I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I start by wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) an early happy birthday because I know that it is coming up. I am afraid that I will not be able to celebrate with him, but I wanted to wish him a happy birthday in the Chamber. I am sure that we will all join in wishing the former Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee a happy birthday.
As with the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill that we introduced yesterday, I stand today to ask the House to give a Second Reading to legislation that is a necessary intervention to safeguard public services and finances in the ongoing absence of a Northern Ireland Executive and sitting Assembly. I covered the broader political situation in my statement last week, but it will be helpful to remind the House of the context in which we are taking forward this Bill today.
During the past 14 months, in the absence of an Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland, the UK Government have worked tirelessly to facilitate the restoration of devolved government. It had been my firm hope that a new Executive would be in place to complete its own 2017-18 estimates process and to set their own budget for 2018-19, as well as to extend the current cost capping on the renewable heat incentive scheme. It was therefore with disappointment that I had to bring forward yesterday’s Bill to put 2017-18 public spending on a legal footing.
As I set out in my statement on 8 March, there are acute pressures across public services to be addressed in 2018-19, which is why I took steps that day to provide clarity and certainty on Northern Ireland’s finances for 2018-19. The Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill seeks to build on that certainty, delivering on this Government’s commitment to protect public services and to ensure good governance in Northern Ireland. Today, the focus is on taking forward key steps to provide support for public services and sustainable finances in Northern Ireland as we move into the next financial year.
Will my right hon. Friend elaborate on something that the public may not be aware of? There are key decisions that ought to be taken and priorities that ought to be set, but that cannot happen because there is no ministerial grouping in Northern Ireland to make such decisions.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are decisions that ideally would be taken by Ministers sitting in Stormont as part of a devolved Government, but that has not been the case for 14 months. I am therefore taking steps today, reluctantly, and it is pressing that we are able to proceed. I hope that we can get devolved government in Stormont again in the near future, because that is the best thing for the people of Northern Ireland to be able to take advantage of the available opportunities.
Clause 1 addresses the collection of the regional rate, which represents more than 5% of the total revenue available to the Northern Ireland Executive. With a devolved Government in place, it would be set via an affirmative rates order in the Assembly, enabling bills to be issued in 10 instalments, providing certainty to ratepayers and allowing various payment reliefs to be applied. Last year, it fell to the UK Government to take that step in the absence of an Executive. When I took office as Secretary of State earlier this year, I had sorely hoped that it could be one of the first acts of a new devolved Government and Assembly and would not fall again to this Government and this Parliament to set the regional rates. That will not be possible before the next financial year, and it would be unacceptable to allow uncertainty to linger in the meantime until a new Executive are formed.
While we are clear that it is a devolved matter, we are also clear that only the UK Government and Parliament can take such action to secure the interests of individuals and businesses in Northern Ireland. This Bill therefore sets out rates, in pence-per-pound terms, for both domestic and non-domestic properties. For non-domestic properties, the rate reflects a 1.5% inflationary increase. For domestic properties, the rate would be raised by inflation—1.5%—plus 3%, as I set out in my budget statement on 8 March.
I am sure the Secretary of State would like to confirm that she is well aware that the general public in Northern Ireland will not be one bit pleased that, when rates are going up in Northern Ireland, it is expected that Members of the Legislative Assembly will get a salary increase from 1 April, unless the Secretary of State exercises the power that she will take later this afternoon. Will she confirm that she will cut their salaries and eliminate any increase before 1 April?
The hon. Lady is pre-empting the speech that I will make later—I hope not in six hours’ time—when I will be legislating to bring powers to this Parliament to vary the rates of MLA pay. I am doing so this week to ensure that it happens before the start of the new financial year, so that no pay increases go through. I well understand her strong feeling, which is one that has been expressed to me by many in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State will know that the Assembly Commission, which comprises all the parties, recommended that she should take a power to ensure that the pay increase would not go ahead. That is the view of all the political parties in Northern Ireland. It is a sensible step, and we welcome what the Secretary of State is saying.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. He is right that it was cross-party, cross-community view that the pay rise should not go ahead, which is why we are legislating today.
Returning to domestic rates, I well understand the concerns that people will have, but this important measure will address a hole in the budget for 2018-19, so that public services can still be delivered. In my view, the measure represents an important contribution to delivering a sustainable budget picture for 2018-19. As the budget consultation launched by the Northern Ireland civil service last year pointed out, there are important conversations to be had about the right balance in Northern Ireland between revenue raising and spending efficiencies, and that document discussed rises in regional rates of as much as 10% above inflation. Having reflected on conversations with the parties and stakeholders more broadly, and having understood the pressures on key services, I concluded that it was right that we ask households to pay a little more to help to protect and preserve public services.
However, I also considered that we had to balance that increase at the right level. That is why I propose a 3% on top of inflation rise—less than £1 a week for the average household—to help to address pressures in health, education and elsewhere. It is also why I have held business rates in line with inflation—within a broader budget envelope that allows the safeguarding of the small business rate relief—to keep a focus on the growth that Northern Ireland needs to see. That forms an important part, along with the flexibilities that we set out in last week’s budget statement, of helping Northern Ireland to live within its means at a challenging time, maintaining the UK Government’s responsibilities to uphold good governance in Northern Ireland.
Does the Secretary of State agree, in addition to the information that she is imparting to the House, that the onus falls on district councils as well because they set a district rate? If they are effective and efficient, the increase will be even less than she has indicated.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We all know that local government finances operate at both district and regional levels, and he is absolutely right to make the point that some of the regional rates paid by households go to district councils. It is important that they reflect the efficiencies that we are asking the rest of the civil service to reflect. As the Bill makes clear, nothing that we do would cut across the continuing right of the Executive to set a rate by order in the usual way. Should a devolved Government be restored in Stormont, they would therefore be able to make an Executive decision about the regional rate.
Clause 2 deals with the administration of Northern Ireland’s renewable heat incentive scheme, which was established in 2012 to support efforts to increase uptake in the use of renewable energy. However, owing to incorrect assumptions about boiler size and usage, tariff levels and lack of cost controls led to substantial excess payments. Over the 20-year lifespan of the scheme, the projected overspends were well over £500 million, with £27 million of overspend in the 2016-17 year alone, putting the sustainable finances of the Northern Ireland Executive at significant risk.
As colleagues will be aware, the administration of the scheme and the circumstances that led to errors in its administration are subject to an ongoing public inquiry. One of the final acts of the last Executive was to introduce regulations in January last year that put in place robust cost controls. Those made sure that the costs were sustainable. They were put in place only for a year, to allow for longer-term consideration of the scheme as a whole.
Again, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. Will she confirm for the benefit of people in Northern Ireland in particular the savings to the public purse as a result of the Bill? How much would it cost without a cap on the RHI scheme for another 12 months, compared with the measures in the Bill?
As I have said, the estimated saving for 2016-17 was £27 million. I assume a similar sort of saving this year. The total saving as a result of the cost capping is in the region of £450 million.
The Secretary of State rightly said that this was a continuation of measures that were put in place by Simon Hamilton, the DUP Economy Minister, and which saved money last year. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Bill replicates the excellent legislation introduced by Mr Hamilton?
I can confirm that that is the case. We are following the same cost capping as was put in place by the Executive and Simon Hamilton as Economy Minister. The right hon. Gentleman will know the restrictions placed on this Parliament in terms of what we can do with changes, and we are very much guided by decisions taken in the last Executive. He will also know that since then there has not been an Executive to undertake that broader consideration of the right energy policy for Northern Ireland. We are now at the point where the existing cost controls are due to expire. If that happened, there would be no legal basis, not only for maintaining the current cost cap but for paying all those who receive payments under the scheme and whose installations were accredited before November 2015. Neither of these would be acceptable outcomes, nor would it be suitable for the Northern Ireland civil service to administer payments on an extra-statutory basis, which would create unnecessary legal uncertainty for all concerned.
