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House of Commons Hansard
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Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill
06 March 2019
Volume 655

Considered in Committee (Order, this day)

[Sir Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]

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I must inform the Committee that I have selected the amendment and the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison).

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Introductory

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clauses 3 to 5 stand part.

Amendment 1, in clause 6, page 5, line 26, at end add—

“(4) Section (Regulations) comes into force at the end of the period of 3 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.”

Clauses 6 and 7 stand part.

New clause 1—Regulations

“(1) The Secretary of State may make regulations by statutory instrument amending any provision within sections 2 to 5 of this Act or within the Schedule to this Act.

(2) Regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing them has been laid before Parliament and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.

(3) The Secretary of State may lay draft regulations under this section before Parliament only if the draft regulations take account of any relevant recommendations made by any select committee of the House of Commons.”

The purpose of this new clause is to ensure prior consultation, and full and proper scrutiny, of proposed changes to the renewable heat incentive scheme in order to ensure that current participants are not disadvantaged by changes to the scheme.

That the Schedule be the schedule to the Bill.

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We have had significant debate on this matter on Second Reading and I do not wish to prolong proceedings any further at this stage. I look forward to hearing from right hon. and hon. Members.

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I am grateful to you for calling me to speak in this stage of our proceedings, Sir Lindsay. The complexity of the Bill, apart from clause 1, has been demonstrated by the level of discussion that we have had. That really underscores the need for full and proper scrutiny of this Bill. Forcing this through all its stages in a day is a challenge, and I fear we have not explored sufficiently the complexity of this matter. It is a matter that bears on the lives of many people in Northern Ireland and we must get it right. I know the Secretary of State is as keen as I am to ensure that that happens.

I am grateful to the parliamentary draftsmen for their assistance in crafting my new clause, which is available in manuscript form. It turns what I thought would be a simple matter—that of dividing the largely uncontroversial part of the Bill from the more difficult bit on the RHI—into something that, in my mind, is really quite complicated, but that is the nature of this place and of parliamentary draftsmanship. We cannot consider these two parts separately and be sure the matter will be finalised in time for people to get their money on 1 April, so in consultation with parliamentary draftsmen, we have devised a new clause and an amendment to clause 6, which is the commencement clause.

I am grateful to the members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee who have co-signed the new clause and amendment. I have appended to the new clause what I hope is a helpful explanatory statement. It explains that the new clause is essentially a patch-up job that I hope will help to facilitate consultation and fuller and better scrutiny of proposed changes to the renewable heat incentive scheme to ensure that current participants are not disadvantaged by changes to the scheme. I appreciate that this is imperfect—I would have preferred for it to be dealt with separately and for the Bill to have been divided into two parts to allow for a proper debate on the RHI clauses and schedule—but I accept that we are faced with the choice of supporting the Bill or not and that if we do not support it many people will be financially disadvantaged, which is not acceptable. I hope that the new clause provides a mechanism for scrutinising this matter, albeit imperfectly, and for making recommendations that the Secretary of State might implement to ensure that as few people as possible are disadvantaged.

I am not in the business of job creation, and I gently point out that my Select Committee is the most productive in the House of Commons, according to figures I have seen—we are pretty busy, particularly at the moment—but it might be thought a proper Select Committee to undertake this work. If so, I will discuss it with my Committee, but I make no prescription. I am quite clear that this complicated element of our business needs proper detailed scrutiny and that we need to see and examine the data produced.

Several right hon. and hon. Members have been a little critical of the Department for the Economy. It is after all implicated in this situation, as the informatics it produced and the advice it gave are partly to blame for where we are, and that means we are doubly obliged to examine closely any material it has produced. That is fair and proper scrutiny. I gently suggest that whichever Select Committee undertakes this work focus heavily on that information so that we can be clear what is being recommended to the Secretary of State and are better able to make recommendations to minimise the hard cases that we are all concerned about in the course of this legislation. I hope she will consider the amendments carefully, and I look forward to hearing what she has to say.

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In his closing remarks, the Minister, who I believe was trying to be helpful, talked about the further exchanges that might take place in Committee. However, I think it would be remarkably difficult to prolong this debate in any meaningful detail, because of the granularity that was drawn to our attention by the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). It will be about real-life cases of “winners, probably not, but losers, almost certainly”, which will become apparent only following the passage of some time. In that sense, I think the hon. Gentleman made an intelligent proposal when he said that we should consider how to proceed with pre-legislative scrutiny, and, indeed, I called for that on Second Reading.

