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Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill

Volume 732: debated on Wednesday 10 May 2023

Second Reading

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

It is, of course, with profound regret that I return to the Dispatch Box to bring forward legislation in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members across the House will agree that this is not a position that any of us would want to be in. The Government remain committed to supporting the restoration of the Executive in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. Functioning governance for Northern Ireland by its elected representatives is the best outcome for citizens.

Last month, we all came together to reflect on the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and to mark the progress that Northern Ireland has made over the past quarter-century and the peace and prosperity that the agreement has brought. Of course, we also reflected on the work that remains to be done. The anniversary is an opportunity for us all to recommit to building an even brighter future for Northern Ireland. We need to see Northern Ireland’s political leaders come together and restore the devolved institutions established by the agreement, which is the surest way of delivering on the priorities of Northern Ireland’s peoples and of safeguarding our Union.

We have been very clear that to strengthen and protect the Union, we must persuade people and demonstrate that devolved government within the UK is what works best for Northern Ireland. It is in that spirit that we agreed the Windsor framework, seeking to restore the balance of the agreement and solve the issues posed by the Northern Ireland protocol. Now is the time for the parties to move forward together for what is the best possible future for Northern Ireland, and to deliver on the priorities of its people. That includes a more prosperous economy and better, more sustainable public services.

The Minister quite correctly draws attention to the fact that the best way for Northern Ireland to have success in the future is to get devolved government up and running within the United Kingdom. Does he agree that that can best be done when all main sections of the community in Northern Ireland buy into the process of governance by which they would be governed?

Yes, of course. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I agree that it must involve all sections of the community. I will be very frank with the hon. Gentleman: I recognise that the Windsor framework is a hard compromise for many sections of the Unionist community because it leaves in place some European Union law in order to have an infrastructure-free border. That is why it is also a hard compromise for Conservative Eurosceptics and for me. But I recognise that, of all the plausible futures for Northern Ireland before us, the one that is best for the people of Northern Ireland is to accept the Windsor framework, including the Stormont brake and the consent mechanism, to restore devolved government and move forward together.

As I said when I answered the final oral question earlier, Northern Ireland has an amazing opportunity. Northern Ireland Members will know better than me the incredible strength of the entrepreneurial private sector in Northern Ireland. What I see is a sector that could, with political stability, soar. With privileged access to the UK, to the EU, and to our free trade agreements under UK services law, we could achieve amazing things that will secure Northern Ireland’s prosperity, and, I believe, secure consent for Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. But I think that, for the moment, I had best leave unsaid what will happen if people continue to go without good-quality devolved government and where that will lead. If that is a topic that Members wish to pursue, perhaps we can have a different debate. I hope that is helpful to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell).

I want to be absolutely clear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and I all wish to preserve Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, respecting the UK’s commitments under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We are Unionists, although I am aware that there are some commentators for whom we can never be Unionist enough—but I am allowing myself to digress and I should get back on track.

It may just be the way in which the Minister phrased what he said, but this is important: our ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom is not a privilege; it is a right. It is a right under article 6 of the Act of Union that we have the economic right to trade, barrier-free, with the rest of our own country. Yes, privileged access to the EU, but let us not talk about “privileged access” to the UK market. We are part of the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I apologise to him and to Northern Ireland Members. I had it in my head to say “privileged access to the EU”, but seeing him sitting there, I wanted to mention the UK first. It was a mistake. He is absolutely right that Northern Ireland’s right to trade unhampered into the UK is one that, as we explained at oral questions earlier, we continue to stand by and preserve, and which, under the Windsor framework, we have permanently guaranteed. I am grateful to him for clarifying that point. I will press on.

Before I provide an overview of the Bill, I should say a few words on Northern Ireland’s public finances. As the Bill’s provisions indicate, we are acutely concerned about the long-term sustainability of public finances in Northern Ireland. It was with considerable disappointment that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State found it necessary once again to step in and set a budget for Northern Ireland for 2023-24 in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. As the Secretary of State has made clear on multiple occasions, the extent of the budget pressures facing Northern Ireland Departments is extremely challenging. Departments are facing difficult and unavoidable decisions in the current difficult and frustrating circumstances.

The Government recognise that we need an Executive in place to take some of those difficult decisions and make the choices on budget priorities—choices that officials should not have to face without Ministers. We stand ready to work with a restored Executive on that, but in the meantime, we the Government of the UK have a responsibility to ensure that public services and the management of public funds can continue in their absence, so we will in due course take forward legislation to put the budget on a legal footing. Members of this House will have the opportunity to debate those allocations in detail at that time, if and when we come to it.

There is concern about the nature of the current civil service guidance. The Government believe that the civil service has the capacity to take decisions; civil servants do not believe that they have the vires to take decisions, particularly in relation to statutory functions. Does the Minister recognise that we are at somewhat of an impasse in the current status quo, and that there is a danger that we end up either with difficult decisions being deferred, which makes them more painful, or with a managed overspend, which is another very undesirable situation?

I do recognise those aspects. We have published today revised guidance and those relatively small changes are now available on We will certainly be interested in the hon. Gentleman’s views, and those of all relevant parties, on that guidance. In a nutshell, I agree with him that the best way forward is to restore the institutions. I am trying not to hector, but we are all very frustrated. As I have repeatedly said, I recognise that the Democratic Unionist party and Unionism more broadly face a very difficult compromise, but I am committed, as I know the hon. Gentleman is, to saying that devolved government in Northern Ireland is the best way forward.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Picking up on the point raised by the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) with regard to the role of civil servants, is the Minister able to consider seconding GB civil servants with experience of delivering dynamic change management to both the Northern Ireland civil service and the Northern Ireland Office in order to help deliver those changes? Although we hope it will for a short period of time, all hands are needed to the pump.

My hon. Friend makes a very sensible suggestion. I am sure it will be considered in due course, but I hope he will not mind me saying that it would be best if that request came from a restored Executive. I know that I sound like a broken record, but that is the present issue.

I will press on. First, I express my sincere thanks to Opposition Members for continuing to ensure that Northern Ireland is served as well as possible and for not making it a political football. I appreciate that most sincerely.

The Bill does three important things. First, it continues the provisions relating to decision making for Northern Ireland civil servants, which Parliament passed in December in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022. Those provisions, which clarify the decisions that civil servants in the Northern Ireland Departments can take in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers and an Executive, are due to expire on 5 June. Under this Bill, those powers will continue until an Executive are restored. This will avoid a governance gap arising if an Executive are not in place by 5 June. As before, senior officers will be required to have regard to guidance, now published, set by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Government. That draft is out there, and we will take representations on it.

The second thing that the Bill does, and this is a little more novel, is give power to the Secretary of State to explore, with Northern Ireland Departments, options for budget sustainability, including further revenue raising, in Northern Ireland. Alongside allowing him to commission advice, the Bill will allow the Secretary of State to direct consultations to be held by Northern Ireland Departments on those matters. These powers are time-limited and apply only until an Executive are formed.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He has talked about revenue raising. It is possible that a new model for funding higher education will be looked at. Given that all Governments have said that they want to ensure an expansion in student numbers in Derry, can he guarantee that that hope and desire will be protected under any new funding model?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I cannot guarantee what a restored Executive will choose to do, but I can guarantee that we will listen to him and all relevant stakeholders. Indeed, we meet the university frequently—I did so on a recent visit. We certainly wish to take the advice of the universities and, indeed, representatives from Northern Ireland as we work towards commissioning advice. Without wishing to preview what we are likely to do, of course student finance is an important matter to consider. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

The powers are deliberately focused on official advice and consultations on budget sustainability. Final decisions on implementation are best taken by locally elected representatives, and this Bill does not give the Secretary of State any power to direct implementation of such budget measures.

The third thing the Bill does is ensure greater political oversight of the management of public money in the absence of the Assembly, by providing for Northern Ireland Departments’ accounts and associated documents to be laid in the House of Commons. In previous absences of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the law has provided for that scrutiny to fall to Parliament, and the provision in this Bill will do that again. This provision will be active for all periods where there is no functioning Assembly, on the basis that public bodies must always be scrutinised to ensure good management of public money.

In conclusion, the measures in this Bill will ensure a continuation of the current Government’s arrangements in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Minister very much for what he has said so far. My constituents are concerned about the issue of childcare. I know that the moneys allocated by this House for childcare are for England alone, but as we approach the council elections, my constituents and others I have met on the doorsteps over the past few days have informed me that they are very concerned that Northern Ireland has not been offered childcare arrangements similar to those in England. Whether that will come through the Barnett consequentials or elsewhere, it has to happen. I am making a constructive comment, and I hope that the Minister will accept it as such. Only 60% of employed women with dependent children work full time, as opposed to 95% of men with dependent children. It is clear that the lack of affordable childcare—this is what they are telling me on the doorstep—is holding back women in Northern Ireland. What can be done through this interim arrangements Bill to enable childcare provision in Northern Ireland?

I have enormous empathy for what the hon. Gentleman says. He is right to say that without childcare, women will be held back. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor included so much on childcare in his Budget statement. As awkward as it is for me to once again be a stuck record, the hon. Gentleman knows that it is a devolved area. Barnett consequentials are relevant and it will be for a restored Executive to put these things in place. I am not for a moment pretending that this is a perfect or permanent solution for governance in Northern Ireland. These are interim arrangements and we very much hope, for reasons that I have begun to sketch, that we might be able to persuade Unionism to support the return of the institutions so that we can make sure that Northern Ireland gets all of the services for which he passionately and rightly argues.

The measures in the Bill will ensure the continuation of governance arrangements should there be no Executive when they expire on 5 June. They are not, and cannot be, a substitute for devolved government, as I have just said. They are by no means ideal, particularly in the context of this financial position. I want particularly to thank Northern Ireland civil servants, because they are in a very difficult position and we are extremely grateful to them for the burden that they are taking on. We continue to be grateful, and we will continue to give them what support we can.

The marking of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement has reminded us all of the importance of making the institutions in Northern Ireland work. This Government believe that an effective and functioning devolved government is crucial to showing that the Union works for the whole community in Northern Ireland. That is why the restoration of the Executive remains a Government top priority. We will continue to do everything we can to make that happen, and as we do so we will keep these arrangements under review. But for now, I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Minister for setting out the measures in the Bill. We will not oppose it, as it is necessary to allow civil servants to keep running Departments in Northern Ireland in the absence of an Executive. It is also welcome that Northern Ireland Department accounts will be laid before Parliament, to allow some scrutiny in this period.