That is why clause 2 ensures that the present cost controls, and the legal basis for payments, can continue for the 2018-19 financial year. As with the 2017 regulations, there is a sunset provision that expires after one year. This is a devolved policy matter, and it is right that the longer-term approach is one for a restored Executive to decide. In the meantime, I am assured that the Northern Ireland civil service will undertake detailed analysis to enable a new Executive to consider the right course for the future.
In summary, this is a modest Bill doing two discrete things. In setting a regional rate and extending the cost controls of the RHI scheme, it upholds our responsibilities to ensure good governance and to safeguard public services and finances in Northern Ireland. It does so in a way that continues our approach of intervening only as necessary to meet those aims, and only at a point at which it is critical that the measures are taken forward. I hope that colleagues across the House agree that it is important we now make progress to see these measures passed into law to put Northern Ireland on its strongest financial footing for the year ahead. The UK Government shall continue to meet our responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland. To that end, I commend the Bill to the House.
The Secretary of State is right that this is a modest Bill with relatively few clauses and few substantive measures. I thank her and her office for providing me with a draft copy yesterday evening, but it is a pretty poor showing that the rest of the House had precisely 10 minutes to look at the Bill before debating its contents, however modest they are. That does not strike me as a terribly long time to look at a measure that increases taxes on 1.8 million people in this country.
We support the Bill. As the Secretary of State said, it is a necessary measure to allow councils to raise the regional rate. It legislates in an area of clearly devolved competence, and it sets the regional rate at about 4.5%, which is above inflation. My first question—I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to answer it at the end of the debate—is, how did the Government arrive at that figure? Was it discussed with political parties or with the Northern Ireland civil service, or, indeed, with local councils in Northern Ireland? The Secretary of State could have set a lower or a higher rate. How did she reach that figure?
Will the Secretary of State explain the cash impact on households in Northern Ireland? The explanatory notes are scant, so we do not have an impact assessment, and I do not think that anyone in Northern Ireland knows the net effect on average households. It would be useful to learn that.
The RHI measure was a poorly drawn piece of legislation. It is right that we are extending the cap again today. As the Secretary of State said, the liabilities for the taxpayer were potentially £500 million—some people have even said £700 million—so it is absolutely right that we should legislate to mitigate that figure. We are amending the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012, which were laid in the Northern Ireland Assembly, passed and amended there. It is Northern Ireland legislation, and we support its further amendment today. However, that raises an important question relating to yesterday’s debate that is vital in the halfway-house period—the limboland—for Northern Ireland. We have had 14 months without an Assembly or Executive, during which Ministers have not been accountable to people, either in Northern Ireland or in the House. We have legislation on issues that fall squarely within the devolved competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly when the Government choose to introduce them, but there are other issues on which the Government choose not to introduce measures. Yesterday, I mentioned the historical institutional abuse inquiry compensation scheme and the prospect of a pension for people who were severely disabled and injured in the troubles.
I was troubled by the answer that the Secretary of State gave to my question, in which she explained why she could not legislate on those things:
“Constitutionally, the inquiry”—
the HIA inquiry—
“was set up by the Executive and reported to the Executive. Unfortunately, the Executive were unable to take decisions on the recommendations before they collapsed…he”—
“will understand that the constitutional implications of the Westminster Parliament or Government taking a decision about something set up by a devolved institution mean that such decisions are not to be taken lightly.”—[Official Report, 20 March 2018; Vol. 638, c. 204.]
I completely accept that, but the Secretary of State is taking a decision—I presume not lightly—to legislate in other areas of devolved competence, including MLA pay, later today. We need to understand why it is deemed permissible to legislate in certain areas but not in others.
To that end, yesterday evening I commissioned the House of Commons Library and an independent Queen’s counsel to provide legal advice to the House, and I will happily place those items in the Library later today. I asked them to explain what the difference might be, constitutionally and legislatively, between those two areas. The Library agreed with what I assumed would be the fairly standard interpretation, which is that there is no constitutional reason why the Secretary of State cannot legislate on historical institutional abuse or on the victims’ pension—the pension for the severely injured and disabled. The Library says:
“As a matter of constitutional law, the UK Parliament can legislate with regard to any matter whatsoever in relation to Northern Ireland, relying on the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty.”
It goes on:
“If the Assembly is unable to introduce legislation, UK Government Ministers may decide that it is either necessary or expedient to ask Parliament to do so.”
Of course, they may decide it is not politically expedient to do so or not timely to introduce those things. That is what we are dealing with here—
I hope that when the Secretary of State intervenes she will explain that.
I wanted to make the point that although, constitutionally, this Parliament can legislate on any matters regarding the United Kingdom, where a matter had been devolved we would be undermining the devolution settlement—that is the point. It would be extraordinary for this Parliament to decide to legislate, unilaterally, where, for example, such an inquiry was set up by the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Government. We do not take these things lightly and we need to give them great consideration, although I have enormous sympathy with the victims, in both cases.
The hon. Gentleman will know that I was in the Home Office at the time we set up the inquiry on institutional abuse across England and Wales. We carefully considered, and had many debates in the House on, whether the issues in Northern Ireland and the existing Hart inquiry should be brought into that inquiry, but the decision was taken that they should not, because the Executive had already set up the Hart inquiry.
I thank the Secretary of State for that intervention, but she cannot have her cake and eat it. She cannot argue that it would undermine the devolution settlement to intervene and legislate in areas of devolved competence—for example, on the HIA or the pension for those who have been severely disabled—and then do so. She is doing precisely that today on the renewable heat incentive scheme, which was introduced in the Assembly, by the Assembly, for Northern Ireland, and on the regional rates, which is an area to do with local government that is entirely devolved to the Assembly in Belfast. One cannot have one’s cake and eat it. One cannot speak out of both sides of one’s mouth on this issue, and I fear that that is what the Government are seeking to do.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks with great interest. Where would he draw the line? Does he appreciate the dilemma the Government face in respect of the micromanagement and microgovernance of Northern Ireland, and dealing with the discrete and modest legislative vehicles—the Secretary of State made that clear—that we have to have to ensure that there is decent governance there? He has not said where he would draw that line and perhaps it might be timely if he did so.
I am glad I gave way to the hon. Gentleman because he understands Northern Ireland and understands fully that this is delicate. I completely accept that the Secretary of State is in an invidious position on these conventions, but to an extent they are just that—conventions—with the key one being the Sewel convention, whereby, ordinarily, this Westminster Government do not legislate on areas of devolved competence. However, there are instances where it is morally or fiscally necessary to intervene and the Government do intervene.
It is, in essence, for the Government to choose where the line is set, but there are moral and fiscal imperatives in respect of those people who are in the HIAI and those who have been severely injured, and who ought to see the Government intervene on their behalf. If the Government were to do that, it would in no way undermine the devolution settlement because the precedent is already set, as we are seeing today on the RHI and as we have seen on other areas of legislation. Nor would it undermine the peace process and the talks process, because there is widespread support for those things. Legal counsel supports my opinion—
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, because I want to complete this point. I sought some support from KRW Law, a firm of lawyers at the Bar in Belfast. Its view is:
“There are three significant points which would support a conclusion that Parliament should in fact legislate”
particularly in respect of the HIA. It continued:
“(i) The Sewel Convention is a…convention, not a rule of law, and can be departed from for good reasons;
(ii) The constitutional obligation to avoid a vacuum in governance clearly has more weight in the present constitutional circumstances”
where we do not have an Assembly.