In that context, I strongly support the new clause. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is not the perfect way forward, and it is probably not the best-structured way of achieving his ambitions and the wishes of other Members for adequate scrutiny, but it may well be the best that that we can achieve. I have confidence in the members of his Committee—I must have confidence in those colleagues of ours—because they do at least have a legitimate track record of both interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland and a determination to use the power of the Committee not only to hold the United Kingdom Government to account but increasingly, in this period of non-devolution, to raise matters that cannot be properly scrutinised in the context of Stormont. Ideally, if the world were different, there would be the equivalent of our Public Accounts Committee at Stormont level, but, although it existed in a functioning Stormont, it does not exist in the current circumstances.

I do not think I need to say any more, except that we support the new clause, although I am sure that if the Secretary of State has ambitions to take such action in an even better way, we will listen to her proposals.

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It is always an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Lindsay.

I support the new clause. It has the overwhelming support of the parties here and of the Select Committee, which has been rightly identified as the Committee that should try to organise the scrutiny. I approve of the requirement in the new clause that the Secretary of State should bear in mind

“any relevant recommendations made by any select committee of the House”.

A number of points were made on Second Reading but, in particular, Members asked where the evidence came from and on what we were basing this, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) asked whether we could see the material. Yesterday was the first time that I, and many of my colleagues, were able to see the material on which tonight’s discussion is based. I have it in my hand. There is not a lot of it: it contains 300 words and three graphs. On the basis of a 300-word document with three graphs, we are being asked to agree a multi-million-pound subsidy cut in Northern Ireland. That is not right.

This requires scrutiny. Those 300 words may have convinced some people, and the Minister made a very good fist of making the case, but they are not a compelling argument. We need to be able to see the evidence that has convinced the Department that it is doing right and the rest of the United Kingdom is doing wrong, and that, if the Irish Republic comes on stream, it too will be doing wrong. We need to see the evidence for those claims.

I asked a few questions that need to be answered by the Secretary of State or her senior officials. That can happen only in a Committee, because they have not been answered on Second Reading, and I do not know if they will be answered in Committee. I welcome the new clause that has been tabled by colleagues; I hope that it attracts support and that the Secretary of State can demonstrate to us, if she does not want us to accept it, that she will take cognisance of what a Committee will say and of scrutiny that will actually take place.

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I recognise the concern of Members and the spirit of this amendment, which seeks to provide for additional time and scrutiny. As I have said, I empathise with the participants in the scheme. I have been very clear, during discussion both of yesterday’s legislative measures and today’s, that this situation and this process are far from ideal. What I and I think everybody in this Chamber wants to see is scrutiny of Northern Ireland policies by locally elected politicians. Nevertheless, I am committed to bringing forward measures on behalf of Northern Ireland where they are critical to good governance, as these two Bills are. I remind Members about the point I raised yesterday about the normal estimates process: by taking this legislation through as primary legislation in this House, rather than subordinate legislation, as it would have been in the Assembly, we are affording a higher degree of scrutiny and accountability to these measures.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, is right that full and proper scrutiny is what we need, and he is right to challenge us. He is also right to say that we must get this right, and I appreciate that his amendment would afford more time for scrutiny and offer a mechanism by which more scrutiny could be delivered.

The Northern Ireland RHI scheme has probably received more public scrutiny than any other. I have already mentioned the public inquiry into the scheme, which has interrogated myriad aspects of the scheme in detail, but additionally and specifically on these new tariffs, the Department for the Economy held an extensive public consultation from June to September 2018. That included making public the evidence base used by the independent experts who generated the tariffs. I believe that information is on the Department for the Economy website and we are looking to see if we can find it quickly and provide a link to it as soon as possible.

The Department held pre-consultation events for stakeholders, including all the local political parties and key representative groups, including the Ulster Farmers’ Union and the Renewable Heat Association Northern Ireland. Following the closure of the consultation, the Department set out its analysis and response in January 2019 and said that final proposals for the revised tariffs would be delivered in February this year. The Department and my officials have in recent weeks briefed parliamentarians and local parties on the new tariffs and the new legislative measures before us, including the new buy-out clause. My hon. Friend’s suggestion that there may be a role for further scrutiny in either his Committee or another Committee in the House is very welcome and I certainly would appreciate that.

