I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Government have been working intensely to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland since the collapse of the Executive last year. It is deeply regrettable that, despite efforts, the political parties in Northern Ireland have not yet reached an agreement that would enable devolved government. In the absence of an Executive, the Northern Ireland civil service has worked, and continues to work, with the utmost professionalism and commitment to protect and preserve public services in the interests of all communities in Northern Ireland. I commend their efforts.
Many hon. and right hon. Members will have seen the ruling from the High Court last week regarding the Buick judgment. I want to reassure all Members that the Government have noted that ruling and are considering it carefully. As our track record shows, in the absence of an Executive, the Government have already taken, and are committed to take, a number of limited but necessary steps to ensure good governance and to protect the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland. That included providing certainty for Northern Ireland finances with my budget statement to Parliament on 8 March.
The Secretary of State has quite rightly made reference to a very significant judgment last week in relation to the incinerator in County Antrim. Will she indicate whether the Government intend to appeal that decision yet again?
We are considering the position. The judgment was received at 9.30 am on Friday. There has been a little bit going on over the weekend, but we are working very hard on that, and we will ensure that we come to the House with our conclusions and decisions. That decision was not the one that we wanted, and we will obviously consider our position.
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State is considering the judgment, which deals with a big decision made by a permanent secretary—a civil servant. However, that situation does not accurately reflect the fact that hundreds of decisions across all the Departments are not being made, and cannot be made unless there is a Minister in charge to make them.
We need to consider the exact implications of the judgment that we received on Friday. When we have reached our conclusion, I will of course come to the Chamber, when I will be happy to debate it with the hon. Lady, who I know has a particular interest in and knowledge of that issue.
The budget statement that I made to Parliament on 8 March set out headline departmental allocations for the 2018-19 financial year, helping to safeguard Northern Ireland finances by enabling the Northern Ireland civil service to manage and maintain public services throughout the early months of this financial year. This budget Bill seeks to build on that certainty.
As I advised the House on 20 March, the budget position and the vote on account provision approved by Parliament in the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2018, which provides authority to the NICS to access up to 45% of the previous year’s allocations to allow day-to-day spending in the early months of this financial year, was the first step in the budget-setting process. Further legislation is now required to put that budget position on a legal footing and to provide the legal authority for the NICS to access the full level of funding available for the whole financial year. Without the Bill, the only way for Departments to access cash is for the NICS to make use of emergency powers under section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, although those powers, too, are limited.
The Secretary of State is being very generous by allowing me to intervene once again. She will be well aware that the Prime Minister has just completed a lengthy statement to the House on Brexit and what the then Cabinet agreed on Friday. I was particularly struck by the fact that the Prime Minister indicated that the preparations for a no-deal scenario would be intensified— “stepped up”, to use her words. In those circumstances, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland will have the resources he needs, including additional police officers, to deal with the policing implications of a no-deal scenario?
The hon. Lady is nothing if not persistent. She quizzed me extensively about that matter at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday. As I said to her then, we have received the Chief Constable’s recommendations and are considering them across Government. She is right to say that we are stepping up no-deal planning, as the Prime Minister stated. It is also worth saying that the deal agreed by the Cabinet at Chequers is one that works for the whole United Kingdom. It is very important, from a Union point of view, that we have a deal with the European Union that ensures that our red lines for Northern Ireland of no hard border on the island of Ireland and no border on the Irish sea are adhered to.
Is the Secretary of State confirming effectively to the House that the financial shortfall identified by the Chief Constable will now be met by additional resources, as required by the Chief Constable when he met the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee?
The hon. Gentleman is also persistent in his questioning. As I said last Wednesday in front of the Select Committee, we have received the Chief Constable’s report and are looking at it.
The emergency powers under section 59 of the 1998 Act are intended to be used only in the absence of more orthodox legal authority. I do not consider those emergency powers to be appropriate for managing Northern Ireland finances for a second financial year.
Before the Secretary of State leaves the issue of security and preparations for a no-deal exit from the European Union, I am sure she will remember that at the meeting in Downing Street with the Prime Minister and herself, the leader of my party and I presented to the Prime Minister directly information supplied by the Chief Constable of the PSNI on the issue of extra resources. As well as dealing with the issues that have rightly and properly been raised at the Select Committee, it is important that she recognises that the Prime Minister herself made a commitment to look very carefully at that issue, and we expect an early answer on it.
For clarification, the report I am referring to is precisely the one presented to the Prime Minister by the right hon. Gentleman and the leader of the Democratic Unionist party. We have received it and are considering it across Government, as we rightly should in that situation.
This Bill seeks to put the budget position I set out in March on a legal footing. It does not direct the NICS Departments on how to use these allocations. In the absence of an Executive, it remains for Northern Ireland Departments to implement their budget positions. How Northern Ireland Departments will allocate their budgets is set out in the detailed NI main estimates Command Paper. Passing this budget Bill does not remove the pressing need to have locally accountable political leaders in place to take the fundamental decisions that will secure a more sustainable future for the people of Northern Ireland.
I will now turn to the Bill itself. The Bill authorises Northern Ireland Departments and certain other bodies to incur expenditure of up to £8.9 billion and use resources totalling up to £9.9 billion for the financial year ending on 31 March 2019. While this is a technical budget Bill, I do not dismiss the constitutional significance of Parliament having to deliver this for Northern Ireland. I therefore draw Members’ attention to two important issues that do not form a part of the Bill expressly, but will be of interest to Parliament as we debate the Bill. First, as I highlighted in my March statement, this budget includes a further £410 million of UK Government funding that flows from the confidence and supply agreement. That is in addition to the £20 million already released in 2017-18 to help to address immediate pressures in health and education.
On the back of the court judgment that was reinforced last week, which has made it virtually impossible for NI civil servants and permanent secretaries to move forward and even to spend the money that they will have, we fear that the confidence and supply money will not be allocated or used correctly if we cannot get decisions pushed through. The only people who can do it are this Government here, because there is no Executive in Northern Ireland to deal with it.
As I made clear in my earlier remarks, we are very aware of the Buick judgment and are considering that decision. In respect of specific items of spending allocated from the confidence and supply money, we are looking carefully to ensure that if ministerial decisions are required, we know what decisions are required and how we would go about taking them. To be clear, there is no difficulty in spending the money that has been allocated so far. As and when there becomes a difficulty, we will of course be ready to take actions as necessary.
On that point, may I appeal to the Secretary of State, particularly in relation to education? I know from talking to schools in my constituency that the additional funding we envisaged would go to the frontline and the chalk face—to the schools—is not seeing its way through. It is being used to plug gaps in the Education Authority’s budget, not in schools’ budgets. This is something we feel it is very important for the Secretary of State to examine and to press home.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we examine all such points. If he wishes to write to me specifically on the instances he has learned about, I will be more than happy to have officials in my Department speak to those in the NICS to establish what has happened. We are very clear where the money needs to be spent. It was agreed in the confidence and supply arrangement, and we are taking the steps that we need to take to ensure the money is spent as intended.
I want to be very clear that this Bill is not legislating for the £410 million. That was approved by Parliament for release as part of the UK Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) (No.2) Bill, while this Bill gives the NICS the authority to allocate that funding. More detail on funding allocations is contained in the supporting Command Paper. Just to be clear, we are following on from the estimates process on which we voted in the Chamber last week. On Tuesday evening, we voted to make sure that the Northern Ireland block grant was properly allocated. Today, we are in effect carrying out the estimates process that would normally be done at Stormont. In the absence of Stormont, we are dealing with this through primary legislation here.
I appreciate what the Secretary of State is saying, and yes, by and large, that is exactly what is happening, but it is not quite as benign as that. The Secretary of State has personally signed off a change in the budget by which £100 million has been taken from capital spend to revenue spend. Civil servants are of course very delighted about that, because some of it will go towards redundancy packages for them, but that is not the point. The Secretary of State has taken the decision on advice, so why does she not take the other decisions that are necessary to make Northern Ireland function?
I said that the hon. Gentleman was persistent. The decision to allocate spending from the capital budget to the revenue budget was taken to make sure that the budget balanced. It was taken after consultation with all the main parties in Northern Ireland, which all understood that that decision was taken to ensure that the budget balanced and that additional revenue raising from the people of Northern Ireland was not required.
Let me turn to the second important issue to which I would like to draw the attention of the House. As well as placing all Northern Ireland Audit Office audits and value for money reports and the associated departmental responses in the Libraries of both Houses—to be accessible and visible to all interested Members and Committees—I will also write to the main Northern Ireland political parties to highlight the publication of the reports and encourage them to engage with the findings. This is as robust a process as is possible, but the best form of overall accountability and scrutiny of Northern Ireland public finances would of course be that undertaken by a fully functioning Executive and a sitting Assembly in Northern Ireland.
I am sorry to intervene in these sensible discussions, but the Secretary of State has been very generous in taking interventions. Surely one way in which the budgets could be balanced—this would be better and might provide a bit of impetus—would be if the salaries of those in the Assembly who are not doing their jobs were suspended. Perhaps we would get a little bit of movement, and we might have some spare money for the Department of Education.
That point has been raised with me on a number of occasions. My right hon. Friend will know that I legislated to stop the increase in salaries that would have happened automatically on 1 April, and we are considering the position with regard to ongoing salaries. I know that he will be surprised, but I am afraid that even cutting Northern Ireland Assembly pay would not quite reach the figure of £100 million that we needed to reallocate from capital to revenue.
I am sure the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) will be very interested to hear the much more substantial amounts that would be saved if we cut payments to Members who do not take their seats in this House. Since 2005-06, £1,023,334 has been paid to date in representative or equivalent Short money to Sinn Féin Members who do not take their seats, and they have got £4,165,000 in office costs and staffing allowances for not doing their jobs here. That has been tolerated by the Northern Ireland Office and by this House for a lot longer than there has been an issue of pay for Members of the Legislative Assembly. I am all for dealing with the issue of MLA pay, but let us deal with Sinn Féin issues as well.
I have to say that this is not a matter for which the Northern Ireland Office has responsibility, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. This is a matter for the House, because those allowances are paid from the House. I encourage all right hon. and hon. Members who feel strongly about that matter to take it up with the House authorities.
The UK Government remain absolutely committed to providing Northern Ireland with good governance and stability while we continue our efforts to restore devolved government at the earliest possible time. The people of Northern Ireland deserve strong political leadership from a locally elected and accountable devolved Government, and that remains my firm priority. In its absence, however, the UK Government will always deliver on their responsibilities for political stability and good governance in the United Kingdom. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.
May I begin—I think the whole House will be united on this at least—by condemning the sectarian violence over the weekend in Derry/Londonderry? This has no place in Northern Ireland today. We thought that we had turned our back on that kind of activity.
Let me make it clear from the outset that, although the process of delivering this budget legislation is perhaps an extraordinary one, we certainly do not intend to stand in its way, but we have to raise questions about the nature of the legislation. There is no doubt that bringing forward this budget is a political decision, and it needs to be made crystal clear—I hope both the Secretary of State and the Minister in replying will do so—that this is not part of creeping direct rule. It is important that we establish the point that this is not part of creeping direct rule.
This is a truncated debate and scrutiny is, by its nature, limited. Were we to do the budgetary process for the United Kingdom in this way, the House would quite rightly be incensed. I accept the Secretary of State’s comment that this is almost the last possible time such a budget can be delivered and that it is time-sensitive. However, in that context, the Secretary of State has already referred to consulting the various parties, and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has raised a decision that the Secretary of State has made. It is important to record how that consultation took place. In particular, at what point did she consult all the five major political parties—the Assembly parties—because that is an important test of the legitimacy of the decisions within the budget?
I am very happy to put that on the record, but I also join the hon. Gentleman in his comments about the violence we saw at the weekend in Derry/Londonderry. I confirm that unusually—I would not normally do this in relation to any legislation or statements in the House—I made sure that all the main parties in Northern Ireland saw the budget proposals before they were finalised, and they were not presented to the House until all five parties had seen them.
I am grateful for that clarification, although I may return to that point later in a different context.
Nevertheless, there is still a question of accountability. In the end, accountability is a function of adequate scrutiny—not simply of the budgetary process at this stage, but of the spending that takes place afterwards. I ask both the Secretary of State and the Minister to consider very closely what the role can now be of the Northern Ireland Audit Office. It is one of the few bodies that has legitimacy, but its legitimacy is itself challenged by the lack of a functioning Executive and Northern Ireland Assembly. However, the Audit Office is certainly one of the few bodies that can put information into the public domain and exercise some stewardship of the spending that takes place and value for money, which is so important in any form of Government spending.
