Skip to main content

Northern Ireland Budget Bill

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2023

Second Reading (and remaining stages) (Continued)

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my register of interests, in particular the fact that I am a member of the board of governors of Enniskillen Royal Grammar School and that a member of my family is a serving member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

I begin my contribution in perhaps an unexpected way. I pay tribute to all those who have made Northern Ireland the place it is today: an innovative, exciting place to do business, with a well-educated, energised population looking to the future and living in what I think is the most beautiful part of the United Kingdom.

Some of us got involved in politics to advance Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and to protect it from those who sought to destroy it. That is the context in which I make these remarks. It saddens me greatly that we are where we are, but I believe we need to refocus on what we can achieve if and when the protocol’s intrusion on the Belfast agreement is resolved.

We have been told that the Northern Ireland protocol was designed to do two things: protect the internal market of the European Union and the Belfast agreement. It has been hugely effective in the first of those, to the point that you cannot get a sandwich across the border, but it has had the opposite impact on the Belfast agreement, as indicated in the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn. The protocol has undermined, misrepresented and inserted words and phrases into the Belfast agreement, and left us with a breakdown in the delicate balance created by it 25 years ago.

The European Union’s response to all this has been to put its fingers in its ears and its head in the sand. In an echo of David Cameron’s negotiations prior to the referendum in 2016, the answer to any challenge is “more Europe” and, in our case, “more protocol”. For decades, the European Union just ignored the Irish constitutional claim on Northern Ireland—part of another member state. Now, it does not just ignore the plain fact that it is interfering in an independent third country, the United Kingdom, but actively pursues interference in the United Kingdom’s internal market.

Minister, when will His Majesty’s Government realise that the European Union does not respect the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom as per the Belfast agreement? What actions are His Majesty’s Government going to take to educate the European Union on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland? What actions have His Majesty’s Government taken to educate the European Union about the actual contents of the Belfast agreement, as opposed to those made up, which have apparently taken hold? And when will His Majesty’s Government honour the commitment in New Decade, New Approach to protect the internal market of the United Kingdom?

All these answers would help inform the return of devolution, but the return to devolution is when the real challenges actually begin. The Minister of State speaking in another place said that the pressures on the Northern Ireland finances did not happen overnight. He is absolute correct. In 2016, the then Health Minister Michelle O’Neill, received a review of the Northern Ireland health service by a team led by Rafael Bengoa. The report made it clear that unless there was reform, health service need would continue to grow as a percentage of the block grant. We were told that reform was not an option but a necessity. Despite that warning, Sinn Féin collapsed the Executive in January 2017 and we were without devolved institutions for not one, not two, but three years as Sinn Féin refused to deal with real and meaningful pressures on everyday citizens. Health service need did indeed continue to grow, while Sinn Féin kept government down in order to achieve additional language rights. Regarding the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, I note that, as the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, has already commented, there was no pressure to have Sinn Féin back in government during the three years when there were huge pressures, particularly on our health service. I remember it very well.

Another reason for the huge deficit in the Northern Ireland finances referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Caine, is that no Sinn Féin Minister of Finance has ever succeeded in presenting a Budget which other parties could support. Given the nature of mandatory coalition in our devolution in Stormont, Finance Ministers have to look for support and consensus on the Budget that they bring forward. Every other coalition Finance Minister was able to achieve that, but no Sinn Féin Minister was able to—neither Máirtín Ó Muilleoir nor Conor Murphy.

Those of us who live in local government areas controlled by Sinn Féin know only too well of their actions when they are in the lead. Last month, in Mid Ulster District Council they even blocked a letter to His Majesty The King, such is their hatred for all things British. So I say very deliberately that if devolution is to return, real, sustainable power-sharing will require a complete change in attitude from Sinn Féin. Consensus and collaboration are not ideas which come easily to them. Noble Lords should not forget that the then Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, currently styling herself as “first Minister for all”, blocked the victims payment to innocent victims of the Troubles until the matter was ruled upon by the High Court in Belfast. Just let that sink in: blocking a payment to innocent victims of the Troubles. I listen to Ministers in the other place saying that devolution should return, implying that that will solve all the governance problems in Northern Ireland, but unless and until Sinn Féin embraces power-sharing, I am afraid the problems will remain.

Turning to matters in the Northern Ireland Budget Bill, on policing, under the New Decade, New Approach agreement of January 2020, Police Service of Northern Ireland numbers were to increase to 7,500. As this Budget takes hold, the chief constable has indicated that the number of officers will fall to 6,700, making the service the smallest it has ever been. As the Northern Ireland population continues to grow, our police service diminishes. Workload is increasing and police numbers are reducing, meaning policing is smaller, less visible, less accessible and less responsive, with slower investigations, reduced services to victims and, of course, knock-on delays in the criminal justice system. Service to the public is under threat.

Individual police officers will be under even more pressure from a welfare and well-being point of view, and I am sure the Minister knows that cost of living pressures are already biting on a number of the more junior police officers in our service. Many are having to take second jobs, something completely unheard of in past days, to make ends meet. It is absolutely incredible.

While government is investing in more officers in England and Wales—and recruitment is increasing in the Republic of Ireland, I understand—in Northern Ireland numbers are decreasing to their lowest ever level. It is simply unsustainable. Even during the worst times of the Troubles, policing happened right across Northern Ireland. Now, “many rural areas have virtually non-existent police forces”—not my words but those of an experienced officer who recently spoke to the Police Federation of Northern Ireland.

The Minister knows Northern Ireland probably better than any other government Minister, having spent a long time there in various guises; he knows its geography. I want him to really think about this and to give a commitment to those of us who live in rural areas in Northern Ireland that, regardless of where you live, you will be able to have effective and sustainable policing. It is very worrying. The federation is very concerned about what is going on at the moment, and it is important that Members of this House hear those concerns.

Turning briefly to education, I am proud that we have the best results in the United Kingdom. That does not happen by accident; I pay tribute to our leaders, teachers and governors across Northern Ireland, and of course to the hard work of our brilliant young people. Northern Ireland has invested in our young people, and our investment record shows that many of our foreign investors are impressed by the level of education and ability available to them when they come to invest in Northern Ireland. However, that is all at risk if the education budget goes ahead in the manner suggested by this Bill. We will be damaging our most successful system. Most importantly, I am concerned that we will be damaging our young people as well.

No one should shy away from reform or savings anywhere in public service but, as the Minister knows, when some in government try to bring forward reform in Northern Ireland, it is usually blocked by those who are afraid to make the argument to their voters. I regret that, because much more reform should have taken place. We could have begun the change to our health service in a planned and open way in 2017, but that was not done for the reason I have already referred to—the collapse of the Executive for three years due to the action of Sinn Féin. Noble Lords should remember that when they make their contributions today.

In closing, I regret the necessity for this Bill. I say this to the Minister as gently as I can: I very much look forward to His Majesty’s Government giving the citizens of Northern Ireland the same rights as those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I totally support everything the noble Baroness said about the need for more financial support for policing. Our police force in Northern Ireland has very different pressures from those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

We are here again, late at night, discussing Northern Ireland with more or less the same people we see at every debate. I sometimes think that if only the Conservative Party—sorry, the Conservative and Unionist Party—and the Labour Party had spent much more time over many years taking a genuine interest in Northern Ireland, getting properly organised there and standing for election, we might be in a very different position. The Labour Party does not even allow candidates to stand in Northern Ireland; yet, from all over, it keeps telling people in Northern Ireland what they should or should not be doing. That is important to stress.