The hon. Gentleman raised that second point. The third was that the HIAI made a clear case for intervention. Therefore, I put it to the Secretary of State that there is clear precedent and legal support for her intervening to support some of the most vulnerable and damaged people, either under the terms of the abuse inquiry or in respect of those who have been physically disabled.
I raise the pension for those who were disabled and injured because they are here today—some are in the Gallery for today’s debate and some are meeting hon. Members from across the House. I think they would want to hear from the Secretary of State that she understands the nature of the issues they face.
Before the Secretary of State intervenes, let me quote her own words to her. She has said that the Government have responsibilities to
“provide better outcomes for victims and survivors—the people who suffered most during the troubles.”—[Official Report, 20 February 2018; Vol. 636, c. 33.]
She has an opportunity to make good on those words and legislate, and I hope she is going to tell us right now that she will do so.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am at a loss to understand what the point being made has to do with the RHI or rates in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) is speaking to the Second Reading, and I am sure he is consistent and will ensure he sticks to that.
I give way to the Secretary of State.
I want to clarify the difference between the two issues the hon. Gentleman is talking about. The HIAI—the Hart inquiry—was set up by the Executive and therefore, constitutionally, it is a matter for the members of the Executive to make a decision on its recommendations. The Hart inquiry reported to the Executive after they had collapsed and therefore they were unable to do that. That therefore gives a legal difficulty: what would the Executive have decided on those recommendations for this Parliament to try to second-guess?
On the victims of the troubles, the hon. Gentleman will know that I have made it clear that this Government are committed to setting up the institutions that were agreed under the Stormont House agreement. We are committed to consulting on how that is done, and as part of that, we will deal with all the issues regarding the victims of the troubles, because I agree with him that those people have been waiting far too long to see remedy for what they went through.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the intervention, and let me answer it and the point made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). She makes my point for me. She asks what the Executive decided in respect of the HIAI and the answer is we do not know. We know that they said they thought they ought to implement its findings in full—they said that just before the Assembly went down—so we have some clarity on that. Crucially, we do not know what the Executive would have decided in respect of the regional rate and we do not know whether the Assembly would have decided to change the terms of the cap on the RHI, yet we are legislating in this place, in this Bill, to change those things, without any knowledge of what the Assembly would have done. So it precisely relevant to the business at hand—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way in a moment. It is precisely relevant to the business at hand that we could be legislating under the same terms on these two issues but are choosing not to do so for some reason, be it political expediency, timeliness or the fact there are less pressing financial reasons for doing so. Those people who are here today—there are people who were injured by either side in the troubles—having been in paralysis, having lost limbs or having lost livelihoods for a long, long time now, are in need of our support.
I know that the Secretary of State wishes to give that support, so I cannot understand, and do not think she has yet explained to the House, why it is not a moral imperative—and a financial imperative for those people—to introduce legislation to implement a pension for the severely injured and to enact at the very least the relatively minor compensation arrangements that Sir Anthony Hart agreed under the HIAI.
The Secretary of State has the extra £1 billion that she managed to find for the Democratic Unionist party under the confidence and supply agreement, and part of that money could be allocated either to the victims of historical institutional abuse or to those who have suffered injury as a result of the troubles. That would be time well spent in the House, and nobody would reject or resent it. I do not believe for a moment that it would undermine either the Secretary of State’s efforts to get the peace process and the talks back on track, the Sewel convention or our desire to get the Assembly back up and running.
I shall confine my remarks to the Bill.
Yesterday, we were doing here what should have been done in Stormont, and today, we are doing here what should have been done in Stormont. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Bill will not be the most exciting legislation passed in this Session, although I also suspect that politicians in Northern Ireland might regard the renewable heat incentive scheme as a little contentious here and there. The scheme has produced a lot of heat—a fair amount of it political heat—and I am sure it will not fade into nothingness just yet. It is almost tempting to submit an amendment to the tariff to get a bit of debate going and get some heat up—almost, but not quite.
As we are where we were yesterday, I shall be very brief. I reiterate what was said yesterday: these decisions should be taken at Stormont; decisions on devolved issues should be taken in a devolved legislature or by Ministers in the devolved Administrations, rather than here or in Whitehall; and Stormont politicians should get their collective act together and get back to work.
My comments on the rationale for the fast-tracking of this legislation should be taken as read as being the same as my comments on yesterday’s legislation, although I again accept that there should be no further delay. We knew this was coming and the Bill should have been prepared and started in good time for it to be considered properly.
This Bill and the Northern Ireland Assembly Members (Pay) Bill, which we will consider later, will pass serenely by, while we all watch with benign smiles. That is really not how legislation should be passed. My contribution today is short because this is something that we have to do, rather than a matter for policy debate.
I am very sorry that the Bill has had to come before the House, but it is clearly necessary for the good governance of Northern Ireland for it to be passed. The Secretary of State was right to describe it as modest and discrete, which it clearly is, but I am concerned about incremental drift, which was why I was testing the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith). He sat down before I could intervene on him again, but the Opposition have certainly not said where their red line would be. He cited two examples, and there will be a lot of sympathy with his remarks—
In case I did not, I meant to make it clear that I do not propose that we pursue other matters but absolutely do advocate that we legislate on historical institutional abuse and a pension for the injured.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I think he has established his red line. I therefore assume that he would not wish to make decisions on, for example, the Commonwealth youth games, which has been cited by a Back Bencher from his own party. I am thinking that the Opposition red line on governance in Northern Ireland, in the absence of an Executive, exists somewhere between those options. That is extremely helpful and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
I, too, am interested in the metrics that have gone into making the recommendations in the Bill. It would be useful to know how the figures were arrived at. The House is de facto responsible for the scrutiny of these tax rises. Of course, imposing or levying taxes is a defining feature of any system of governance, and that is what we are doing today with the greatest of reluctance, notwithstanding the fact that we did with the same thing last year. We need to do everything we can to ensure that this does not become a habit.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I chair, is currently considering the future-proofing of the governance of Northern Ireland and how its governance can be made more robust. In our consideration of the Bill, it strikes me that we might like to think about how district rates and regional rates operate and whether some other body might be able to levy them both. Of course, that rather unusual and peculiarly Northern Ireland feature does not apply in the rest of the United Kingdom, where the council tax prevails. Has the Secretary of State given any thought to how taxes of that sort might be invested in local government? Given that local government in Northern Ireland has changed dramatically recently and the number of councils has been reduced, we might possibly be able to levy such taxes for particular purposes through local government, rather than the Assembly—that is, if Stormont is going to continue to be unstable, which is an eventuality that I regret we will have to allow for in our thinking.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that although it would be interesting to find a way to democratise the taxes, the regional rate is really used to finance central Government services, while the district rate is set by councils and used to finance local government? It might not be an accountable way to levy taxes if councils levy a rate for services that they do not deliver.
I note that we voted earlier to allow six hours to debate these matters, so I am more than happy to hold forth at great length. The right hon. Gentleman will have to await my Select Committee’s report on this matter, which will deal partly with how, as an option for future-proofing governance in Northern Ireland, powers might be given to local government in future rather than to a body that I am afraid has shown itself to be unstable. It would clearly be inappropriate for any body to levy taxes for services for which that body was not responsible. That is the burden of the point that he was trying to make: the two clearly have to go together. I hope that my Select Committee report, which will be published in the next few weeks, will make that clear.
Although we have six hours to debate these matters, I am sure that we do not want to take that length of time.
Well, if the Secretary of State wants me to go on, I certainly will, but I think I would rapidly lose the House’s sympathy. I clearly support the Bill, which is completely uncontroversial, given the grave situation.
The hon. Lady will lengthen my speech, but of course I give way to her.