Real questions must also be asked about the way in which decisions are made on spending more generally as the political logjam in Northern Ireland—the lack of a power-sharing Assembly—quite frankly turns such decisions bit by bit into some areas of enormous difficulty and some areas of crisis. The hon. Members for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) and for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) have made points about the recent decision concerning the Mallusk incinerator. The Secretary of State herself mentioned the situation, which has now been through the High Court and the Court of Appeal. I must say to her that I accept people were busy on Friday, but considerable work should already have been done on this because it is important to have legal certainty.
I apologise if I was flippant in my remarks regarding the weekend. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we did significant work in advance of the judgment. We need to spend time looking carefully at what was said in the hearing and the judgment so that we can ensure that we react appropriately. Of course, I will discuss that with him before any final decisions are taken.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but there is a difficult question about the capacity of the Northern Ireland civil service to make decisions. The Court ruled in the case of a controversial planning decision that is no longer deemed to be legitimate unless there is a further appeal by whomsoever, but this goes way beyond that case, as Northern Ireland Members have said. We need certainty about how money can be spent, what budgetary headings in the Bill can be transformed into practical decisions and whether the civil service has the capacity to make those decisions.
This is not an abstract, theoretical game. It will be a day-to-day game with the possibility of judicial review taking place on any and every occasion. We need certainty. In the mini-budget in March, the Secretary of State talked about seeking legal advice on how the money can be spent, but we need early certainty on the public record so that civil servants know what their capacity is. Beyond civil servants, we need certainty so that the people of Northern Ireland know how their money can be spent, because difficult and time-sensitive issues are looming.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has mentioned the north-south connector on many occasions. The decision in principle has already been taken, so in one sense that ought to be a relatively easy decision, but providing the moneys to make the connector work requires decision making by individuals or a structure that cannot subsequently be challenged in the courts. That is enormously important.
I join the hon. Members for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for North Antrim and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) in their challenge to the Secretary of State on the role of the PSNI. All other things being equal, our country will leave the European Union on 29 March. In her statement earlier, the Prime Minister said that a range of possibilities were being considered, including a no deal outcome. The PSNI Chief Constable has made it clear that that no deal outcome would require further staffing—a serious increase in numbers. I can assure the Secretary of State that that is time-sensitive because it is not possible, even between now and the end of March, to recruit and train 300 new members of the PSNI. It is important to recognise that. It is time-sensitive and, actually, the time is already long overdue.
I appreciate what the shadow Secretary of State has put on the record. It is important in terms of the lack of numbers. Under the Patten recommendation, police are down by 1,000, which needs to be rectified. He is right that it will take time. What worries me most—I hope that he agrees—is that, in the top team of the PSNI, six of the nine senior officers are currently on temporary contracts because the Policing Board is not functioning. That needs to be solved immediately for the good governance of policing in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is one of many issues that will be frozen for as long as no Executive sits.
I can tell the House of my own experience of being a part of recruiting police officers. Recruitment and training matters enormously. The confidence of the Northern Ireland public in the PSNI demands highly and thoroughly trained people coming into the service. It is in that context that the views of the Chief Constable must be taken into account. The Secretary of State must do better than simply saying that it is under consideration. We need decisions, and we need them fast.
The shadow Secretary of State will be aware that actions speak louder than words. He rightly acknowledges the needs of the PSNI Chief Constable, who made it clear to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee two weeks ago this Wednesday that he needed additional police officers and resources. The hon. Gentleman has colleagues on the Committee. Did he and his party leader take action and write to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland reflecting and supporting the needs and views of the Chief Constable in his request for additional resources? I do not want just to hear words; I want to know that the Labour party took follow-up actions.
The hon. Lady’s comments are very helpful. Better than writing, we raised the matter in Northern Ireland questions. I challenged the Secretary of State—I challenge her again today—to recognise the strength of the Chief Constable’s words and demands and to follow words with legitimate action, as the hon. Lady says. That is the right way forward.
We need Government action on a number of other issues raised in the mini-budget debate in March, including the follow-up to the Hart inquiry. The question of historical institutional abuse will not go away, except, sadly, as victims begin to disappear. It cannot be right that victims whose lives were made massively more difficult, and sometimes nearly impossible, have to wait year after year to find resolution to historical abuse. It is important that there is a clear timetable for consultation. I understand the limitations for the civil service, but given the time-sensitive nature of the inquiry for the victims, we need a clear path for the consultation process on the historical institutional abuse inquiry and the future of the Hart inquiry.
That leads me to the question of pensions for victims of the troubles, which is consistently raised. In fact, this is more straightforward for the Secretary of State in that I believe it is possible to fund it through the Westminster purse rather than through the Northern Ireland purse. One way or another, the amounts of money involved—£2 million to £3 million—would be well containable within any budget. Because of the time-sensitive nature of the question—people whose lives were made difficult are growing older and disappearing—we need firm action.
We have debated this matter a number of times in the House. I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire for a resolution, but he will know that the definition of victim has caused problems in terms of how anyone can assist them. I have asked the Victims’ Commissioner to do a piece of work on the definition of victim so that we can get to a resolution one way or another, which I am sure he will welcome.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s words. Bringing this to a resolution is important, but as with all things, another round of consultation cannot be an excuse for inaction. It must be a driver so that we see justice in this difficult situation. Of course there are difficult decisions to be taken—I am aware of the different feelings that exist—but as often in such cases, grasping the nettle and saying that there is a way forward gives hope to the overwhelming majority of people who find themselves in that position. It is important that the House gives a clear signal that that can take place outwith Northern Ireland budgetary considerations.
In the same light, the Lord Chief Justice has made a request for a relatively short amount of money for the legacy inquest. Frankly, he has made it clear to me and to others that he would be able to deliver the outcome of the legacy inquests over the next five years if he is given the £5 million he has requested. If he is not given that money, it will take 30 years. Frankly, in 30 years’ time, consideration of the legacy inquest will be nearly irrelevant. Again, this issue is time-sensitive and it is within the Secretary of State’s capacity to begin to deliver on it.
As I said, we are beginning to move towards logjam. It may not yet be a crisis, but a crisis is beginning to emerge, even if only for individuals. We know that any major planning decisions will be scrutinised at the most sensitive level, but that anything controversial will be challenged in the courts. There are many other issues that need to be dealt with. The hon. Member for North Antrim referred to the inability to deliver permanent contracts for senior police officers in the PSNI. The same goes for the prisons ombudsman and many other similar positions.
In normal circumstances, health reform would apply to every constituency in every part of the United Kingdom. Bengoa reported some time ago now. Northern Ireland has the longest waiting lists in the UK, so it is important that we have action on health reform to begin to deliver the healthcare the people of Northern Ireland want and need. This is a wake-up call to everyone to make sure that MLAs get back to work to deliver on that.
On school reform—the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) referred to the situation in schools—we know things that need to be done in the education system are being blocked because of the present constitutional impasse. One issue that is important to individuals is the mitigation of welfare payments. This was negotiated as a result of the Stormont House and Fresh Start processes and is slowly beginning to lapse. It will lapse completely, I think, in 2020, or perhaps a little later. Individuals are already beginning to fall foul of the fact that this has not been renewed. For individuals, this is now a crisis. Members of this House have made it clear that they would prefer issues such as equal marriage and the termination of pregnancies to be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly, but in the end the pressure for action begins to grow on all sides.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks, any budget, even by inertia, contains de facto political decisions. I think that the nods of agreement from the Minister and the Secretary of State indicate that they accept this cannot be a signal towards direct rule. Warm words and aspirations are no longer enough. We need action.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as we move towards the recess in the next couple of weeks, we really need the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that the impasse does not further jeopardise the good governance of Northern Ireland? People are complaining and campaigning on the basis of, “Let’s get something done.” We need a package of measures in place, as soon as the House returns in early September, to alleviate the problems real people are facing and suffering on the ground.
I hope that we see a groundswell of opinion in Northern Ireland that expects centre politicians —both here in Westminster and those elected to, but not sitting in, the Assembly—to get back to work. Many of the decisions that need to be made in the Assembly are important to the people on the ground, and they transcend the difference between the political parties. The issues faced in the past by John Hume, David Trimble, Dr Paisley and Martin McGuinness were massively bigger than the gap that now exists between the DUP and Sinn Féin. That is not just my opinion; I think that it would be the opinion of most ordinary folk in Northern Ireland. This is a wake-up call for everybody and a time for leadership.
Of course we all share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to have the Assembly back as quickly as possible, but if he casts his mind back, he will recall that the last time we had a major issue and an impasse in getting the parties to agree was during the previous Labour Government. When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were in charge, they took action to implement a form of interim decision making. Does he think they were right to do that?
We need a package of action. It is incumbent on political leaders in Northern Ireland to stand up and be counted. Across the piece, politicians like the right hon. Gentleman have a leadership role in saying, “Get back to the Assembly.” There is, of course, a leadership role for the Secretary of State. I cannot rewrite history, by the way. What I would say is that we saw a move towards a successful conclusion and power sharing was reinvoked. We need movement towards the reintroduction of proper power sharing.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene again. When the Assembly was suspended in October 2002, under a Labour Government, the suspension provisions were on the statute book. They were repealed at the request, I understand, of Sinn Féin in the St Andrews agreement. Therefore, we are not comparing like with like. We are comparing that situation not with a period of suspension of the Assembly, but with a grey area where the Assembly is simply not functioning but is not suspended.
Constitutionally, the hon. Lady is absolutely right. I am not sure, however, that we will make progress by looking to the past. We have to look to the future.
I applaud the Government’s decision to move to the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which will meet in a couple of weeks’ time. It is important that it does so, and certainly my party will do everything it can to make the process work. It would be helpful to recognise a number of things. The conference is one of the institutions of the Good Friday agreement. It is part of the framework of the agreement, which has not gone away. The two Governments, the Irish Government and the British Government, are co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement. I hope the Minister will make it clear, at a difficult time between our two nations—it is not simply a question of east-west relations, it is about ensuring progress on the north-south agenda too—that both Governments will show leadership in the expectation that it will be mirrored by leadership from the political parties in Northern Ireland.
It is time for a change. The things that are being held up cannot wait for finger pointing between political parties. The Secretary of State has to show real action in the weeks and months to come. Through the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, she can begin the process of bringing legitimate pressure to bear on all parties. We have to see real progress if we are to begin to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland the change and transformation that is now needed.
I would just like to make a few comments on Second Reading and then perhaps try to catch your eye in Committee, Mr Deputy Speaker.
First, I would just say to the Secretary of State that I was not indicating earlier that all the financial problems in Northern Ireland would be resolved if we did not pay Members of the Legislative Assembly for not attending. The point I was trying to make was similar to the point made by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) in relation to Sinn Féin: people are being paid for something they are not doing, and I think that in a democracy that is fundamentally wrong. It is about not the capital but the enormous message it would send. The Secretary of State was quite dismissive at the Dispatch Box, but my point is actually very serious. That point has been addressed in previous times when the Assembly has gone down, and it needs to be looked at again. On the point about Sinn Féin Members being paid and not being present in the House, I know that they stand on that manifesto promise in elections, but I do not think that many people in this country—in these great islands of ours—would understand that situation.
I am a Member of Parliament for Hertfordshire, which needs more police and more funding for police—as a former Policing Minister, I understand that side of things a bit—but there is a difference in Northern Ireland. Policing in Northern Ireland is not like policing in any other part of this country. I have had the honour and privilege of being with NI police on patrol—in uniform as a young soldier and then as the Minister of State for Northern Ireland. We do not have armed police officers on the streets—doing community policing, every single one of them. Our police officers do not have pipe bombs thrown at them on a regular basis. In Northern Ireland, we had side-impact IEDs, threatening behaviour and people needing protection in their homes. Serving officers were moved from their homes, sometimes at a minute’s notice because of the threat against them. A lot of people from England, Scotland and Wales who are listening to this debate will say, “Why is an English MP standing up and asking the Secretary of State not just to look seriously at this, but to find some money for the Northern Ireland police force?” The answer is that it is different, because the police manage to keep a peace in Northern Ireland that the rest of the United Kingdom would not understand as peace. However, that peace in Northern Ireland is a million miles further forward than it has been before.