With regard to the timing of the legislation today, it is important to recognise the comprehensive and technical nature of the work involved. As I have mentioned, the Department for the Economy engaged independent experts to carry out a painstakingly detailed review of the scheme, went through a full public consultation exercise and more recently an extensive discussion with the European Commission on state aid. These discussions only reached a conclusion at the end of January, meaning the Department for the Economy could not finalise its position any earlier. The current legislation is sunsetted and a failure to enact the clauses before us will mean more than 1,800 participants will not be able to be paid by 1 April.

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On that point—I think this is critical and is probably subject to the judicial review at the present time—is it the case that payments stop? Is that the opinion of the barristers advising the Department? Or is it the case that this reverts to the original payments scheme? There is contrary advice on this and the Secretary of State must be clear with us which advice she is taking and why.

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The advice I have received is that the payments will stop, because there will be no legal basis on which to make any payments. The payments that are currently being made have been found to breach state aid rules, so there is no legal basis on which to continue to make payments. The payments with the cost-capping involved expire on 31 March. The Department cannot go back to the original payments, because they would be illegal payments, and we will not have any other mechanism by which legal payments can be made after 31 March. I recognise that this is far from ideal, but the facts of the situation have meant that an expedited process is required.

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The Secretary of State says that we cannot go back to the original payments, but I do not think that anyone is asking for that. However, the payments were stepped down, and I understand that she could continue with those stepped-down payments.

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I cannot continue with those, because the advice that I have is that to continue with them would be illegal. Under the ministerial code, I cannot, as a Minister of the Crown, legislate for something that I am advised is illegal. So I am left in a very difficult situation. I understand how people feel about this. I empathise with people and I understand the implications for them of a reduction, but as Secretary of State, legislating for something that none of us wants to be legislating for in this place, I am faced with the choice of legislating for something that is legal, to allow some subsidies to continue, or not legislating, which would result in no subsidies happening after 31 March. The legal basis on which the reduced subsidies, as set out by the Executive, are paid expires on 31 March.

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I appreciate the Secretary of State’s dilemma. She is having to act on the basis of advice that she is getting from the Department for the Economy, a Department whose advice has been shown to be flawed in the past. Does she understand that we need to examine this closely? She has been told that, legally, she has to do this, and we in this place have to accept that, but we also have to scrutinise the legislation. I hope that she can give me sufficient reassurance that she will note our examination of this matter and our recommendations on it, and that she will not take at face value the advice that she has been given from a Department that has erred in the past. I very much hope that she will be able to tailor her remarks accordingly, and I am all agog as to what commitment she can give to providing the scrutiny that I have described in my amendment.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his questions, and I will come on specifically to those points in a moment.

I want to come back to the question of whether there is an option to delay. I agree with the principle and intention behind the amendment, but it is not the solution to the wider problem. As I have said, the tariffs set out in the legislation are the only tariffs available that will bring the returns on the scheme into line with the 12% approved by state aid. The tariffs strike a fair balance between the interests of scheme participants and the wider public interest, in ensuring that the Northern Ireland budget and public services are protected and that taxpayers’ money is spent to achieve value for money. The only lawful alternative would be the closure of the scheme.

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In relation to the figures that are being presented, I have done a very simple back-of-the-envelope calculation—perhaps not a very wise thing to do—of the payments that would have been received in the early stages at the maximum permissible amount. If we calculate that in, then take the reduction over the next couple of years that has been calculated in, then multiply by the factor that has been put forward, it comes out at 3.1 times less than what the rest of GB is getting on the average tariff.

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I hope that the scrutiny that the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has offered will help to address a number of those issues. I know that there is concern about the differences between the scheme in GB and the scheme in Northern Ireland. I am not using a visual aid here, but I can assure Members that we have a copy of the document that is on the Department for the Economy website. It is available for download, and we would be happy to send a link to all Members here today, to ensure that they have an opportunity to see the very detailed information, tables and calculations, which I am sure they will absorb and enjoy.

To resume, delay of the legislative measures, such as the amendment would achieve, would serve only to put at risk payments to all the participants in the scheme. For there to be a lawful basis for the RHI scheme come 1 April, the legislative process and Royal Assent need to be completed by 31 March. The current tariffs are designed to pay the maximum 12% rate of return to a typical participant, so there is no lawful way to introduce higher tariffs to the scheme. A delay would not change that fundamental issue.

