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Northern Ireland Budget Bill

Volume 667: debated on Wednesday 30 October 2019

Considered in Committee (Order, this day)

[Sir Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]

I can inform the Committee that one amendment to the Bill has been tabled. Copies are available in the Vote Office. I have not selected the amendment for debate.

Clause 1

Issue of sum out of the Consolidated Fund for the year ending 31 March 2020 and appropriation of that sum

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

In speaking to clause 1 stand part, I will also try to address very briefly the issue of housing associations, which I did not have time to do in my closing speech on Second Reading.

Clause 1 authorises the issue out of the Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland the sum of just over £5.3 billion. 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 purpose for which the funds are to be used. The authorisations and appropriations in this clause are a balance to complete in addition to the vote on account previously authorised in section 4 and in column 2 of schedule 3 of the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2019.

I will now address the issue of housing associations out of respect to previous comments made. The Government, to be very clear, recognise the absolute importance of housing associations as the main mechanism for delivery of social and affordable homes. We agree 100% that classification as public sector has serious implications for their funding stream, for the reasons cited in the debate. We completely agree, therefore, that action must be taken, and the Government are committed to taking forward legislation to facilitate reclassification as soon as parliamentary time allows. I hope that the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) will realise that standing here today on the brink of an election I do not feel I can give a guarantee of a specific time, but I can say that this will be a priority for this Government, if re-elected, and that officials are continuing to work closely with officials in Northern Ireland to facilitate it.

Perhaps the Minister could give us some clarity. In the past, we have been told that the reason why the legislation could not come forward is that it had not been properly prepared by either the Department for Communities or the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland. Then we were told that it had to come through the Northern Ireland Office. Has the legislation been prepared by the appropriate Department in Northern Ireland? Has it been approved to come forward to the Treasury here in Westminster? If it has reached that stage, when did it reach that stage? If it has not, what are the impediments?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I am informed that officials have been making preparations to facilitate its introduction. I can confirm that a draft Bill exists and has been translated into the Westminster format, and NIO officials continue to work closely with officials in the Department for Communities and the Cabinet Office to make further progress towards introduction. I have spoken to the permanent secretary in the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland, and I know that she is extremely enthusiastic to see this through, as we are. I regret that I cannot give an absolute guarantee of an exact time when this will happen. The hon. Member for Belfast East will know why that is the case, but I am clear that the good will and the commitment are there, because we recognise the fundamental importance of the issue raised and the ramifications of the existing classifications.

I want to repeat something I raised earlier. I do not necessarily expect the Minister to give a response in this debate, but perhaps we could get some kind of response today. Once again, this relates to the situation of the victims of institutional abuse. If we are not going to see the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill brought through the House of Commons, is there any capacity in the Consolidated Fund to make some form of payment, to at least acknowledge the fact that those victims of institutional abuse exist and that they suffered? It would be, we could say, a down payment. Is there legal capacity for the Secretary of State, the NIO or the Northern Ireland civil service to authorise that kind of payment?

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his question. He asked about that on Second Reading, and I apologise for not having the time to respond directly. On his broader question, I can confirm that this budget is putting on a sound legal basis the draft budget debated earlier for this financial year. The short answer to his question is that it does not include provisions for the implementation of the Stormont House agreement institutions, and it does not include consideration of the consequences of implementing the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill. I wholly agree, as I know the Secretary of State would, that that Bill must be a priority for Governments of any colour. The hon. Gentleman asked for some creativity or flexibility in terms of a down payment. I am not authorised to put something definitive on the record, but I know that the Secretary of State and the team have heard that and will look to discuss it with the Northern Ireland civil service. I do not have a black and white answer to that question, but it is certainly noted.

I want to acknowledge the point made about the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley is right: the PSNI is a success story, and we cannot afford for it to go backwards. As a former Minister for police in England and Wales and a former Minister for the fire service, I found myself largely in agreement with the sentiments he expressed about the need to ensure that the police service has the resources it needs and about the challenges of the recruitment process in the modern age.

I want to come back to the point about housing association classification, because the Minister was not clear in his answer. The legislation has been prepared—I got that bit—but is it still being held by the Northern Ireland Office and therefore not transferred to the relevant Department that has to take it through here at Westminster, or has it been transferred to the relevant Department at Westminster and there simply has not been parliamentary time? That is important.