Previous Governments of both persuasions have found money for Northern Ireland for that reason—to keep the Good Friday agreement. My fear is this—it was my fear when I was in post in Northern Ireland, and many colleagues across the House will have heard me say this: we need momentum and we need to go forward, and stagnation takes us backwards. What we saw in the Bogside in Londonderry at the weekend is an example of stagnation and going back to the old days.
As the police try to move into a much more community-orient role in Northern Ireland, we all support that, but as we speak tonight, police officers in Northern Ireland are having to be deployed to the small enclave of the Fountain estate in Londonderry, where they are under constant attack from petrol bombs, acid bombs and stones. That is not the type of policing we ought to have, but it has to take place, and the police in Londonderry and the Chief Constable need the additional resources to cover that.
I completely agree. Knowing that part of the world as well as I do, and having meetings there as well as having been there many years ago, I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. But there is a problem: we have recruited a lot of police into the PSNI over recent years who have never seen this sort of terrorism and barbaric attacks on our officers, and it has come as a huge shock to them. I remember vividly the terribly sad event of David Black being murdered. I remember speaking to the young PSNI officers who were in and around the area in the aftermath, and they could not comprehend what they were seeing. I remember some of what was written while I was there as a Minister, and people were saying to me, “I didn’t join the force for this.”
We talk about recruitment. We would need 300 officers for a hard border, if it happened—chief constables always come up with figures for these things. We are short of officers now without any situation on the border, and we have to remember that 10,000 troops could not keep a hard border in Northern Ireland throughout the troubles. I have said before in the House that we can try as much as we want to have a hard border and it will not happen. We will have to use technology, and some of the best automatic number plate recognition is on that border now. There were no customs posts anywhere near the border, particularly in Monaghan and the areas of Middletown where I was. They were way up the road and actually were closed most of the time.
The point I am trying to make is that it is not just about recruiting numbers. They have to be the right people and they have to have explained to them very early on, before they sign on the dotted line and we commit money to training them, that policing in Northern Ireland is very different—they know because they live on the island. I consciously say “the island” because there are officers from the south. They live in the south and are very proud members of the PSNI.
The point that the right hon. Gentleman is making is compounded by the fact that each month, the Police Service of Northern Ireland loses 50 officers for the very reason that he identified. For a force the size of the PSNI, that loss is hugely significant, because we are not getting in the experienced officers we need with the skills to deal with the issues. Does he agree with the point that the Chief Constable made to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee earlier this month, which was that nationalists and nationalist leaders in Northern Ireland have to step up to the plate and encourage their community to join the police and to see it as a career for all the community?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. If we are going to have a community police force, and we created the PSNI for that reason—we abolished the RUC and created the PSNI—it has to be a force of all the people. For that reason, I completely agree that politicians on the nationalist side have to step up to the plate. Let us be honest about it: there are Catholics serving in the PSNI, but they are continually under threat.
I start by apologising to my right hon. Friend—I was not making light in any way of his comments about MLA pay. I know exactly the point that he was making. I also want to put on record my tribute to him as Policing Minister when we worked together in the Home Office. He understood policing in a way that very few Policing Ministers possibly can. I believe that he was Policing Minister when the National Crime Agency started to be able to operate in Northern Ireland, thanks to his work as the organised crime Minister.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the news that assistant chief constable Drew Harris of the PSNI has been appointed as the next commissioner of the Garda in the Republic? That is excellent news, and it demonstrates the point that my right hon. Friend made earlier about the whole island of Ireland working together.
I thank the Secretary of State—I must have a moan more often if I get such nice comments. I know Drew really well, and a lot of colleagues in the House will know him well, too. It is a fantastic appointment, and he will do fantastic work for cross-border policing and community policing.
The Garda police very differently from the PSNI, and I have to respect them—theirs is a sovereign state. However, I was about to come on to the point that if we want to recruit the right sort of people more often, from the cross-border areas and cross-party, we must make sure we protect them. One thing that I hope the Secretary of State will raise with her opposite number is that the Garda do not put in place protection in the south for serving police officers from the Garda or from the north. That is a real concern, which was raised with me many times when I was a Minister. If people were coming from the south who needed protection, the only thing that we could do was take them out of the south and bring them into the north, which is obviously wrong. The Garda do not have the same policies as we do and do not support their officers in the same way. That is not a criticism of them—they just do it differently—but perhaps the Secretary of State could raise that point with her opposite number.
I know that others want to speak, and I do not want to drag the debate out.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene at the end of his comments. Out of respect, including for the memory of my late husband, who was the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 10 years, I wonder if I might just ask the right hon. Gentleman to correct what he said earlier—that the Police Service of Northern Ireland took over after the RUC was abolished. The RUC was incorporated into the Police Service of Northern Ireland and many, many distinguished RUC officers still serve proudly in the PSNI.
If the hon. Lady had not asked me to correct the record, I would still have done so—I spoke inappropriately, and I apologise. I also pay tribute to her husband for the work that he did in getting us to where we are today. Sadly, he is no longer with us. I absolutely agree—I had ex-RUC officers in my own close protection when I was out there. Interestingly, I had former British soldiers who had fallen in love with Irish girls and stayed.
I just want to touch on the G8 summit at Lough Erne and the volunteers we had coming across from the mainland—from Great Britain. I remember Steve White of the Police Federation—he has left the federation now, but he is a good friend—telling me, “You will not get officers going over”. How wrong he was. Police officers from Scotland, Wales and England want to go and help their colleagues. I am still struck by what happened at the first briefing when I was there, when those green uniforms walked in and every other officer from around these great nations of ours stood up out of respect. It was not once; it happened again when I went to the Police Federation conference, simply because of the massive respect that other police forces have for the PSNI. As we know, quite a few of them get recruited out of the Province and into the other forces. Surely the sensible thing would be for them to go back and serve with the PSNI.
I rise, rather reluctantly, to speak in this debate. We can all agree that, although it is sadly all too necessary, this budget debate should not be taking place in this House, and certainly that these matters should not be determined by politicians from Scotland, England and Wales. My sympathy is with the people of Northern Ireland who, in being denied their own devolved Assembly, have been let down by many of their representatives and the inaction of the UK Government.
The situation in Northern Ireland is not sustainable, as Friday’s court ruling over the proposed incinerator near Newtownabbey highlighted. In the continued absence of any Ministers, planning permission for the project was issued by a civil servant—a decision that, as we have heard, was overturned by the High Court, which found the incinerator to have been unlawfully authorised. I offer no opinion as to the rights and wrongs of the project, but the ruling is significant and underlines the need to re-establish the power-sharing Executive. The ruling affects today’s Bill because spending can only go ahead on decisions made by previous Executives. Failing that, these decisions have to be made by the Secretary of State, only confirming the state of direct rule.
During this moment, we need calm heads and something that has been sadly lacking in this situation: leadership from the UK Government. We need action now to address this stalemate. It has been 18 months since the people of Northern Ireland had the representation they are entitled to and, indeed, voted for. It is not appropriate that day-to-day decisions affecting communities right across Northern Ireland are being made in Whitehall, rather than in the elected Assembly in Stormont, but we are where we are. The people of Northern Ireland have been let down by some of their politicians, but we have zero desire to see them suffer unfunded public services too, so we will support the Bill in order to allow public services in Northern Ireland to continue without interruption.
The lack of progress to restore the Assembly is extremely frustrating. I hope that the politicians in Northern Ireland can find the strength and desire to get back around the negotiating table, find areas of compromise and work together to ensure that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) hoped the last time Northern Irish budget matters were dealt with, this will be the last time that we in this place are forced to debate and agree issues that should be debated and agreed at Stormont. I should at this point thank my hon. Friend for the great work she has done in this role for the last three years. I am sure that I will be seeking her advice regularly in the coming weeks and months.
The UK Government have to accept responsibility for their failure to restore the devolved institution. I understand that there may have been other important issues for all Departments to prepare for—indeed for the Government themselves to disintegrate over—but the UK Government have failed and continue to fail the people of Northern Ireland. As a result of this inaction, not only have we had 18 months without an Assembly and Executive; we have had five months without any talks taking place.
The hon. Gentleman said earlier that the lack of an Executive was a failure of political representation in Northern Ireland. Would he accept that the DUP has set no red lines for going back into an Executive, but that Sinn Féin has ruled it out? Will he acknowledge that Sinn Féin is the road block here?
I will not be drawn into that argument. It takes both sides to get around the table and agree a way forward.
I hope that during her Third Reading speech the Secretary of State will outline what recent work has been carried out to bring the parties back round the table and what is preventing this from happening. Can she confirm that all the main parties in Northern Ireland have not only viewed the budget but been consulted on it and had their suggestions taken on board?
I want to comment on the necessity to fast-track this important Bill. We have not had an Executive in place since January 2017, so why could the UK Government not have taken the proper time to prepare for this budget? The explanatory notes state that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was not given the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill in draft. In addition, even though the budget has been discussed with political parties and businesses, it is unclear if the Secretary of State consulted civil society and trade unions. Over the last few weeks, the Government have shown they lack respect for Scottish devolution with a power grab that ignores the overwhelming vote in the Scottish Parliament. Their failure on this issue of crucial importance to Northern Ireland just proves that they do not care enough about devolution in any part of the UK.
As we debate this budget, it is hard not to notice the elephant in the room: the £1.5 billion survival money the Tories have given to Northern Ireland—care of the DUP—to keep the Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street. Given the current state of affairs and developments today, it could be time for a renegotiation. We have never opposed the funding that was provided to Northern Ireland, but it is completely unacceptable that it was not Barnettised, meaning that Scotland lost out on nearly £3 billion of additional funding.
One of the Secretary of State’s clear difficulties is with other parties having the confidence to engage with her, given her party’s relationship with the DUP. The DUP could bring the Government down on a number of votes. They have huge power and influence over the Government, and the Secretary of State, with all that going on, has to act as an independent partner in this process. That is difficult when their very survival rests with 10 DUP MPs who have called for direct rule. On Third Reading, therefore, I would be keen to hear what discussions she has had with the other parties on this issue and whether she believes that they have confidence and trust in the UK Government to act as an independent mediator that can help to restore the Assembly and Executive.
As I have said, this is a sorry situation. This will be the third Bill to allocate resources to Northern Ireland to be approved by politicians who should have no role in this process.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place and wish him well. We look forward to working with him in Parliament on Northern Ireland issues. He mentioned the DUP and its crucial role in this Parliament. If he applies logic, would he therefore say of Sinn Féin, which is desperate to get into government in the Irish Republic, that in no circumstances should any party in the Republic take it into government, since that would obviously then create difficulties for the Irish Government’s role in the political process?
As I have indicated, I have no intention of getting involved in internal political matters in Northern Ireland. That is for the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to resolve, along with the UK Government.
In conclusion, the people of Northern Ireland will continue to be failed as long as some of their own politicians fail to negotiate a deal and this Government fight among themselves over Brexit, rather than showing the leadership that is badly required. We have to provide the hard-working and dedicated civil servants, who are under great pressure, with the resources they need to run public services in Northern Ireland. I and the SNP will not stand in their way by impeding that progress this evening, but we must thrash out a deal as soon as possible that sees the Assembly and the power-sharing Executive restored.
I welcome the Bill tonight because it secures the money we voted to Departments to keep them running until the end of July and assures them that the full funding will be available until the end of the financial year.
We accept, however, that this is not a satisfactory arrangement. Issues such as budget allocations, how the money is spent and the monitoring of how it is spent all require detailed examination by politicians—that is how we get the accountability that should attach to any budget—but we can see from attendance tonight that there is no massive interest in the House. Indeed, there is a certain irony. For the past year, sitting in the Chamber, I have seen Member after Member stand up and say how concerned he or she is about the Brexit negotiations and the impact that Brexit would have on Northern Ireland, the impact that it would have on the Good Friday agreement, and the impact that it would have on community relations and the people of Northern Ireland. However, when it comes to the budget for the people of Northern Ireland, they are nowhere to be seen. I do not think that that irony is lost on the people of Northern Ireland. The pseudo-concern that we have heard from the Labour party during the Brexit debate represents little more than an opportunity to score political points and, conveniently, to use Northern Ireland as a means of arguing against the referendum result and the people who wanted to take us out of the European Union.
