election at any time the Government wish to mention. We are ready, and we are willing. When the nation calls, Labour will be there to answer that call; be assured of that.
The right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) struck not a discordant note, but a slightly different note when he referred to his wish not to be beastly to the Northern Ireland civil service, but at the same time seriously to consider the benefits of direct rule. I almost thought that there was a job application in there somewhere. I hope that the rest of us feel that we do not wish to return to direct rule.
I will happily give way to my party friend and colleague.
I thank my party friend and colleague. He said something about Labour being there, and I wondered whether that meant that he was about to announce that, finally, the Labour party will allow people in Northern Ireland not just to join—it has done that only recently—but to put up candidates?
Time is short tonight, Madam Deputy Speaker. There are things that I could say, and there are things that I would be happy to say, but the tugging on the back of my coat from my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) cannot be denied.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) put her finger on it when she talked about hospitals and schools—and I hardly even need to mention the parlous state of the A5. There are things that need to be done, and we should get on with dealing with them. I think everybody accepts that. The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) rather succinctly described what we are doing this evening as the “least worst option”. Not for the first time, he has discovered les mots justes, and I congratulate him on that.
In a typical contribution, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) stunned the Chamber, as he always does. He seemed to imply that we had lingered too long before introducing any legislation. We have already used section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 twice: once to passport 75% of the budget and then, in July, to passport 95% of it, so things have happened. He also implied—in a way that was untypically provocative for the gentle hon. Gentleman—that somehow the Labour party was not in favour of increased public spending. We are in favour of increased public spending across the board. We want it in Wales, we want it in Scotland, we want it in England, we want it in Ealing and we want it in Northern Ireland. We are in favour of increased public spending; we are just not in favour of bespoke public spending.
If I may say so, the hon. Member for Havant (Alan Mak) spoke powerfully against the idea of direct rule, and he spoke with cogency and brevity. I would like to say the same about the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I really would—but, not for the first time, the emotion, the power and the strength of his commitment to his constituency and his part of the United Kingdom forced him to expand further and extrapolate more than he probably wanted to do initially. However, his exegesis on this theme was welcomed by us all. I have never spent a few hours listening to him and regretted them.
The hon. Gentleman said that, after all, what we have is not “what the people want”, and I think that is so important. Not for the first time, my friend quite rightly put his finger on it by saying that this is not what the people want. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) also cogently said that we cannot continue with this impasse, and how right he was.
I must say that the final speech, from the hon. Member for North Antrim, was statesmanlike and powerful. I hope he will not resent my saying so. He used the metaphor of a train leaving the station, which for many of us had echoes of Michael Collins and Lloyd George, but the trouble is that the train is not moving: it is stuck in the sidings and is not going anywhere at present. I would like to see the train moving, with all of us aboard that freedom train, but in the meantime, we have to inject the financial lubrication necessary to keep the wheels turning, and that is what we are doing tonight.
The Opposition will not oppose the Bill. Reluctantly, we will support this sensible measure, which keeps the show on the road, but we look forward to a devolved Assembly and a reconstituted Executive. I think that is something that every right hon. and hon. Member in this Chamber wants to see as soon as possible.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.