Lord Duncan of Springbank contributions to the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Act 2018

Tue 27th March 2018 Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill (Lords Chamber)
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
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Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office

Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill

(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Lord Duncan of Springbank Excerpts
Tuesday 27th March 2018

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Northern Ireland Office

Moved by

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office and Scotland Office (Lord Duncan of Springbank) (Con)
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My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall speak to all three Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The UK Government take seriously our responsibility to uphold our commitment to govern in the interests of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland. To that end, there are three Bills before the House that represent a series of necessary steps now required to protect and preserve public services, ensure good governance and increase public confidence in Northern Ireland’s political institutions. We have deferred action on these measures for as long as possible in the hope that a restored Executive could take this legislation forward. That is now not possible. So, with the greatest reluctance, it is important that we proceed with the Bills.

With the leave of the House, I will discuss each Bill in turn, starting with the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill. Members of the House will recall that, last November, Parliament approved the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017. This was a step we took reluctantly. This Act gave the Northern Ireland Civil Service the clear legal basis required to manage resources and perform the important work it continues to do in the absence of an Executive. The Northern Ireland Civil Service has continued since then to assess where pressures lie across the system, taking decisions to reallocate resources as required. It has also requested since then to draw down £20 million in 2017-18—of the £50 million of support arising from the financial annexe to the confidence and supply agreement—which the Government committed to releasing for 2017-18 to help address immediate health and education pressures. The remainder of that £50 million will form part of the resource totals available in 2018-19.

Noble Lords will want to be reassured that the additional funding for 2017-18 was confirmed in the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2018, which received Royal Assent on 15 March. These changes to the financial position approved in the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017 in November must now be placed on a legal footing for the Northern Ireland Administration as we approach the end of the financial year, and that is what this Bill does.

In addition, the Bill will provide for a vote on account in the early months of next year to give legal authority for managing day-to-day spending in the run-up to the estimates process. This will avoid the unorthodox need for the Northern Ireland Civil Service to rely on emergency powers set out in Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act and Section 7 of the Government Resources and Accounts Act (Northern Ireland) 2001 to issue cash and resources. For 2018-19, we do not consider it would be appropriate if we did not provide the usual vote on account facility to the Northern Ireland Civil Service—a facility provided to the UK Government departments through our own spring supplementary estimates process.

To be very clear, this is not a forward-looking budget for the year ahead. The Bill does not seek to set out in legislation the departmental allocations of the Secretary of State’s Budget Statement on 8 March, nor does it seek to vote any new moneys for Northern Ireland. The totals to which it is related are either locally raised or have been subject to previous votes in Parliament, most recently in the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill.

Instead, the Bill looks back to confirm spending totals for 2017-18 to ensure that the Northern Ireland Civil Service has a secure legal basis for its spending in the past year. As such, it formally allocates the £20 million of confidence and supply funding already committed for 2017-18; it is not concerned with any of the £410 million set out in the 2018-19 Budget Statement, which will be a matter for the UK estimates in the summer and for a Northern Ireland budget Bill thereafter.

I will turn briefly to the content of the Bill, as it largely rehearses what I set out to your Lordships in November when bringing forward the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017. In short, it authorises Northern Ireland departments and certain other bodies to incur expenditure and use resources for the financial year ending 31 March 2018.

Clause 1 of the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill authorises the issue of £16.1 billion out of the Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland. The allocation levels for each Northern Ireland department and the other bodies in receipt of these funds are set out in Schedule 1, which also states the purposes for which these funds are to be used.

Clause 2 authorises the use of resources amounting to £18 billion in the year ending 31 March 2018 by the Northern Ireland departments and other bodies listed in Clause 2(2).

Clause 3 sets revised limits on the accruing resources, including both operating and non-operating accruing resources in the current financial year. These are all largely as they appeared in the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017, and the revised totals for departments appear in Schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill.

Clause 4 does not have a parallel in that Act. It sets out the power for the Northern Ireland Civil Service to issue out of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund some £7.35 billion in cash for the forthcoming financial year. This is the vote on account provision that I have already outlined. It is linked to Clause 6, which does the same in terms of resources. The value is set, as is standard, at around 45% of the sums available in both regards in the previous financial year. Schedules 3 and 4 operate on the same basis, with each departmental allocation simply set at 45% of the previous year.