I am disappointed in the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who I count as a friend from long years of knowing him. It says to me that he no longer supports the Belfast/Good Friday agreement; the amendment is clearly completely against the spirit and words of the agreement in relation to cross-community support. I point out gently, as has been pointed out already by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, that I did not see much pressure coming from the Labour Party during the three years that Sinn Féin was not in the Assembly. I did not see Motions to change the Belfast agreement or take the salaries away from those who would not take their seats. I support what the Minister has done to reduce the salaries of the elected MLAs; that was perfectly sensible, as I think the parties themselves recognise, but what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, is suggesting goes much further than that. Elected members of Sinn Féin, who say they have a mandate not to take their seats in the other place, still get huge amounts of money. They fly back and forth at the taxpayers’ expense. They do not get salaries but they get huge office expenses, which they use for campaigning, as has already been said. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Hain, would similarly support stopping Sinn Féin’s money, since they refuse to take their seats.

They say they have a mandate—well, the DUP has a mandate. Whether your Lordships like it or not, the DUP has a mandate to stay out of the Assembly and the Executive until such time as the protocol has been sorted. It is simple. The Government have known for a very long time that it is devolution or the protocol. You cannot have both. The Minister probably realises that. What we do tonight we are doing because we have the protocol and we do not have an Executive to put a budget through. I of course support the fact that we are doing this, and I support quite a lot of the elements of the budget. I believe that this is an opportunity for His Majesty’s Government to look at some radical changes to what is happening in Northern Ireland.

As has been said before, even if the Executive were back tomorrow, the huge problems that exist are very unlikely to be solved in the way that we would like to see, because of the way the Executive work, the way the Finance Minister can decide how the money will be spent and the fact that there has to be agreement. The fact that the previous Finance Minister did not get a budget agreed by any of the parties is symbolic. As the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, has said, we cannot go on like this forever, with the way things are going with the European Union. We will get a decision tomorrow in the Supreme Court. Even if the court refuses to rule out the protocol, it will probably say things that, hopefully, will show again that the Government have broken the Act of Union; they have admitted that in the courts in Northern Ireland. They have subjugated the Act of Union; that is where we are today.

I hope the Minister will say how long he thinks we can go on in this situation. In my view, there will not be an Executive or Assembly until the protocol goes. That is what people are beginning to realise. It is definitely not going to happen until we see real sovereignty being taken back, and Northern Ireland back as an integral part of the United Kingdom. As Sir William Cash said very expressively and well last night on a television programme in Northern Ireland, how could any Government anywhere in the world give away—basically—a part of their own country, ceding power as we have done to the institutions of the European Union?

We will have to come up with some other solutions that do not mean coming back every month with a Bill to do something else. At the moment, it seems that Ministers decide what they will and will not allow to happen, but we want to see that in a much more systematic way. Perhaps it is time that we returned to the system of legislating, as we did in the past, by Orders in Council. At the moment we have these erratic emergency Bills coming through to which the Government very rarely accept changes, but, despite past criticism of the limited time given to Orders in Council in both Houses of Parliament, and of the fact that an order was unamendable, it would be far preferable in terms of good government to return to that system, as well as making much better use of your Lordships’ time here. Legislating in that way would allow Northern Ireland’s separate body of law to be updated when necessary, instead of many years later than needed.

It is worth recalling what used to happen before Stormont reappeared spasmodically. There were an average of 20 Orders in Council every year until 2006-07. In the last 15 years there have been only six, yet there have been numerous Northern Ireland Bills. Those six orders were exceptional measures to introduce the welfare reform that involved universal credit—Stormont Ministers were not willing to be seen to legislate in that area so they asked Westminster to do the needful—and another one reformed the sexual offences law. I cannot help but think that this buck-passing is what happens with the current legacy Bill. I think we have all forgotten, because it is convenient to forget, that the five local political parties oppose the legacy Bill but previously they sent it to Westminster because they could not agree on any way forward for themselves.

We have to face up to the fact that this House and the other House have become the legislature for Northern Ireland. It is time that the noble Lord, Lord Caine, started to convince Ministers and the Prime Minister that we cannot go on like this, and that there is a need to put in an extra couple of Ministers for Northern Ireland and beef up local government. Over many years, people have argued against devolution and said that integration was the way forward. People sometimes say that the train has gone too far to be pulled back, but we might need to look at whether what we are doing now is going to be sustainable in future. Sufficient integration on a transitory basis until the Assembly is back needs sensible government consideration.

Money is getting through now—practically everyone who was entitled to it now has the energy money—but we need radical change in how we deal with our finances in Northern Ireland. Some bad financial decisions have been taken in Northern Ireland over the past two or three years. Sometimes, because one side gets something, the other side then has to get something, and the two things come together but it is not actually the best way to spend money for people in Northern Ireland.

We should use this opportunity—although I am sure no one will want to say it is an opportunity—to look seriously at what we are doing at this moment and how we can make the changes now that will mean, should the protocol go and the Executive come back, there is a better footing to make things better in Northern Ireland generally for all its people.

My Lords, this is a debate that I truly wish we were not having at this late hour today. I apologise to the House for my coughing and hoarseness; I have a problem with my throat.

As I said in this House just a few days ago, we cannot be one United Kingdom while the Irish Sea border remains in place. I sincerely hope that the ongoing negotiation with Brussels will lead to its imminent removal.

With the greatest respect to the Minister, who I know feels greatly and deeply about Northern Ireland, this budget should not be set by him and his colleagues here in Whitehall. These are decisions that should be made by local Ministers in Northern Ireland, elected by local people for local people. Even in the relative absence of terrorism—I use the word “relative”—the people of Northern Ireland are currently living through one of the most difficult periods that I can remember, and I have been around for quite a long time.

The Consumer Council has produced figures which showed that, between January and March last year, the Province’s lowest-earning households, with an average annual income of £12,200, had just £29 per week left after paying their bills and living costs. The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency estimated that, in April 2022, 316,000 citizens in Northern Ireland— I repeat, 316,000—were living in relative poverty. That was when inflation had reached 9%; it has stayed above that level ever since and currently sits at 10.5%. Meanwhile, the energy crisis was yet to really take a grip and the interest rate stood at 0.75%. It is now 4%. This is the reality of life at the moment.

Individuals and families need our help. They need support. They need local politicians to stand up for them to give them a voice. Yet in Northern Ireland we have neither an Executive nor a functioning Assembly in place, so responsibility for the welfare and future of local people is now in the hands of others.

I had concerns about several areas of the Government’s budget proposals when they were published in a Written Ministerial Statement last November. The noble Baronesses, Lady Foster and Lady Hoey, both alluded to this but it is worth repeating. It was in the field of education that my worries were and remain most profound. The Written Ministerial Statement said that

“significant reductions in current spending trajectory levels”—[Official Report, Commons, 24/11/22; col. 16WS.]

on education would be required to “live within budgetary controls”. In other words, that means cuts to school budgets.

Last week, the BBC reported that the Education Authority in Northern Ireland had been asked to model cuts of up to 10% to its 2023-24 budget, amounting to hundreds of millions of pounds. The Education Authority had previously said that it expects more than half the schools in Northern Ireland to be in the red by the end of next month. It also warned of a school maintenance backlog of some £500 million. This situation is not just untenable; it is also devastating to the prospects of Northern Ireland’s young people. We need our young people to receive the best possible education. Not only will that enable them to fulfil their personal potential; it will encourage them to build successful careers in Northern Ireland and make a positive contribution to the local economy, rather than moving elsewhere. I appeal to the Minister to please use his good offices to put their future first.

Another area facing potentially catastrophic cuts is policing, which the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, alluded to most eloquently. Briefing his officers just a few days ago, PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne said that the force would have a funding shortfall of £80 million by next month, with larger shortfalls to come in the years ahead. He added:

“By March there will be 309 fewer Police Officers and 115 fewer staff, a reduction of nearly 6%. We will then have 6,699 full-time officers. This is 800 officers fewer than the commitment made in the New Decade New Approach Agreement and the lowest officer numbers since the Police Service of Northern Ireland was formed.”