With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, if I was not clear enough before, I am not going to get any clearer now. The language in the document in front of me tells me that this is an extremely co-operative process. I do not think that the legislation is stuck in the NIO or the NICS, which is his concern. Everything here tells me that officials are working closely with the Department for Communities, the NIO and the Cabinet Office to make further progress towards introduction. I will go away and take further advice on that, but there is nothing here that tells me there is a hard impediment; it is just that I cannot, with any good faith, stand here and give a firm timetable under the circumstances we are in.

The Minister will be aware, because we had Northern Ireland questions before Prime Minister’s questions earlier today, that the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) asked the Prime Minister directly for a commitment about the legislation to compensate the victims of appalling historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland. We have a moral responsibility to compensate those victims, and we cannot allow the five weeks of a general election to prevent them receiving the compensation that is long overdue to them. I am alarmed at the response the Minister gave to the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland because he seemed to be ambivalent about that legislation coming through before the general election. I want the Minister to give a clear, unequivocal commitment to the victims of historical institutional abuse that that legislation will—will—come through this House before this House is dissolved next week.

I do not think I can give that hard guarantee to the hon. Lady. I know exactly why she is pressing me for it, and I have huge sympathy with what she is saying—and I know sympathy does not cut it—but she will know that parliamentary time is now extremely limited. It may well be, as I think Lord Ashton has indicated in the Lords today, that there is not time for the Bill to pass through both Houses. However, the hon. Lady certainly has my assurance—and I believe I speak on behalf of the Secretary of State; the hon. Lady knows how passionately he feels about this—that this will be tested very hard by us.

The hon. Lady will also know, given the importance and the sensitivity of the Bill, that we must obviously make sure it is properly considered so that victims of institutional abuse in Northern Ireland get the redress they deserve as quickly as possible. That is not a light consideration; it does require some proper scrutiny. I do not think anyone in the House is happy either that we are in the situation we are in with this Bill or about the absence of the HIA Bill, but we are where we are with the parliamentary time being extremely limited.

Will the Minister just clarify this for us if he can? If the HIA legislation is not brought forward and this Parliament finishes on Tuesday, as it probably will, does that mean all that legislation falls, and are we just to start again next time around? If so, that is appalling.

I agree that it would be extremely regrettable, but if that is the situation, it is for the new Government, of whatever colour, to establish their priorities. What I can say, having spoken to the Secretary of State about it, is that we have a deep commitment to doing this. It is a priority for all the reasons that we have stated. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) talked about a moral responsibility, and of course she is absolutely right.

Given what the Minister has said, may I urge him to do two things? First, will he try to get clarification about this issue as quickly as possible? Right now, the many survivors of terrible abuse will be deeply upset and worried, and they need to have clarity. If we can get that tonight, that would be good. Secondly, we have heard reference to an interim payment, and if it is not possible to put forward the detailed legislation, would it be possible to take through a much simpler piece of legislation with an accelerated passage, as is being done with this Bill today? That would at least give the Secretary of State or somebody the ability to make payments—simple payments —and then, after the election, the detailed process could kick in, because many of these victims are in desperate need.

I understand completely the points being made from various people in the Committee and the underlying reasons and motivation. I have a huge amount of sympathy, and I give an undertaking to try to establish some clarity this evening or first thing tomorrow morning, so that everyone knows where they stand, and we will do that through the normal channels.

Order. I am always very lenient because I want to allow Members to broaden the debate a little, but I do not want to diverge from where we should be at the Committee stage; hence I want to save time for Third Reading to allow Members to broaden it further. I believe the Minister is giving way to Gavin Robinson.

Thank you, Sir Lindsay. When the Bill to make restitution payments in some part to victims of HIA passed its Second Reading in the House of Lords, was there an associated carry-over motion? Is there any certainty that the Bill will be resurrected in the new Parliament? Can the Minister give us some clarity on that?

I will be brief, given the need to move on to Third Reading. You mentioned, Sir Lindsay, that an amendment to the Bill had been tabled, and I want to place on record my thanks for the positive and dextrous way in which you and the Public Bill Office considered it. I also thank the Minister for his response on Co-Ownership.

I recognise that the Minister is constrained in giving a definitive timescale for passing legislation, but I want to make it clear that the commitment he gave this evening was given to me in exactly the same debate a year ago. A promise and commitment was given then to rectify this small, discrete issue. Of course, the Ministers who gave that commitment are no longer Ministers. The Minister realises that I hold him in high regard, but with the greatest respect, he will not be here to follow through his pledge.