Of course, what we would all like to see instead of this Bill is the restoration of accountable local government. Six months ago, on Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill, I said—

I am repeating what I said because I am not sure that the Secretary of State was paying as much attention as he might have done at the time. I said:

“The longer the Executive are collapsed, the hollower the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement…will be. Power sharing is the essential and hard-won outcome of that agreement. It is incumbent on the UK Government and the European Union to engage with the concerns of the Unionist community that led to its withdrawal from the institutions. Equally, any solution that emerges must be acceptable to the nationalist community to allow power sharing to resume.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2022; Vol. 723, c. 827.]

I will happily repeat that again if the Secretary of State missed it this time.

However, something has gone wrong. On paper, we have an agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union that intends to restore power sharing, yet Stormont is still empty. The 25th anniversary was not hollow, but it is a missed opportunity that Stormont has not returned despite the Windsor framework and all the good will generated by the anniversary itself. Listening to Tony Blair at the Queen’s University conference, it was clear how persistence from a prime ministerial level was crucial to finding a solution in 1998. He described the

“seemingly endless days and nights”

of negotiation. It was a huge commitment for a new Prime Minister to make, and it was also a risk.

Tony Blair’s deep optimism about Northern Ireland’s future, then and today, shone through. He also paid tribute to the extraordinary leadership across Northern Ireland’s communities, saying that

“this agreement only happened because leaders were prepared to put their leadership in peril for the good of their people.”

The current Prime Minister needs to display a similar commitment and similar leadership—to stay the course and keep showing up, even when there are no prime ministerial visits. There is clearly a disconnect between what he believes the framework has achieved and what some members of the Unionist community say that it does. These challenges are not insurmountable, but progress can only be achieved if Westminster remains deeply committed and deeply engaged. We on the Labour Benches supported the framework in the national interest, so we would welcome an update to Parliament on its implementation and what is still needed from either side for its effects to be felt.

Ultimately, it might only be perseverance that builds back some of the trust in the UK Government that people in Northern Ireland have lost. More defined processes would be very helpful, so that we avoid a disconnect between what the Government are trying to achieve and what actually happens. In the Windsor framework, the Government committed to further legislation that would ease Unionist concerns about Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. In a recent session of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Secretary of State said that he was

“yet to be able to determine the exact items”

that would go into such legislation. Perhaps the Minister could elaborate on when that mystery legislation will appear, and what the consultation process for it will be.

The Labour party will always take a constructive approach when it comes to Northern Ireland. There are clauses in the Bill that give the Secretary of State power to ask for advice on options for raising public revenue. Those have led to some very useful discussions on the fiscal framework in which the Executive operate. In particular, I praise the work of the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council, whose updated estimate of the relative need for public spending has grabbed the attention of all parties. The Secretary of State also said to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that

“there is the ability, will and understanding of the public finances necessary for us to come together with a plan for transformation.”

It does feel like movement is building to improve Northern Ireland’s financial stability. It would be good to hear what the next steps are for the Secretary of State once he receives the requested advice on policy options from civil servants.

The powers in the Bill last only as long as there is no Executive, so there will hopefully be a limited opportunity to use them. The decision-making powers we have given to civil servants will also now last until the Executive are formed, instead of there being a six-month deadline. I pay tribute—just as the Secretary of State and his Minister, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), did—to all civil servants who are being asked to go far beyond what should be expected of them. The head of the civil service, Jayne Brady, gave evidence last week to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. She highlighted some of the challenges that the civil service is facing on how to make decisions within the budget that the Secretary of State now has to set out. In her words, even with the Bill,

“there will be decisions that we will not be able to make because they will not be aligned with the legal construct we are operating in.”

In summing up, the Minister should address that possible gap and what decisions might fall into it.

One of the themes from meetings that I recently had with Northern Ireland groups is that it is difficult to understand where responsibility ultimately lies. That really worries me—as a Parliament, it should worry all of us. The Secretary of State has been clear that we are not moving into direct rule; what we have instead is limited interventions from Westminster that keep public services functioning with limited scrutiny. The situation cannot continue forever. I hope that we can build on the momentum of the 25th anniversary and the recognition of how special the peace process was and continues to be, and I hope that we see power sharing restored soon.

I support this Bill as a necessity, without any particular enthusiasm, and I echo and endorse entirely what my hon. Friend the Minister said in exhorting political parties to get back into Stormont to deliver for people. I also echo the point made by the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), about the importance of learning from the process of talks and leadership that got us to the Good Friday agreement. We cannot sit like latter-day Mr Micawbers, waiting for something to turn up; we have to try to make the weather. I suggest to my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench that if conversations are not already being had with Dublin as one of the two capital co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement, they should re-inject some energy, pull people in and find out precisely what the issues are and what, if anything, can be done to address them and rebuild trust, in order to get back to serving the people of Northern Ireland through directly elected politicians.

Over this coronation weekend, I learned from our vicar in Blandford Forum a new Henry Ford quote—it was new to me, although possibly not to anybody else. Henry Ford once said that if he had asked the population at the time what they wanted, they would not have said a motor car; they would have said that they wanted a faster horse. Sometimes, we as politicians have to make the weather, and show leadership and shape the debate, rather than merely echo what the base has to say. That requires the vision, the courage and the bravery that we saw from that political class in the mid-1990s, running through to the Good Friday agreement. I am an optimist, and I believe that that spirit of delivery in public service still exists. It is not beyond the wit of this place and the political parties in Northern Ireland to resurrect it and to see Stormont come back.

I think we all recognise that for too long, bold and brave policy initiatives in Northern Ireland have been slightly less to the fore. There has been a tendency to ask for additional moneys from the Treasury, and the Treasury coughing up and providing it through some avenue or another. Everybody is conscious of the unique history of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, and therefore of the additional needs for public expenditure and intervention that are required, which are different from any other part of the UK. However, as we, hopefully, move forward—we discussed this at the Select Committee this morning, and Sir David Sterling certainly echoed this point—in order to deliver step changes of improvement for those who use public services, a greater reliance on match funding from the Treasury needs to be looked at. That means that local politicians in Northern Ireland deliver new streams of money, either through revenue or expenditure savings, and the Treasury provides new money. To just continually provide new money with no concomitant reform from Belfast does not serve any particular purpose, and arguably raises too many questions in the minds of English voters as to why they are not getting a greater share of the public purse than, for example, those in Northern Ireland, because they too readily and easily forget the difficult history.

The Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee will remember that back in January, he and I argued the toss on issues of how Northern Ireland is financed. Since then, I appreciate that he took a letter from me. He understood exactly where I was coming from on the structural improvements required for the funding of Northern Ireland and launched an inquiry in that regard. I appreciate those efforts, but I regret that even today he is talking about coughing up on a regular basis more and more money from the Treasury, when he knows from the Fiscal Council that this is not a separate discussion about reform, though that is necessary and important for the delivery of public services. Northern Ireland is structurally underfunded by this Parliament, and it has been for years, with a compounding impact on the ability to deliver public services. Rather than pitch us against his constituents in England, would it not be better for him to reflect on the structural underfunding, the resolve to get Northern Ireland to a more sustainable place with public finances and the need to use a comparator such as Wales, which went through exactly the same process 15 years ago, culminating in a financial uplift 10 years ago?

Let me answer that point first. The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid point, and I am grateful to him for being the genesis for the Committee’s current inquiry, which is proving incredibly useful. He is right to talk about the disparity, and perhaps the phrase “coughing up” might not have been the most elegant I could have used, but he knows me well enough to know that elegance is not one of my greatest strengths. I can almost feel a second letter of “I agree with you” coming from him. He will be pleased to know that the one he sent me some months ago adorns the wall of the downstairs loo, as a rare thing of him agreeing with something that I said in this place in a debate on Northern Ireland.

In all seriousness—this is a point we discussed upstairs in Committee—constituents in England, Wales and Scotland are paying for things that residents of Northern Ireland currently are not paying for. While he is right to point to some of the structural imbalances, it does need to be a two-way street. There should not be an opportunity for the continuance of water and other things being outwith the charging mechanisms while expecting additional resource from Treasury to meet that gap. If he has looked at the reports of the Fiscal Council, he will see clearly the amount of money that could be generated by introducing charges.

This is an interesting discussion, and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) has, on a number of occasions, made sensible points about the challenges of delivering public services with the economy of scale that we have in Northern Ireland. Would the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) agree that when we look to a wider economy of scale, perhaps on the island of Ireland, services become considerably more viable? Would he further agree that it opens up the opportunity of using numerous other fiscal levers to take us outside the locked-in cycle of just being dependent on pocket money from UK Governments? Would he further agree that the substantial budget surplus that the Republic is currently identifying and enjoying could help with some of these problems?

The hon. Lady digs the most elegant of tiger traps, hoping I will jump into it, but I will swerve around it. She makes a point that most people in their heart of hearts would agree with, which is that if a greater bang for the public sector buck can be achieved, which then has a direct benefit for outcomes in health, economic development, education and so on, that should be explored. Part of the reason why so many people in this place were keen to ensure the openness of the border north-south was that huge exchange of people, trade and ideas that takes place on a daily basis. Purely in the need to try to drive as much efficiency for the taxpayer as possible, nothing should be ruled in or out. If, however, her intervention was an elegant way of inviting me to endorse the idea of joint authority, I am afraid I will have to disappoint her, because devolution is the only game in town as far as I am concerned, and the Minister articulated that, too.

I move to my final point, because I know that others wish to speak. Under new section 5A in the Bill, which concerns advice and information, any direction from the Secretary of State falls or lapses at the end of the current period in which there is no Executive. What that could effectively mean—perhaps the Bill is deliberately opaque on this—is that all the work, consultation, information, advice and so on is lost. Does it get passed to Ministers in Stormont as a piece of work that they may or may not wish to consider? We know that the Secretary of State perfectly properly—although that in itself is a debatable point—cannot take decisions based on the advice or consultation. However, if that good work, particularly that undertaken by civil servants—as always, they will be rising to the challenge of trying to deliver not just existing public services, but public service reform—is to be meaningful, I would hope that the advice and information tabled to the Secretary of State would be passported over to the relevant new Minister in the Executive.