As I mentioned, terrorism has not gone away. In reality, the situation on the ground remains dangerous, with the shadow of paramilitarism still looming large, including constant threats to police and prison officers. With Northern Ireland’s population growing we need more officers, not fewer. We also need high-quality officers, but implementing such damaging cuts and increasing already overheavy workloads will surely make policing a less attractive career for young persons.

I place on record my disappointment at the outcome of the levelling-up fund’s round 2 bids for Northern Ireland. The Assembly and Executive’s return now looks unlikely in the short term, and the budget proposals we are debating show little slack in their current form. As such, it is hoped that round 3 of the levelling-up fund will be much more generous to community projects in Northern Ireland, including an impressive bid from Coleraine Football Club, than round 2 sadly proved to be.

It is a matter of deep regret that the Northern Ireland budget is being dealt with in this manner tonight. It is the subject of two short parliamentary debates, allowing minimal scrutiny before the funds come under the control of unelected civil servants back in Belfast. That is no criticism of those officials, who I am sure will do a professional job. However, this is a situation that neither they nor the people of Northern Ireland should find themselves in. We have been here before. It is my earnest hope that we never find ourselves in this position again.

My Lords, I support this Second Reading and thank the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Caine—for his careful and detailed introduction. He delivered it with such calmness of tone that, once or twice, I wanted to say something that I am sure he is well aware of: that the crisis in the public finances in Northern Ireland is acute. I fully respect his observation that the Government intend to look after education and health in particular but, at the moment, the shortfalls look remarkable in those areas, and we may have to look at other ways of raising funds. But that explanation of how we have got here was totally fair.

We have two regret amendments. Although that of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, does not directly do so, it implicitly follows a line of argument that has been increasingly common in the last few weeks: that the behaviour of the DUP means that we should call into question the whole structure of the Good Friday agreement. That is exceptionally dangerous, and I am very glad that Rory Montgomery—one of the key Dublin officials at the time of the negotiation of the agreement, and recently its lead official in negotiations with Europe—has pointed out that this would be extremely dangerous and risky. The DUP has a mandate for its action, which is legitimate within the terms of the Good Friday agreement and the way it operates. This is very frustrating, and I fully respect the frustration with it of the noble Lord, Lord Hain—but it is legitimate. Any attempt to move away from the agreement would be remarkably destabilising.

I very much agree with the argument of the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, that the EU has to come to terms with its commitments to maintain the Good Friday agreement. In recent days, the EU has acknowledged that there were unforeseen consequences. The big and obvious elephant in the room in that respect is that the institutions of devolution and the Good Friday agreement are down. As Rory Montgomery said, a particularly narrow Irish version of the Good Friday agreement was unfortunately internalised by the EU in the early stage of these negotiations, and in some ways we are still trying to unpeel all that.

The Bill depends on a functioning democratic deficit, if I can put it like that. This is very hard for the departments and the Permanent Secretaries in Northern Irish departments: they have been drawn into making decisions that they should not have to make, especially in very difficult circumstances—there is no doubt about that or that you can just about get away with it in the short term. But it is a functioning democratic deficit. I absolutely accept that the EU has to come to terms with the democratic deficit, and increasingly the signs are that people now acknowledge this in a way that they did not when, for example, the first iteration of the withdrawal agreement—the Theresa May document —made no mention of the Northern Ireland Assembly at all. Now the question changes: the Northern Ireland Assembly must be part of the resolution of this democratic deficit question, but it is very difficult to do this. But at least it is acknowledged on all sides that, in this area, something has to be attempted that was not even attempted in the first phase of this negotiation.

In that sense, the democratic deficit cuts both ways. There is a point at which there will have to be consideration. It is absolutely true that there is democratic deficit regarding the function of the protocol at present in Northern Ireland, but it is also true—and it probably cuts into more serious areas of public life for ordinary individuals—that there is a democratic deficit as regards how the Assembly is not operating. That is a political choice of the DUP, and what it has attempted to do so far is entirely legitimate within the framework of the Good Friday agreement. None the less, the democratic deficit question cuts two ways, and that is a responsibility of moderate politicians; we can no longer throw that question away.

Briefly, in defence of the Permanent Secretaries, the red and green scheme was not the EU’s idea—as the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, suggested in his important speech, most of which I agreed with—but came from the Northern Ireland Permanent Secretaries. The idea of the red and green lanes, if we get them back, was originally broached in 2017 from the higher reaches of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Clever as its members are, they should not be asked to make decisions which should be made by the Assembly—the noble Lord, Lord Hain, is right on that point. It will not be magical, and everything that has been said tonight about the inadequacies of the Assembly’s previous functioning is true—I say that while looking at four former Ministers of the Assembly. None the less, we ought to have a proper, functioning and democratic Assembly. To get that, we need the United Kingdom Government to live up to their commitment under the Good Friday agreement, the very beginning of the international agreements, to deliver equality of esteem, which they have done for the nationalist community with the recent Irish language legislation in this House. However, the long-term aspirations of the unionist community on the protocol also require a response from the United Kingdom Government.

My Lords, in the other place, the Minister, Steve Baker, when introducing the Bill, said:

“In the absence of an Executive, the Government stepped in to set a Budget … Setting the Budget was not an easy task.”

He went on to suggest that DUP voters, on the whole,

“will be devastated by the consequences of not having the Executive up”

to deal with the issues before them. I am somewhat bemused by so many politicians and Times commentators constantly telling my colleagues and me what DUP voters want, while, at the same time, showing that they are unwilling to listen to the authentic voice of unionism, as demonstrated constantly through the ballot box over and over again. Unlike other parties, the DUP stays close to its electoral base and honours the promises it makes in an election manifesto.

The Minister in the other place went on to say that, in the light of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, His Majesty’s Government

“are acutely aware of the difficult decisions that now have to be taken in relation to health, education and right across the spectrum in Northern Ireland to live within the Budget.”

He also said that

“pressures on Northern Ireland’s finances did not happen overnight. Successive former Executives … failed to put finances on a sustainable footing. As a result, the Government inherited a Budget halfway through the year with an overspend of some £660 million. That is unacceptable”.

However, he failed to say that, while numerous problems were facing practically every department within Stormont’s competence, to resolve those required the relevant Finance Minister to present a budget which departments could work from. Sadly, Sinn Féin Finance Ministers, when the Executive was functioning under their stewardship, were unable to bring forward a budget that any of the other major parties could sign up to. The most recent Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, set a budget promising millions when he knew that the coffers were empty—peddling promises to satisfy his political aspirations, yet knowing full well that the black hole was getting deeper.

The chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place also said that

“we were hearing … a growing sense of worry and anxiety about the impact on the quality of life and on outcomes in health, education and housing for ordinary people in Northern Ireland”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/1/23; cols. 773-75.]

To this I say, “Yes, we are.” No one can be satisfied with the failure to tackle the numerous problems that we face with crumbling infrastructure, with hospital waiting lists at an all-time high, not being able to see a doctor even when life and death issues are at stake, and with operations being cancelled, as well as the education of our children being seriously undermined, and so on. The list of problems goes on and on.

However, Simon Hoare is tone-deaf to anyone expressing the growing sense of anxiety and worry felt by the unionist population, who feel that they have been treated as third-class citizens by their own Government because of the iniquitous Northern Ireland protocol, which was agreed between London and Brussels deliberately over their heads. Unionists will not permit us to be treated like an EU colony. We shed our blood to maintain our British heritage, and will not accept the constitutional position within the United Kingdom being swept away by foreign Governments in their efforts to constantly appease republicans.