We need certainty. I asked whether there would be a carry-over motion for the HIA Bill because HIA victims need certainty. It would be an appalling dereliction if the House of Lords did not, in passing Second Reading of that Bill, associate a carry-over motion with it, because otherwise we must start again. In the run-up to Christmas, we will simply sign in, then in the immediate aftermath of Christmas and the new year, we will get another Queen’s Speech. Then for another week or two we will discuss the Gracious Speech and the Humble Address, so there will be no progress on that legislation, which cannot be brought back or reintroduced until the end of January at the earliest, subject to the business managers. That is completely substandard.

The issue of co-ownership, which I have been pushing, must be resolved by the end of the financial year—legislation must be passed by 31 March. I know it is small, but we as Members just piddled about this place whenever the Supreme Court asked us to come back, and we did nothing. No substantive business was put before us, yet we had a commitment on co-ownership legislation a year ago and that was never brought before us.

I must say that the Secretary of State has been good on HIA. His predecessors did not move at all; they said, “I’m sorry, this is a matter for the Executive. The report must go back to the Executive, and it is for the Executive to decide how to go forward.” I am grateful for the injection of progress he has brought, but sadly, given how this Parliament has evolved, it is too little, too late.

I make those points in gratitude to you, Sir Lindsay, for the consideration given to the amendment that was tabled, to the Public Bill Office and to the Minister for the commitment he has given. I recognise the constraints, but this issue cannot wait indefinitely.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 to 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

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

I thank the House for the debate that we have had on this important Bill and recognise the frustrations attached to it because of the timetable, the pace and the lack of resolution on some extremely important issues, not least to do with the passage of the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill 2019, which, I can confirm to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), did not have a carry-over motion in the House of Lords. I will direct the frustrations of the House about that to the Secretary of State and, through him, to the business managers. I also recognise the frustration, now I am better informed about the background, about the questions on the housing association issue that have clearly dragged on for a long time. That perhaps explains the line of questioning, but I am where I am, at the Dispatch Box today, and I think there is a genuine commitment. I am not aware of any serious impediments. I hope that that gives Members some reassurance.

We see this as a defensible, limited and sensible intervention at this time, and one that is in line with the approach taken since the collapse of the Executive in January 2017. We take very seriously our commitment to good governance in Northern Ireland and this Bill, vitally, does not preclude a new Executive, should they be formed within the financial year, from making budget adjustments if they see fit and amending legislation in the usual way at the end of the financial year. Crucially, we have heard that the impact of not passing this legislation would be Northern Ireland Departments being unable to access the full Northern Ireland block grant for 2019-20. Of course, that would have a very serious impact on the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland. The absence of legislation to underpin departmental spending would quickly become a systemic risk that would be unacceptable to all sides of the House. I thank the House for its consideration of the Bill, despite all the frustrations attached to it.

This is my last appearance at the Dispatch Box after almost nine years as a Minister and almost five years before that as a shadow Minister. I am delighted that this Bill is making its passage so that we can ensure that Northern Ireland has the budget it deserves, and so that the public services that the people we serve and represent rely on can continue to be delivered in the best possible way under the most difficult, frustrating and trying circumstances. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

It is very sad that this is the Minister’s last time at the Dispatch Box and in the House, and it is very sad that so many distinguished parliamentarians will not speak again from these Benches. This House will be the poorer for their not being here. I thank the Minister for the way he has conducted his business today and throughout his career in this place.

Let me put on record my thanks to the Minister for the help he gave my constituents, Sophia, Darren and Danielle Gibson in Newtownards, in relation to medicinal cannabis and the related methodology—working, in all fairness, with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to make that happen. He will have received the card that we all got to say thank you, and he has the one with wee Sophia’s photograph. I am sure he still has it; I have one in my office, too. I thank him so much, and wish him well as he moves on.

This is not the first time that I have spoken on Third Reading of a Northern Ireland Budget Bill debate and bemoaned the state of finances in Departments in Northern Ireland. We find ourselves in the difficult situation of having no functioning devolved Assembly. We have a seriously limited local council system; its powers are not on a par with those held by councils throughout the rest of the United Kingdom—that is a fact of life. We have a Westminster Parliament that has intervened only when legally necessary—other than to impose abortion against the will of the people of Northern Ireland. I find that disturbing, and my constituents in Strangford and people across Northern Ireland find it unacceptable. As I have said numerous times in this Chamber, either direct rule in its entirety should be implemented or legislation to call for an Assembly election should be introduced with the prerequisite that anyone who stands must take their seats and nominate accordingly.