It is clear, certainly in the evidence sessions that we have held, in meetings that the Committee has had and on visits to Northern Ireland, that the public are ahead of us on this. They know that there are problems with public service. The right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) made the point to me some while ago that a resurrected Stormont could not solve all the problems, and he is right to make that point, but it can certainly play a part in trying to find solutions to very many of them. The public appetite for public service reform is acute, as people face the cost of living crisis post covid and the economy faces all the challenges as a result of Ukraine and the associated knock-on effects. I would like to hear from the Minister what will happen to that advice.

I join the Minister in praying, exalting, urging—whatever. The people of Northern Ireland deserve so much better than this. They do not deserve interim arrangements. They do not deserve or need temporary sticking plasters. They need fundamental, robust, energised and engaged public service. The appetite is there, and I believe that it is growing across the political parties in Northern Ireland. I hope that we can get Stormont back up and running because, as we all know, devolution really is the only show in town.

Let me say at the outset that I wish we were not here once again discussing this issue, but we all know exactly why we are. For the purposes of form, I will say once again that my firm belief is that Northern Ireland is best governed when it is governed locally, and the best place for MLAs to be is in Stormont, getting on with what the people of Northern Ireland would expect them to be getting on with: the job they were elected to do.

The Bill may be necessary to help close what is being termed as the governance gap in the absence of an Executive, but the damage of not having the Assembly up and running and the Executive in place is obvious in terms of good government in Northern Ireland. Decisions taken in Northern Ireland by politicians elected in Northern Ireland with a mandate from the people of Northern Ireland will always be much better taken, much better informed, much more legitimate and have far greater transparency than any decision, with the best will in the world, ever taken in this place on devolved matters on their behalf.

Where the preferences and priorities of voters in Northern Ireland run counter to those of the Government in Westminster, it is an inevitability that when Ministers in Westminster exercise those powers, it will be in line with their own preferences and priorities, rather than necessarily those in Northern Ireland. That lack of legitimacy matters, as does the absence of political direction, which has results in the decision-making process.

From my own time in local government, I developed a great admiration for council officers and officials. They were knowledgeable and expert, and in a lot of cases they were delegated and tasked with many things, including taking many decisions that were considered operational or that were not considered to be of the scope or scale that needed a direct political decision from an elected politician. However, the primary role of a senior official in most cases is to advise, rather than decide, and where any decisions of a major or strategic nature need to be taken, they ought to be taken in line with the democratic mandates and priorities that have been established at the ballot box. The absence of locally appointed Ministers and a sitting Assembly to scrutinise the choices that Ministers make when big decisions are required is highly unsatisfactory.

Make no mistake, big decisions are going to be required pretty urgently, because following the setting of the recent budget by the Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council has stated that some £800 million of cuts, savings or revenue-raising measures are going to be required to fill the budget gap. To drill down a little further, the education sector in Northern Ireland faces a 2.7% cut, the Department for Infrastructure is going to be around £146 million short of its estimated requirements for the financial year and the Department of Finance says that it is now a matter of trying to

“plot the least harmful course we can”.

I think Northern Ireland deserves better than simply plotting the least harmful course that can be plotted, and it requires some major political choices to be made about how budgets are to be balanced, services are to be provided and better outcomes can be achieved.

Those are the sort of budgeting and policy decisions that simply cannot be taken or cannot be addressed in the form of salami-slicing in line with the ministerial decisions taken in years past. So the measures in this Bill that will allow the Secretary of State to request advice and information on developing options for a sustainable approach to the public finances, including revenue raising, are necessary, if inadequate. I would just say that it risks an element of paralysis by analysis and consultation in Whitehall. It certainly represents a very poor substitute for the people of Northern Ireland and the good operation of the services that they depend on, and it falls some way short of the level of scrutiny that ought to be applied to the spending of public money.

In drawing my remarks to a close, we support this Bill, but what we support most of all is the best solution of seeing a swift return of the Assembly and the Executive. We would urge the Secretary of State and his ministerial team to continue to do all they can in that regard to bring about that much better situation.

In my opening remarks, can I first thank the spokesman for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), for what I regard—this is probably the death knell for him in his position—as a very balanced presentation of the situation we face in Northern Ireland? He recognised, because of the experience he had over the period when we were remembering the signing of the Belfast agreement, the balance that is required there, and the fact that devolved Government in Northern Ireland cannot operate without the support and consent of both communities and their representatives in Northern Ireland.

That is something I think the Minister has still failed to recognise: he does not understand. It is quite clear from some of his remarks today that he does not understand the deep opposition to the current arrangements for governing Northern Ireland, and the difficulties that those arrangements cause for the Unionist population. Quite frankly, we still see the arrangements—whether the Northern Ireland protocol version or the Windsor framework version—as ones that damage our ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom to which we belong, and that will lead to divergence in the long run between Northern Ireland and the country to which we belong.

While the Minister may be prepared to accept the compromise, as he says, of some EU law applying to Northern Ireland as the means of having what he described as an “infrastructure-free border”, we do not see it as an infrastructure-free border. An infrastructure is being built in Northern Ireland, and further infrastructure will be built. Indeed, as I pointed out during Northern Ireland questions earlier today, it is not just in Northern Ireland that we are now going to have that infrastructure; we are going to have it in Cairnryan, Liverpool and Holyhead for goods moving from Northern Ireland into GB. I am afraid that is not what he or I campaigned for when we campaigned to leave the European Union. I do not think he should expect Unionists to compromise on being part of the country that many of them fought and died to remain in during a terrorist campaign of over 35 years in Northern Ireland.

The Minister’s second point was that, despite calls for the Assembly to get up and running, he is concerned—I will quote his words back to him—

“about the long-term sustainability of public finances in Northern Ireland”,

as well as that the pressures are “extremely challenging” and the Northern Ireland Executive have “difficult …decisions” to make. However, he knows that even if the Executive were up and running, and working splendidly, and everyone was co-operating and prepared to make the hard choices, there still would not be enough money in the pot.

The Minister knows—he actually referred to this—that the Fiscal Council has already made it clear that, in relation to the application of the Barnett formula, Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that falls below the needs assessment on which public finance, spending in Northern Ireland and the block grant should be based. We are below it, and we are falling further below it. We are continuing to fall, and the gap is getting wider. When that happened and it was identified in Wales, there was immediate recognition of the problem. Wales had not actually fallen below the percentage, although it was moving towards it, and the Holtham commission made recommendations that ensured not only that a floor was set for moneys to be made available in Barnett consequentials for Wales, but that there were transitional arrangements.

I think this is important, because a lie is being spread around Northern Ireland. The Minister says he is not hectoring us today about getting us back into the Assembly, but I am afraid he does plenty of hectoring when he gets across the water, including putting on Facebook, or wherever, about chanting with groups to get back into Stormont, when he knows full well that getting back into Stormont is not going to grow the purse, change the financial situation or make it any easier. The extremely challenging difficulties for long-term sustainability will still be there, so let us not fool anybody.

I do accept that the Assembly had some responsibility for the situation we are in, but when I was Finance Minister in Northern Ireland we always balanced our budget. In fact, we were able to get three-year rolling budgets, so there was certainty for Departments, and we were able to make efficiency savings of 3% almost every year. However, some bad decisions have been made, and the fact that Sinn Féin could not get any of the parties to agree to the budget proposals brought forward when the Executive was functioning is an indication that there is such a role there. The Finance Minister was not capable of delivering a budget on which we could reach agreement, hence the overspend that has occurred. The impact of all that is that even if the Assembly were up and running, the detriment to public services in Northern Ireland would not disappear.

Let us look at some of the implications of the current budget and draw some comparisons. This year, Whitehall Departments will have an increase of 1.8% in resource spending. People argue that is not enough—it does not meet inflation, pay pressures and so on, and I accept that—but in Northern Ireland resource spending will fall by 0.9%.

For education, the budget in England will go up by 6.5% in the next year; in Northern Ireland it will fall by 2.7%, and £100 million of that fall is on special education. Almost every week we see people coming to our constituency offices who are desperate about their youngsters, who need support because they are autistic or have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or one of many other educational disadvantages, yet they cannot get assessed, let alone get support. Of course, the pressure on teachers’ pay will further add to school budgets.

In health, over the period to 2024-25 spending in England will go up by 32.9%. In Northern Ireland it will go up by 18.1%. So, again, we will fall further behind even though we have the difficulties and waiting lists that we currently face.

In policing, the Government have recently been boasting that they have reached their target of 20,000 extra police officers in England. In Northern Ireland, despite the promises made in New Decade, New Approach, as a result of the budgetary pressures we have a fall in police officers to well below what Patten recommended was needed to police Northern Ireland.

To add to that, although the Minister knows that Northern Ireland is not being fully funded—the Fiscal Council has told him that—that the Barnett squeeze is getting greater and that the gap will increase, we are being told that if there are any Barnett consequentials for Departments in Northern Ireland this year as a result of, for example, the Government nicely agreeing to pay increases, Northern Ireland will not get them, because they will be used to repay the overspend on what is already accepted to be an underfunded budget. It was last year, the year before and the year before that—in fact, I think it goes right back to 2017. That is what we are facing.

Just last week, I spoke to a school principal who said, “If there’s a pay increase for teachers, as the education budget has been cut by the degree that it has, I cannot afford to pay it unless I sack teachers.” It will be the same with nurses and right across the public service. Indeed, at a time when cuts are biting, the Department for Communities has said that it has got a £27 million deficit, so it does not have the money to recruit the extra staff it needs to process benefits, because of the increasing demand for them.

Those are all the consequences. So given the scale of the gap, let us not pretend that, somehow or other, if the Executive were up and running tomorrow, fairy dust would just fall on Northern Ireland and all of those fiscal problems would disappear—they would not. That is not a reason for not wanting devolved Government back, but it is an indication that we should not be selling the lie to people in Northern Ireland of, “Get back into government and suddenly all of the problems that you are facing—in health, education, communities, policing and everything else—will disappear.”