Another serious shadow hangs over this debate, with the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, the substance of which is to threaten the unionist electorate through their politicians that, if they do not obey his diktat, their legitimacy will be cast aside as if we were under some communist regime. Let me sound a word of caution to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who as a former Secretary of State ought to know better. If he is presenting this amendment with the blessing of His Majesty’s Opposition to his colleagues as well, this is playing a dangerous game and the stakes could not be higher. He is playing silly political games at a most sensitive time in Northern Ireland. This amendment may have received applause in Connolly House, the headquarters of the Provisional IRA in Dublin. Indeed, it could even have been drafted in Connolly House, when you read it—but I find its contents insulting to the ordinary unionist voter and a direct challenge to democracy. Does he really think that the DUP would be willing to sell the constitutional future of our Province for a paltry 30 pieces of silver?

It is interesting that, while Sinn Féin brought down Stormont and would not enter an Executive for three years, the noble Lord did not present such a proposal to your Lordships’ House, but rather did everything in his power to get all the concessions demanded by Sinn Féin granted to it to get it back into the Executive. Now he wants the Government to give an ultimatum to unionist elected representatives: “Get in without having your legitimate democratic concerns dealt with, or else we will bypass you completely or sweep your elected representatives to the side.” I say to the noble Lord that the unionist electorate are not to be treated as if they were dirt under somebody’s feet or regarded as irrelevant. The noble Lord can therefore no longer be considered to be an honest broker for any further negotiations. I am surprised that he did not go the whole way by telling unionists that, if they were unwilling to be compliant with his demands, they will no longer be allowed to vote at any further Assembly election. But perhaps that is reserved for a future occasion.

Note also that Sinn Féin has lifted many millions of pounds from British taxpayers, even though the MPs have never attended one sitting at Westminster—but not a cheep from the noble Lord. I think that I can recall that there were those on the Labour Benches that were willing to remove the necessity to swear allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen to get Sinn Féin on to the green Benches of the other House.

The DUP on numerous occasions raised genuine concerns, indeed concerns felt by all unionists in the Province, about the Northern Ireland protocol from its position within the devolved Administration, long before it withdrew from the Executive. There was a long window of opportunity in which to resolve these issues before the Executive collapsed, but this was missed or thought not worthy to be granted serious consideration. Europe was so belligerent that it was not willing to remove one jot or tittle from the agreement, at the behest of Dublin. The Assembly works on the basis of consensus, yet the basis of its functioning properly was destroyed.

The protocol has damaged Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom and the economic prosperity of our people. The Assembly is expected to administer laws that have not even been created by this Parliament, never mind the Assembly itself. Some 300 areas of law, including our ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom, must be determined by a foreign political entity, the EU. Yes, laws are imposed on Northern Ireland without scrutiny, nor any accountability for them. The democratic deficit is alarming, but we are to suck it up and get on with it. Unionists are not willing to tolerate this any further, and only an honest dealing with the situation will be accepted.

Even in the light of the talks that are going on, I say to the Minister, for whom personally I have respect, that no underhand, cobbled-together deal between Brussels and London behind the backs of unionist representatives will gain acceptance within the unionist population. It is time for the Government to get real, face the dilemma they have created and treat Northern Ireland as what it is; an integral part of the United Kingdom with equal rights as enjoyed by all others within the union.

Coming to the budget itself, the allocation of resources is totally inadequate and will only place every department in extremely difficult positions, facing difficult choices. The recent additional energy and inflation pressures have greatly exacerbated the problems. In the DfI, the allocation will have a serious impact on road maintenance, street lighting, et cetera—indeed, the already unfit nature of many minor roads will get a lot worse; they are already in a deplorable condition. In the Department of Justice and policing, it is envisaged that an operational shortfall of some £80 million in this financial year will but increase to £106 million next year and £132 million in 2024-25. Police numbers have fallen to 6,669 this year, and next year, this is to continue downwards to 6,433, with a further reduction to 6,193 police officers in 2024-25. Is this acceptable?

This is inconsistent and contrasts with the uplift programme in England and Wales, which has been allocated an uplift of more than £2 billion across three years, including funding to grow police officer numbers by a further 20,000 members. This year’s allocation will impact, with a reduced vehicle fleet and damaged and broken vehicles waiting longer for service and repair. It will also lead to deferred building and maintenance work on a crumbling estate. This is happening in spite of a firm NDNA commitment by His Majesty’s Government to provide adequate resources to allow police numbers to rise to 7,500. The implications within the community are serious, with fewer police on the beat. Indeed, by March 2023, there will be 75 fewer neighbourhood police officers, 96 fewer detectives investigating murder, terrorism, drugs and organised crime, 97 fewer officers in our operational support department and 115 fewer police staff across a range of roles. This is not acceptable.

In education, there is a significant funding gap and the Education Authority is concerned about the growing unprecedented pressures facing education. There has been chronic underinvestment in education and representatives of all schools have written to the Secretary of State warning that there is a crisis in education funding. Spend on education per pupil in Northern Ireland is below that in England, Scotland and Wales, and half of our schools are projected to be in financial deficit at March 2023. In Scotland, 2021-22 spend per pupil was £7,600, but in Northern Ireland it was 6,400. Following the 2022-23 budget settlement announced by the Secretary of State in November 2022, the Education Authority was directed to identify a range of proposals in response to the £110 million funding gap which was being forecast at that time. A number of proposals are being considered to make savings, including reductions to services, but these are judged to lead to highly unacceptable and detrimental risks to our children and young people.

However, the substantial pressures that the system is currently facing will increase in pace. As a result, the financial position will be even more challenging in 2023-24. Reducing expenditure on the day-to-day running of schools will have an impact; it will impact on special educational needs support, transport, catering and, ultimately, the educational experience and outcomes of our up-and-coming generation. A flourishing education system is vital for the future health, well-being and economic prosperity of our wider community. We urgently need to invest in an ambitious programme to transform special educational needs services and develop and grow early intervention support, thereby reducing our reliance on statutory services, to ensure that all our children can lead happy and fulfilled lives. The budget before us today does not permit this to happen. We are moving backwards, not forwards.

Finally, I will look briefly at health provision in the Province. Waiting lists in Northern Ireland are the worst in the United Kingdom. Waiting times for a cancer consultation have risen, in many cases at an alarming rate. Even though the largest part of our total budget is allocated to health, our outcomes are falling. Care packages are in chaos and the number of agency staff across the service is increasing. The costs are astronomical. The glaring need to train more nurses, doctors and consultants is surely evident, but it has not been tackled. Six years on from the Bengoa report, we are yet to see the proposals delivered. If my memory serves me right, all major parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly signed up to the implementation of this report, but the situation lies stagnant. With such consensus, there is no need for government to delay action any longer in taking forward these reforms.

There was no cross-party support for the present abortion laws forced on the people of Northern Ireland, but the Ministers of His Majesty’s Government did not care—they declared, “It must be done, and done swiftly”. This also happened with legislation for same-sex marriage and the Irish language. In spite of opposition, the Government ploughed full steam ahead. Of course, these were at the behest of Sinn Féin; we know that, over the years, successive Governments have removed every obstacle to appease the party that was in league with the boys with the guns. Even though all of these had implications for creating a deeper hole in Stormont’s finances, time was of the essence, and where the finances would come from did not really matter. It was not worthy of consideration—just do them and let the budget pay for them, even to the detriment of other essential services.

In recent times, successive Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland have been happy to dip in and out of matters that were within the full competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but on an occasion requiring urgent action to alleviate suffering and anxiety within the community, they washed their hands in a Pilate fashion. The same applies to the appeal to have Dáithi’s law implemented. I trust that the Minister will tell his colleagues that, in light of the fact that the Assembly will not be functioning any time soon, action on important issues facing the community should be acted on and the necessary legislation should be brought forward to make a difference to the everyday lives of the people of Northern Ireland.