I am delighted to lengthen the speech of a distinguished chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and, indeed, former Minister in the Northern Ireland Office. In both those capacities, the hon. Gentleman will have built up expertise on and a considerable body of knowledge about inward investment into Northern Ireland. The second part of the Bill is on the renewable heat incentive scheme. Has the hon. Gentleman come to any conclusions about the negative impact on inward direct investment into Northern Ireland as a consequence of the continued uncertainty and bad publicity surrounding that scheme?
The straight answer to the hon. Lady’s question is no, I have not formed a view on that. The absence of the institutions at Stormont is most definitely acting to reduce confidence in Northern Ireland as a place to invest. Indeed, the hon. Lady will recall our discussion of the electricity market earlier. All I can say—it has been repeated at length in this place and will continue to be—is that the solution is clear, and it is the restoration of the Executive and the Assembly.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has said he is not aware of any negative impact. The facts speak for themselves: Invest Northern Ireland has had its highest year of inward investment ever and unemployment is at an all-time low. It appears that, no matter how many people in Northern Ireland froth themselves up into a lather about how negative everything is, Northern Ireland continues to go forward because of the drive and thrift of good, hard-working people there.
The hon. Gentleman has made that point time and again, and he is right to do so. I think the question was to do with the RHI, and I suspect that it has had a fairly small impact on the picture that he paints, and rightly so. He makes a good point, and it is worth emphasising, that we in this place have a duty, in the absence of an Executive and an Assembly that should be doing this, to big up Northern Ireland as a destination for FDI and for a place in which to grow jobs and prosperity. He is absolutely right to say that the picture has been transformed in recent years in Northern Ireland. I think it is true to say also that the restoration of the Executive would do wonders for that continuing picture. We must do everything in our power to ensure that that Executive is up and running without any further delay. I commend the Secretary of State for all her hard work in that respect. With that in mind, I shall end my remarks.
Just as we said yesterday, this is a necessary measure that the Secretary of State has brought forward. It will not be the last of the necessary measures that she will have to bring to this House. I do not take the same view as the shadow Secretary of State, who seems to think that he can decide on the measures that should be brought to this place by whom he sees in the Public Gallery. There will be other issues that come across his desk in the future, to which, I am sure, he will give equal importance. For example, when it comes to school building in Northern Ireland, does he want to see Northern Ireland schoolchildren left without the new schools for which there is the capital money, but no Minister to make the decisions? I could go on and on, as I did yesterday, but I will not give lots of other examples.
The fact of the matter is that when there is an absence of an Assembly and an absence of Ministers to make decisions and when civil servants are not confident to make those decisions, there will be a number of issues that have to come back to this House. That is the issue that the Government will have to grasp.
Let me turn now to the rates order—I will try to stick to the two issues before us today. [Interruption.] I notice, actually, that the shadow Secretary of State had very little to say about the rates and the increase in rates. That is because the increase has been kept at a very modest level. In fact, if we look at the record of the Assembly, we will see that the previous Finance Minister could not even bring himself to name a rates increase last year, so the previous Secretary of State had to do it. Again, this year, this Secretary of State has had to do it as well.
There was a genuine fear in Northern Ireland that, given what the civil servants were recommending in the options papers and the record of past direct-rule Ministers, we would see draconian increases in local taxation. In fact, one of the papers suggested a 10% increase, which would have been devastating for small businesses and certainly for hard-pressed households. I am pleased that the Secretary of State, after discussion with the DUP and other parties, has come to the conclusion that businesses should have only an inflationary increase. That is good news for many businesses. She may have to bring in subsequent legislation to extend the small business rates relief scheme, which is due to run out this year. That reduces the overheads of tens of thousands of businesses across Northern Ireland.
The other aspect of that scheme, which I am pleased to say was a DUP proposal and has been copied in part in other places in the United Kingdom, is that it shows how innovative the Assembly—when it was working—was when it came to looking at how to help businesses. I am glad to see that that proposal will be continued. It certainly is a big relief for many small businesses, as their biggest overhead was the rates. Of course, domestic households are paying more in real terms than they would have been before this measure, but, as the Secretary of State has pointed out, it is still less than £1 per household per week.
I suspect that one reason why the shadow Secretary of State did not talk about the rates increases was that, of course, he is ashamed of the record of the Labour party when it comes to the council tax and the rates on people in local areas here in the United Kingdom. As the Prime Minister pointed out at Question Time, if a person lives in a Labour-controlled council, they are likely to pay £100 more in council tax than they would if they lived in a Conservative-controlled council. If a person lives in a DUP-controlled council, they will pay even less. That is a point worth noting. Perhaps the answer is that, instead of having a confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservatives, the DUP should be standing in local council areas in the rest of the United Kingdom to ensure that rate payers get good value for money. [Interruption.] That will have them shaking in their shoes. I am pleased that the protections have been kept in place.
Let me mention one other thing about the renewable heat incentive and the cap on the subsidies that will be available. Again, once it became obvious that there had been negligence in the way that the scheme was administered and that people were able to capitalise on the lack of controls, a DUP Minister stepped in to impose the cap, and I am glad to see that the Secretary of State has continued that cap in this legislation. May I just point out one thing? I am not trying to make excuses for the renewable heat incentive, but it was something that was started by an Administration here in Westminster. Devolved Administrations were encouraged to take it up, and the Northern Ireland Administration did so.
Much has been said about the lack of control, but it should be noted that the same lack of control still exists in GB. Let me give just one example. Under the previous Administration, Drax B power station, with coal mines just down the road, transferred to using wood pellets. Wood pellets, which devastate virgin forests in the US, are carried in ships across the Atlantic ocean and deposited and burned in a power station. The subsidy started at £250 million a year. This year, the subsidy will be more than £600 million a year. It is estimated that the subsidy could eventually rise to £1 billion a year.
Let me return to the Northern Ireland Administration. I am not trying to make excuses here, but the cost overrun and the lack of subsidy would have led to an expenditure of £450 million over 25 years. That was used as an excuse to bring down the Government in Northern Ireland. It was a shabby excuse made by a party that wanted to run away from its obligations to bring forward a budget, to make hard decisions about the past and to make difficult decisions about Brexit. It was used as an excuse, and the remedy, of course, was brought forward by a DUP Minister. I am glad to see that the Secretary of State has continued to implement that remedy. It is the right thing to do: public money should not be abused in that way. If public money should not abused in that way in Northern Ireland, equally, it should not be abused in that way in the rest of the United Kingdom. That is significant. The same attention has not been given to the lack of control in other parts of the United Kingdom from the same kind of scheme.
In conclusion, this is a necessary measure. We are pleased that it has been put through today. It gives certainty to finances in Northern Ireland. As the Secretary of State has said, about £1,000 million will be made available for public services as a result of the collection of the regional rates—whether domestic or business rates. That is important in delivering services in Northern Ireland, but as I pointed out yesterday, it is not sufficient simply to make the money available to Departments; there will be requirements in the future for Ministers to step in and give civil servants direction on how the money that we will collect as a result of this Bill should be spent.
I will make a few points about the Bill and pose a couple of questions to the Secretary of State. The well-made points of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) will ring around Northern Ireland tonight, as questions certainly need to be answered.
Will the Secretary of State let us know what provision the Bill makes to consult the representative body of RHI owners? That is particularly important, as such a provision was previously included in the Northern Ireland arrangements. Although there have been court cases and all sorts of other activity, there has not yet been a meaningful consultation, and it would be useful if one were to take place. I encourage the Secretary of State to make provision for a consultation. It would be time well spent, and would help people who have put money into the scheme for all the right reasons, but now find themselves getting the rather shoddy end of the stick.