Labour Members who are so interested in whether there should be a hard or a soft border could have put on record their concern about the number of officers who have been recruited to the Northern Ireland border service and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to deal with these issues, and how those officers have been recruited, but hark! I hear nothing from the Labour Benches.
There are plenty of other aspects of the budget that could have been related to the concerns that Labour Members have been expressing. In that regard, Scottish National party Members are no different—they too have expressed great concerns.—and the same applies to the Liberal Democrats, who are nowhere to be seen. At least some Labour Members are present, but none of the rest has turned up.
This is not a satisfactory arrangement. I think I should use some of my speech to talk about how we got here, why we are here, and who is responsible for the fact that our budget is being dealt with in this way in the House of Commons.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I am sure that the hon. Lady will have an opportunity to make her point later, when she makes her own speech.
This is the second occasion on which the Northern Ireland Budget has come to this House. On the first, in an act of political cowardice the then Finance Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir of Sinn Féin, refused to bring a budget to the Assembly. Sinn Féin has always liked to hold its hand out for British pounds, but it does not like to make the hard decisions that must be made when it comes to spending money in a responsible way. No budget was brought to the Northern Ireland Assembly in November 2016 when it should have been, and, shortly after that, Sinn Féin collapsed the Assembly.
That was very convenient, because Sinn Féin did not have to make the hard decisions. They wanted the post and the responsibility—they wanted all the kudos that was involved in being head of the Department of Finance— but they did not want to make the hard decisions. It was convenient that the Assembly collapsed—or that Sinn Féin collapsed the Assembly—because that meant that Sinn Féin did not have to put their hand up for a budget.
I have been in that position. When one has to allocate money across Departments, there will always be people who are disappointed, and there will always be criticism. One will be told that one should have prioritised this and should not have given money to that, or that, magically, one should have produced for everyone money that just was not there, which, of course, is not always possible.
The budget came to the House of Commons on the first occasion because of Sinn Féin’s failure to produce a budget; on this occasion, it has come here because Sinn Féin made it impossible for anyone else to produce a budget. Having collapsed the Assembly, Sinn Féin then refused to return to it, appoint Ministers, and enable the Assembly to make decisions about how money was spent and allocated and to present a budget for the people of Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin preferred to engage in a game of blackmail: they would not allow the Assembly to be set up unless all the parties in the Assembly agreed to their agenda, before they were even in the Assembly. Sinn Féin knew that that agenda would have been impossible to deliver had it come to votes in the Assembly—even some of the nationalists would not have voted for it—so what did they do? They sat outside and said, “We have a veto. Under the rules that currently govern Northern Ireland, if we are not included in the Executive that Executive cannot sit, and that Executive will not sit until we get our way and are given promises that the policies we want will be implemented.”
Oddly enough, it seems that Sinn Féin are holding up all political progress in Northern Ireland so that the 4,000 Irish speakers in Northern Ireland can see Irish road signs and can be spoken to in Irish when they telephone about their rates bills, although they can all speak English. We are being held to political ransom. We have Irish broadcasting and Irish schools, and £197 million is spent on all kinds of Irish-medium education. We spend money on Irish festivals, and we allow Irish street names if enough people in the area want them. Despite all that, one of the reasons we are discussing this budget here tonight is that because 4,000 people in Northern Ireland claim to be Irish speakers, Sinn Féin say that unless an Irish language Act makes Irish an official language—which would mean hundreds of millions of pounds of expenditure—they will not allow any progress.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) said that he did not want to become involved in an argument about who was right and who was wrong, and who was responsible. However, if he looked at even the surface of what is happening in Northern Ireland, he would be able to point the finger of blame—and, by the way, the blame does not lie with the Government at Westminster, although I know that the favourite activity of the Scottish National party is to blame them for everything. The blame for this should not be laid at the door of the Government at Westminster; it should be laid at the door of those who know that they have a veto, who have used that veto irresponsibly, and who are quite happy for this budget to be pushed through the House of Commons today without the level of scrutiny and accountability that would have been possible in a Northern Ireland Assembly.
Sinn Féin often ask about the Irish language and the funding for it, but very few members of Sinn Féin can speak Irish. Is my right hon. Friend as amazed about that as many of the rest of us are?
It does not surprise me at all. Sinn Féin have introduced this hurdle because they do not want the Assembly to be up and running anyway. I shall say more about that in a moment. Sinn Féin prefer the political vacuum, for a reason. The Secretary of State must bear that in mind, as must the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who said that he hoped that this was not part of some creeping direct rule. There was a contradiction in his argument, because he then said that we were moving towards a crisis, and that there must be pressure for action. He was right.
There are decisions that need to be made, and we need a process for that. It is clear, however, that one of the parties required to set up the Northern Ireland Executive is determined not to be in that Executive. Its members prefer to sit on the Terrace of the House of Commons, lobbying Ministers and Members, rather than coming in here, and rather than doing their job in Northern Ireland as well. We see them all the time, sitting about this place collecting millions of pounds for not doing their jobs, and at the same time complaining about the outcome of the process. They have pointed the finger at the DUP, and one of the arguments they have made is that my party and those who asked the Government to implement this budget are supporting Tory austerity. However, I can say that we have probably done more to alleviate the impact of austerity in Northern Ireland than Sinn Féin or all the other parties put together, because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) has pointed out, the confidence and supply arrangement that we reached with the Government was what resulted in the additional resources the Secretary of State has referred to becoming available to the Northern Ireland budget.
I know that the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North would have liked to have had the same benefit. I thought the SNP was opposed to outsourcing, but it appears that it wants to outsource the negotiations on its budget to the DUP, saying to us, “You go and do a deal with the Government and then we will reap the benefits of it.” I think the Government may well be prepared to make the benefits of that kind of confidence and supply arrangement available to the Scottish National party if it is prepared to back the Government in the same way as we have done.
In fact, we had the situation last week when the SNP was so determined to annoy Members of this House that it called votes when we were in the Smoking Room cheering on England to get them through to the quarter-finals—they are now in the semi-finals. What were SNP Members doing? They were doing their best to disrupt our night of enjoyment. They can hardly expect a confidence and supply arrangement from anybody in this House when they behave in that way.
I accept that this is a difficult budget. In cash terms, it is a flat budget. The amount available to Government Departments in Northern Ireland is no different from that in the previous year, and that does present challenges. It presents further challenges when the allocations are based on decisions that the Assembly made nearly two and a half years ago. It set certain priorities, wanting to see over the next five years an extra £1 billion put into the health service, and of course that meant that, since the cake had to be sliced up, other Departments would find that their budgets faced cash reductions.
While this has presented challenges, those challenges have been reduced somewhat due to the additional money obtained for the reform of the health service, the additional money for frontline services in health and education, and the additional money for broadband, infrastructure projects, mental health and areas of severe deprivation. Indeed, some school budgets, or parts of school budgets, have been protected because breakfast clubs, after-school clubs and so on have been able to have money allocated to them from that severe deprivation funding.
I want to pick up on the points made earlier by the right hon. Gentleman’s party colleague the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) about schools in his constituency, because I must add to those concerns my worries about school budgets in North Down. The right hon. Gentlemen has called on the Government to boost health and education, and the Government in turn have delivered that through the confidence and supply arrangement, so how on earth can it be that budgets in North Down for primary and special care schools are so stretched? Please will the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) explain that to the principals and parents in my constituency?
It comes back to the point I was making about the allocation of the budget and the way in which decisions are made. First, decisions are based on historical decisions made by the Assembly. Secondly, unfortunately, I have to say—this is why the current system is not acceptable and has to be changed—that when allocations are made by civil servants, we cannot be sure that the finance available will always go to what the public might want to prioritise, because bureaucrats see different priorities. For example, I had a long discussion with the permanent secretary in the Department of Education when we found out that some of the additional money that was available for schools and was meant to go to frontline schooling actually went to finance the deficit of the Education Authority. By the way, after the amalgamation of five education and library boards, that authority was still spending as much on administration as the five boards had spent, even though the idea was that one authority would lead to rationalisation and therefore cut costs.
When civil servants are making these decisions, they will often have different priorities, because they see things from the point of view of administration and bureaucracy, and sometimes that will be more important to them than what politicians would see as the priorities. Politicians are being confronted on a day-to-day basis by parents with youngsters with special needs, teachers who are teaching bigger classes, and headmasters who are having to say to parents, “We need you to provide extra money for books, paper and everything else.” Therefore politicians will often have different priorities.
But here is the point: in the absence of devolution, we do not have people in place who are perhaps tuned into those things as priorities. That is one of the disservices that Sinn Féin has done to the people of Northern Ireland. In its pursuit of its ideological goal involving the Irish language, it is prepared to see bad budgetary or spending decisions, or decisions that do not reflect the priorities of the public.
The common funding package used for education has shown up glaring inequalities. There are primary schools in my area that are allocated £2,400 per pupil, yet there will be another sector of education that receives up to £15,000 per pupil. This inequality should not exist. I would have no issue with such policy decisions if we had an Assembly in place, but without an Assembly in place to make decisions, we cannot make those changes.
This goes back to my point about the Irish language. Those inequalities often exist because of the preference given under the Good Friday agreement to Irish language legislation, which has consequences in terms of small Irish language schools. Some secondary schools have opened with as few as 14 pupils, which is very costly and has led to the kind of result that my hon. Friend raises. That cannot be changed by a civil servant. That is a political decision, and that is why we need an Assembly up and running in which such decisions can be made, meaning that we can look at funding inequalities and decide whether we should change the priorities.
What is important is that we have a means by which the budget can be spent. The Secretary of State said that there is no difficulty with allocation, but there is a difficulty, as I have explained, with accountability, and the issue with the Department of Education has already been raised by two Members. Different Departments have reacted in different ways, however, and I am pleased that the Department of Health has allocated the additional money it obtained as a result of the confidence and supply arrangement to frontline services. Thousands of people across Northern Ireland will benefit from the allocation of that money to reduce waiting lists for elective surgery. Some people were facing two-year waiting lists, but will now find their waiting time reduced. The results can therefore depend on how Departments react.
Although the Secretary of State has said there is no difficulty in allocating the money, there is a difficulty in accountability, and I take issue with her on that. I have had conversations with permanent secretaries, and difficulties are emerging in the allocation of spending. For example, the permanent secretary in the Department for Infrastructure told me recently that he would have difficulty making a decision about the York Street interchange, for which money has been allocated in the infrastructure budget. He argued that he would not be able to make a decision on that. We have already seen the difficulties over getting the broadband money spent in Northern Ireland, and we know that there are decisions to be made on health reforms. If the health budget is going to be sustainable in the long run, health reform is required, but in order to spend some of the money in the budget on that reform, a change in the nature of some hospitals will be required, including the movement of some services and the concentration of services in other hospitals. According to the courts, those decisions cannot be made by civil servants; they have to be made by Ministers.
The same applies to the school estate. One way of getting more money into the classrooms is through the rationalisation of schools. We have additional school places in Northern Ireland, but in some areas there is a shortage of school places and in others there is a surplus. That requires decisions to be made about school closures and about opening new schools but, again, those decisions need to be made by politicians. I think the Secretary of State is wrong when she says that we do not have any difficulty when it comes to allocation. We are heading towards that difficulty now.
At the other end of the spectrum, I am already in discussions with officials in certain Departments and someone has already mentioned the number of assistant chief constables who are on temporary contracts. They cannot be given permanent contracts because no one is there to make that decision. Applications for a whole range of disabled parking bays are queuing up for a decision, but there is no one there to make those decisions. That might not be an important issue in the global sense, but it is important for people with mobility problems who cannot park their car outside their door. Then there is the issue of school minibuses. Directives have been issued in Northern Ireland to say that teachers need to have a public service vehicle licence to drive those minibuses, even though teachers elsewhere do not have to have them. Many schools have had to give up providing sporting and other after-school activities. It requires a Minister to make decisions on those issues as well. I could go on.
My right hon. Friend, and the Secretary of State and her Minister, might be interested to know that we have been waiting several years for the introduction of a weight limit in Hillsborough village in my constituency. Heavy vehicles are damaging the conservation zone and the historic Georgian buildings in the centre, but the village cannot be afforded the protection it needs because we now need legislation, which requires decisions at a ministerial level. Hillsborough cannot be given the protection it requires, even though Historic Royal Palaces has done a wonderful job in restoring and introducing new facilities at Hillsborough Castle. The whole situation is having an impact on many people in Northern Ireland.