My Lords, when you speak at this stage of a debate, there is not a lot left to say. I think some noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, have been reading some of the material that I have been reading. So, while I have it all here, I will not repeat it, because that might take away from it.

I was very struck by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, saying that the DUP was reacting disproportionately to the protocol. Well, I say to her that, when you tamper with the constitution of any country, having given a prior understanding and agreement that there will be no change without consulting the people of that country, you are asking for trouble—and that has happened in our country.

I am sure that as your Lordships have listened, you now have a fair idea of what is causing the severe hiatus in Northern Ireland. It is, of course, the Northern Ireland protocol. The Minister here should not be delivering this budget Bill. There is not one of us on these Benches who want it that way; we would prefer that it was done in Northern Ireland, by Northern Ireland Ministers. But the protocol is the wrecking ball that landed the Executive and Assembly in total chaos. We have to say, without any degree of satisfaction, that they will not be coming back until the protocol is dealt with. The sooner the Government apply themselves earnestly to that task, the sooner there is a chance that we will see the return of some semblance of democracy in Northern Ireland. We say to the Government this evening: please get your act together and deal with the protocol, and then the Minister will not be here at some future date delivering a budget Bill.

Delivering a budget Bill with a mandatory coalition is not a straightforward exercise by any stretch of the imagination. My own party held that position at one time, and Sinn Féin has held it, but the remarkable difference was that when my party, the DUP, held it, we were able to have consensus and get a finance Bill through the Assembly, but Sinn Féin could not get that. It is not just that Sinn Féin could not get it with the DUP; it could not get it with any of the parties, even the wonderful Alliance Party. That party could not agree to it either. The SDLP, I understand, could not agree to it, and the Ulster unionists could not agree to it. Any other party with any degree of influence in the Assembly could not agree to it, so it is not just that the DUP is being unreasonable.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, above any other Peer in this House, should have a clear understanding of how difficult it is to get consensus and how to bring things on board. I have to say to him very directly that what he has put down this evening is the very way to wreck the whole show. I do not know whether he speaks for the Labour Party tonight. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, will speak a little later and clarify whether the noble Lord, Lord Hain, is speaking for the Labour Party with this amendment. However, he did go on to amend it slightly, saying, “No, I’m not going to move it to a vote, but I am warning you here tonight: if you don’t behave yourselves over there and don’t join the diktat, this is what will befall you”. It has been well articulated that this was never said during Sinn Féin’s three years of holding government to ransom.

I remember distinctly the howls from the Lib Dems—not those who are here tonight, I might add; I have a distinct memory of who they were, but they are not in their places tonight. We did not bring government down, but the onus was put on us, and they said to us at that time, “Can you not get on and get government done?” No, because we were not holding it up. I do accept, of course, that we are now, because of the protocol. The protocol has to be dealt with. If there is no other message that gets across tonight, I hope at least that those who have stayed for this debate will go home with a clear message: the protocol is the problem.

As I speak this evening, I do so in the knowledge that the Minister is a strong supporter of the police and of law and order. However, I must say that if the resources are not available, the police cannot deliver the service on the ground. The one bedrock and stability of any country is law and order. If you do not have law and order, you have very little. If you want to talk to us about the lack of it, and if you have a couple of hours after this debate, we will go through it all with you. We have endured 30 years of recklessness, murder and mayhem—but none of us wants that to revisit Northern Ireland ever again.

I had much to say on policing but the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, and the noble Lords, Lord McCrea and Lord Rogan, have stolen my thunder. All the facts and figures they have given, I have here too. I will spare your Lordships the repetition—I can see you thinking, “Thank goodness for that!”

The budget the police have been landed with will determine a smaller, less visible, less accessible, less responsible police force. I ask the Minister please to take that into account. I know that he will; I know that he cares about these things and about Northern Ireland, as passionately, sometimes, as we do. However, the impact this will have on the police force will be catastrophic.

Your Lordships will be pleased to know that I have nearly finished, but I want to refer you to what Liam Kelly, the chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, said in today’s paper:

“The difficulty we have in the police is that we have no choice but to accept it. We can’t take industrial action. There is no other process for us. We get what we are given and we are expected to be grateful for it on every occasion … Over the last ten years policing salaries have gone backwards. The starting salary [for a student officer] before this £1,900 uplift was just over £21,000, and our probationer officers were on just over £24,000.”

Yes, £24,000 is a lot of money, but not for the risks that police have to take, and they do have to take immense risks, even in what has already been described here as relative peace. Mr Kelly continued:

“It would take a police officer five years to get to £30,000. In the Northern Ireland context, and the threat to them on and off duty … there is no incentive for officers to stay in service and put their lives on the line when they are not being paid properly.”

As my noble friend Lady Foster mentioned, he said that the police are increasingly going to

“do other things for a lot less stress and hassle.”

Our health service is creaking at the hinges. Our education system, which produces excellent results far ahead of other regions of the United Kingdom, has to be financed properly if we are going to have an educated people who will take our country forward in the future.

My Lords, given the lateness of the hour, I will try to curtail my remarks. The Minister will be delighted to hear that I will try to ensure that he can finish proceedings on the Bill by midnight, or 12.30 am at the latest.

Much has been said about the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hain. Despite a certain amount of backpedalling by the noble Lord to try to appear even-handed, it seems to many of us a fairly thinly veiled, one-sided attack on the position of unionists. [Interruption.] I hear chuntering from a sedentary position; as I said, it was thinly veiled. The position, I suppose, stands in contrast to the silence over a three-year period with regard to Sinn Féin, and over a 40-year period regarding its allowances in the Palace of Westminster. If someone tried effectively to bribe noble Lords or threaten them with the removal of salary, I think all would have the integrity to say no to that. I say broadly on behalf of the unionist community that no unionist or other person of integrity will be bribed, blackmailed or browbeaten into reducing or giving up strongly and passionately held principles for the sake of a few pounds. There is a very clear message there. Frankly, the amendment is ill judged.

Drawing from the budget Bill itself, three lessons can be learned. First is the importance of political stability. If we have learned anything over the last 25 years and beyond, it is that political stability in Northern Ireland can work only when we have the buy-in of both communities. Frankly, that will not happen until we see the replacement of the Northern Ireland protocol. It is not simply a matter of tinkering around with the implementation of it but of dealing with the fundamental problems: the democratic deficit; the lack of accountability; and the fact that, from a divergence point of view, Northern Ireland would be tied into regulations which are not simply going to be a problem on day one but will get greater and greater as time moves on. That is not simply a constitutional threat; it will be economically damaging to Northern Ireland.

At the moment, Northern Ireland is effectively being treated as a colony of the European Union. I appreciate that there are many in this House who will take a much more optimistic and sympathetic view of the EU than many who would be sympathetic to my views. If, out of generosity, we take that at face value and believe that the EU is trying to operate in the best interests of Northern Ireland, a benign colony is still a colony. That is what we need to address with the protocol. It is disappointing that we are in this position because up to this point there have been missed opportunities and wasted time.

It is eight months since the First Reading of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. It is 19 months since the Government’s Command Paper on the subject. It is just over three years since the Government, in the restoration of Stormont under the NDNA, gave a commitment to restore Northern Ireland’s place fully within the United Kingdom and the UK internal market. We cannot afford a situation in which we have another facade, where we produce any form of deal, but one which does not solve the problems.