On the calculations that appear in the schedule to the Bill, will the Secretary of State let us know whether the Government intend to examine the payment caps as prices alter during the year ahead? I would be happy to write to the Secretary of State’s ministerial team to ask them to examine the payments and accept that just putting them on a long finger is not the right answer. The payments have to be calculated in a way that gives at least some profit to the people who have invested in the scheme. Many of my colleagues and I are now receiving numerous calls from our constituents who invested in good faith, took up a Government offer and did not abuse that offer, but are now being turned over financially as a result of the scheme. That is not at all acceptable.
There are also issues to do with how the whole matter is reported publicly. Indeed, hon. Members have mentioned some public reports and the ongoing inquiry, and we look forward to seeing the inquiry’s conclusions. However, it was publicly reported in our newspapers on 16 March—I was in the United States of America, so I did not have the opportunity to speak in the House on this matter—that Teri Clifton of Ofgem, who gave evidence to the inquiry, said that she recalled an interesting telephone call between myself and herself. The chairman of the inquiry, Sir Patrick Coghlin, suggested to her that that was a very “intimidating” call. I take complete exception to that, not because of name-calling or accusations, but because of the facts.
The facts are that Teri Clifton alleged that I was part of a conference telephone call in November 2015 with a Mr and Mrs McNaughton, and representatives from Moy Park, Action Renewables and FG Plumbing and Heating. No such call took place. It is a lie to suggest that such a call took place. I was not involved in any conference call. Importantly, I understand—I have an email about this that I am happy to share with the Library so that it is on record for the House—that on 21 March 2016, my constituents, a company called Action Renewables and a company called FG Plumbing and Heating did make a call to Teri Clifton. I was not involved in that call and neither was the company, Moy Park. Whatever happened in that telephone conversation was frankly none of my business, as I was not involved in it.
This witness should be ashamed of herself for standing up and telling the press, or an inquiry, a calumny of the highest order—that a Member of Parliament was involved in a conference call when they were not. She should be brought back to the inquiry, put through the wringer and asked why she lied to an inquiry about such a matter. Importantly, the chairman of the inquiry, who put words in the mouth of a witness, should apologise to me personally for his conduct and his actions, as I do not take this at all well. I am happy to stand by and defend actions that I take, which is why I am an elected Member of this place, but I will not be lied about by Teri Clifton, the chairman of an inquiry, or newspapers in Northern Ireland. The chairman of the inquiry said the next day that we should not sensationalise matters, after he had gone out of his way to sensationalise matters about me. I take complete insult at his conduct and actions, and look forward to his apology.
I shall speak briefly about this short and reasonably technical Bill. I will first touch on rates and the power being given to the Secretary of State to look at the issue. She has previously announced her intentions regarding these matters.
I emphasise in the strongest possible terms that I and my colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party firmly believe that the best place for these matters to be discussed and decided is in the Northern Ireland Assembly and by locally elected representatives there. Yesterday, I mentioned the important role that the Assembly’s Committee for Finance plays in scrutinising such measures, talking to business and stakeholders, and trying give advice. The Committees of the Northern Ireland Assembly have a statutory role to give advice and to form policy, which is unusual within an elected body. That important role aids the cross-party power sharing arrangement for Northern Ireland. It is incredibly disappointing that we do not have that in place, and it is sad that we do not have the opportunity to look at these measures in that way.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) mentioned the DUP’s approach to taxes in Northern Ireland. As I said yesterday, a number of former Ministers of Finance in the Northern Ireland Assembly are now in this place. Regarding the year-on-year budget, the DUP made it clear that we are a party of low tax because we want to keep as much money as possible in the hands of hard-working and under-pressure households in Northern Ireland. We have looked at a range of measures to that end, including keeping rates low.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned some of the pressure regarding the increase in rates. I welcome the fact that the significant increases feared by some did not happen and that the Secretary of State consulted all the parties. I did not want any increase, because an increase will have an impact on those hard-working and under-pressure families, but I welcome the fact that, following consultation with the parties, it is not as significant as was initially suggested.
No firm details on rates were released to the Assembly by the last Minister of Finance, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, despite the Committee for Finance calling on him to do so. He did not bring forward the rates legislation in a timely way, which meant that the Secretary of State had to do so at a very late stage, on the collapse of the Assembly. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State is not taking forward Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s proposal to lift the cap on domestic rates. I have been contacted about this issue by many of my constituents who were particularly worried about the significant increases that they would have faced as a result. Without the cap, they would have been paying more in domestic rates than if they had lived in a house in London worth £1 million or £2 million. That would have been fundamentally unfair. I disagreed with that proposal by Sinn Féin and I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has not taken it forward. It is important that there is fairness in relation to these matters across the United Kingdom.
We are of course aware that rates levels in Northern Ireland have traditionally been low. However, given what the Secretary of State has said about the devolved nature of these matters, as well as the very difficult position we find ourselves in and what has been said about the Sewel convention, I urge her to talk to local representatives and organisations in Northern Ireland to ensure that as we move forward through this difficult period, we continue to make sure that we keep costs low for our families in Northern Ireland.
The second aspect of the Bill deals with the renewable heat incentive. I welcome the Secretary of State continuing the cap on costs in relation to that scheme. We had considered this matter in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I welcome the fact that my Assembly colleague, the then Economy Minister, Simon Hamilton, brought forward these measures to almost eliminate any overspend on the scheme. I want to put on record, as we did previously, my concern about the reporting of this issue. Many of the political parties in Northern Ireland, for political reasons, gave a very clear impression to the public of Northern Ireland that £500 million was gone—spent—and that that was it. That was not the case. Despite the fact that we said repeatedly that it was not money that has been spent but money that was projected to be spent, and that we gave a firm commitment to bring forward measures to mitigate that, as we did under the DUP’s ministership in the Department for the Economy—
Does my hon. Friend agree that just over year ago there was the most outrageous and disgraceful calumny in Northern Ireland as regards the reporting on the RHI scheme? A small number of journalists repeated the untruth that the money had been spent—had already gone up in smoke—and exacerbated people’s fears unnecessarily, leading to the beginning of a state of crisis even before the Government fell?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I absolutely agree. Language was used to the effect that the money had turned to ash.
We have to be aware that many people do not get the detail of some of these schemes. They are not privy to the information that those who are delivering a scheme or have examined it may be privy to. The language used gave the clear impression to people—this was a misunderstanding—that the money had disappeared, but that was not the case. Yes, it is disappointing that there were flaws within the scheme. I welcome the fact that we moved, and moved quickly, to eliminate any overspend on the scheme—this measure will virtually eliminate that—and to protect public money. I welcome the Secretary of State’s clarification about the projected cost saving of £450 million-plus over the lifetime of the scheme.
I welcome the fact that the regulations survived a legal challenge over the past year. That is an important point, because the situation caused concerns to be raised when we discussed it in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I welcome the fact that the courts looked at this and listened to the public interest. The Bill represents a continuance of those regulations. I urge the Secretary of State to consider implementing these mitigations on a more permanent basis, rather than their needing to being continued on a year-on-year basis. I understand that that was the intention prior to the collapse and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim indicated, that would have happened following consultation with all the relevant parties about putting measures on to a much firmer footing.
I was disappointed that the shadow Secretary of State did not eventually give way to me, despite indicating that he would do so. I was in fact rising to offer support for what he was saying. I think that my record shows that I might have come across as a little critical in some of my interventions on the hon. Gentleman, but I have always tried to be informative as opposed to critical. I was going to tell him that the WAVE campaigners on pensions for severely injured victims of the troubles are over here at the moment. Along with my DUP colleagues and our party leader, I had the opportunity to welcome them to the House of Commons last night to speak to them about this issue in some detail.