I am sure that Members on these Benches could give lots of local examples of decisions not being made on things that matter to individuals and communities because we do not have a local Administration.
I would say to the Secretary of State that we want devolution—we are a devolutionist party and we believe that it is the right thing—but there is increasing cynicism in Northern Ireland about devolution, and the longer we go on without a devolved Administration, the more that cynicism will grow. This is not a case of putting the blame on all the parties and saying that they all need to get together. The pressure has to be put on those who are holding up devolution, the ones who will not go through the doors, the ones who are happy to sit here and sponge off taxpayers, and the ones who are happy to sit in Northern Ireland and complain about no decisions being made while at the same time being the very ones who refuse to allow a situation to develop in which those decisions could be made.
My right hon. Friend is making some powerful points, which I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench are listening to carefully. Just as a marker about decision making might be put down in Committee, such a marker is clearly being put down now, not just by the representatives of Northern Ireland in this House but by business in Northern Ireland. We have heard a lot of talk about business in relation to Brexit. The chambers of commerce, the Institute of Directors and the CBI, which the Secretary of State visited recently, are all saying that it is time to get decisions made in Northern Ireland. That was made clear in a meeting with business representatives that we had two weeks ago. They said, as we are saying, that they want devolution, but in the meantime, there cannot be a situation in which part of the United Kingdom is left without government for 15 months.
That is one of the reasons why I think we will need some intervention. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) made the point quite forcefully that Northern Ireland had faced far bigger and more difficult situations than this in the past. I remember when I was a member of the Executive, as was the Member for North Down—[Interruption.] I mean North Belfast. I am sorry. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North has taken over North Down as well.
I remember when we faced the devolution of policing. Nothing was more controversial in Northern Ireland than the devolution of policing, especially as it was going to be devolved to an Assembly that contained people who had supported the killing of policemen and women. We were prepared to work at that, however, in order to get an agreement and to get policing devolved to Northern Ireland.
I think that that illustrates the point that this party has been flexible all along when it has come to making devolution work. However, no amount of flexibility is going to get us over a situation in which one party, which has a veto, does not want to make the tough decisions, does not want to be associated with any compromise around Brexit and does not want to have to deal with its murky past when it comes to legacy. That party is determined to use its veto to keep the Assembly from sitting to keep the Executive from being formed. A former leader of our party recently gave a lecture when he was appointed visiting professor at Queen’s University, and he made the point that perhaps we are coming to a time when, if the Government are squeamish about direct rule, we have to look again at the rules of the Assembly that allow a veto for parties that are prepared to use it indefinitely and damage even their own constituents in pursuit of their own ideology.
I believe that we will come back next year and have this same debate. We will again have to discuss a budget for Northern Ireland that will be based on decisions made nearly four years ago—as it will be by then—that no longer have much relevance to the changing needs of the Northern Ireland economy. Sadly, that budget will reflect that position, rather than being an up-to-date budget that has been debated by people in Northern Ireland and decided by politicians there.
It is an unparalleled pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). Unusually, I agree with quite a few of the things he has said. I definitely agree that it is a terrible shame that there are so few of us in the Chamber tonight, on our Benches and indeed on the Government Benches. Perhaps that is slightly more explicable today, given the events that have taken place. This feels a bit like “after the Lord Mayor’s show,” but in truth, it has felt like this on too many occasions when we have debated Northern Ireland business during this Parliament and the previous one. That should worry us all, and my fear is that the Government are quite content with that state of affairs. I fear that they are content with there being little focus on the issues of Northern Ireland and little appreciation, certainly among the wider public here in Great Britain, of the fact that there is a crisis of governance in Northern Ireland, 18 months after the collapse of the Assembly.
We are making extremely important political decisions today about spending allocations to Northern Ireland that are of import not only to the people of Northern Ireland but to the people of the whole United Kingdom. Although this is the second formal occasion on which we have had a Northern Ireland budget from this Conservative Government, from my recollection it is the sixth or seventh time that we have seen significant amounts of money—millions of pounds—being allocated by successive Secretaries of State. These circumstances cannot continue, because there are consequences that come from a lack of democratic accountability in Northern Ireland, such as civil servants being placed in invidious positions.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a lack of accountability? When the Assembly was not sitting in 2006, we in this place were allowed to ask written questions on a whole range of issues. Today, however, when I try to table such questions, the answer I get is, “You’re not allowed to ask this question.”
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is one of the things that has apparently fallen into a black hole, because there has been no real explanation why the position has shifted from the situation under the previous Labour Government, when we had direct rule as a consequence of the collapse of politics in Northern Ireland. Under the current state of affairs, we effectively have direct rule, or at least direct rule-style decisions from this place, yet MPs and Assembly Members do not have the capacity to scrutinise decisions. That cannot be allowed to continue, but it has continued for over 18 months.
Over those 18 months, there has been extraordinary and spectacular inactivity on the Government’s part either to provide a greater degree of accountability or to try to bring about the restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland. It seems as though pushing things down the road and kicking the can into the distance have been the Government’s preferred modus operandi, which is not good for the people of Northern Ireland or for governance across the whole UK.
I was always taught that the purpose of the study of history was to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. One of the mistakes made in the 1950s and ’60s was that this place became disinterested in what was happening on the ground in Northern Ireland, and we know what happened then. If we do not learn from the past, we will, through the disinterest of this place, repeat what happened then.
That is a good point well made, and it applies not only to Northern Ireland, although it is particularly important there. Post devolution, the different constituent parts of the United Kingdom are becoming strangers, and there is all too often insufficient understanding of, or interest in, the differences in policy and practice between the different parts, which is not good for our democracy. That is potentially not good for peace or for the prosperity of the people of Northern Ireland—people who have suffered more than most in our country.
There is another lesson of the past that we must learn. It is a more recent lesson from the previous Labour Government, and former Prime Minister Tony Blair deployed the phrase on many occasions. In Northern Ireland, we have to keep the bicycle moving forwards, otherwise it falls over. In recent months, the bicycle seems to be in serious danger of being left on its side on the roadside, because there is no sense of forward momentum in the peace process. There is no sense that the Government have a concerted plan to get things up and running.
We have repeatedly called on the Prime Minister to get more stuck into the talks in Northern Ireland. I think that she is planning to go there next week, and I know that there is a British-Irish intergovernmental conference coming up, but such things have been called for endlessly over the best part of two years, and this is too little, too late. We may well be reaching the point where something starts to go wrong, because the truth is that just as the gaps between the political parties are growing wider, so too are decisions being left unmade.
We have already heard about the need for health reform. I cannot remember how many years ago the Bengoa report came out, but we have seen no movement towards its implementation. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), the Opposition spokesman, mentioned some of the pressing matters that desperately need to be dealt with, such as the Hart inquiry into historical institutional abuse. There are people who suffered horrendously at the hands of others in institutions and who are desperate to see justice and compensation. All parties agree that that is their right, but there has been no movement on that. There has also been no movement on the issue of pensions for victims, but there is a significant degree of agreement across political parties and across the House about how to take things forward. What about the legacy issues—not just the legacy inquests, but how we deal with the legacy of the troubles? Again, there is significant agreement in this House and across Stormont on how that should be taken forward, but we are not seeing the fruits of that agreement.
The problem with all that is that we run the risk that the apathy in Northern Ireland that many people have talked about will harden into cynicism. On this side of the Irish sea, it hardens into long-standing disinterest. That cannot be allowed to happen. I say to the Minister, the Conservative Front-Bench team and, indeed, to my own Front-Bench team that one of the lessons of history we need to learn is that if we have what is in effect direct rule, we cannot afford to be, as the right hon. Member for East Antrim put it, squeamish about calling it direct rule.
Even those of us in this place who are devolutionists must accept that enough will be enough at some point. What will we do if something goes wrong in Northern Ireland? What if there is a problem with safeguarding in a school? What if there is a crisis in the health service in Northern Ireland? What if a problem such as we have seen in Derry/Londonderry over recent days and hours expands into something more problematic? Who will the people of Northern Ireland hold to account? Who will they turn to for answers? Who will we ask questions of, to satisfy ourselves that the right decisions are being taken? The truth is that the Minister cannot answer those questions, because David Stirling and the civil servants in Northern Ireland are the only people holding the baby and carrying the can. That is not fair to them, and it is not good governance.
Not only am I a devolutionist, but I also served as an adviser under the previous Labour Government in the period when we called a spade a spade and realised that, in the absence of the political talks delivering the restoration of the institutions, we needed direct rule and to call it direct rule. My direct challenge to the Minister is to tell us why the Government are so concerned about acknowledging the situation. I would understand it if he were to stand up and say, “We think that would make it much more difficult to bring about the institutions.” I would understand if he stood there and said, “We think it would deeply damage relations with the Government of the Republic.” However, I suspect that he is not prepared to accept either of those things.
I suspect that the Minister is not prepared to say that we are going to see, as a corollary of introducing direct rule, lots and lots of BIIGCs, because that will not please some Members. However, I think we had 25 BIIGCs when the Assembly was last in abeyance. That would be the corollary, and it would be absolutely the right thing to do to ensure that the co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement—the UK Government and the Irish Republic’s Government—had a say in things. I do not understand why the Government are so loth to call a spade a spade, to acknowledge that we have direct rule by stealth and to get on with putting in place either direct rule or a plan to get us out of the twilight zone in which we currently reside. It is not good for governance; it is not good for the people of Northern Ireland; and, to put it plainly, it is not sustainable.
Five hundred and forty-five days ago, Martin McGuinness, the then Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, resigned. That action, which was not agreed with us, Sinn Féin’s partners in government—it was a unilateral decision—triggered the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly. On 24 January 2017, I was in the Northern Ireland Assembly during the last few hours of the sitting. Incredibly, it means there has been no Government, no democratic accountability and no real decision making in Northern Ireland for 531 days.
We talk often of our great British democracy, yet it genuinely grieves me when I look across this House and see the lack of interest in this shocking constitutional crisis happening within the United Kingdom today. That is 531 days without Ministers and Members sitting in the Assembly making the decisions that affect real people on the ground in Northern Ireland.
I entirely share my hon. Friend’s concerns and her views, but I suppose one could look at the empty Benches and the non-representation of most of the major parties in a slightly different way. It puts to rest the idea that there would be widespread outrage and concern here if there were direct rule, because it is quite clear that nobody is that exercised when we have a measure of direct rule. Nobody is outraged enough about it to turn up to speak, to vote or to say anything about it; they are quite happy to go about their business elsewhere and to allow this to go through the House virtually unopposed. I suppose one could look at it in that way.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. The reality is that the Democratic Unionist party is a party of devolution. We want to get the Assembly restored. We do not want direct rule, but we need direct rule. The people of Northern Ireland need direct decision making, because urgent decisions are not being made at the moment.
I would say to the Minister and to the Secretary of State that the time has long passed for action to be taken on these important matters. I assure everybody that the Democratic Unionist party wants to get back to work. I understand that all the other parties are in the same position—they want to get back into government and into the Northern Ireland Assembly to do the job they were elected to do—but there is one party preventing that from happening.
There is one party, alone in Northern Ireland—the party that collapsed the Northern Ireland Assembly—saying to all of us, “Unless you meet our demands, there will be no Government.” I say very clearly that this is not a party political point. Whenever we try to highlight the difficulties in Northern Ireland, it is incredibly frustrating that people turn around, just someone in the front seat of a car, and day, “You’re all as bad as each other.” The reality of it is that we would go into government immediately, and many of the other parties are in the same position. But there is one party saying, “If you do not agree to our demands, there will be no Government.”
That is not just sad and frustrating for the politicians and parties in Northern Ireland; it is most sad and disappointing for the people of Northern Ireland. The person sitting on a waiting list in pain, who is trying to get seen and trying to get a necessary procedure, or perhaps to get a test about which they are deeply worried—my colleagues and I speak to such people day in, day out and week in, week out—needs to get help and support, but because there is no decision making on vital issues such as health transformation, they cannot get that support.
Children are sitting in schools that have had to make decisions to lose teachers—to make teachers redundant—because the Assembly cannot make a decision to stop that happening. Families have come in to see me distressed, perhaps in tears, and struggling because they cannot access public services as there are no Ministers in place and no one with democratic accountability who can listen and react to help them. It is those families and individuals who are suffering most because of Sinn Féin’s action in refusing to go into government and boycotting the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is not right, and it is not fair.