The second lesson to be learned in relation to the budget is that there is a dire need—not just in Northern Ireland; it is a wider lesson for the whole of the UK—for public sector reform. We have seen in Northern Ireland the proposals of the Bengoa report. Within education, I and my successor brought forward the independent review on education. It is important that we all have the political courage to reform public services. Sometimes that will be painful for us but the key goal is the best possible delivery for all our citizens. Against that, there is a caveat: public sector reform does not come instantaneously and quite often comes with a price tag upfront. It is not an instant solution but nevertheless we must grasp it.

The third lesson is that we need to see public services that are adequately and fairly funded. Against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis, public services are very much falling behind. Mention has been made on a number of occasions of how generously Northern Ireland is treated in its finances. The same point could be made about a range of regions. However, as I am sure that Scottish and Welsh colleagues will testify, the convergence that happens because of the Barnett squeeze means that the figure reduces each year. We have reached a tipping point in which the objective needs of Northern Ireland, and indeed of other regions, are greater than what is being provided in finance.

Nowhere is that more acute than in education. That is why recently all four main Churches in Northern Ireland and all the major educational sectoral bodies warned of the situation we were being put in and that the Education Authority is so concerned about where the budget will be for next year. It was quite foolhardy of the Government to seek £110 million of savings in a three-month period from the Education Authority.

The cost of living has hit education so hard because around 90% of funding for education goes on necessary wages. Whatever efficiency savings you make, you cannot have a classroom without a teacher in front of it. As pressure for wage inflation builds up across the UK, it increases the burden. Much of the rest of education funding is on statutory responsibilities and legal entitlements, such as special educational needs, school transport and free school meals. As such, the room for manoeuvre is very limited in education. To keep its head above water in recent years, education has had to rely on in-year monitoring rounds to plug the gap. With pressures applying more and more on other departments in Northern Ireland, that money is simply not available.

The Minister of State in the other House highlighted how generously education was funded and referred to the additional amount that Northern Ireland had compared to the rest of the UK. But let me give one statistic. We have a very young population in Northern Ireland, and the number of state school pupils per head is 26% higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom. That highlights the level of pressure there. I ask the Minister—and I ask for a written reply, given both the time and the level of detail—if he can directly outline from government figures the level of funding per pupil for each jurisdiction of the UK, the level of statementing for each jurisdiction and the level of SEN spend, which is a legal statutory requirement. Given the additional need, can he tell me the number and percentage of pupils on free school meals in different parts of the United Kingdom?

It is undoubtably the case that we are facing a very dangerous situation for education in Northern Ireland. Education is the driver of Northern Ireland’s future. It is key to the economy and to skills, but above all education is the one intervention in people’s lives that can make all the difference. It is a great game-changer for our children, and if we do not invest in our education we will be in a dire situation. I have outlined a range of interventions in this speech that will need to happen or else we will head into a terrible crisis—not simply for education but for the whole of public services within Northern Ireland.

My Lords, this has been a wide-ranging if slightly depressing debate. Given the hour, I shall be very succinct in my response. This debate should of course not be taking place here in Westminster. Like many speakers, I very much regret that it is not taking place in the Northern Ireland Assembly. In that regard, I fully agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, actually said—as opposed to what was thought in advance that he might say—even if I do not agree with all of his amendment.

It is now a full year since last February, when the Executive collapsed, and this Bill, however regrettable, is necessary to secure continued delivery of public services in Northern Ireland. However, we are primarily discussing, post fact, things that have already been decided. If an Executive had been in place in Northern Ireland, they would have been planning the budget for the coming financial year to March 2024. As I understand it, Clauses 8 and 9 of the Bill authorise a limited amount of spending for that time period. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, asked, I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm when he concludes how this will work in practice.

As other noble Lords have said, tough decisions will have to be made, particularly on health and education. It is very difficult, and indeed not appropriate, for civil servants to make many of these decisions. We have heard powerful speeches from many noble Lords about the state of healthcare provision and education in Northern Ireland. Healthcare in particular is something about which we should all be concerned. If an Executive had been in place, they would not have found an instant solution but they could have provided the framework for key and difficult decisions in the months ahead in Northern Ireland.

I feel that one of the most tragic things about the lack of an Executive is the inability to plan and move society forwards in Northern Ireland. The debate this evening has perhaps shown quite how much the debate is about looking back, not forwards. My honourable friend Stephen Farry MP made a very powerful speech on this during the debate on the Bill in the House of Commons last month.

The cost of trying to manage a divided society, and from duplication of facilities, is estimated at between £400 million and £800 million per year. This is money that could so usefully be spent on health, education and other public services. But, as other noble Lords have said, measures to reduce wasting limited resources in Northern Ireland would require brave political leadership and strategic planning. This cannot be carried out in the absence of a functioning and stable Executive.

I will say a little to the Minister about fast-tracking and transparency. I am sure that everybody who has taken part in this debate will agree that the scrutiny process on the Bill is very far from ideal. Obviously the vast majority of us hope for a workable deal on the protocol and a return to a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland. But, in the continued absence of both, can the Minister say whether thought is being given to allowing greater transparency and political input to the budgetary process, perhaps through allowing the Select Committees on Northern Ireland in both Houses to play a greater and timely role?

Finally, we have heard four speeches this evening from the noble Lords of the DUP. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, made a very interesting speech about some of the implications of the continued absence of an Executive. I say respectfully to the noble Lords sitting opposite that it is now nearly nine months since the elections to the Assembly last year, and it is very hard to see how this continued stalemate is serving anyone, least of all the ordinary people of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland business community, who continue to face such uncertainty. Most of all, in my view, it does not serve the political interests of Northern Ireland to be missing a strong voice from the Northern Ireland Executive at this critical time.

My Lords, it has been a long night and a difficult debate on difficult issues. I begin by wishing the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who is not in his place, and his family all the very best in the weeks ahead. He is a very old friend: I have known him for 27 years. I hope all goes reasonably well.

We support the Bill; we cannot do anything else. Without it, there is no money or Government in Northern Ireland. But, obviously, we wanted the budget to be decided by the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, in Northern Ireland, in the Assembly, with a Northern Ireland Executive. For a place that has roughly 2 million people, twenty-seven thousand million pounds is a lot of money.

While I understand the arguments made by the Minister, and the Minister of State in the other place, that there have been financial difficulties in Northern Ireland—of course there have, and I do not want to comment on individual Ministers or parties in Northern Ireland—it is not the whole story. After all, as a Labour Party Opposition, we would argue that, in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland—or England, for that matter—there have been 10 years of underfunding for our public services. If you look at the budget of Wales or Scotland for comparison, they too will argue that they do not have enough money—to pay their nurses in the current dispute, for example. Of course, recent economic circumstances have not exactly been very happy. The tightness of the Budget that the current Chancellor of the Exchequer has to impose because of the utter inadequacy and incompetence of Ms Truss and her Government means that there are difficulties there too.

On a more technical but important level, some of your Lordships have mentioned the Barnett formula, which I had to live with for 20 years as a Minister for Wales and for Northern Ireland. It is inadequate and there is a Barnett squeeze, but I will say this: the Barnett formula has been changed for the people of Wales, in terms of the different formulae to deal with poverty and all the rest of it. Were that change in the mechanism by which the block grant operates to be transferred to Northern Ireland, it would receive £150 million more than it currently does. That is worth looking at. If the Minister cannot comment in his winding-up speech, I ask him to come back to me.