One of the reasons for amendment 5 is that the DUP recognises that, in order to look at the long-term sustainability of public services in Northern Ireland, we need to know what the Fiscal Council is saying and put in place an arrangement—

Order. I do not wish to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but Committee consideration will follow this stage, so I would be grateful if he confined his remarks to Second Reading.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was not going to go into the amendment in any detail—we can do that later—but I just wanted to refer to the fact that the Fiscal Council had made its comments.

When we look at the Bill, as has been described by a party leader in an earlier comment in Northern Ireland, we see that most of it is actually about ways of raising finance and advising how there should be consultation. Clause 2 talks about the consultation on different ways of raising finance as if that is how we will fill the gap. That takes money out of an economy that the Government have already damaged through the protocol, with the difficulties that has caused to Northern Ireland businesses and the costs that people there now face as a result of it being more difficult to get goods from the cheapest source—GB—with which they would normally have traded. Now they have to buy more expensive, and probably lower quality, goods from an EU supply chain. There are also the extra costs on businesses, and indeed the extra cost on the public purse, because £500 million now has to be devoted to the trader support service to help companies over the hurdles caused by the protocol.

Is the answer simply to raise more finance in Northern Ireland? I accept that people in Northern Ireland have things such as free prescriptions that, it could be argued, we could well look at. I remember a debate about free prescriptions. As Finance Minister, I was not keen on them, but I was told at that stage—it was true—that the cost to be spent on administering the distinction between people eligible for free prescriptions and those who were not would hardly compensate for the amount of extra money.

However, let us look at the extensive source of revenue that we do have in Northern Ireland: the rates. It has been estimated that even if we increased rates by 107%—if we more than doubled them—which would have a massive impact on households in Northern Ireland, we would raise only about 5% more revenue to the block grant that we have at present. The argument could be made if rates in Northern Ireland were much lower than those in the rest of the United Kingdom, but actually they are higher than those in Manchester, Sunderland, Liverpool and many other parts of England. So it is not as if we do not already tax people in Northern Ireland where we can to a level that is commensurate, we believe, with their ability to pay.

Clause 2 is included in the Bill to say, as has been widely spread around Northern Ireland, “If the Assembly is not up and running, it is more likely that other ways of raising revenue will be imposed on people in Northern Ireland, so get your politicians back, because otherwise you’ll be charged for things for which you weren’t in the past, or given extra charges on things you are being charged for at present.” I must say to the Minister that that kind of blackmail is not the way to restore the Assembly.

The Assembly will be restored when, first of all, the terms of the Belfast agreement are adhered to so that the views of Unionists, as well as nationalists, are respected, and Unionist Ministers are not required to sit in the Assembly and implement the very arrangements that we then come here and complain will destroy us as a part of the United Kingdom. I hope Members understand that. That is what is being asked of Unionists: to go into the Assembly under court direction and implement the Windsor framework, even though we know that in the long term it will be detrimental to the Union. We will talk about amendments later, but departmental officials will have to make some very controversial decisions. That will require some ministerial direction, hence why we believe there should be provision in the Bill for ministerial direction of civil servants, so that difficult decisions can be made and we can try to make some reforms.

I will make one last point, which relates to one made by the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna). Can we not look at ways to better use public money? I say that with some knowledge of the steps that Unionist Ministers have taken in the past in recognition of the fact that there are better ways. The Altnagelvin cancer unit, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), is a good example. It was indicated to us—I was Finance Minister at the time and the DUP held the health Ministry—that we could not afford a cancer unit in the north-west and the Irish Government could not afford a cancer unit of their own in the north-west, so we co-operated. They provided some of the capital and we provided some of the capital. They provided some of the running costs—they still do—and we provided some of the running costs. So this idea that Unionists are not willing to look at how we can make reforms, take decisions and make public finance more sustainable is just not on.

I look forward to the day when devolution is restored and we can work in a co-operative way, but it will not happen until there is respect for the Unionist view in Northern Ireland. And even when it does happen, it will not be effective if the resources are not there to enable us to make the kinds of changes that are required.

It is great to hear that the Democratic Unionist party now supports north-south co-operation. It would be good if we were to allow the north-south bodies to operate properly as well. I totally agree with the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) about the deficiencies of the Barnett formula. The SDLP, many years ago, proposed moving away from the Barnett formula to a more needs-based approach. It is just a pity that DUP Ministers at that time campaigned loudly and actively against it. However, we are here now.

This is a Bill that nobody wants, least of all the civil service which is being asked to use these powers. We know why we are here: the DUP refuses to form a Government. Many of the arguments some of us are using today were used by the DUP when Sinn Féin pulled the Government down and kept it down for three and a half years. It seems to me that people cannot even learn the lessons they were trying to teach others. We know how that ended: Sinn Féin realised halfway through that boycott that it was doing nobody any good. The waiting lists were still getting longer and certain people were beginning to get the blame for that. My view is that we have a responsibility to all the people in all our constituencies, no matter what their politics are, to have a Government functioning and working together. I heard again today from the DUP that devolution cannot work without the consent of both communities. That is painfully true and obvious, but is it okay, then, to have direct rule, which is basically what this is becoming, operating without the consent of the nationalist community? That is what we are being asked to have, and that will have its own consequences as we move through the process.

The shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), rightly referenced the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement—the immense change it has brought about and the bravery of that political generation to make very hard decisions and take very big steps, much bigger than those we are asking people to take today. Its impact has been profoundly significant for many people, particularly in my generation.

Over the last number of years, we have faced chaos in our politics inflicted by a Brexit vote somewhere else, because the people in Northern Ireland voted to remain by a majority. That has been the genesis of the crisis we are in today. We argued for a couple of years about the protocol and its implications. Now we have the Windsor framework, which gives us the opportunity to trade into both markets. We have had former American Presidents, the current American President, former US Secretaries of State and the current US Secretary of State, countless Senators and Members of the House of Representatives coming over and telling us that they want to help us by bringing jobs to Northern Ireland. There is not a single other place in the world where American politicians are saying they want jobs to leave America for. That just does not happen. It goes against the political current in the United States of America right now. This is a huge opportunity, and it is an opportunity that we need to grasp. Frankly, I do not understand why we cannot do two things at the one time.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. On the point he just made about investment into Northern Ireland, that was promised to us 25 years ago but the Republic of Ireland, with its fiscal taxation policy, sucked in all the inward investment that we were to get. We never benefited from the major companies that, over the last 17 years, went into the Republic of Ireland when they should have come to Northern Ireland.

That is a very interesting take on the fact that next year the Irish Government will have a budget surplus of €16 billion and we are squabbling over the crumbs from London’s table. There is another question the hon. Member should ask himself: why are we not trying to join the thriving economic entity that is the Republic of Ireland? Our people would be a lot better off.

The point I was making is, in my view, very obvious. I accept that DUP Members still have some difficulty with some issues, and I am happy to sit down and work through them. I will speak to the Irish Government, the British Government and whoever we have to speak to, to help us to get over this hump. The reality, though, is that we are well capable of doing that at the same time as getting into government and dealing with the health crisis. I know we will not be able to solve all the issues overnight, but we will not be able to solve them by doing nothing at all. Why can we not sit down as grown-ups and work through the difficulties, while at the same time implementing the changes required to help people in Northern Ireland get off the waiting lists, to help people create jobs, and to bring in investment that keeps our young people at home instead of sending them off to work somewhere else? That is not beyond the wit of the political class in Northern Ireland today, given all the hard things that had to be done, including by the DUP, in the peace process we have had since before 1998. We can do this very, very simply. There is no logic any more in holding up the institutions of the Good Friday agreement so that we can deal with outstanding issues. We can do both at the one time.

The Bill and the budget are imposing huge cuts on the most vulnerable in our society. The extended schools programme is aimed at schools in disadvantaged areas and at kids who are the most disadvantaged in our society. It brings things like counselling for young people, breakfast clubs and after-school clubs. It is being axed because of this budget. We are axing free baby books for kids. Every year, 20,000 families are given access to free books and reading advice from the Book Trust, a vital tool we can give to our children. Anybody who has kids understands that teaching them to read as early as possible is a really important life skill. We are cutting that—that is where the axe is falling as a result of this budget.

We are also cutting special needs places in nursery schools. Little Orchids in my constituency, which looks after kids from two to four years’ old, was told a couple of days ago that it would have to halve the number of children that it can help in its facility. They are the people affected by this particular budget. We are also told that there will be no new school buildings or extensions. Many of the teachers’ and children’s classrooms are crumbling. None of that work will start this year, and we do not know at all when it will.

In all the discussions we have on radio stations, in TV studios and here about the need for health service transformation, as difficult as it will be, we have all bought into doing the hard things needed to make the health service more sustainable, to get 500,000 people off waiting lists and to make a health service that we can be proud of. Right now, we have a health service that is not free at the point of delivery because people cannot get access to it without paying. Many people in my constituency are going to the credit union to get loans that they cannot afford to pay back, so that they can have the vital surgery they need to live their lives in a normal and comfortable way. There is no space in this budget for proper health service transformation. Those 500,000 people will remain on waiting lists, which will grow and grow.

I made this point earlier to the Minister, but I will make it again: we can talk about the detail of revenue raising at any point, but I want to make it clear that the Irish Government, the British Government and the former Northern Ireland Executive all committed to expanding university places in Derry, which has been waited for and campaigned on for many decades. In any new funding model for higher education, that needs to be protected, and the opportunity needs still to be there for expansion of university places in Derry. If we are really serious about rebalancing the economy regionally and giving people the opportunity to create jobs and get employed in their own areas, that has to be our No. 1 priority.

The hon. Member is making a powerful speech, but he knows that his city is the only city on the island of Ireland without an independent university. We have campaigned for many years for the expansion of Magee, but it is not happening the way that we or John Hume envisaged it. What is his view on one day going for an independent university in the great city of Derry?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention and his work on this issue. There was a short period when we did not have an MP for Foyle in this Chamber making these points. The hon. Member and others stepped up on that issue, and we were very grateful to him. The people of Derry have been starved of a university since 1964. That has massively damaged our economic opportunities—that along with the bombing campaign that blew the place to bits. We are now 25 years on from the Good Friday agreement, and we still have not maximised that opportunity.