Clause 5 permits some temporary borrowing powers for cash management purposes. As I have already noted, there is no new money contained within the Bill; there is simply the explicit authority to spend in full the moneys that have already been allocated and locally raised.

This Bill would ordinarily have been taken through the Assembly. As such, at Clause 7, there are a series of adaptations that ensure that, once approved by Parliament, the Bill will be treated as though it were an Assembly Budget Act, enabling Northern Ireland public finances to continue to function notwithstanding the absence of an Executive.

Noble Lords may already be aware from the Library that, alongside the Bill, a set of supplementary estimates for the departments and bodies covered by the budget Bill have also been laid as a Command Paper. These estimates, which have been prepared by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance, set out the breakdown of their resource allocation in greater detail. This is a different process from that which we might ordinarily see for estimates at Westminster, where the estimates document precedes the formal budget legislation and is separately approved. That would also be the case at the Assembly, but as was the case in November, the Bill provides that the laying of the Command Paper takes the place of an estimates document laid and approved before the Assembly, again to enable public finances to flow smoothly.

This Bill is very much a technical step as we approach the end of the financial year to provide a secure legal footing for the Northern Ireland Civil Service. It looks backwards rather than forward, although it avoids the use of emergency powers for the forthcoming financial year. It is on that platform that the Secretary of State’s 2018-19 Budget Statement of 8 March builds. It is worth making it clear that the 2018-19 Budget Statement will need to be the subject of formal legislation later in year. I am sure that noble Lords will share the hope that this will be taken forward by a restored Executive. However, I should highlight to your Lordships that this is something that the UK Government would be prepared to progress if required as we uphold our responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland.

Before we reach such a point and in addition to the technical steps of this Bill there are some further pressing steps proposed in the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill that need to be taken now to build on the Government’s efforts to safeguard public services and finances in Northern Ireland. I ask the House also to give a Second Reading to the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill.

Clause 1 of the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill addresses the collection of the regional rate, which represents more than 5% of the total revenue available to the Northern Ireland Executive. With a devolved Government in place, this would be set via an affirmative rates order in the Assembly, enabling bills to be issued in 10 instalments, providing certainty to ratepayers and allowing various payment reliefs to be applied. It would not be acceptable to allow uncertainty to linger in the absence of an Executive to set its own rates and begin collection from ratepayers. So while we are clear that this is a devolved matter, we are also clear that only the UK Government and Parliament can take this action to secure the interests of individuals and businesses in Northern Ireland.

This Bill therefore sets out rates, in pence per pound terms, for both domestic and non-domestic properties. For non-domestic properties, this reflects a 1.5% inflationary increase. For domestic properties, the rate will be raised by inflation plus 3%, as set out in the Secretary of State’s 2018-19 Budget Statement on 8 March. In deciding on these levels we have reflected on conversations with the parties and stakeholders more broadly; considered the budget consultation launched by the Northern Ireland Civil Service in December, which discusses rises in regional rates of as much as 10% above inflation; considered the pressures on key services and the need to balance any increase to rates at the right level.

We have concluded that it is fair that we ask households to pay a little more—less than £1 per week for the average household—to help address pressures in health, education and elsewhere. In order to keep a focus on the growth that Northern Ireland needs to see, holding business rates in line with inflation is the right approach. This rates income, along with the flexibilities set out in the Secretary of State’s Statement, will represent an important contribution to delivering a sustainable budget picture for 2018-19, upholding the UK Government’s responsibilities to uphold good governance in Northern Ireland. Yet the Bill also makes clear that nothing we do cuts across the continuing right of a restored Executive to set a rate by order in the usual way.

The second element of the Bill concerns the administration of Northern Ireland’s renewable heat incentive scheme. The scheme was established in 2012 to support efforts to increase the uptake in the use of renewable energy. However, errors in the administration of the scheme led to substantial excess payments. Over the 20-year lifespan of the scheme, the projected overspends were well over £500 million, with £27 million of overspend in the 2016-17 year alone, putting the sustainable finances of the Northern Ireland Executive at significant risk. The administration of the scheme and the circumstances which led to the errors in its administration are subject to an ongoing public inquiry.