I have been supporting those individuals and encouraging them to speak to as many people as possible about this issue. I extend my thanks to those Members who have met or will meet them, including the Scottish National party shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). Such meetings are very valuable, because they have a very powerful story to tell. I was also going to say to the shadow Secretary of State that this issue extends far beyond Northern Ireland. It absolutely should be seen as an issue right across the United Kingdom, because there were many victims over the course of the troubles from right across the United Kingdom, and a number of them were severely disabled. Although there is no doubt that some elements of dealing with victims’ issues are devolved, this is a UK-wide issue.
The other issue I wanted to raise in support of the shadow Secretary of State relates to the fact that this is a legacy issue. As we have said, my party has been involved for many years in discussing how to deal with the very troubled and tragic legacy that arose from the troubles in Northern Ireland. In those discussions, there was an agreement across all parties that some of these issues happened at a time when there was direct rule and no devolved government. Some of the issues go much wider than Northern Ireland with regard to dealing with the legacy of the campaigns of violence. That would be recognised through the Government considering, drafting and bringing forward legislation to deal with a mixed range of issues, some of which would have been devolved and some that would not. I see no reason why such legislation could not contain provisions to support those who are very much in need of support through a victims’ pension. The people who are over here are victims of some terrible, terrible atrocities, and they are suffering the consequences. I urge those Members who have not spoken to them to take the opportunity over the next couple of days to do so.
With reference to business in Northern Ireland, I welcome the very positive words about looking into the establishment of a business forum to discuss these matters, because the Secretary of State and the Minister will both know from listening to people from the business community that they have some concerns. They think it is right that their voices are heard. Of course, there is a positive story about business in Northern Ireland, as outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim. Despite the political difficulties, business is doing well. Invest Northern Ireland is working hard. Businesses are benefiting through foreign direct investment. We want that to continue. We will be doing everything in our power, within our role, to work with our partners across Northern Ireland and across the House to try to ensure that Northern Ireland works and that we have the best possible outcomes for everybody across the community in Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly). Members sometimes say that every time they rise to speak in the final part of a debate, everything they want to say has already been said. I have only been here for a short time, but it does not seem to me to make any difference. Plenty of people believe that repetition is definitely a way to get the message across, so I will continue to say what everyone else has said.
When the Northern Ireland Executive were in place, they had a rule associated with setting the regional rate that it was not to be above inflation, and that was what happened up until recently. Unfortunately, the previous Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, did not have the bottle to bring forward a budget because he believed that he was probably going to have to bring about a rate increase—I am not sure whether that was the case, but I will state it. In line with that, many functions need to be carried on.
The regional rate makes up roughly 47% of the rates bill that a household pays. On the basis of what I have just said, a 4.5% increase—albeit above inflation—is a lot better than it could have been. I want to thank members of my party, as well as those of others, who have negotiated and been involved in that reduction and ensured we did not end up with a 10% increase in the rate. The people who will benefit greatly from that are those in households that are hard pressed at the moment.
I want to refer to the small business rate relief scheme brought forward by the Northern Ireland Executive to help our small businesses—primarily those on our high streets—which suffered greatly during the economic crisis. For a start, we set a limit of £5,000—if a business’s rateable value was more than £5,000, it did not get the relief. If the rateable value was under £5,000, it did. We moved that to £10,000, and now it is £15,000. I would like to ensure that we bring forward the same scheme now and extend it for a further year, to help businesses that are already struggling and finding it difficult. I want to ensure that our high streets are vibrant and alive and that rates are not used as an excuse for having vacant properties on our high streets.
It is vital for services in Northern Ireland that we bring forward the Bill, but in doing so, we note with sadness that we do not have an Assembly in Northern Ireland to make such decisions for us. The people to blame for that are those who refuse to go there and set up a Government. They want to set red lines—we hear all sorts of red lines. None of those red lines will affect Northern Ireland economically, but their decision to not enter a Government has a major impact on Northern Ireland’s economic development.
I do not want some people to think, “This is an opportunity because we have no Assembly,” but in spite of all that, it is interesting to note our economic figures. We are doing extremely well with foreign direct investment, and our unemployment figure is one of the lowest since 1975. I welcome the statement of such figures, and I know that Northern Ireland as a region has benefited greatly from our connection with and being part of the Union. That is the important thing, and that is how we have developed our wealth as a country. We have not got it because of our connection to Europe, as some people might want to say. They might say that we have received a lot of economic benefit from Europe and that the grant funding will disappear, but that is only a small proportion of what we contribute to Europe as a nation, and as a consequence I believe we will still be able to sustain and support the communities and organisations that receive help through that mechanism.
I was under the impression that grant funding would stay the same, at least in the short term, so there would not be a big difference.
I welcome that point, and I understand that to be the case, but some people want to talk a crisis into absolutely everything. No matter what happens at the moment, they will make a crisis out of it. They want to say that there is nothing good going on, and they see nothing positive. Our media peddle a story that tells us nothing positive about what is going on in Northern Ireland. We are producing the best employment figures in Northern Ireland for decades, but what do we hear? Nothing. They do not want to cover that. We hear all the nonsense, slander—I should not say that—and lines of attack that they put forward as their agenda.
The cap that has been put in place for the renewable heat incentive scheme has created some hardship for many who were using the scheme correctly and not abusing it. I believe that the cap had to be put in place, but there needs to be some recognition of how some people moved forward with funding under the scheme. They made a 25-year business plan, and some of them want a payback fairly quickly. Some of them were not fortunate enough to have enough money to put in and capitalise the whole thing themselves, so they had to go to finance houses to get a loan to buy equipment. They may have made a business plan based on a five-year payback, which means that it is quite a large payback per month for a small business, with some of them borrowing £300,000 or £400,000, but they did that on the basis of the Government-backed scheme and the funding that they were receiving.
I believe that there is an opportunity now, and that banks should be given help to renegotiate some of those finance deals. There will still be money to be made; but not as much. The difficulty is that businesses are sometimes paying far more than they are earning in a month—not just what they are receiving in payments from their energy use, but what the business itself is earning. A message has to go out that we will allow banks to renegotiate some of the terms of those loans.
I appreciate that the rates cap associated with property is set at £400,000. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South and ratepayers in the leafy suburbs of her constituency will benefit greatly, not having to pay higher rates than someone who owns a property in the centre of London valued at £2.3 million. I welcome the retention of the cap within the rating scheme, and I support the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) was the penultimate Back-Bench speaker in this debate, and I am the last. I am always pleased to contribute to debates about Northern Ireland—and, indeed, a few others as well.
First, I would like to thank the Secretary of State for bringing the Bill forward. As we outlined yesterday, this is not the preferred scenario for Northern Ireland. We very much want to see the Bill coming forward, but it is no doubt due to Sinn Féin’s obstinate attitude, the obstacles it has put up and its austerity agenda, which we are all going to suffer from. Today will hopefully be the first stage in people not suffering, because the people back home will have an opportunity to see what we can do.
The preferred scenario is that we allow those who were elected to do a job to sit down and do that job. My colleagues are desperately aware of that and are itching to do it, yet we are past the stage where we can apply a plaster to cover the wound. The wound is infected and seeping and needs urgent attention, and today’s debate is the prep for the surgery. The Secretary of State has set that out. I would like to thank all hon. Members who have contributed so far to bringing the Bill forward. We have discussed who and what caused the wound—a militant Sinn Féin agenda—and now we are beginning the process of cauterising it and stopping the bleeding.
I want to put on record my thanks to my colleague, the MLA and former Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, for all the hard work he has done. He is a really hard-working MLA, as all MLAs are. They do incredible work across all constituencies in Northern Ireland, night and day.