We have a university in Derry—we are clear about that—but it is not big enough and it does not do enough to attract the kind of students who, in turn, will attract the economic opportunities that we want. I have been clear with the leadership of Ulster University that people are very weary, tired and lacking in trust in that institution. The leadership needs to come up urgently with a plan to expand university places to at least 10,000 students or people will begin to look elsewhere, as the hon. Member says. We must be realistic and serious, and we must make this happen because we cannot wait any longer to have proper university provision for the people in my city.

We are now basically in a period of direct rule, and we are moving inch by inch closer to London-only rule. That flies in the face of the Good Friday agreement and every single agreement that we have made since. I urge this Government to think carefully about what happens next, because this situation cannot be allowed to run and run. If we are not to have institutions at Stormont, and if locally elected people are not to have representatives running the place because they are denied that opportunity, the British Government need to look seriously at a greater role for the Irish Government in the affairs of Northern Ireland. I say that advisedly because in a number of periods when we were denied institutions at Stormont, it was only that promise that encouraged some people to get back and to form a Government representing all the traditions on the island. That is well worth considering.

We are knocking on doors and speaking to people. An awful lot is said about Unionist concerns, which we listen to and try to be respectful of, but many of the people we speak to say, “Why would we have any faith in the DUP to work with nationalism? Why would we have any faith in Stormont to deliver for us?” People are beginning to think differently about their future. I will argue every day to end the divisions on our island and to build a new Ireland, but I caution those who stand up and talk about the precious Union a lot in his place that they are opening a door to something that they might end up regretting, because more and more people are moving away from support for Stormont. I do not want that to happen. I think we can do two things at once. We can have locally elected people running the institutions of Northern Ireland. There is a better way to do this in the longer term.

The hon. Member is touching on a very important point, which I think is overlooked. The UK Government and Unionism recognised that a hard border was not the solution in relation to Brexit. Why? It would have undermined nationalist sensitivities in relation to the agreement and the political institutions. We sought to find a way forward that respected the integrity of the United Kingdom and avoided a hard border on the island. Even the Taoiseach has recognised that the protocol went way too far in creating an Irish sea border. Although the hon. Member is right that nationalist sensitivities must be given regard, so too must Unionists’ sensitivities because consensus is the way forward, as the former Member for Foyle John Hume often said from that seat.

I have tried my best to understand the concerns of Unionism, and I think the European Union and the British Government have as well, to be fair. That is why we have the Windsor framework. If there are still outstanding issues, let us talk about them. Even when we were threatened with a hard border, we did not walk away from government. We did not stop working in the institutions. We wanted to sit down and continue to work with our neighbours—even those who we disagreed with—because that goes right to the heart of the Good Friday agreement.

Walking away and boycotting will solve nothing, in our strong view. If there are outstanding issues, and if there are solutions that do not impact upon the principle of protecting all-Ireland trade and avoiding a hard border, we will be open to looking at those and to working with the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and his colleagues to achieve some modicum of change around that. My appeal to him is this: let us sit down, work together in our substantial common interest, work the common ground, get back into Stormont and try—as hard as it might be—to begin to fix some of the problems that beset all our people.

I appreciate being called earlier than I had anticipated, Mr Deputy Speaker. We had a brief conversation earlier, and despite what you said, the prospect of another four and a half hours of debate is probably too tantalising to ignore. Although normally I do not speak for long, I may take the opportunity to speak a little longer this afternoon. [Interruption.] I jest.

Like others, I lament the fact that we are debating this Bill this afternoon and dealing with a Northern Ireland Office that, yet again, I am sorry to say, is missing a crucial opportunity. It is a Northern Ireland Office that has lost any sense of strategic direction; it has lost the ability to engage, understand and resolve some of the pressures that we have in Northern Ireland. I lament the fact that the relationships from which we benefited over the last few decades no longer exist, and I lament, more than anything else, the fact that, while the Bill has been described this afternoon as legislation that closes a constitutional gap—or continues a governance gap—that opportunity has been 100% missed.

It did not need to be this way. The Northern Ireland Office had been actively engaged with the Northern Ireland civil service over the last three or four months, and had drafted provisions for the Bill that would have given the Secretary of State step-in powers and the opportunity to assist with some of the difficult decisions that are facing our Northern Ireland public service Departments. However, the NIO actively chose to leave those provisions out of the Bill. I know that this is not a Committee stage, but because new clause 5 has not been selected, I will say now that we tabled it to highlight the point that the choices that now rest with permanent secretaries in Northern Ireland are unfathomable. The opportunity was there for political direction on the taking of decisions when political direction was required, but those in the Northern Ireland Office have chosen not to take it. They will continue to say what they have said over the last few months—“It is not for us to make political choices”—but that is a political choice that they have made.

When the Government raised the rates in Northern Ireland this year, while still talking about revenue raising and the need for more finance to come from Northern Ireland, they made a political choice. They increased the burden on homeowners, domestic ratepayers, by 6%, and excluded businesses by freezing their regional rate. They made a political choice. When they talk about revenue raising, they know that some £1.5 billion to £1.7 billion a year is raised from revenue. If every domestic and non-domestic ratepayer in Northern Ireland paid 50% on top of their bills that are due next week, that would still not cover the shortfall that faces Northern Ireland Departments as a result of the budget given to them by the NIO.

When that budget was delivered last week, it was delivered in the explicit knowledge of the decisions that permanent secretaries would have to make, but cannot make. Everyone in the Chamber is aware of the legislative preclusions that prevent them from making those decisions. Members know the impact of the Buick and JR80 judgments. They know that the permanent secretaries cannot do that. They had indicated in advance to the Northern Ireland Office—to the Secretary of State and the Minister of State—that the budget that they were handed would mean they would have to take decisions that would conflict fundamentally with the statutory obligations and duties that they have to undertake. They cannot do it.

While the flexibility on the £279 million is useful in one sense, it is hugely dangerous in another, given the damage that it will do through the breach of parity in public pay awards between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Anything that is agreed in the forthcoming weeks and months in England will benefit public workers in England but not those in Northern Ireland, and that gap will grow. The flexibility is useful, but given the direct knowledge of the underspend and the challenging decisions that will have to be taken, it is outrageous that that is the sort of offer that our Departments have received.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member is saying about the failure of the Northern Ireland Office to address the governance gap, but does he not think it is a little bit difficult for people to hear him say such things when his party has the power to address all the concerns he has been raising if they return to the Executive? While he is right to criticise the Government, surely he should also exercise some self-reflection on the role of his own party, because all those ills could be cured by him and his colleagues tomorrow.

I find it amazing that the hon. Gentleman has made that point. He knows it is the biggest falsehood that is being peddled today, and it was addressed earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). If the Executive were up and running tomorrow, the fundamental damage being caused by the budget and the fundamental choices having to be made would still be there, but the resource would not. Departments are saying today that there is an £800 million shortfall in their ability to deliver, and that they will now have to take decisions that conflict with their statutory obligations, and that same choice will be there tomorrow unless the Government say that they will reflect on the systematic and systemic underfunding of the Northern Ireland budget, and will recognise that the Barnett formula must be assessed on the basis of need. Unless that happens, the choices that are there today will be the choices that are there tomorrow.

Let me spell it out. What do we know from the Department of Justice? It is hundreds of millions of pounds short of what it needs. The police alone do not have enough money to cover last year’s shortfall, let alone an additional £35 million shortfall this year. Where can they make the cuts? They can make them through headcount and non-pay. On headcount, we know that devolution was restored in 2020 under the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which recognised that policing numbers needed to reach 7,500. In March this year the figure was 6,700, and it is projected to be 6,400 in March next year. That is the sort of choice that is available today to a permanent secretary, and would be available tomorrow to a restored Government.

Earlier today, the Minister of State was answering questions about the cost of living crisis, but yesterday we heard from the Department for Communities about the extent of its shortfall. A third of the social homes that were planned to be built this year cannot be built: 2,000 were projected, and 1,400 will be delivered. No money is available for the new health assessments associated with benefits, and there is not enough money to progress the assessment of benefit applications. That is what has been delivered by the NIO: choices that are there today and would still be there tomorrow if there were a return to devolution.

Then there is the enormous shortfall in the Department for Infrastructure, where the permanent secretary is highlighting her statutory obligations and the money she does not have in order to meet them. So what are her choices? To stop gritting the roads? To stop treating waste water? How often do we hear about the importance of climate issues and looking after our environment? But that is one of the choices available to the permanent secretary in the Department for Infrastructure. Another is to turn off the street lights. I do not think that the Secretary of State or the Minister of State or the NIO is interested in streetlights. The only thing in which they seem to be interested at present is gaslights, because the politics of all this has been about gaslighting people in Northern Ireland. What is psychologically questioning our understanding of how finances work, and telling us that we are overfunded when we know that we are structurally underfunded—standing in this Chamber and saying, “Oh, but Northern Ireland gets 121% of what people in England get”, when we know that that is less than what Northern Ireland needs—if it is not gaslighting? That is the diet that we have had over the past number of months, and it seems certain that that is the diet that we are going to continue to get.

The Northern Ireland Fiscal Council has been explicit. When I talked about the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council in this Chamber in January and last year, whoosh, it went straight over people’s heads. It meant nothing. I know that sometimes the figures in these documents are boring, but they are crucially important in terms of the ability to deliver public services for everyone in Northern Ireland.

I represent a constituency that has some incredibly affluent areas, but it also has some incredibly deprived areas where social deprivation is a real thing. Wards in my constituency feature in the top 10 most deprived wards in Northern Ireland. In the Mount ward, at the bottom of my constituency, just off the Newtownards Road, 25% of children are leaving primary school without basic literacy and numeracy skills. Forget the 11-plus—they are going on to secondary school without the basic ability to read, write and count. What has this budget delivered? It has delivered an end to the extended schools programme and an end to free books for babies. Just a few months ago, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee visited EastSide Learning in my constituency. The chairman cheekily asked, “I see those books—the spines haven’t been broken. Does anyone read them?” He was informed that they were brand new books, but the Department of Education is not going to be able to give brand new books to children in my constituency any more. It is outrageous.