As the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council has said, inflation, pressures on pay and the pandemic have all meant that financial pressures in Northern Ireland have been considerable. The other very interesting point that this serious and important council has made over the past couple of weeks is that the financial problems the Minister described could have been addressed very differently had an Assembly been functioning. There are no Ministers to look at the way their departments are funded. A departmental Minister in Northern Ireland —there are at least four former Ministers here, and, of course, a former First Minister—would look at their budget every day. I was the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland for two years. My job was to be unpleasant with my colleagues, as all Finance Ministers are. My noble friend Lady Smith will testify to my unpleasantness on financial matters. We would intervene and say, “You shouldn’t be spending there”, or, “You should look at your budgets there”, and so on. But there is no Finance Minister in Northern Ireland. There is no scrutiny by an Assembly. Not one single committee of Members of the Assembly can get together to scrutinise the budget. There are no normal procedures, so if you do not have an Assembly and an Executive then your financial pressures will be even greater.

Every single Member of your Lordships’ House from Northern Ireland has quite rightly looked at the problems that public services face there. The obvious one is the health service. It is indescribably bad because of a lack of money and a lack of reform. Your Lordships have quite rightly mentioned the importance of education in Northern Ireland. If noble Lords were to look through New Decade, New Approach in detail, as I did this morning, they would see the number of projects that require financing and the number of issues that are really important public services, from capital spending to revenue spending in Northern Ireland. It is absolutely immense.

However, we should not expect British Ministers to resolve these issues. We are in a sort of no man’s land, with neither direct rule nor rule from Belfast; we are somewhere in the middle. It is the worst of all worlds, in some respects, because when we were direct Ministers— I was called the direct ruler by another party in Northern Ireland; I never felt that I was a direct ruler when I was there, but that was what they called me—I did not want to rule in Northern Ireland. I wanted the people of Northern Ireland, through their elected representatives, to take decisions. Why should a Welsh MP go across the Irish Sea and tell the people of Northern Ireland how to spend their money? No—of course that it is for them to decide.

The resolution of all this is the restoration of the Executive and the Assembly. I fully understand why they are not being resurrected, because of the difficulties around the Northern Ireland protocol and, indeed, the quite proper assertion by the unionist community that you need consensus right across the board to achieve progress in Northern Ireland. Of course that is not there, but at the same time it is important to understand that nationalists and people who support the Alliance Party might feel differently. The answer is that we have to get a resolution across all that.

My noble friend Lord Hain has introduced his amendment. He does not intend to put it to a vote. It is not Labour Party policy—a number of your Lordships asked that. It is the personal view of my noble friend, but it expresses his frustration, as all of us are expressing our frustration, at the lack of progress. We cannot complain that our schools are crumbling, our hospitals are not working and that proper attention is not given to waiting lists unless we are prepared to govern, and there is no proper Government in Northern Ireland at the moment, and the resolution has to be there for negotiation.

I am in Brussels tomorrow to talk about the Good Friday agreement and undoubtedly this issue will come up there. Where are we with those negotiations? I know it is a secret and we are not supposed to talk about it, but we ought to be told if they are talking and if some sort of progress has been made in Brussels. It is a twofold negotiation as well. It is not just between the United Kingdom Government and the European Union. There should also be simultaneous discussions—and proper, structured ones too—between the Government and the Irish Government, if you like, as they are co-guarantors of the agreement, with all the political parties in Northern Ireland. There has to come a time when, eventually, we will have to decide about all these issues—but will we decide them by 10 April? It does not look like it at the moment. I hope we can, but the only answer is proper, intense negotiation with proper attention to these issues. We cannot allow this to drift any longer.

My Lords, before I reply to the debate, I associate myself with all the comments that have been made about my noble friend Lord Empey—and he is very much my noble friend. I have known him since the 1980s, and he was one of my two supporters when I took my seat in your Lordships’ House. I think we all wish him and his family all the very best.

I thank all those who have taken part in this evening’s debate. If I can begin on a note of consensus, I think it is clear across the House that there is agreement that most noble Lords would prefer that these decisions were being taken in Stormont, not here in Westminster. I think there is also a consensus that we want to see the institutions in Northern Ireland restored as quickly as possible, although there might be disagreements about how we get there and what might need to be done. I am pleased that most noble Lords recognise that it is the right and responsible thing for His Majesty’s Government to intervene in these matters and take legislative action on a budget for Northern Ireland in order to maintain the delivery of public services.

I went over at some length the background and context for the setting of the budget and said something about the process for the setting of the budget in my opening comments and, at the risk of not rising to the challenge of my noble friend Lord Weir of Ballyholme to keep us here until half past midnight at the earliest, I will resist going over all those points again.

I shall speak first to the two amendments to the Motion that have been tabled. The first one is in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I understand the frustrations with the current situation that have led him to table his amendment. He will not be surprised to hear that His Majesty’s Government cannot accept it. What he is putting forward would involve significant changes to the process of Executive formation in Northern Ireland at a time when the priority of the Government is to get those institutions back up and running, and his amendment could be perceived, as I think it was by a number of noble Lords behind me, as tilting the playing field significantly against one party, which might have the effect of frustrating our objectives.

As the noble Lord will be fully aware, it is essential that any changes to institutional arrangements in Northern Ireland require “sufficient consensus” right across the community—that is the phrase used. This approach has underpinned political negotiations and discussions in Northern Ireland since the spring of 1996 and, of course, these were the rules under which the noble Lord would have operated at St Andrews in 2006.

One of the consequences of the noble Lord’s amendment would be to make it more difficult for any political parties in Northern Ireland that might wish to go into opposition. Arrangements for opposition were included in the Stormont House agreement, the Fresh Start agreement and New Decade, New Approach. I am sure it is not his intention, but the wording of his amendment would make it difficult for any party to take up that option—which I think the SDLP has already signalled that it would do if the Assembly came back.

On MLA pay, I recognise that the noble Lord, when he was Secretary of State in 2006, proposed at one point to withdraw all the salaries from Members of the Assembly. The current Secretary of State has cut MLA pay by 27.5%. The cut came into effect on 1 January and applies to all Members of the Assembly equally. The Government are mindful that MLAs do perform certain functions. However, we keep the situation under review, and in that spirit I trust that the noble Lord will be prepared to withdraw his amendment.

I fully understand the sentiments behind the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Dodds of Duncairn, as well as the arguments put forward in support of it by the majority of noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I am sure he is fully aware of my views on this subject, both as a Back-Bencher in 2019 and as a member of the European sub-committee on the protocol, on which I served with him before I was appointed to this role.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, said, there are of course sectors for which the protocol is working well. She referred to my recent visit to Lakeland Dairies and my meeting with the Dairy Council; I am very glad she keeps tabs on my meetings and progress across Northern Ireland. In their conversations with me, they were very clear that the EU single market access provided for in the protocol by the current arrangements are not just desirable but essential for their businesses. As I said during the debates on the protocol Bill, we are committed to preserving those elements and advantages.

At the same time, however, the Government are well aware of the damaging impacts that implementation of the protocol has had, both in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain. If I can summarise the effects in this way, it has led to a diversion of trade, it has disadvantaged consumers, it has led to increased burdens on business—as we heard from a number of noble Lords—and of course it has created political instability, as evidenced by the fact that we are having this debate here because we have had no functioning Northern Ireland Executive or Assembly for much of the past year.

In short, as my noble friends Lord Dodds of Duncairn and, if I can refer to her as such, my noble friend Lady Foster—I think this is the first time we have debated together in the Chamber since she joined the House; I am very pleased she is here—made clear, and I agree with them, a protocol designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and protect the 1998 agreement in all its parts is now placing that agreement under severe strain at a time when we are about to mark its 25th anniversary. For those of us in your Lordships’ House who have been consistent in our support for that agreement since 10 April 1998, that is not a very comfortable position to be in.