The people from the Province have waited long enough for decisions, and today we are waiting for the right decision to be made. For example, I know that the council that covers the majority of my constituency, Ards and North Down Borough Council, has been working really hard to keep the rates down in its area, as has Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. Ards and North Down Borough Council has initiated a scheme whereby the grey bin for any waste is collected every other week, a blue bin for recyclables is collected on the alternate week and a brown bin for food waste is collected every other week, along with a kerbside collection of glass.
Such initiatives enable savings to be made at the council level. Some of the savings were put into an educational pot that is used to promote environmental issues in schools, by taking children to see how recycling works and holding other such events. The pot is used to go around community groups and host events in communities, and a large amount of it goes to offsetting the rate, meaning that despite the council building a state-of-the-art leisure centre and many other outputs in Ards, when it met on Tuesday 13 February and struck a district rate for 2018-19, the domestic rate was 22.3273p in the pound—a rise of 2.96%. It is a thrifty council, using all its Ulster Scotsism to look after the pennies and the pounds and ensure that it can still deliver a good rate. For the average household in Ards and North Down, that equates to an increase a £1.35 per month, and they get all the things I have mentioned and a lot more for that money. The council has attempted to stay as close to the inflation rate as it possibly could, while still providing an acceptable level of service provision.
When we look at the decision that the Secretary of State is making today, we understand the reasons why she has put it forward and why it must be done. I know that the Secretary of State will say that we pushed and pushed her to take the decision, and we are very pleased that she has done so.
For the record, may I commend the Secretary of State for her answers during Northern Ireland questions today? She was pithy and confident, and she showed all the things we look for in a Secretary of State. There again, the Under-Secretary obviously did extremely well, too, in assisting the Secretary of State. He always does well.
Some will question why, when others are attempting to keep increases as near to the inflation level as possible, the Secretary of State has set the rate at the level she has. We need more finance, and this will enable such money to be collected, allowing business to continue and the wheels to carry on turning. This is all part of the additional money that has been granted by this House.
Does my hon. Friend agree that councils in Northern Ireland are very prudent, because we have working relationships and collaboration right across the whole Province, which helps to save money for the general public?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. There may be an odd council or two that are not quite as prudent as they should be, and we would like them all to be every bit as prudent as one another.
With the additional money, we live in hope that the Ballynahinch bypass might even be started, that nurses could be trained in using diabetic insulin pumps and that there may be more hours for NHS staff and more classroom assistance. We hope for all these things from this money, and we will see how it goes.
I am very pleased that the Government have awarded NHS staff a wage increase today. This House should be proud of that, use it to encourage them and say that it is a recognition of their efforts and hard work.
As we all know, the nature of rates is that they go up every year; it is very unlikely that they will not. The fact is that they are higher this year than they were last year and the year before. I want to point out, however, that families are struggling. It would be remiss of me to come to the Chamber without making that point. I obviously say that regularly, and I have done it again today.
It is my belief that the working poor are becoming more and more prevalent, with parents in work and yet struggling under the burden of bills. Another sacrifice for a struggling family who are not on benefits is that they do not get any form of rates relief, yet their children might be living in poverty. In Northern Ireland, we have some of the highest child poverty levels in the whole United Kingdom. An area may be perceived to be affluent, but that does not mean that the issues of child poverty are not real, because they clearly are.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
If the hon. Lady wants to make a contribution, I encourage her to make a speech, because that would be very helpful.
In 2016, it was found that 24% of children in Northern Ireland live in poverty. We need to address that issue and ensure that raising the rates will help those in poverty as well as others. For those who are well off enough to live in a large house with no thought of a rates increase, such an increase is wonderful, and it is fine for those who are receiving housing benefit and help with rates, but for those who are just above the income threshold for help, it is another blow. I again ask the Secretary of State whether it is possible to respond to the needs of households that fall below that threshold. They would not have been affected a while ago, but will find that they are with this rates increase.
I wish to comment on the fact that, as people know, the Northern Ireland Assembly has not functioned correctly or been able to make legal decisions for the past 14 months. As we are aware from our discussions yesterday, this period has seen some of the largest growth, the highest percentage rises in job opportunities and the lowest unemployment that we have had for a great many years. The Assembly set the scene for that, putting concrete foundations in place for it, and we are now seeing the benefits. Again, as I am sure others would agree, we would love to see even more of that, as we would if we had a functioning Assembly that was able to work.
I thank the Secretary of State for setting the rate, but is there a way to lower it for households on the threshold of help, and indeed for those that receive no help? They now have yet another higher bill to pay, and that bill is not taken into account in working out what comes to the household in the form of tax credits or other support. Again, we knew that the rate increase had to come, but we cannot ignore what may happen. Will the Minister outline what help in relation to the rates increase is available for those who are being squeezed financially?
It would be remiss of me not to comment on the continuation of the small business rate relief scheme, for which I am thankful, as we are seeking to revive our high streets and provide support to small retailers and small employers. In the main town of Newtownards in my constituency, and indeed in Comber and Ballynahinch as well, small business rate relief has brought dividends and positivity. Where once there were vacant shops in the high street of Newtownards, there are none today.
It is well known—I will say it again to make sure that it is recorded—that Newtownards is one of the towns with one of the best shopping and town centres in the whole of Northern Ireland. It is not only me saying so, but those who live there and businesses as well. If hon. Members have not been to Newtownards for their shopping, I encourage them to do so. I know that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), has done so, and I encourage others to do likewise. We also look forward to having the opportunity to take the Minister to Newtownards shortly as well.
In the same way that Ards and North Down Borough Council found an innovative way to educate the community, and in turn to save it, by keeping the rates down, what innovations can be made to ensure that the rate is not continually uplifted well above inflation and to help people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in a financial squeeze? We need infrastructure and an influx of funding for the NHS, but we also need to ensure that those who are in the middle and working hard—they see their children having massive debt in student loans, but are unable to help them—are not squeezed any further. I again thank the Secretary of State for the Bill.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have used expediency as their watchword this afternoon. Would that brevity was always the order of the day here.
The Secretary of State rightly referred to “a necessary intervention”, and the points that she and the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), made about the current situation being unsought by any of us and something that we have to manage were very well made.
I want to concentrate on one aspect of the Secretary of State’s contribution, which was her very welcome mention of small business rates. This was picked up by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan). Some of us have had the great pleasure of attending small business Saturday throughout Northern Ireland. It has taken me from Downpatrick to Coleraine, but I have to say that the high point was probably visiting Quails in Banbridge. People have said that Quails is the Fortnum & Mason of County Down, but I think that Fortnum & Mason is the Quails of Knightsbridge.
The hon. Gentleman mentions Quails, which I know very well since it is not far from where I live, but just for the sake of completeness and inclusiveness, he should also mention Fred Elliott, an excellent purveyor of meat products in Banbridge.
There are strict rules in this House against the wearing of advertising. I appreciate that the top of my head is available, but I would prefer it not to be emblazoned with anybody’s name. I am more than happy to give credit to Fred Elliott, although I have to say that Quails is quite remarkable.
We have heard a range of speakers coming mostly around the same point, although they occasionally went off in slightly different directions. None was more recondite and esoteric than that of the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who raised the terrifying prospect of the DUP standing in my constituency and those of other Members. That is something that I am prepared to wrestle with, although I have visited the right hon. Gentleman in Carrick and Larne and, the last time I visited Carrickfergus Council, a tank was parked outside the city hall. He apparently uses it for canvassing, so I would prefer him not to proceed.
I will be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I should say in advance that I am unable to identify the precise type of tank.
I just want to point out to my hon. Friend—because he is a friend—that Carrickfergus was the first battle honour of the Cheshire Regiment, in 1689.