The Pathway funding, which is about ensuring the social, emotional and cognitive development of young children before they get to nursery and primary school, is not going to be there. The Department of Education has said that from June there is no money available for such vital developmental early years intervention. Whether it is the Dee Street and the Ballymacarrett youth centre or the Bloomfield Community Association youth centre, all of these interventions matter. The public services that are delivered in Northern Ireland matter, and this budget fundamentally constrains the opportunity to provide for the needs of those children and our constituents right across Northern Ireland. The opportunity was there, and it should be there, to make a difference.

I want to make this point with as much power as I can: we can debate and talk every day of the week about the pressures that exist with the Northern Ireland protocol, the Windsor framework and the impediments to the return to devolution. Whether people agree with me on those issues or they ignore those issues, that is fine; we will continue to work for resolution. But the point needs to be understood that we cannot and will not have sustainable government in Northern Ireland if we do not have sustainable finances alongside a return to devolution.

The idea that any elected representative is going to stand up in government to stand over the dismal budget that has been provided is for the birds; it is not going to happen. I want to see Northern Ireland work. I want to see Northern Ireland as a place where all communities within our Province are at peace with one another and enjoy the benefits of the country that we have the privilege to live in. These issues need to be resolved and that can happen only when the finance is there to deliver positively for those people.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent contribution to the debate and I fully support what he has said about a needs-based approach. Indeed, I think of the work of the Atlas Women’s Centre in Lisburn, in my constituency, which has used Pathway funding to help some of our youngest children to develop the skills they need for mainstream education. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that in seeking to change the way that our public services are funded, it is essential that in Northern Ireland we also recognise the need for the reform of those public services and that part of what we need from Treasury is investment for reform?

The truth is that the shortfall from last year and the shortfall in this financial year need to be covered—that is the short term. The medium term needs to be about getting reform agreed, and the long term needs to be about sorting out how Northern Ireland is funded and providing a stable way for doing so.

There are huge opportunities. Some people like to dismiss it and some people do not want to listen to it, but the last thing we want to see is a return to devolution where the foundations are unstable. We want sustainable government in Northern Ireland. We want the ability to deliver proudly positive public services for the people of Northern Ireland, and we want to resolve the issues that have created the impediment thus far. There is nothing new in that. Sometimes it takes quite a while for people to hear and listen.

We are getting there. I am sorry that we are having to go through another Bill like this and that opportunities are being missed to deal with delivery for the people in Northern Ireland, through one way or another. We want to protect public services. We want to protect the street lights and end the gaslights. It would be nice to have a debate on these issues where we could talk practically and factually about what the impediments are, which all of us work to resolve.

It is a pleasure to follow my neighbour, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). This debate is happening in something of a twilight zone, in the sense that we have a twin budget and governance crisis. Frankly, neither is being adequately addressed today.

The Northern Ireland Office is operating in hope, and possibly expectation, that at some point the DUP will return to the Executive of the Assembly. Indeed, there is an overwhelming logic to that. If people want to make Northern Ireland work, then the Assembly and the Executive have to work, and that has to be seen as the overarching issue. Any notion of a democratic deficit that may happen elsewhere pales into insignificance compared to the current democratic deficit that we are facing.

As much as I agree with parts of the analysis given by my neighbour, the hon. Member for Belfast East, around the fact that the Northern Ireland Office is not stepping in on governance, others are not stepping in on governance either. I appreciate that the overall context is difficult—that may not change—but governance is core to solving this issue. We are in a frankly intolerable situation in that regard.

If my colleagues in the DUP are genuine about returning to the Assembly—some optimistic voices expect them to reach that conclusion in the next weeks or months—the longer they leave it, the more damage is going to be done to Northern Ireland. My message to them is, if they are going back, they should tell us they are going back and let us get on with it. If they are not going back, then they should say so and let us put in place alternative governance arrangements. The drift is killing us, both metaphorically and literally.

In terms of governance, the guidance is insufficient and in some ways contradictory. The Government may think it is perfect clearly, but it is evident that the Northern Ireland civil service does not think that. For example, we have a situation where our guidance is telling civil servants to act in the public interest, not to undermine statutory services or commitments, not to take major public sector decisions and to avoid long-term damage. It is hard to see how taking cuts is consistent with any of those criteria, but that is what they are now being expected to do.

I fear we are, yet again, at something of an impasse. That will lead to two potential outcomes: first, we will see certain decisions being deferred till later in the financial year. If decisions on cuts are taken even later in the year, the pain and impact becomes even sharper than it would be today. Alternatively, we will see a situation where it is impossible for them to live within the spending envelope that has been allocated, and we will see yet another overspend at the end of this financial year, with all the associated complications for planning that will flow from that.

The current situation we are facing is contributing to lengthening waiting lists and will reinforce educational underachievement, block the skills pipeline and compromise our ability to tackle economic inactivity. To date, the civil service approach has been to focus almost entirely on the very narrow ground of what are viewed as non-statutory activities—discretionary spending, in other language—but that is often some of the most effective spending, as it is often aimed at early intervention or prevention, which goes a long way to addressing steeper cost pressures that may emerge elsewhere in the public sector later in the process. For instance, if we do not address mental health in the community, we end up with more people having to be admitted to secondary care, which is more costly, and the same goes for skills and educational underachievement.

I recognise that this is a genuine dilemma for the Government and that we do not want a drift to formal direct rule because of all the implications that flow from that, but I must say to them that the current status quo is unsustainable and something must give. This is not the same context as that between 2017 and 2020, when there was a much more stable financial environment. I appreciate that direct rule is not palatable, and if it does have to happen, there will have to be an Irish dimension to it—people will have to face up to that. I clarify, however, that that is not joint authority, which I consider to be a different concept outside the context of the principle of consent. However, a consultative role for the Irish Government in direct rule has been established going back to the Anglo-Irish agreement, and, again, if people are uncomfortable with that reality, they know the options open to them to stop that happening.

On the finances, I recognise there are major structural problems in Northern Ireland’s public sector and expenditure profile. Some of that has been self-inflicted: the roof has not been mended while the sun was shining in previous years. A lot of decisions around reform have been ducked and opportunities have been missed by previous Executives. At the same time, however, we must recognise that there is a wider context. I do not want to labour this point today, but our current crisis in Northern Ireland is happening in the context of the UK public finances, which took a major hit towards the end of last year, and that has had a ripple effect throughout UK public spending, including the Northern Ireland block grant. We also, of course, have the Barnett squeeze, which I will discuss later.

Given all I have said, it is true that this year’s budget allocation will more or less be along the lines set out, regardless of whether an Executive were in place. It is, however, utterly disingenuous to say that the presence of an Executive is irrelevant in that regard. The governance gap fundamentally matters: without an Executive there is not a process for managing the pressures as efficiently and effectively as possible. That matters much more in the context of a crisis than when there is a surplus. It is like when a business is falling apart and running out of options and all the finance directors and the managing director have left their posts and others are trying to make do as the situation develops. The impact of cuts will be sharper without an Executive, because there cannot be early decision making on difficult decisions—I have made that point in relation to the civil service guidance. Some decisions cannot be taken because the governance structure is not sufficient, while other decisions will be deferred, and there will be a lack of strategic approach. Also, early intervention and prevention in particular are being targeted for cuts given the absence of a wider programme for government and a strategic framework. We will be storing up even greater problems in our public sector for subsequent years; the legacy of what is happening at present may be with us for a generation unless we swiftly get a handle on it.

We have long since lost the opportunity of a three-year multi-year budget, where we could have had planning from one year to the next and had some degree of stability and certainty in finances, allowing some long-term decision making. Crucially, with an Executive in place we would be in a much better place to go to the Treasury and ask for a financial package, and indeed make the case in relation to the Barnett squeeze. But in the context of a vacuum, all we will be looking at is cuts after cuts and decline and more decline, lost economic opportunities and damage to our public services.

In terms of our economy, this comes at a time when people want to do business with Northern Ireland. We have had the Good Friday agreement 25th anniversary, and I commend the Northern Ireland Office on its contribution to that, alongside many others, but people are now talking about a prosperity decade lying ahead, and the Government have welcomed that. We are having a trade conference in Northern Ireland in September, and Joe Kennedy III, the US economic envoy, has offered to bring a trade mission to Northern Ireland. All that is sitting there for us, but unless we have political stability and are investing in our skills, infrastructure and research and development, we are not going to be able to take advantage of those opportunities. They will not last indefinitely: there is a sweet spot at the moment and we must seize this opportunity. Instead we are seeing some of the key economic drivers being cut and undermined and, rather than taking opportunities, we are going in the opposite direction, and things are going to be getting even worse.

We must look to ways in which we can break this cycle, and all of this requires an Executive to be in place, but for us there are three ways in which this can be done. First, we must look for an invest-to-save transformation package for Northern Ireland. Most people recognise that we need to transform our public services to invest in our economy. There will be a lot of scepticism around this, and I have heard, for example, the comments of the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, about previous packages. We will have to learn the lessons from previous interventions and we will have to accept a lot of conditionality if that were to come. But unless we escape the cycle of cuts and the platform we are on, we are not going to transform our public services and invest in our economy. So we need to have that conversation. My party has put forward some proposals to the Government and I hear other Members talking in similar terms. We need to come together as political parties, ideally with a devolved Executive, to make this case. If that is to happen, it will need to be tied to a plan, which we have in place, including reform, that we stick to over multiple years.

The second area is inefficiency in our economy. That includes the cost of managing intervention in society and looking to other areas such as what we are doing on the health service. There are counterproductive, knee-jerk reactions to the budget crisis. For instance, the more we use agency workers, the more expensive that becomes, rather than investing in long-term staff, which is much more cost effective—that is counterproductive in terms of costs. Domiciliary care is necessary to take people out of hospital beds, which are more expensive, but, again, that will be sacrificed in a difficult budget setting—so, again, it is very counterproductive. In education, there is duplication between what happens in post-16 school settings and in further education. That is not sufficiently streamlined. We estimate that there is potentially £70 million in duplication there, which could be addressed with a proper 14-to-19 plan.

Finally, there is the Barnett squeeze issue. There must be an assessment in the work of the Fiscal Commission; much more work needs to be done on that, but we need an Executive to be batting for us with the Treasury to make that case for a different approach.