As my hon. Friend is outlining, there is currently very limited decision making in Northern Ireland. However, he will have been very pleased, as I was, to hear the announcement just this week that, through Northern Ireland’s active participation in the English and Welsh negotiations for Orkambi and other drugs, that will be made available at a better price, as I understand it, for Northern Ireland and England than the Scottish deal. Does he agree that that is a very good announcement? I also highlight the hard work that he and many people in Northern Ireland have done on this campaign.

I thank my hon. Friend for what she said. There has been a joint campaign to have the Vertex drug available for those with cystic fibrosis. I am thankful for the decision, but we need to move this a stage further. As she said, it would be better if we had the legislation in place to make sure that we get it in Northern Ireland— we should do. We met Jen Banks and her wee boy here in the House. I also have a constituent in Newtownards who suffers from the same thing and who needs the drug immediately, so it would be great if that happened.

I am glad that the election has been called. I am happy to put myself before my constituents knowing that I have consistently done what I believe to be right in this House, yet I am disheartened by the conduct in this place. We seem to have lost our sense of honour and of being people of our word and doing the right thing—we in the DUP corner of the House certainly feel that way. I still continue to do that and should I be re-elected, I will continue to do so. Only a few weeks ago, it was remarkable that across the House, everybody could turn up, when they were putting the backstop in place, to do us over, yet where are they tonight? When it comes to being honourable people and doing the right thing, I find that I have seen less of it in this House over the last period. There are many in this House who I am good friends with, and I intend to be good friends with them forever, but I do feel let down and I want to put that on record.

The Northern Ireland Budget Bill will enable day-to-day life to continue in the Province. We have come through a number of years of austerity. Although I can comprehend the rationale behind that, it is difficult to watch the daily effects of it. Our streets are untidy, because Transport NI can no longer afford to address the weeds, never mind resurface the roads, but I am pleased to note from my most recent correspondence with Transport NI that the spend allocated for Strangford in 2018-19 is just over £11 million, which is almost a combination of that for 2016-17 and 2017-18.

I am reminded of a song from when I was a wee boy—that was not yesterday, by the way. We probably all know it from our childhood: “Four wheels on my wagon and I’m still rolling along”; “Three wheels on my wagon and I’m still rolling along”—then two wheels, then one wheel, but do you know something? When there are no wheels on the wagon, you do not roll along at all. What we find with the Northern Ireland Assembly is that we are not rolling along. What a disappointment that we are not doing anything the way we should be. There are no wheels on my wagon—or no wheels on the Assembly’s wagon, I should say, and we are not rolling anywhere. [Laughter.]

“You can watch those Cherokees go galloping by”—it is a great old song. I get the point that the hon. Gentleman is making by using that song as an example. No wheels on his wagon, he is not rolling along: the Cherokees have captured him, but he is still singing a happy song.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is the Assembly that is not rolling along. I am rolling along very well actually, just to let you know—no problem with me. Even though I am a diabetic—type 2—I can still keep going, and the Duracell battery is what I have to keep me going. The rest of the batteries fail—Shannon still keeps going. Just remember that. [Laughter.]

More money has been allocated to my area, which can only be a good thing, as we are in desperate need of basic infrastructure. There is huge potential in my area and local towns for international investment and so much more. We have state-of-the-art office space, UK-wide connectivity and low business rates. The long-term goal is to show the world that Northern Ireland is the place to invest in business. It is the place to produce television shows—scenes from “Game of Thrones” were filmed locally and supplied by local people. We can provide a high-class graduate labour force and an abundance of admin staff as well.

One of the key components to unlocking local investment is the ability to connect easily, and that includes good roads and transport. I will seek additional funding to improve connectivity to Belfast airport for those looking for the perfect place to invest. With due respect to my colleagues, the perfect place to invest is Newtownards and the surrounding areas. Infrastructure has a massive role to play. I have said it before, but I will say it again—this is the end of term: we need the Ballynahinch bypass. That town is being held back from growing the way it should because it does not have a bypass. The land is acquired and the scheme is in place, but the go-ahead needed from the Northern Ireland Assembly is not there.

Spending on the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs rose from £13.6 million in 2016-17 to £50 million in 2018-19, but our upcoming exit from Europe means that more funding must be allocated. I was pleased to read that additional funding has been allocated specifically to address Brexit issues, not simply for DAERA, but across the Northern Ireland Departments. I am pleased with what DAERA has done in my constituency. It has allocated and committed significant moneys to the Northern Ireland countryside management scheme. The money allocated to tackling rural poverty and social isolation—something else I am particularly interested in—has increased for the last three years. The substantial money for the rural development programme in the last year has also been great. This money has addressed many of the issues that are prevalent in the countryside. DAERA is doing that. It could do better if we had a Minister in place, but it is doing very well.