It is therefore imperative that, while preserving aspects of the protocol that work, we are able to remedy or fix those that do not. Noble Lords are well aware—some of these issues were raised this evening—from our extensive debates on the protocol Bill, that the Government have put forward a number of detailed proposals, including the so-called green and red channels, to which noble Lords referred earlier, so that those goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain and which will never leave the United Kingdom will not be subject to the checks on goods that will enter the European Union single market. Again, in direct response to a number of comments that have been made, we are also clear that any resolution to the protocol must deal with issues around governance and with the democratic deficit that it has created.

As has been said many times, the Government’s clear preference is for a negotiated settlement with the EU on these matters. I am sorry to disappoint the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, but I cannot give more detail or comment on what is currently being discussed with the European Union or indeed any of the speculation that has appeared in recent weeks in certain newspapers—other than to say that we very much hope that agreement can be reached; that is our focus. If that is not the case, we are clear that we will take forward the legislation to ensure that we have the powers to take whatever action is necessary to resolve these matters. Let me be very clear: we need a solution that respects the integrity of the EU single market, the integrity of the UK internal market and, of course, Northern Ireland’s position as an integral part of our United Kingdom. I do not think I can be any clearer than that.

On the debate itself, I have set out the context and background for the budget. In his concluding remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, referred to a lack of money and 10 years of so-called austerity. I generally like to agree with the noble Lord on most things, but on this I remind him, as I said at the outset, that spending per head in Northern Ireland is already the highest in any UK region. In 2021, the spending review settlement gave Northern Ireland record levels of funding. Indeed, the Fiscal Council to which he referred said at the time that the settlement would have enabled the Executive to set three-year budgets giving far greater certainty than we have had in recent years.

I will quickly read out some of the things that we have done in addition in the last number of years. In 2013, just before we brought the G8 to Northern Ireland, we made available £300 million in additional borrowing power through the building a prosperous and united community package. We invested almost £2 billion in additional spending power for Northern Ireland as a result of the Stormont House agreement of 2014. We invested a further £500 million through fresh start, £2.5 million of financial support and flexibility through the confidence and supply agreement in 2017 and, more recently, over £3.5 billion through the new deal, city and growth deals, PEACE PLUS and the New Decade, New Approach financial package, which the noble Lord referred to earlier. The noble Lord mentioned the large number of commitments in that document. Every six months, I publish an update on progress—actually in response to a request from his noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, when we were going through previous legislation. He can track the progress of the implementation of those commitments through that.

In response to my noble friend Lord Rogan, we are investing over £250 million through the Levelling Up Fund, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and the Community Ownership Fund. On levelling up specifically, ultimately those are decisions for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but I will make sure that my noble friend Lady Scott is aware of my noble friend’s comments.

I am conscious of time. The debate ranged over a number of issues, particularly health, education, policing and the current governance arrangements for Northern Ireland. I reiterate the top line: health has received an extra £768 million and education an extra £300 million, and the Department of Justice has received an uplift of around 3.1% in this Budget. In addition to the money through the block grant that is spent by the Department of Finance, noble Lords will be aware of the Government’s ongoing commitment to additional security funding, which is around £32 million this year and helps the Police Service of Northern Ireland to combat the ongoing threat of terrorism.

I therefore dispute some of the assertions made about this Budget, but it was of course drawn up through discussion with the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and a number of the priorities to which noble Lords have referred will be matters for the departments to determine, not the Northern Ireland Office. I am conscious that a number of detailed points were put to me during the debate about individual allocations. With the indulgence of the House, rather than detain us until a very late hour, if noble Lords will permit I will write in detail on each of the issues raised today.

On governance and Civil Service decisions, I made it clear during the passage of the executive formation Act before Christmas that this is not a long-term solution or fix. Of course noble Lords would expect me to say this, but the priority is Executive formation and getting institutions back up and running. In direct response to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, of course we need a plan. My noble friend has had a number of round tables with the Northern Ireland political parties in recent weeks, and I fully expect those to continue shortly. So we are engaging and doing everything possible to try, alongside negotiations with the EU, to talk to political parties in Northern Ireland with a view to ensuring that, should we be successful in our discussions with the EU, we can bring about the restoration of the institutions that most of us in this House want to see. On that note, I draw my remarks to a close.

My Lords, my speech was written days ago. I did not rewrite it; it said exactly what I intended to say, although some critics seem to have imagined that I was trying to say something else. I was not speaking for the Labour Front Bench nor claiming to; I was speaking as a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who cares deeply about Northern Ireland and is desperately worried about the implications of yet another suspension for the democratic legitimacy of the carefully constructed politics of Northern Ireland, and for the voters of Northern Ireland—younger ones especially, who have become increasingly cynical about politics. We have to be extremely careful about that.

I enjoyed listening to the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Foster. It was good to hear her speaking with such authority and expertise as a former First Minister, and I look forward to hearing much more.

The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, was, as always, an able and persuasive advocate of his unionist cause. He is right that no such Motion, amendment or anything else was tabled when Sinn Féin collapsed the Executive. All I can say in mitigation is that I did not think this was going to become a habit, which is what concerns me. Also, in 2006 I not only threatened to withdraw salaries, expenses and funding for the parties, but gave notice under employment law to all employees in the Executive of Assembly Members that unless we made progress, which we did at St Andrews, that would all be withdrawn. That was applied to every party and was not discriminatory.

Nobody wants to chuck out the Good Friday agreement, least of all a former Labour Secretary of State, since we negotiated it. My participation in the 2007 settlement between the DUP and Sinn Féin, primarily, cemented that into self-government.

At no time have I attacked the DUP for its stance over withdrawing from the Executive. You will not find me criticising the DUP anywhere in Hansard—in the House of Lords reports—or in broadcast or media interviews. I understand its position and why its members felt the protocol was a betrayal of the unionist cause. Where I have been critical is that this whole mess was created by Brexit, and by a hard Brexit. Noble Lords would expect me to say that, as an unadulterated remainer, but I did warn about it. I was always worried about this kind of consequence and that is why I agree, as I think we all do, that the priority now is to get a deal with the European Union on the protocol and resolve all the issues. To use Jeffrey Donaldson’s phrase, we should sort the protocol; I agree with that.

We have to ensure that this current impasse does not become some kind of permanent, ongoing thing. That is the danger in having repeated collapses of the Executive. Next time, it could be Sinn Féin for some reason or other; it has done it before and could do it again. We have to be extremely careful to construct an agenda by consent. If that needs an amendment to the Good Friday agreement, it would have to be by cross-party consent, of course. That may not be possible but we cannot have these repeated collapses of the Administration. That was the purpose of this amendment, which is why I moved it, but I am now happy to withdraw it.

Lord Hain’s amendment to the Motion withdrawn.

Amendment to the Motion

Tabled by

At end insert “but this House regrets that the bill is necessary given the imposition of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland which (1) is incompatible with the Belfast Agreement, as amended by the St Andrews Agreement, because it breaches the principle of consent, undermines the three stranded basis of the political process in Northern Ireland and cross-community voting mechanism of the Northern Ireland Assembly, (2) is undemocratic given that the laws in Northern Ireland are made by a foreign political entity in its interests with no vote by any elected representative of the people of Northern Ireland, (3) is contrary to the New Decade, New Approach Agreement by giving effect to a customs and regulatory border that divided the United Kingdom, and (4) is injurious to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as part of the United Kingdom”.

Lord Dodds of Duncairn’s amendment to the Motion not moved.

Bill read a second time. Committee negatived.


Moved by

My Lords, I thank once again all noble Lords who have participated this evening. I place on record my sincere gratitude and thanks to the Northern Ireland Civil Service for the way in which it has co-operated with His Majesty’s Government, and to my own officials in the Northern Ireland Office for their incredible hard work in putting together a budget for Northern Ireland in these very difficult circumstances. I am sure I speak for the whole House in hoping that we will not have to be in this position ever again.

Bill passed.

House adjourned at 10.19 pm.