For me, the budget crisis is by far the biggest political issue facing Northern Ireland. With respect to my colleagues, it is a far bigger issue than the Windsor framework. I regard the Windsor framework as now being a done deal, and I welcome it: it is a progression from the original version of the protocol. There are issues to clarify on the margins, with more detailed guidance, but the fundamental structure is in place and we need to move on. To some, the issues being debated are relatively abstract and pale into insignificance compared with the impact on people’s everyday lives in terms of health and education.

Again, I say to Unionist colleagues: the best way to secure the Union is not through a narrower and narrower circle, based on defending an abstract notion of sovereignty; it is by making Northern Ireland work. The Union is based on the principle of consent. That lies in people seeing Northern Ireland working, and without an effective Executive and Assembly, they are getting the message that Northern Ireland is not working. From their perspective, that narrative needs to be turned around very quickly, rather than continuing the stand-off on the increasingly narrow ground of the Windsor framework.

Thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker: as so often in this House— and there is nothing wrong with this, by the way—I am called last, but always very pleased to make a contribution to the debate.

My colleagues who have preceded me outlined the precarious situation we are in due to the punishing budget that has been set. The Minister may well say that that is a different debate—and perhaps rightly so—but there can be no other topic. Interim arrangements within which the Secretary of State will continue to act in the absence of the Assembly can be acceptable only if the Secretary of State intends to act, instead of sitting and watching foundational aspects of the country crumble, in an attempt to strongarm Unionists into accepting an incomplete and damaging framework.

We are happy—I state this very honestly and truthfully— to work with the Prime Minister, and with the Secretary of State and Government, to find a workable solution, but there must be a massive effort to find that solution, with engagement that understands the position of Unionism. I understand that the mechanisms in place need the assent of this House to continue. However, the question that Northern Ireland MPs must ask themselves today is whether we are willing to play a part in this distraction from the harm that Government are seeking to do to Northern Ireland and their people, who dare—that is us: we dare—to demand parity of esteem within this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Obviously, different political parties are making their plea to find a way forward, and we have different interpretations of that, but we are all trying to secure a way forward for everyone.

In preparing for today’s debate on the Bill, I met a number of playgroups in my constituency to discuss the interim arrangements. I want to flag the removal of the pathway fund for early years, due to the ridiculous funding cuts faced by the Department of Education under the budget, which is only one of the harms that I am concerned that this Bill will perpetrate. A constituent of mine emailed me in the last two weeks regarding the likelihood that the pathway fund project that her child attends will cease at the end of June 2023. This is a massive issue in my constituency. I have met a number of playgroups over the last week or 10 days, and they have all made similar requests. I quote this lady:

“The project offered by the local provider helps support the social and emotional, cognitive and physical development of my child, using a holistic approach, delivered in a safe and engaging environment. My child should not have to miss out on being able to access this service which provides them the opportunity to learn and develop because of the removal of the Pathway Fund in our local community.”

She continues:

“As parents we continue to be reminded that the early stages of a child’s life is the most important and we inevitably try our best to ensure our children have the best start in life. Opportunities to access and engage in projects that support, not only my child’s development but my own as a parent, are not readily available within this area. I am significantly worried about the negative impact the loss of the Pathway Fund will have on my child, our family and the local community.”

This debate on the interim arrangements Bill gives us the opportunity to highlight this issue. The same concern has been replicated in my constituency of Strangford by more than eight playgroups that have contacted me. Early years development, as outlined in the Prince of Wales’s groundbreaking report, is absolutely essential—there is not an MP in this House, and certainly not on the Opposition side of the Chamber, who does not recognise that. This situation will have a dire long-term effect on the children in my constituency, as well as throughout Northern Ireland.

I had three boys. They are young men now—35, 33 and 31—but when they were small, they attended the playgroup and nursery. I could see the engagement at an early stage that my boys had at that playgroup, which is similar to the one I have mentioned. It gave them social engagement and the chance to build friendships. They kept those friends from nursery and the playgroup the whole way through to primary school and secondary school, and today, in adult life, they still have those friends.

I have often said that Northern Ireland has been used as Europe’s political football to score points. When I look at my children’s education, I can see how vital it is, and yet children’s education will potentially be reduced. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will have received my meeting requests, which I sent to him just last week, to discuss this very issue. Following that action, let me say that the education and future of our children is not, and can never be considered—I use these words deliberately—as cannon fodder. Continuity funding is what we are requesting, and it needs to be allocated. That is my plea today on behalf of parents throughout my constituency and across Northern Ireland, including in constituencies whose MPs do not even take their seats here—we are here to advocate for them as well. This interim arrangements Bill allows for things to continue. The view of Unionists on the ground in Northern Ireland who I have spoken to is that they are to be punished by the Government here.

The hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), who is not here—I am sure he is not too far away—referred to the Republic of Ireland as the place we should be looking towards. I will give the House a couple of wee facts about that. In the Republic of Ireland—which is where he seemed to indicate he wishes to be—anyone who wants an appointment with their GP has to pay €45 to €60 each time. If they have to go to accident and emergency, they pay €100 every time. Anyone 16 or over who has to stay overnight in the hospital pays €80, while the cost of living in the Republic of Ireland is 21% higher than in the United Kingdom. And anyone who wants a Big Mac from McDonald’s—I am not a fan; I do not buy them—will have to pay £2 more in the Republic of Ireland than they will in Northern Ireland or across the United Kingdom. Those are just examples of that paradise that the hon. Gentleman refers to—which is not a paradise at all—so let us keep things in perspective when we look at costs.

I spent last weekend, as I know my colleagues also did, at community events and meetings with constituents. The huge majority, reflecting that opinion, urged us to work for a solution: to get back to Stormont while standing firm for Unionism. That is the key, and it is disappointing that, while we are pushing for a solution that recognises the position of Unionism where it is, we are unfortunately not getting the reply from Government that we would wish for. That is the challenge for the United Kingdom Government and the Minister of State, and that what we are attempting to do. I humbly ask my Government to work with us and not against us to find the solution to the difficulties for our businesses and to legislate for our constitutional position, so that we are not at the whim of Government and whatever position they have taken that most expediently deals with the Northern Ireland issue.

It is important to put on record where we are with the Windsor framework. One of the reasons why, at this moment in time, my party has not accepted the Windsor framework is that we have sought legal opinion on whether it is worth the paper it is written on. The legal opinion from one law firm is that it is not. The Loyalist Communities Council, the Orange Order and the Unionist Forum each sought a legal opinion from three different law firms, and every response was the same. The Stormont brake is not worth the paper it is written on. The European Research Group, of which the Minister was once the leader, also sought a legal opinion, and the response it received is that the Windsor framework is not worth the paper it is written on. I have great respect for the Minister, but what a disappointment it is to find that his opinion today is so different from that which he had when a member of the ERG.

I understand the necessity for this Bill, but the Government have to take a giant step to embrace Unionism and its viewpoint. Northern Ireland Unionists are being treated abysmally.

It is not just a case of asking the Government to embrace Unionism. This is about the Government standing up for the country they claim to govern, because through the protocol and the Windsor framework they have handed responsibility for lawmaking to a body outside the United Kingdom.

Those words are salient. I am sure the Minister is taking note, and hopefully he will give a positive reply. My right hon. Friend is right. We are clearly second-class citizens.

This punishing Bill hurts not only Unionists but everyone in Northern Ireland. If I am to endorse the Bill, which allows the Secretary of State to continue wielding the necessary powers, I ask for an assurance that the extension will bring about a signal change, which the Government are currently not doing. As my right hon. Friend said, this Bill causes great concern even to the staunchest British heart in Northern Ireland. What are we clinging to? That is the question he asked.

I remind myself of those who shed their blood to protect Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, including many relatives of mine. Every year we celebrate the anniversary of the Ballydugan four, who were murdered by the IRA 33 years ago—no one was held accountable. My cousin Kenneth was murdered by the IRA—no one was held accountable. Billy Montgomery’s son Stuart was murdered by the IRA in Pomeroy—no one was held accountable.

All these people gave their life, and their family’s lives, for this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In their name and memory I once again ask that we are treated justly and fairly, because we have shed our blood and served in uniform for this country. I served in the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Territorial Army, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) served in the Ulster Defence Regiment too. We are not afraid of serving in uniform because it is the right thing to do. As British people, we think we should do that, and many others do too.

When this extension is granted once again, as I am sure it will be because of the Government’s strength, I urge the Government and the Minister to take this fresh opportunity to engage with constituents and work for the benefit of the whole Province, both those of a Unionist persuasion, as we are, and those of a nationalist persuasion. I love this country, this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and I say we are better together, but that means everyone being equal, and at this moment we are not.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Have you been notified of any change to the business, either today or tomorrow, in the light of the announcements in The Daily Telegraph—I believe a written ministerial statement has also been published—about the Government’s proposed fundamental changes to the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill? We have debated the Bill at great length in this place, and I understand from The Daily Telegraph that the Business Secretary is proposing changes to regulatory reform, in addition to deleting certain regulations, but that has not been notified to us.

I know you will be as concerned as I am about parliamentary scrutiny of any substantial changes, and I am sure the Business Secretary would not wish to evade that scrutiny in taking back control to this place so that we are able to understand what the Government intend. Have you been informed of whether we, as parliamentarians, might have an opportunity to scrutinise any of these proposals?

The straight answer is no. Mr Speaker has repeatedly made it plain that he expects information to be relayed to the House before it is announced to the media. However, from what the hon. Lady has said, it sounds as though a written ministerial statement has been made. There has been no indication to the Chair at this stage of any change to the business. That may, of course, change tomorrow.

I feel an enormous sense of déjà vu as I stand here once again to speak about Northern Ireland. As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), the shadow Secretary of State, we will not be opposing this Bill today. It is vital that, in the absence of an Executive, public services continue to function to support the people of Northern Ireland.

Like other Members across the House, I want to pay tribute to the civil servants who have spent more than a year working in these testing circumstances; it is not ideal, but it has been necessary. The removal of the six-month limit of this legislation will at least allow for continuity of governance as we hopefully move closer to the restoration of power sharing. The fact is, however, that these civil servants are confined to “business as usual” and are unable to take any new or bold decisions. Such decisions would be at the feet of Ministers and subject to scrutiny by politicians elected by the people of Northern Ireland to represent their interests. Without a functioning Executive, key levels of scrutiny from Committees are missing from those big decisions.

