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Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill

Volume 796: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2019

Third Reading


Moved by

My Lords, I want to speak very briefly to reiterate something that we said last week at Second Reading and touched on again earlier this evening in Committee. When there is no Northern Ireland Executive and no Assembly in session, it is quite wrong for Bills touching the lives of virtually every citizen in Northern Ireland to be disposed of so unnecessarily quickly in this House. I know my noble friend has some sympathy with this point of view—if I may say so, he was magnificent in Committee. I would be grateful if he discussed it yet again with the powers that be through the usual channels. I am delighted to have seen the most senior representative of the usual channels, take a place—not his place—while I have been speaking.

There is one other point I would like to make. At Second Reading last week, my noble friend said that he would try to come back when we were dealing with the Bill today with any further information on the plea that many of us have made for the Assembly to be called into being and on the desirability—which I think we all share—of having some mediator figure to convene the various parties in Northern Ireland. It is now well over two years since we had an Executive or an Assembly. People in Northern Ireland have been short-changed by their politicians.

It is also deeply unfortunate that, when the real stumbling block over Brexit has been the border, we have had no opportunity to hear what the politicians elected to the Assembly in Northern Ireland think or for them to put anything into the debate. Although none of us knows whether this would have made any significant difference, given the fact that 56% of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union and none of the elected representatives in the Westminster Parliament take that view, it would have been an opportunity that might just conceivably have produced some interesting ideas. So for every possible reason—and I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, nodding assent—I hope, as we all do, that we have an Assembly and Executive in being before long; but that we devote more time in this Chamber, where so much responsibility does and should lie, in the absence of a devolved Administration. I look forward to my noble friend’s response in due course.

My Lords, like other Members, I was somewhat compromised by the early business and not able to be here in time for the start of it. I do not wish to repeat the debate. I want to show appreciation for the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Empey; the fact I was not able to speak to it was for no reason other than that, although I supported it, I wanted to observe the courtesies of the House—which I noticed not every other noble Lord did.

In those circumstances, I want to say two or three things. First, this Bill presents this Chamber with a choice between a rock and a hard place. Most of us are, I think, very unhappy about the fact that rates and the renewable heat incentive scheme were lumped together in the Bill. While the Minister did not acknowledge that that was a tactic, he did say it was something he did not approve of and hoped would not happen again.

My second concern is that we were faced with the situation—it probably determined why the noble Lord, Lord Empey, withdrew his amendment—that if we passed the amendment, there was a danger people would receive no payment on 1 April, which is a consideration. At this stage, it is important to acknowledge that the Minister has clearly presented a constructive compromise—but, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, pointed out, one he does not have the authority to guarantee. The House has accepted that in good faith but with real concerns as to where it might lead us. Had we supported the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Empey, the consequences might have been difficult.

Like most other Members, I have received emails from a number of different businesses across Northern Ireland—not all of them farmers—expressing their angst and concern. I have engaged with them, responded to the emails and forwarded them all to the Minister. I do not need to repeat it, but we need to acknowledge that we are passing a Bill that effectively—how can I put this?—gives authority to the denial of ministerial responsibility for giving guarantees and assurances on which people relied and on which they have been betrayed. I am not comfortable with giving a Bill that does that a Third Reading, and I do not think your Lordships should be either.

The thought that has occurred to me throughout the whole process around the renewable heat incentive scheme is this: the 12% return was known from the beginning, as the Minister acknowledged. I find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that on two separate occasions the Northern Ireland Executive introduced tariffs which could not conceivably have come close to representing a 12% return on the investment and which were, as anybody providing any objective analysis would very quickly have observed, in breach. That raises the most fundamental questions of propriety, honesty and integrity, of both politicians and, I am afraid, civil servants too. My instincts, however, are that civil servants did not understand what they should have, but I do not think that lets them off the hook.

People will look for a price to be paid, and the two prices to be paid are these. First, will the people who genuinely relied on this and suffered get compensation? Secondly, in the process of doing that, are we in danger of compensating people who took advantage of the system and who could get an extra twist out of it? That, I suggest to the Minister, is something that we need to avoid.

Having said all that, we have no choice but to pass this Bill tonight. However, we should record that it is being passed under duress, at speed, without adequate consultation and with consequences to follow both in the courts and in the political arena that will probably haunt Northern Ireland for many years to come.

My Lords, perhaps I may touch upon the remarks of my noble friend Lord Cormack. My team will reach out to him very shortly on the question of the Assembly and what we might well be able to do to go forward. There is no doubt that there are lost voices in Northern Ireland. Perhaps now more than ever those voices would have been appreciated and might well have been instructive, and they must be heard. I will return to my noble friend in the next few days, I hope, but certainly very soon.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, and my noble friend Lord Cormack talked about the notion of being bounced into this situation. In the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive, we must ensure adequate scrutiny in this place and the other place of issues that have a significant impact on the lives and livelihoods of the people of Northern Ireland. Of that, there is no doubt. We must ensure that we, the Government, do better at allowing for that scrutiny and at allowing time for questions to be asked. I fully appreciate that. I accept every point that has been made. I will take them away and do all that I can to change the way in which we do business, which is inadequate for this moment and for the times that we are in.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, pointed out, we are between a rock and a hard place—between a deadline and a necessity. We are between the hardships that we have witnessed through the emails and letters that we have received, and the reality of the challenge of an impending grandfather clause that would place everyone else who is in that situation in a far worse predicament. Therefore, I accept again that this is ill timed.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, is right to point out that I cannot give a guarantee on behalf of the Northern Ireland Executive—I am not equipped to do so, constitutionally speaking—but I could not in good faith return to this House if I were not able to live up to the statement that I have made today. I hope that noble Lords will accept that statement and the intent with which it has been given. I hope they will recognise that it has been given on my word of honour, and I will not come back here unless we can live up to the statements that I have made.

Today, as in every situation when we look at Northern Ireland, we have to tread as carefully as we can. On one hand, we are bound by state aid rules, which place upon us a responsibility. On the other, we are bound by the realities faced by many individuals who have written to us about the hardship they are experiencing. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who is now in his correct place, will recognise that his efforts and labours on behalf of those individuals have been well landed and well understood. I also hope that, on the basis of the withdrawal of his amendment and my promissory note about what we can do, we will be able to move forward to achieve that fairness, equity and, ultimately, justice.

Bill passed.

House adjourned at 7.12 pm.