I am not opposed to the Irish language, and I know that my party is not opposed to the Irish language. I have the utmost respect for those who want to speak a language and enjoy cultural rights, but it is beyond doubt that the Irish language Act remains a divisive and controversial issue in Northern Ireland. We have said clearly to Sinn Féin, and we said it in good faith, “Get back into government, deal with issues of health, education and public services, and we will commit to continuing to talk about these difficult issues.” Every party in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom has particular things that it would like to see, which might not be shared with other parties. We have to build consensus, and we have to try to find a way through, but what we do not do is throw a tantrum, collapse the democratic institutions and make demands, saying, “We cannot get back into doing our job and working for the people of Northern Ireland, until our demands are met.”
Unfortunately, I believe the Court of Appeal’s Buick judgment gave an untrue and inaccurate perception that decisions were being made in the Departments up until the Court said that could not happen. Huge numbers of really straightforward, non-controversial, benign decisions are not being made. One example is that a Department here made a decision to put funds to one side to celebrate the extension of the franchise to women, and there was an unhypothecated Barnett consequential for the block grant in Northern Ireland. It was not a huge amount of money, about £200,000 to £300,000, for a scheme so that community groups, particularly women’s groups, could celebrate the extension of the franchise to women. Scotland and Wales announced that they would use the funds they got as part of the Barnett consequential to put the scheme in place, so I wrote to ask the Department of Finance whether it would do the same. The response, which I receive all the time, was, “There are no Ministers in place. We cannot make a decision to put a new scheme in place. Therefore this money will be used in a range of different ways.” I hear that all the time, across scores and scores of decisions that are needed in every single Department. That was before the Buick case came to court.
It is not just about the big issues of infrastructure. We have heard about the historical institutional abuse victims, who should get the funds and support they want and need. We have heard about pensions for those who were seriously injured during the troubles in Northern Ireland—I have met them on a regular basis. As I have told the House previously, those who speak to them and hear their stories of the pain they are enduring, day in and day out, will be hugely sympathetic. They need decisions. That group is getting older, but the decisions cannot be made. It is not all about the big decisions; these are everyday decisions.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) mentioned the business community, for which, again, there are a whole range of decisions to be made. The “Streets Ahead” programme in Belfast is not controversial, and everyone would agree with it, but there is no Minister to make decisions, which is crippling the system in Northern Ireland and has been for 531 days.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has a scrutiny role. As I said in November when the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017 came before the House, I was the last Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Finance Committee. That Committee performed a valuable role—I am conscious that I am sitting beside my right hon. Friends the Members for Belfast North and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who are former Finance Ministers in Northern Ireland, and they may or may not agree about how valuable the Committee’s role was, but there is no doubt that the Committee’s role in the democratic process, of scrutinising, making recommendations, speaking to the Departments, getting information, speaking to stakeholders in Northern Ireland about what they wanted to see in the budget, and producing those reports, was very necessary. That is not happening now, and it has not been happening for 531 days.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim mentioned the last Finance Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, a colleague of mine in South Belfast. I was Chair of the Finance Committee in the last week before the Assembly fell—my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) served on the Committee with me—and we put on a special meeting in which Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was invited to come along to speak about the budget and the priorities, to give us information on what he was hearing from Departments and stakeholders, and to try to see if we could get the budget through. He did not turn up. He turned around and said, “I am too busy.” Sinn Féin then chose the timing of the collapse. With the greatest respect, it is not good enough for people here to step back and say, “You’re all as bad as each other.” We are dealing with objective facts: who is responsible for this, and who is a barrier to getting government back in Northern Ireland?
In conclusion, we in the DUP are in this House today doing our jobs: standing up for all in Northern Ireland. The DUP will continue to fight for what is best for everybody in Northern Ireland. That is exactly what we have done in relation to the confidence and supply agreement. While others run about for their pet projects, we did not come to the table and say, “Here are our pet projects. Fund those.” We made it a priority to get funds for everybody in Northern Ireland, across the communities—for health, education, infrastructure and anti-poverty work. That is what we do and will continue to do. While others such as Sinn Féin boycott this House and the Northern Ireland Assembly, I say clearly to the Secretary of State and the Minister that they should work with those who want to work for Northern Ireland, who are doing their jobs for the people of Northern Ireland and who want to continue to do everything they can to build a better and brighter future for all, across all communities, in Northern Ireland.
At the outset, I wish to take a moment to pay tribute to the life of one of my constituents, Mr William Dunlop, who sadly perished on Saturday in a motorcycle race. He was an immensely talented athlete who had won more than 108 races during his short career as a motorcycle racer. He had achieved four podium finishes at the TT course on the Isle of Man and had won several races in various of Northern Ireland’s most exciting road races. He hails from Ballymoney and from the Dunlop family; his uncle Joey was a world-renowned motorcycle racer and his father Robert perished a few years ago in front of William’s very eyes at a motorcycle race in the constituency of East Londonderry.
William Dunlop was a gentleman. He was a young man who had a young partner and a child on the way —another bouncing baby to enjoy. Unfortunately, he perished so tragically at the Skerries road race in north Dublin on Saturday evening. It puts into perspective the extinction that lies at one end of motorcycle sport and the ecstasy at the other. Over the same weekend, a colleague of his from County Antrim, Johnny Rea, was successful and has now won, in effect, four world motorcycle championships—this is the largest record and probably will never be achieved again. I want to take this moment to pay tribute to William Dunlop and to his family, as constituents of mine, for the great way in which they have handled this set of tragic circumstances. I hope that Members will take a moment to reflect on that in the days ahead, as the funeral occurs in Northern Ireland.
Turning to the matter before us, it is not sustainable to continue on the road that we are on. Northern Ireland requires effective and good government. I understand the challenges: if we introduce direct rule, it will bring about unintended consequences. There will be things the Government will end up doing that we will not like and there will be things the Labour party will introduce, as amendments, that we will not like. Those unintended consequences are a reality check, saying to us that we must get on with the restoration of devolution, which we all want. Alternatively, in the absence of even talks to achieve that, the Secretary of State and her Northern Ireland team have a duty to get on with the delivery of good government, and that means ministerial decisions. They can call it anything they like. We are not going to be squeamish about what it is called, but, in effect, the Secretary of State needs to take direct ministerial rule into Northern Ireland and start effectively governing.
We are told every day by the Government and by many others that they are committed to “the Belfast agreement being implemented in full.” We hear in the Brexit negotiations, and on devolution and the settlement in Northern Ireland, that the Belfast agreement must be implemented in full. But the fact is that it has broken; it is not being implemented in full. As we so eloquently heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly), one side has decided to break the Belfast agreement and single-handedly to stop the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is an integral part of that agreement, operating. If one part of it is not being implemented, the entire agreement is in jeopardy and we need to have ministerial decisions taken, and taken effectively. I call on the Secretary of State again to step up and make sure that these decisions are taken.
Some points have been made strongly tonight by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) about Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin want all these things done in Northern Ireland, and their Members come to Westminster and they lobby on the Terraces, but they are not prepared to take their seats in here and argue their case. It reminds me of the poem from 1791:
“We’re bought and sold for English gold—
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”
Sinn Féin are acting in a roguish way. We have to face up to that, as do the public, and deal with that roguish element. We must almost embarrass them into taking on the role that they are elected for.
I have challenged the Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and again here tonight about the budget and how it is allocated. If she is able to reapportion £100 million from one section of the budget to another in order to make it balance its books, she is therefore able to take other decisions. I encourage her to do so, because those decisions are crucial for the good governance of Northern Ireland, which is one of her key priorities. We have mentioned issues to do with policing tonight, and I will not repeat them; suffice it to say that we need decisions taken immediately on policing.
On 15 May, our Northern Ireland Affairs Committee unanimously agreed a report about policing. Its members agreed the following:
“We recommend that the Secretary of State amends the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 to ensure that the Policing Board can exercise its statutory functions now”.
That was in May! We need the Secretary of State to introduce this immediately and to ensure that the Policing Board becomes functional and is therefore allowed to deal with the budgetary pressures, the recruitment issues and all the key needs of the PSNI.
Our report, which was on “Devolution and democracy in Northern Ireland—dealing with the deficit”, reads as a catalogue of shame. We should put some of that catalogue on the record, because Members have talked tonight about where decisions ought to be taken. Our report strenuously lists those issues, Department by Department. It sets out the fact that the industrial strategy consultation was completed in April 2017 but there is no Executive in place to consider it. The report on the small business rates relief was completed in 2016 during a consultation exercise, yet it has not been published because there is no Minister to publish it. The consultation on the apprenticeship levy closed on 23 December 2016, but funding has not been redirected into skills training. That is around £80 million from last year that has not been directed into the proper training and skills development that is critical so that Northern Ireland can rebalance its economy, and that is because a Minister is required to take that decision.
The Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill was left at the Committee stage when the stumps were pulled on the Northern Ireland Assembly. That issue needs a budgetary decision and a Minister to take that decision. On the minimum unit price of alcohol, again, a Northern Ireland Minister is required to take that decision and introduce something that everyone else in the United Kingdom is enjoying, which is proper controls on that issue.
Our draft tourism strategy, developed by Tourism Northern Ireland, was presented to the Department of the Economy. We need a Minister in place and a budget in place to implement that strategy. A proposal was made to cut tourism VAT specifically in Northern Ireland to deal with the heavy competition that we face from the Republic of Ireland. The UK Government launched the consultation, and the implementation should then be in the hands of the devolved Government. It has not been implemented in Northern Ireland.
The development of Kilkeel harbour is a massive infrastructure project, but the lack of a Minister has caused the plans for the harbour to be halted. Yet we are about to try to take advantage of Brexit and the opportunities it offers for our fishing fleet when we are an independent seafaring nation. That project has run into the sand until we have a Minister to allocate around £450,000 to take it to the next stage.
I wrote recently to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs about the food processing grant scheme in Northern Ireland. The scheme has been of significant benefit to food producers in other parts of the United Kingdom, but has not yet been implemented in Northern Ireland. The permanent secretary and his team responded by saying:
“At this point in time, DAERA has no plans to launch the proposed scheme in the absence of a Minister. ”
That is yet another example of our biggest industry in Northern Ireland being disadvantaged by there being no decisions as a result of Sinn Féin’s boycott of Stormont.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Our key industry is agri-food products. We produce the best, tastiest and most traceable food on these islands. It is a multibillion-pound industry. Because it is traceable, it offers our kingdom food security. The issue that my right hon. Friend has put his finger on is explained clearly in the budget statement that we got from the Minister. The Northern Ireland budget for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is almost going to double this year, from £39 million in 2017-18 to £77 million in 2018-19, but none of the critical decisions, one of which was highlighted by my right hon. Friend, can actually be processed. Money is set aside for agri-food development, but those decisions cannot be processed because there is no Minister in place to take the key decisions.
This is a catalogue of shame and there is no one here to cry about it. A few weeks ago, we were hauled over the coals by certain Members for social policy issues, yet here we are discussing issues of poverty, employment and people’s livelihoods, and I do not hear a murmur, yet it is a catalogue of shame.
I shall go on, because the catalogue is atrocious. The York Street interchange was a key issue that we put on the confidence and supply budget, and we are setting aside around £400 million to £500 million to develop it. That project is paused owing to a legal challenge. A substantial scheme that would usually have ministerial accountability and then be allowed to proceed cannot actually go ahead. That is critical, because it shows that a paralysis is developing in the Departments. We are going to end up with government by judicial review. In fact, we are going to have governance stopped by the people running the courts. I respect judges and I respect lawyers, but they are not elected to stop the process of government. The people have elected Members to this House and they expect the Government in this House to take these key decisions.
The shadow Secretary of State mentioned the north-south interconnector. Planning permission was granted following an independent report prepared by the Planning Appeals Commission. That decision was made by the civil service in the absence of a Minister because it was in the public interest, but it has not been implemented because it needs the next step, in which the Minister actually signs off the decision. That project has now been paused. Many Members from various parties have talked about maintenance projects and capital spending projects for schools and hospitals. The report says, time after time, of a host of capital projects, that no Minister is able to sign the project off. It says:
“In absence of Minister, zero-based approach taken”
and that no capital funding will be assumed for capital projects, even the priority ones.