Public services in Northern Ireland are under severe pressure, with the impact of that felt throughout all of Northern Irish society. Just last week, for example, it was reported that since 2015 about 10,000 children have not been fully inoculated, with workforce shortages and delivery capacity in GP practices being given as the reasons for that. Deep-rooted issues such as that require proactive solutions, which should rightly be made by elected officials.

Furthermore, as was highlighted in Northern Ireland questions earlier today, the significant cuts included in the Northern Ireland budget are of great concern. I am grateful that the Secretary of State has included measures in this Bill that will allow for departmental accounts to be laid before Parliament for some scrutiny, but ultimately such scrutiny would be best applied by those on the ground in Stormont, who are answerable to the people of Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022 allowed the Secretary of State more time before calling an election in Northern Ireland. I would welcome hearing what steps he plans to take during this time to ensure that by the time of the next election, a functioning Executive will stay in place.

Despite the introduction of the Windsor framework, this deadlock has yet to shift and the people of Northern Ireland are suffering the most negative impacts of that. It is clear that there is a gap between the Government and the Unionists, which must be bridged in order for progress to be made. Dialogue between the Government, the European Union and the Unionist parties must continue. Of course, any way forward must take into account the nationalist communities, such is the nature of power sharing.

The recent celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement should highlight how important it is that we prioritise the restoration of power sharing and of a functioning Executive. I encourage the Secretary of State and the Minister to do all they can to try to push matters forward. I also ask that they work with the Prime Minister to ensure that he shows that he is fully committed to the restoration of power sharing. We cannot afford to spend another year debating issues that the devolved Administration would usually cover, while public services decline further and the cost of living crisis deepens. This Bill ensures that there is enough governance for now, but I sincerely hope it will not be needed for much longer.

With the leave of the House, I rise to close the debate, and I thank all those who have participated in it. Once again, we have seen that on the main substance of the Bill there is wide agreement. There is agreement that it is necessary but regrettable, as we continue to seek to avoid the governance gap.

I will now seek to respond to as many points as I can. The shadow Secretary of State raised the issue of some difficult decisions being too much for officials. We recognise that the Bill is an interim arrangement. It clarifies the powers that civil servants need in order to maintain public services in the absence of an Executive. We recognise that civil servants will be uncomfortable taking some of the difficult decisions that are needed. Indeed, it is possible that they will feel unable to take them, but that, of course, is why we need the Executive back. I am aware that we are sounding like a stuck record, but getting the Executive back is what we are seeking to do.

Before I go any further, I will just say to the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) that I know the Prime Minister would want me to say that he is fully committed to the return of devolution, but that is a point to which I shall return later.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), who chairs the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, asked about advice. He raised a great point and I am happy to clarify that it is our intention that the options developed for budget sustainability will be shared with the new Executive, and we hope that the new Executive will act swiftly to implement such measures. Further to various points that he made in relation to direct rule, I am absolutely clear that the Bill does not give us any powers to implement measures. I hope that is helpful to my hon. Friend—it is just the powers of the Secretary of State to direct that there should be advice and consultations, which would fall away.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), who speaks for the SNP, made a speech to which I listened very carefully. I am happy to say that, on this occasion, I did not spot any areas where I disagreed with him, but I shall have to revisit Hansard. I am grateful to him for the manner in which he has approached this debate, and I can assure him that it made a pleasant change.

A number of Members have talked about the budget. I know that if the moment comes that we are forced to bring forward a budget Bill, we will no doubt touch on all of the issues in detail, but I hope the House will forgive me if I do not go into any further detail on that this afternoon. What I will say is that we will have to bring forward a Bill if there is not an Executive, which I and the Secretary of State will regret should that be necessary.

On the issue of funding, the Government have, for many years, recognised the unique challenges that Northern Ireland faces. We have provided about £7 billion in additional funding to Northern Ireland since 2014, on top of the Barnett-based block grant and the Northern Ireland budget. Per person, that is around 20% higher than the equivalent UK Government spending in the rest of the UK. I am well aware of the Fiscal Council’s report, which suggests that, on a needs basis, it should be even higher, but I have to say that 20% extra would go a long way in Wycombe—the streets are not all paved with gold there.

I will, if the hon. Gentleman will let me finish my point.

We do need the Executive back, and not because we believe all the problems will go away—far from it—but because we need the problems to be addressed by Northern Ireland Executive Ministers. I am very clear that the road ahead will be long and hard for those Ministers.

Does the Minister accept that, within the next two years, the upward trajectory for the budget in England is 6%, but the trajectory in Northern Ireland is 3.6%? Per household, that equates to £2,000 less in Northern Ireland than for his constituents in Wycombe.

I am confident that the hon. Gentleman has done his homework, but I hope he will forgive me for saying that I will not confirm the figures when I do not have them immediately in front of me in the terms that he has put them. As I mentioned in oral questions earlier today, for all of us in this House, and indeed in all the devolved institutions, we do need to engage with the fiscal projections of the Office for Budget Responsibility. There is no doubt in my mind that, for the rest of our political careers and far beyond, there will be a problem with meeting the many demands of age-related spending. All of us will need to rise to that challenge, as it will need, in particular, healthcare reform. The Bengoa report is long since overdue in implementation. I also talked earlier about healthcare.

A total of £600,000 a day is spent maintaining a divided education system. It cannot be right just on a cost basis, never mind all of the social divisions that it leads to. That conversation needs to be had. I have made that position clear. The Government’s position is very clear: we are in favour of integrated education. I know that there will be a spectrum of views on this, but when it comes to funding, we are all clear that the problems that are faced will endure. We are clear that there will need to be a conversation about the Barnett formula—I am aware of the Barnett squeeze—but none of these things will be anything like plausible to solve, in a way that will be acceptable to all sections of the community, until the Executive is restored.

I ask the Minister, whose party talks all the time in this House about choice in education, why he wishes to shoehorn education in Northern Ireland into one particular system. Does he not accept that, in Northern Ireland, there are those who choose to have church education, those who choose to have grammar school education, and those who want to have integrated schools? Does he not accept that the same choice that he would have for his constituents should be available to people in Northern Ireland?

I absolutely do. Since the right hon. Gentleman mentions my constituents, I am happy to tell him that we are a grammar system in Wycombe and that the Highcrest Academy has built what it calls an “all ability” school there, which I regard as a comprehensive. Strangely enough, I helped it against the forces of the hard left, which were trying to avoid building an all ability school under the grammar system, and I rather approve of its ability to bring back choice for parents.

We have a co-operative school in my constituency, which I support, and a Catholic school—by the way, Muslim parents, and there are many in Wycombe, choose freely to send their children to the Catholic school. I am all in favour of school choice for my constituents and for the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents, but the question is at what cost. That question is one that he and his colleague Members of the Legislative Assembly need to answer in a re-formed Executive.

However, when I go over to Northern Ireland as a Minister and meet young people who say to me, “I was 16 before I met my first Catholic”, or “I was 18 before I met my first Unionist”, there is so much wrong with that. I find myself amazed that that is even a conversation in the 21st century. Yes to choice, but at what cost?

I welcome what the Minister says in relation to integrated schools, but I have two points for him. First, I want to reinforce that there is significant demand for integrated schools right across the community in Northern Ireland. Secondly, and most relevant to this debate, does he recognise that moving from a split system to more of a shared, integrated system involves some degree of investment? The problem is that the Department of Education cannot do that at present, in a context of declining budgets where it is trying to protect what it has.

The hon. Gentleman’s point is very well made; he knows that I hear it now and have heard it in the past.

We are clear that finances in Northern Ireland are not sustainable, but we are also clear that it is for an Executive to act on it. In the absence of an Executive, the Government through this Bill will ensure that time is not lost in starting to think about and work on that. We will commission advice from the Northern Ireland civil service on the options for budget sustainability in Northern Ireland, and we are happy to engage with any Member of the House in more detail about what we commission.

I heard what the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) said, and I am particularly interested in engaging with him and the universities. I also recognise the point he makes about places in Derry. He is right that Northern Ireland will never be a laissez-faire paradise, and it will be necessary for policy to embrace the point he makes about rebalancing towards Derry/Londonderry.

We are happy to engage with hon. Members, although I do not wish to pre-empt any particular piece of advice we might commission. We are absolutely clear that it is for locally accountable leadership to take these difficult decisions, but we are clear that those decisions will endure.

Questions were asked about future strategy, but the Government are clear about our strategy for Northern Ireland: devolution, moving forward with the Windsor framework and making the most of our new, constructive relationship with the EU and Ireland to improve that framework in a collaborative way when problems arise, as they inevitably will. Since this point came up earlier, we will then also work towards the review of the trade and co-operation agreement and try to improve our overall position.

While we are doing that—because, as has been said, we can do more than one thing at once—we will do everything we can to cheerlead for Northern Ireland. It is an amazing place, loved by people all over the world and full of talented people with an incredible capacity for innovation and development. They deserve investment, and I for one want to see that they get it.

Finally, I join in the lament about the gap that has opened up between the Government and Unionists. Once again, this has been a painful debate for me to listen to. Sometimes hon. Friends in the DUP have directed their remarks at me, but I would say to them that I do not wish to be hard on them. I must say to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) that I do not regret having given voice to people in Fermanagh who said, “Get on with it.”. That is what people want in Northern Ireland. There was no chanting—it was just a cry of “Get on with it”, and I am not sorry that I gave voice to that sentiment.

Hon. Members will have noticed that I have tried to be as emollient as possible in recent days—I really have. I have put on record that this is a difficult compromise for me too. I know that it is an even more difficult compromise for them to go back into the Executive with the Windsor framework, but I just say again that we have to choose from available futures.

Everybody here knows that it is not enough just to say what you want; you have to know how you will get it. I am clear, as we go forward with the Bill, that we do not want to be here again with Bills of this nature. We want to celebrate a return of devolved government, and yes, by all means, continue a conversation about the detail of the Windsor framework and what we can do to support the Union and Unionism. But, my goodness, I want us to get to the point, beyond this Bill, where we are celebrating the return of devolved government to solve the real problems that we face, and celebrating a Northern Ireland that has a much better and brighter future.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).