I support the principle of the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire, but the lasting solution to the issues that he and others have raised is that these matters are best addressed and scrutinised by a restored Executive in Northern Ireland. In the absence of a functioning Assembly, it is vital that we provide the statutory footing needed to allow the scheme to continue to ensure that boiler owners continue to receive payments from 1 April.

To go back to the comments made by my hon. Friend, I hope that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, or another Committee of this House will now spend time looking at the issue. As the Secretary of State, I will consider carefully any recommendations made with regard to it, in particular any on helping those in hardship. We all agree that no one wants people who entered the scheme in good faith, and because they believed they were doing the right thing, to face financial hardship. We want to ensure that they have the reassurance that they need that everything we could do has been done.

On the basis of that position, and of my commitment to work with the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and to look carefully at his recommendations, I hope that he will not move his amendment.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 3 to 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I thank everyone who has participated in this debate and the one yesterday. We have had a good discussion. We are all dissatisfied with the level of scrutiny afforded to these measures in the absence of an Executive, but I think it is fair to say that the debates in this Chamber yesterday and today have meant that there has been scrutiny and that we have aired a number of the issues that right hon. and hon. Members wished to air. I thank all who have participated and look forward to the work that the Select Committee has set out it will do.

I thank my Minister of State, the Minister in the other place, the Whips, the Opposition, the Scottish National party, the Members from the Democratic Unionist party and the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) for their participation over the past two days. Finally, I thank the Bill officials because, if it were not for the people who spend hours and hours coming up with the very technical points and working incredibly hard through that, we would not be able to deliver in this place in the way that we do.

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I reiterate to the Secretary of State that these proceedings are not satisfactory. Everyone recognises the legal imperative to make sure there is a scheme in operation, and therefore there is time pressure, but none of us accepts that this is the right use of the parliamentary process. It would still have been undesirable had we separated the two very different strands of the Bill, one relatively non-controversial and the other significantly controversial. To be honest, we are still lacking in adequate answers to the many questions that have been raised on the Floor of the House, including in Committee, today.

I appreciate the efforts of the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, to move forward on the question of scrutiny. I accept that he understood the need not to press the amendment, but that was on the basis that the Secretary of State is committed to making sure that she listens carefully and closely to any recommendations that come from that Select Committee, which is now most important.

It may well be that the Secretary of State and the Minister are right in their ambition that there will be no losers. I think everyone in this House wants a scheme that does not see winners racing away to the bank in quite the luxury they did before. Equally, there is a determination to ensure that, if there are people who lose out, we are not putting viable businesses and people’s livelihoods and incomes at risk. In that sense, I recommend that the Chairman and the members of the Select Committee now take forward the work of proper scrutiny in a way that simply has not been done up to this point.

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I thank the Secretary of State for listening to the concerns expressed and articulated through my amendments. I note her remarks from the Dispatch Box that she will carefully consider the result of further scrutiny of this Bill and any recommendations that my Committee, or any other Committee, might make on how to ensure that this necessary measure does not disadvantage businesses in Northern Ireland. I look forward, if my Select Committee agrees to undertake this work, to the scrutiny that the Bill deserves, so far as we are able to provide it, and to making recommendations to her in very short order. I particularly look forward to her response to any recommendations that we might make.

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The shadow Secretary of State put his finger on it when he said that this is not a satisfactory process by which to scrutinise legislation. We have kicked that one around a lot today, and there is general agreement that the process could be better, whether through a functioning Assembly or through Northern Ireland business not being conducted in this truncated manner—either would be very beneficial.

It would, however, be remiss of me not to thank the Secretary of State, the Minister of State and their officials for helping us in recent days, especially on the non-controversial aspects of what we have debated today, namely the rates bill. Of course, we would like to see some elements tweaked further but, by and large, it has been a success story. It could have been a very different story. We could have been looking at a 12-point rate hike, which was averted largely down to the hard work of officials and Members of this House. We welcome that, and it would be remiss of me not to put that word of thanks on the record.

I agree with the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, that we look forward to scrutinising this matter further. I hope the Secretary of State will make herself, the Minister or, indeed, senior officials available to whatever Committee ultimately considers the Bill so that the probing questions asked here today can be properly scrutinised. We look forward to hopefully finding something that allows us to go back and give some hope and satisfaction to genuinely needy people in Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.