The A5 project is a huge road network scheme in the west of the Province. The project has been paused owing to a legal challenge, and a substantial scheme that would usually have ministerial accountability is not going to take place until a Minister is in place. The next phase of the school enhancement programme for the next four years is delayed because there is no Minister. This is what the civil servants are telling us. Ten school building schemes are currently at the design or feasibility stage, but they have all been paused until a Minister is in place to take the next decision. This cannot go on. This is a catalogue of shame.
I notice that the chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), is present; since he led us through the process and we published the report on 15 May, that section is now twice as thick, with other decisions backing up. Last month, the chief of police brought one of those decisions to us, along with all the issues related to policing. I asked why we have not had the legal aid improvements or changes that are being enjoyed by other citizens throughout the United Kingdom. Once again, those matters were consulted on in Northern Ireland and a report has been brought forward, but it cannot be signed off and implemented because we do not have a Minister to take the decision.
On community pharmacies and setting the tariff for drugs in Northern Ireland, I know that the Secretary of State would solve that issue for us at the drop of a hat, and she could solve it for us, but it is not going to be done because there is no Minister willing to step up to the plate and make the decisions. I could take hours going through the report and putting these matters on the record. I call on the Government to get on with it and start governing.
I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) in relation to the passing of William Dunlop. We all understand the family’s heartache and wish to convey our thoughts and prayers to them at this time. I have a brother who raced bikes—indeed, he raced with the Dunlop family over a great period of time. He had a very serious accident, but he lives today, whereas William Dunlop and the other Dunlops do not live. We think of the family at this time, and it is important that we do so.
I thank the Government, and particularly the Secretary of State, for introducing this legislation. I echo the frustration expressed by others about the process. I can well remember the story told in my office about the husband of one of the girls, who used to get his hands on what was then referred to as the Index book and circle presents he wanted from Santa. His dad was a pastor and in no way able to fulfil those requests. Ultimately, there was always something that he did not get, and that was the one thing that he really wanted. My parliamentary aide has implemented with her children a three-present rule: the children can ask for only three presents to avoid disappointment. There is a logic to it—it is not an Ulster Scotsism.
I feel like I am circling the Index book of needs for Northern Ireland while knowing that without a working Assembly, there is no way that the man in red—or, indeed, in this case the man with the red briefcase—can get it right, but there are asks that I believe we truly need out of this budget. Even at this stage, I am urging that the red briefcase be used to help the Secretary of State to meet our greatest needs.
The shadow Secretary of State mentioned my name in relation to the north-south interconnector. He shares our frustration that while we have a north-south interconnector, we are not even sure whether we will actually be able to use it. Decisions are made, but there is no process in place to ensure that it actually happens. It is an important project, with great benefits for both the north and the south, but particularly for us in Northern Ireland. I wait to hear from the Minister whether the interconnector will go ahead.
The DUP, as all Members know, made a deal on confidence and supply, securing £1.4 billion for all people in Northern Ireland from all religious persuasions and all political parties. I say to the new Northern Ireland spokesperson for the SNP, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands)—we wish him well in his new position—that if he needs any training in how to secure a good deal, we might be available to help him. We can give him some good advice.
We all understand that the 1998 Belfast agreement does not allow for the full budget to be allocated. However, we are at the stage where 95% of the budget can be spent. My first ask is that instead of allocating £20 million of the supply and confidence additional funding, can we please have all the outstanding money allocated? The money is there to be allocated, so let make it happen. Will the Secretary of State please release the money, as it will enable us to do several things that are essential to keep our schools open and our NHS running. Will she allow the release of funds to enable the Education Authority to swallow the budget restriction that has been imposed on schools? That restriction is leading to more pressure on small schools. Even larger schools are being forced to lose teachers. I have wonderful schools in my rural communities, as we all have, but they may be forced to close their doors because they cannot save £40,000 unless they lose a teacher, which effectively means that the school will close.
Can the Secretary of State release funding to subsidise urban and rural primary schools? Many primary schools in my constituency are waiting for extensions and classrooms are bulging at the seams. Grey Abbey Primary School is one that comes to mind right away, and we also have Ballywalter Primary School, for which we have been pursuing the case for some time, and Killinchy Primary School. These schools need help now, not tomorrow and not in five years’ time. Glastry College has been waiting for a new build for up to 10 years. We have been told that it is now on a five to six-year programme, but the school is over-subscribed. The numbers are increasing each year, so we need money to be released for the new build. What happens if we have a process where those expansions cannot happen? We need a Minister in place. We have a Department that effectively cannot make that decision.
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) referred to education in North Down. She and I, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), share a special needs school. Longstone Special School and Killard Special Needs School have particular needs now, not at some stage down the line. The principal at Killard has written letters to all of us to say that work needs to be done in his school right now. Members must understand our frustration.
My hon. Friend mentioned Longstone Special School, which is in my constituency. I hope that he agrees that this issue should really cut to the heart of the discussion about resources. I had an email from a year 10 pupil at Longstone saying, “We may be special needs children, but can you help us get a library?” A library? We are talking about access to books in a school. That is one of the resource implications that is coming to the fore due to continual underinvestment for our special children who need help the most.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. Torbank Special Needs School is another that comes to mind along with Longstone and Killard—there are three schools. The school teachers, the classroom assistants and the parents all want to see better resources for their pupils and schools, and we need to encourage them. Things are being held up due to red tape, which means that things cannot be improved, which is immensely frustrating.
Why is the Department for Education’s investment budget being reduced by some 4% in the 2017-18 final budget while most other Departments have had their investment budgets increased? Why is the investment budget of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs almost doubling from £39 million in 2017-18 to £77 million in 2018-19? We had a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), the week before last, along with Lakeland Dairies from Newtownards, to look at the capital grant scheme to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) referred. The scheme is in place, the money is there and the skills are in place, but we cannot move it forward because the Department is sitting on its hands and nothing can be done. Madam Deputy Speaker, you can understand our frustration. The Minister is a genuine person who would love to help us, but we need a process in place to make sure that things happen. Let us see if we can move things along.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is holding an inquiry into fishing. Hopefully we will be concluding that shortly. The knowledge that we have gained from that inquiry has been immense. As we move towards Brexit, we are aware that we need the grant system in place to enable capital schemes in the fishing ports of Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel. We need the money in place, but we do not have a Department that is able to function fully. We are out of Europe next year, and we are incredibly frustrated that we will not be in a position to respond.
The annually managed expenditure budget, which is mostly for welfare, shows a 16% increase over the past two years. What is the underlying reason for that increase? No one has mentioned—at least not directly—the local roads budgets for our Departments and our section officers. They have had no increase in their moneys for the past few years. Indeed, those moneys have been decreased over the past couple of years. I am pleased to see that Ballyblack Road East has been resurfaced in the past four weeks. That is good news, but Ballygalget Road in Portaferry has not been done. The Dalton Road estates has not been done either. The reasons for our frustrations are clear. The system does not seem to respond to our needs as the elected representatives of our constituents. We need a Department that can work with us. No white lines have been put down in parts of my constituency for more than two years. We have got to the position where a person knows that they have to be on the left hand side of the road, but there is no white line to tell them where the middle of the road is. People will say that they know that they have to be on the left hand side of the road and that they will not stray, but we understand their frustration when we see such decay and when things that should be done are not being done.
I agree with David Sterling’s briefing regarding the needs for the 2018-19 budget that was published in December 2017. Some £410 million from the confidence and supply agreement could be spent, with £80 million for immediate health and education pressures and £30 million for programmes to address mental health and severe deprivation. Just today, and over the weekend, the press back home informed us—some of us probably knew this already—that Northern Ireland has among the highest levels of suicide. The constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) has some of the highest levels of suicide in the whole of Northern Ireland, and indeed in the whole of the UK. We want to address the issue of mental health and severe deprivation, but we need to do that with a functioning Assembly and a functioning Department. We had a meeting earlier this year with a number of Northern Ireland charities. We want to address this issue, and we are keen to see the Northern Assembly addressing it, but we have a frustration with the system, which does not seem to have the same capacity or interest.
Let me go back to the budget. Some £100 million is being spent on ongoing work to transform the health service in line with the broad-based consensus fostered by the Bengoa report. As Members have mentioned, there is a £20 million shortfall for pharmacies. Again, we need a Department that can address these things. I brought up the situation involving insulin pumps at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee last week. The Secretary of State will remember me telling her that children under 10 with type 1 diabetes are frustrated because they cannot get their insulin pumps. They are frustrated because there is no process. Their parents tell me that they are worried about the health of their children. What are we doing about the health of our children when it comes to making decisions?
This House will have to take such decisions very shortly, otherwise we will have to find a method whereby the Northern Ireland Assembly and Departments can make them. We need action on the insulin pumps for children under 10 with type 1 diabetes. Northern Ireland, followed by Scotland, has the highest level of type 1 diabetes in the whole United Kingdom—it is higher than that on the mainland.
I have asked—other Members have agreed to this—for the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to hold an inquiry on the important issue of cancer drugs. We should have a cancer drugs fund in Northern Ireland. These decisions need to be made by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The permanent secretary of the Northern Ireland Department of Health understands the issues, but his hands are tied. We need a process to get the cancer drugs in place.
We also need a system for the operations waiting list. If this situation goes on much longer, people will die because they have waited too long for their operation. I hate to say that, but it is a fact of life. Many of my constituents are frustrated. Just last week, a constituent told me that they had waited 54 weeks for an assessment, and that is before they are even put forward for an operation, which might take another two years or so. That is not the way we need to live. Of course, people suggest to them—I feel frustrated with this system—“If you want to go private, we can bring you to the top of the list just next week.” Well, some people cannot do that; they do not have the finances. These people have paid their tax and national insurance for perhaps 50 or 60 years —all their working life—and expect the NHS to respond to them.
The issue of broadband has been mentioned. There are small and medium-sized businesses in my constituency that are run from people’s homes. We want to encourage people to start small businesses. I thank the Government for their policy, and the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland for the way in which they have promoted the idea of people in businesses working from home, but we have now reached a stalemate. We have the money for broadband that we secured through the confidence and supply arrangement, but we need a method of getting that money out. David Sterling also mentioned £4 million to prepare the ground for transformation, and £100 million to be transferred from existing capital funding to address public services and police resources.
I want to put on record my full support for the PSNI, which has a new policy and strategy for Northern Ireland on taking on paramilitarism. That is a good idea that I fully support, as will everyone in the House. Hon. Members will understand why we need a PSNI that is able to respond and to deliver on its project to take on and reduce paramilitarism, and to deal with those who live off the backs of others through their drugs-related and criminal activities. I understand that the Patten commission reported that there were 7,500 police officers at that time. There are now 6,715, so there is a clear shortfall. My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim mentioned the fact that 50 experienced police officers leave every month. I understand that it takes six months to train 100 recruits; in theory, every six months we are falling behind by 400, so hon. Members will understand our frustration. We need money to train officers and to ensure that those officers are in place.
My hon. Friend will not be aware of this, but I and some of our senior colleagues from the DUP recently had a security briefing from the Chief Constable, who indicated that the threat from paramilitaries is not just one of organised crime, as some on the republican side now pose a very potent threat to national security and are engaged in planning acts of terrorism in Northern Ireland. That is why the PSNI needs resources. It is not only to deal with organised crime, but to counter this very real terrorist threat.
I absolutely support my right hon. Friend.
I will give an example of the activities of some paramilitaries. Just this week in my town of Newtownards, a group of people from outside the Strangford constituency came in and tried to assert their authority. We have to be careful with how that goes. They were having a bonfire. Two guys from another constituency came into Newtownards on Sunday morning and sat there in their very expensive Land Rovers or Jeeps. The price of the two Jeeps would probably be the price of somebody’s house. The assets branch needs to look at what those people are up to, take all the money they earned from criminal activities, and make sure they are accountable for their actions. The quicker that that happens the better.
What we are really saying is that a lot needs to be done. Will the Secretary of State release the funding that is not affected by the Good Friday agreement and save our schools, pay our nurses correctly and secure our community pharmacies, particularly in rural areas? We have kept our end of the bargain. We come to this place and do what is best for our constituents. Will someone please make the decision to do what is best for the people of Northern Ireland? End the stalemate. Allow Northern Ireland to function instead of crippling it with an inability to make decisions, or perhaps the punishment of refusing to do so.
My local businesses are suffering—[Interruption.] Madam Deputy Speaker, the coughing reminds me of your indication to come to a conclusion; I will do so shortly. I just want to say that we need something for our high streets and for the businesses that are struggling to do better.