I cannot begin to match the Cheshires when it comes to battle honours, as most of my fighting took place in Union Street in Plymouth, sadly—but that is another story, and not one that we will necessarily hear today.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) summed up. When he rises to his feet, additional Hansard reporters are drafted in—two of them have been carried out with wet towels around their heads. I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman’s contribution was excellent; every 50th word certainly resonated with the House. If the Hansard reporters were paid on a piecework basis, they would all retire by the end of the week.
The hon. Gentleman always makes important points, and he rightly referred to my very pleasant visit to Newtownards, where I was the guest at an extremely enjoyable dinner held in the Elim Pentecostal church on the Ards peninsula. There was not an enormous amount of liquid hospitality, to be fair, but the welcome was extremely warm and the company extremely stimulating.
Something is hanging over all that we have discussed today. The reality is that we are talking about being in a place where we do not necessarily want to be. The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) talked about this being a serene and benign process. She was right to make that point, but we should also be aware of the alternative. If there is serenity and benignity, it is in this place, not necessarily in others.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) made powerful points, which I hope will be answered soon—they have to be. We then heard from the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly). That was an intensely powerful, really important speech—and not only in setting out the Democratic Unionist party’s fiscal policy, which appears to echo Gladstone’s famous dictum that money should fructify in the pockets of the people rather than be taken in taxation. She then referred to today’s visit from the people from WAVE Trauma Centre, whom the shadow Secretary of State was delighted to welcome.
When we hear the stories of those people—people who have lost their legs or been paralysed; in one case, a man’s father died of a heart attack when his son was shot—we realise what the alternative is in Northern Ireland and why it is absolutely crucial that we should never, ever cease bending every single sinew to ensure the continuity of the peace process. I would like to thank Sandra Peake and Alan McBride from the WAVE centre and pay tribute to those who have come across today: Mark Kelly, Jennifer McNern, Paddy Cassidy, Robert Barfoot, Dr Mary Hannon Fletcher, Peter Heathwood, Cathy McCann, Alex Bunting and Paul Gallagher. They have suffered in a way that most of us in this House can never begin to imagine.
If we do not do every single thing we can to ensure the continuity of the peace process and stability in Northern Ireland, we insult those people and their families. We do not give them credit for their suffering. We simply have to do our very best. Everyone today has spoken from that standpoint. This is one occasion on which I hope we are as one in the House. There have been differences of emphasis by all means, but let us never, ever forget that, if we cannot manage this process in the right way, plenty wish to do it in the wrong way.
We on the Opposition Front Bench are as one with the Secretary of State and her Minister. We support them in what they are doing, but above all we recognise the suffering that many have experienced—the almost unimaginable pain and trauma that they have known. We will never, ever let you down.
It is a great pleasure to follow the moving words of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound). I thank all those who have contributed today from across the political divide. It is particularly good that we all broadly agree about the way forward for this Bill. In bringing it forward, alongside the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill, which the House considered yesterday, we will be providing support for public services and finances in Northern Ireland.
The Bills deal solely with matters that are rightly the responsibility of the Executive and the Assembly and I very much hope that they will be dealt with at a devolved level and in a devolved Assembly in future, as that remains our overriding priority—one shared, I know, by Members across the House. In the absence, however, of an Executive and sitting Assembly, it falls to the UK Government to bring forward necessary measures, such as those in the Bill.
Setting the regional rates will give certainty to citizens and businesses over the level and frequency of their bills and to the Northern Ireland Departments that rely on the revenue from those rates. The extension of the cost-capping regulations for the Northern Ireland renewable heat incentive scheme will protect the public purse in a way that fairly upholds the interests of those receiving payments under the scheme. It is important that we take action now to address those issues.
I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), who opened on behalf of the Opposition. I felt that some of the points he raised were dealt with by the Secretary of State. I am also grateful for the comments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). The comments made by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) were very much appreciated, as were those made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley).
I thank the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) for her moving and passionate speech, which certainly had the attention of all the House—I do not mean that the House was not listening to everyone else, but it listened more attentively to the hon. Lady. I also thank the hon. Members for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The Secretary of State and I are both particularly grateful for the kind comments that the hon. Member for Strangford extended in our direction.
I will try to cover some of the questions raised, but I am mindful that brevity is the order of the day and of this particular debate. The measures being taken are necessary and proportionate to safeguard public finances and public services in Northern Ireland. The decision to raise the rate was not taken lightly. The Secretary of State took account of the budgetary scenarios outlined by the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland and spoke to the parties and to stakeholders. It was clear that, to enable Northern Ireland to live within its means while safeguarding growth and addressing pressures in key areas such as health and education, the right course was to ask households to pay slightly more—in this case, less than £1 per week per household. The levels outlined in the Secretary of State’s statement on 8 March strike that balance and offer a necessary, fair and reasonable position on regional rates.
In the absence of an Executive and sitting Assembly, the measures in the Bill will help to safeguard public finances and services in Northern Ireland. I propose that the Bill be read a Second time.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).
Bill considered in Committee (Order, this day).
[Sir Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
Clauses 1 to 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule agreed to.
Bill reported, without amendment.
Bill read the Third time and passed.
Northern Ireland Assembly Members (Pay) Bill (Business of the House)
That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Northern Ireland Assembly Members (Pay) Bill:
(1) (a) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be taken at today’s sitting in accordance with this Order.
(b) Notices of amendments, new Clauses or new Schedules to be moved in Committee of the whole House may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time.
(c) Proceedings on Second Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
(d) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) six hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put
(2) When the Bill has been read a second time:
(a) it shall, despite Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;
(b) the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.
(3) (a) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the whole House, the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.
(b) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.
(4) If, following proceedings in Committee of the whole House and any proceedings on Consideration of the Bill, a legislative grand committee withholds consent to the Bill or any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill or any amendment made to the Bill, the House shall proceed to Reconsideration of the Bill without any Question being put.
(5) If, following Reconsideration of the Bill—
(a) a legislative grand committee withholds consent to any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill or any amendment made to the Bill (but does not withhold consent to the whole Bill), and
(b) a Minister of the Crown indicates his or her intention to move a minor or technical amendment to the Bill, the House shall proceed to consequential Consideration of the Bill without any Question being put.
(6) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (1), the Chairman or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions in the same order as they would fall to be put if this Order did not apply—
(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;
(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;
(c) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;
(d) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded;
and shall not put any other questions, other than the question on any motion described in paragraph (17)(a) of this Order.
(7) On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.
(8) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (6)(c) on successive amendments moved or Motions made by a Minister of the Crown, the Chairman or Speaker shall instead put a single Question in relation to those amendments or Motions.
(9) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (6)(d) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chairman shall instead put a single Question in relation to those provisions, except that the Question shall be put separately on any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill which a Minister of the Crown has signified an intention to leave out.
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(10) (a) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(b) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.
(11) Paragraphs (2) to (11) of Standing Order No. 83F (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (10) of this Order.
(12) (a) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(b) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.
(13) Paragraphs (2) to (9) of Standing Order No. 83G (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on further messages from the Lords) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (12) of this Order.
(14) Paragraphs (2) to (6) of Standing Order No. 83H (Programme orders: reasons committee) apply in relation to any committee to be appointed to draw up reasons after proceedings have been brought to a conclusion in accordance with this Order.
(15) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply so far as necessary for the purposes of this Order.
(16) Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.
(17) (a) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken, to recommit the Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order.
(b) No notice shall be required of such a Motion.
(c) Such a motion may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(d) The Question on such a Motion shall be put forthwith; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (c) shall thereupon be resumed.
(e) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on such a Motion.
(18) (a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.
(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
(19) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.—(Paul Maynard.)