On DAERA, does my hon. Friend agree that the issue of the veterinary school in Coleraine has been going on too long and needs to be processed, alongside the medical school in Londonderry? There are so many projects sitting there waiting for approval, but we need ministerial intervention to ensure they proceed.

My hon. Friend makes a most helpful intervention. It would benefit the whole Province, not just his constituency.

Education needs a massive injection of sustained funding, not one-off projects. Schools have not received the correct inflation-based moneys they need. I have been liaising with the Education Authority and the Secretary of State to ensure that schools have enough funding to sustain the high-level quality education expected in Northern Ireland. We must also find a solution to the union issue. I look to the Minister, as we always do, to outline how he intends to ensure that teachers and staff are happy and being appropriately paid and correctly treated. I gently ask him to intervene so that after-school clubs, which often round out social education, can continue without teachers having to break through the picket line.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) referred to the importance of special educational needs provision in schools. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and I have constituents who attend Clifton Special School in Bangor—60% of its pupils come from my constituency—but it needs investment, as does Killard House School. Our teachers and staff do a phenomenal job with finite resources that are not rising in line with inflation or the increased expectations from parents. It is past time we resolved the union issues. Although the Education Authority has been working on this, perhaps ministerial intervention is needed to push it over the line. Information I have shows that, although more money has been allocated this year, the fact that the 2016-17 allocation was so low means that all we are doing is playing catch-up.

We need to address those things. The money available to individual schools may have increased since 2016, but it does not make up for the two years of underfunding. We are nowhere near where we need to be. I feel frustrated, but I look forward to a new Parliament and a new opportunity to push for appropriate funding for Northern Ireland. In the meantime, however, I have no option other than to support the Bill so that we can keep ticking over until direct rule or a fit-for-purpose Assembly does the right thing and takes its seat.

When I met the Chief Constable, Simon Byrne, just over a month ago, I raised two issues with him. I asked him to ensure that a police training system was in place, and to give me a commitment, if the funds were there and he had the wherewithal, to train 1,000 officers in order to increase the number to the necessary 7,500. He gave an important commitment on community policing, in which I am a great believer: I think that every one of us who represents a constituency anywhere in Northern Ireland understands how important it is.

Our hospitals need more funds. The money allocated to each trust area is not adequate. I want especially to thank the permanent secretary of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, Richard Pengelly, who has said this:

“it costs £26 billion a year to run Northern Ireland but only £17 billion is being raised. The amount needed to maintain the health service goes up each year. At the moment to run the same service this year as we did last year and next year, it’s about 6% increase per annum. If we continue on that trajectory, within about 20 years the health service will need virtually all the money that’s available”

—in the block grant—

“to the executive.”

Richard Pengelly thinks that we need a new health strategy in Northern Ireland that will focus on diabetes, heart, stroke and cancer services and occupational therapy, and on the fact that the waiting lists for operations are getting longer and longer.

Let me make three final points. There will be a greater need for health services for an ageing population that is growing dramatically. In mid-2018, 308,200 people were 65 or older, and 37,700 of those were 85 or older. Given that we are producing fewer children, the pressure will be on healthcare for that ageing population.

I want to say something about cancer care, because cancer affects so many people. So many of my friends have contracted it recently, or, unfortunately, have passed away as a result of it. It is a major issue, especially in an ageing population. The most common cancers in men are cancers of the prostate and lung, and the most common in women are cancers of the breast and lung. Successive one-year budgets are impeding planning and investment in Northern Ireland’s health and social care services; we need the money to ensure that those things happen.

Early diagnosis and care at the outset are extremely important. A significant proportion of cases in Northern Ireland are diagnosed at a late stage: 20% are diagnosed at stage 3, and 26% at stage 4. Late diagnosis can be due to a number of factors, but what we need is earlier diagnosis, which will save lives, help our health service, and, in particular, help those with cancer. We also need a system that will shorten the timescale between the visit to the GP and referral to a consultant.

My last point is about mental health. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) has fought the case for mental health treatment extremely well in the House. We all have constituents with mental health issues, and I am very conscious of the need for funds to address them. There is a particularly high level of mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, among those who have served our Province in uniform—in the police, the Army and other emergency services. Another issue that I face every day is the mental health of children, especially those at primary and secondary school level.

I thank you for your patience and your time, Mr Speaker. I just wanted to put on record how many things need to be done in Northern Ireland, and how many things could be done if we had a working Assembly that could respond to all the people there—and who is holding that back? Sinn Féin.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.