May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman’s high street enters the Great Britain and Northern Ireland high street competition that the Government are running? The closing date is in August, and we would very much welcome entries from high streets in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State has given me a challenge. I will certainly take her up on it and ensure that Newtownards High Street will be at the forefront of her paperwork, hopefully before the end of July. Although high streets have done extremely well in the last month and their turnover is up, that is perhaps a wee bit seasonal. We need to do something to bring business back, including by taking legislative steps.
I want to comment on the Irish language. Sometime in life, we have to agree to differ on things, and there is something that we cannot agree on in the Irish language. We do not want the Irish language introduced to primary schools against the will of the majority of students, pupils and parents. We do not want Irish street names up in Saintfield. People in my constituency told me that that was a massive issue for them at the last election. We do not want cross-departmental money wasted on the Irish language when it is not necessary, and we do not want the Irish language in the courts, where there is certainly not a zest and an energy for that. What we do want is the right to have an Irish language; we are not against the idea of it. Some £160 million has been spent on it, so it is very clear that we are not against the idea. At the same time, we do not want an Irish language Act. There will not be an Irish language Act, and the quicker people catch on the better.
Although I thank the Secretary of State for this step, it is not enough. Take control; take us back from the brink of school closures. More money than ever should be available. Take us back from the position in which diabetic pumps are available but no one is trained to use them. Take us back to a functioning Northern Ireland that is not held to ransom by those who will not even take their seats to discuss the funding that all people in Northern Ireland need regardless of their age, sex, political views, religious views or anything else. Northern Ireland needs direction. We look to the Secretary of State for that leadership and direction—please provide it.
If one thing has been consistent throughout this extremely well-informed and passionate debate, it is the roiling, boiling frustration of people who want to see something done, who need to see something done and who want to speak up for their constituents but are prevented. It is crucial that that message comes out loud and clear.
The debate started with a very telling contribution from the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) and ended with a contribution about the PSNI from my good friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). We sometimes forget that in the absence of political leadership, it is the forces of the PSNI who have to pick up the pieces. In that vacuum, it is the PSNI that we turn to. We must never, ever forget that they are the people who are doing the hard work.
Many people will remember the death in 2011 of Ronan Kerr, a young PSNI officer killed at Killyclogher. I remember that when I stood with Peter Robinson, the then leader of the DUP, at Beragh, about half of the PSNI officers made the sign of the cross and about half of them snapped off a very, very sharp salute. I thought, “This is future of policing in Northern Ireland.” I actually felt that there was some real hope. If we, as politicians, cannot show the same confidence, strength, trust and belief in the future as that cross-community expression of belief, we are letting them down—but, above all, we are letting down all the people of Northern Ireland. I respect the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead. I was his shadow once. I was a very insubstantial shadow because he was a very substantial Minister. He did an excellent job, and I appreciate his comments today.
I welcome the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) to the SNP Front Bench. On behalf of not just my colleagues on the Labour Benches but, I hope, the whole House, I pay our respect and thanks to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who was an excellent Northern Ireland spokesperson for the SNP. I assume that she has been promoted. In the present febrile state of British politics, she could be in the Cabinet for all I know. I consider it unlikely, but who knows? I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments and for the hon. Lady’s work.
I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that I have known the DUP and individual DUP Members for many years. He encouraged them to seek further benefit—further financial advantage and fiscal goodies—from the Government. If there is one group of people on God’s green earth who need no encouragement, it is the Democratic Unionist party. I am sure that they are grateful for his warm advice, but when it comes to upping the ante, they wrote the book.
We heard from the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). Every time I hear the weather forecast, I always imagine some dreadful warning of a gale that is coming from Larne and I know that he is about to get to his feet. What his pupils must have thought in the days when he was a very distinguished economics lecturer, I cannot imagine. I presume that there is an entire generation of deafened people from East Antrim who were taught by him. He talked about a flat budget. I think that there has in fact been a 4.2% uplift from the opening position, so it is not a flat budget from that point of view. However, I entirely understand that doing this tonight simply takes us forward to the end of the financial year. We are not actually solving the problem but simply allowing matters to proceed in the present time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) spoke lyrically and from a position of great strength and knowledge. He talked about the lacuna of scrutiny and the spectacular inactivity that we are suffering from. That is such an important point, and we keep coming back to it—the absence of scrutiny and the inability of questions to be answered. It was also mentioned in an intervention. I look to the Government Benches for some way in which this can be addressed, because surely right hon. and hon. Members must have the right to ask questions, even during this period. When he referred to the fact that we must not turn away, he made a desperately important point.
I am in no way going to criticise the right hon. Member for East Antrim, but he referred to the presence of certain people in the House tonight. Some Labour Members may not be here physically, but the Labour party and my colleagues will never, ever turn our backs on Northern Ireland. We will never, ever shunt this off into the distance. We will always be thinking and concerned about Northern Ireland. If we are not here physically, then, believe you me, we are here mentally and here emotionally. Our commitment is as strong as it always has been, and I hope always will be in future. I suppose that I should, in passing, congratulate the non-abstentionist Northern Ireland MPs who are here tonight. Every single one of them is here present, and the record will show that as much as the television pictures will have shown it earlier on.
The hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly), in one of the most important speeches I have heard for a long time, brought this whole matter to a head: she referred to her constituents. Sometimes, when we talk about political theory, financial matters and fiscal arrangements, we almost operate on an ethereal level where we do not consider the day-to-day needs of our constituents. She talked about the reality of the health transformation programme, which is not going forward because of the absence of a devolved Assembly and an Executive. She talked about the impact on schools and the inability to undertake the cross-community work that I am so proud of and that she is such a strong exponent of. We heard the voice of a constituency Member of Parliament who was not making a political point from some theoretical standpoint or for party political advantage, but speaking on behalf of her constituents—constituents whom we are not serving best at present, in the absence of a devolved Assembly or an Executive.
I would like to associate myself and my colleagues with the expression of regret to William Dunlop. I cannot imagine any family who stand higher in the annals of road racing and motorcycling, nor who have been cursed on the one hand by so much tragedy but blessed on the other hand by so many achievements, than the Dunlop family. There can be no finer example of sportsmanship and achievement in road racing; what a great family. I think that we all extend our sympathy to them. I know that the family will be sustained by the memories of a truly great road racer—not just one, but a whole family.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) talked about unintended consequences and called for direct ministerial rule. I looked across to those on the Government Benches to see whether they were leaping forward at that and champing at the bit, longing to do it. I like to think that none us here actually want to see that. I understand the hon. Gentleman making that point out of frustration and anger, but I do not think we have come to that stage just yet. It is infuriating. The shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), and I met Graham Keddie from Aldergrove airport, who cannot move things forward in the absence of even getting something signed off.
We ended with policing. In the years that I have listened to the hon. Member for Strangford, I realise that something has changed: I now understand every word he says. His mellifluous and poetic tones, which I have to say initially were challenging, are now as clear as crystal to my ear. Let us never forget what my hon. Friend—I will call him my hon. Friend—ended by saying: let us get it done, and let us make it happen. I think that the whole House is as one with him.
The House will recall that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in her opening remarks that this Bill is a limited but necessary intervention in Northern Ireland in the continued absence of an Executive. The Bill will put her Northern Ireland budget statement earlier this year in March on to a legal footing and provide the necessary certainty and legal authority for Northern Ireland Departments to access all available public finances, ultimately safeguarding the continued delivery of public services in Northern Ireland.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members across the House for their contributions today. In particular, I thank those on the Opposition Front Bench for their continued support for the Bill. The shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), referred to oversight of Northern Ireland civil service spending. I can assure him that the Audit Office will oversee the spending. If there are any irregularities, they will be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State, and she will certainly ensure that all those who need to know about it are made aware.
The hon. Member for Rochdale also spoke about health funding. He will be mindful that the confidence and supply agreement provides for £100 million for health transformation. In terms of education, he will be aware that two or so weeks ago, the Government announced £140 million for the six schools based at Strule, for integrated education, so there is optimism in that area.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) spoke from personal experience and raised a number of issues. He was an excellent Policing Minister and was one of my predecessors in this Department, where he served with distinction. I want to put on the record the fantastic work that is done by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. These very brave women and men daily put their own safety at risk so that the rest of the community in Northern Ireland can go about their daily business safely. Let us not underestimate the important work they do. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we have only recently received the PSNI business plan and proposals, and we will of course consider them carefully.
The Minister quite rightly mentions the work of frontline police officers, but we must not forget their families and loved ones. By committing themselves to being in the PSNI, police officers put their friends and loved ones at risk, and we must make sure that we protect them and give them our gratitude, too.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The families have the daily worry and concern of their loved ones going out to make sure that the rest of community can get about safely, and it is quite right that they too are recognised and acknowledged.
May I take this opportunity to welcome the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) to his post? I add my good wishes to his predecessor, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who did an excellent job. I do not know what new role she has, but whatever it is, I am sure she will serve in it with equal diligence. I echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments about wanting the devolved Assembly to be up and running, which I think we all want in this House. It has been raised consistently by many Members, and I will come on to that later.
The right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) spoke with his characteristic passion. He is right to speak about the additional funds for Northern Ireland pursuant to the confidence and supply agreement. It is important to recognise that that money will be spent for the entire community of Northern Ireland—all the people there—not on any particular category of people. He spoke about spending on education being flat, but there is actually a real-terms increase for education and health in the budget. I want to put that on the record.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) of course speaks from experience both on the Front Bench and in a previous life when he was involved in Northern Ireland matters. On his references to our being under direct rule, I want to make it absolutely clear that we are not. It is important to recognise that we have oversight at the moment, and it is our duty to ensure that there is proper governance. In pursuance of that duty, we are pushing through the legislation that is absolutely necessary to ensure good governance, which means proper public services. The money we are providing will ensure that those public services have the funding to go with them.
I appreciate what the Minister has said, but will he explain to the House why the Government are so loth to move formally to having direct rule?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point, and I will tell him why. The last time we moved to direct rule, it lasted five years, and the time before that, it lasted 25 years. The move towards direct rule is a lot easier than the move out of direct rule. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, along with the Prime Minister, will therefore leave no stone unturned in trying to get a functioning Assembly. We need to remember the history.
I, too, appreciate what the Minister has said. He is trying to handle a very difficult situation. The last period of direct rule was five years, so how long—how many years—will he give for the current non-direct rule/non-devolution limbo?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I do not know how long, but we are still trying to get the parties involved and we are engaging with them. We have the British-Irish intergovernmental conference coming up soon, and we are liaising with the Irish Government, as is necessary. We are not going to give up on this very easily, as I hope is abundantly clear. He will be aware that as we had the deep conversations earlier this year, it would not have been appropriate to move into new talks immediately. There needs to be a time for people to reflect, pause and come back with different thoughts.
The hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) spoke with care and consideration and gave moving examples. She mentioned the devolved Assembly, and she will have noted the comments I have just made.
I extend to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) my deepest sympathies and condolences, and those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, for William Dunlop and his family. While the passing of an individual is never easy, it is particularly difficult when there is a young family. We extend our deepest sympathies and best wishes to them all. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will personally extend our wishes to the family.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of the fantastic work done by the police and will have heard my comments to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead. Likewise, I noted the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the devolved Assembly.
To the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I have to say that the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) intended a compliment, and that is how he should take it. The hon. Member for Strangford spoke with his customary commitment and spoke of his frustrations. I want to be clear that the Government are also frustrated that we cannot have the devolved Assembly up and running. Whenever my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are on our regular visits to Northern Ireland, the view comes out strong and clear that people want decision making. I therefore make this last plea to all concerned: think again and start taking those decisions.
The Minister compares the frustrations expressed by Democratic Unionist Members with the frustrations of the Northern Ireland Office, but does he understand the difference? We have done everything to try to accelerate the move towards devolved government and have had no reciprocity from Sinn Féin. The Minister can assuage his frustration and take action to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
I hope that the commitment that the hon. Gentleman has articulated—others have articulated it—to that devolved Assembly will continue. For the Government’s part, we will continue to speak to other parties to see whether we can get the Assembly up and running.
The Government would very much have preferred this legislation to have been taken forward by the restored Executive and a sitting Assembly. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are disappointed that that is not the case. However, at this point, action cannot be delayed further. It is necessary to expedite the Bill to provide certainty on Northern Ireland finances, protect the delivery of public services and deliver on our responsibility to ensure good governance in Northern Ireland.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).