One of the last acts of the previous Executive was to make regulations in January 2017 that put robust cost controls in place. These made sure that the costs were sustainable, but they were put in place for one year only, to allow for a longer-term consideration of the scheme as a whole. They are now due to expire. If they are allowed to expire, there will be no legal basis not only for maintaining the current cost cap but also for paying all those who receive payments under the scheme and whose installations were accredited before November 2015. Neither of these would be acceptable outcomes. Nor would it be suitable for the Northern Ireland Civil Service to administer payments on an extra-statutory basis, which would create unnecessary legal uncertainty for all concerned. That is why Clause 2 will ensure that the present cost controls and the legal basis for payments can continue for the 2018-19 financial year. These are sunsetted for a year, as it is right that the longer-term approach is one for a restored Executive to decide. In the meantime, I am assured that the Northern Ireland Civil Service will undertake the detailed analysis to enable a new Executive to consider the right course for the future.

I hope noble Lords will agree that this is a modest Bill, doing two very discrete but necessary things in the interests of safeguarding public finances: setting a regional rate and extending the cost controls of the RHI scheme.

The third and final Bill before the House today is the Northern Ireland Assembly Members (Pay) Bill. Where the other Bills focus on increasing clarity and confidence in Northern Ireland’s finances, this Bill looks to increase public confidence in Northern Ireland’s political institutions. The continued payment of full salaries for Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, when the Assembly has not met for over a year and there has been no Executive for 14 months, is a matter of considerable public concern in Northern Ireland and there is a broad desire for action. The Bill will grant the Secretary of State the power to vary pay and allowances for Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the MLAs.

MLAs’ salaries and allowances are rightly a devolved matter. In 2011, the Assembly appointed an independent body, the Independent Financial Review Panel, to set MLA pay and allowances by means of determinations. Its last determination was made in March 2016, before the election in May that year. As no members have been appointed since the first panel’s term of office ended in 2016, however, there is presently nobody with the power to change MLA pay to reflect the current extraordinary circumstances. The Bill would allow the Secretary of State to do that; that is, to vary the pay and allowances of MLAs by means of a determination. One important difference from the panel’s powers is that, while the panel also makes determinations on pensions, the Bill includes an explicit protection for MLAs’ pensions so that they are not affected by any changes to pay under this Bill.

Under the panel’s most recent determination, an automatic £500 per year inflationary increase in MLAs’ salaries is due on 1 April. It is simply not appropriate for this increase to apply in the present circumstances, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State intends—if granted the power by this Bill—to stop that increase from being applied. Support for this action comes in the advice on MLA pay and allowances that Trevor Reaney, a former Clerk to the Northern Ireland Assembly, gave to the then Secretary of State in December 2017. It also comes from the Assembly Commission, whose chair, the Speaker of the Assembly, wrote to the Secretary of State earlier this month. There was also widespread support for it in the other place when this Bill was debated there last week. I hope that noble Lords across the House will agree that this is a suitable step to take in the current circumstances.

More broadly, Mr Reaney’s advice provided an independent assessment of what action should be taken on MLA pay and allowances in the current circumstances, taking account of all of the important work that many Members continue to do in the absence of an Assembly. These recommendations included a 27.5% reduction in MLAs’ salaries. The Secretary of State has been clear that she is minded to follow Mr Reaney’s recommendations, with the exception of the proposed cut to the staff costs allowance. As the Secretary of State has said,

“The position of”,

MLAs’ staff,

“should not be prejudiced by what is happening with their political masters”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/3/18; col. 339.]

Before making her final decision, however, she has asked for final representations from the political parties. This is a sensible approach that I hope noble Lords will support.

This Bill would not itself alter MLAs’ pay or allowances. It simply creates the power to make a determination during the current period without an Executive. Once an Executive is formed, the power to make a determination would return to being entirely a devolved matter. A future panel would, of course, be free to make a new determination as it sees fit, including to cover periods without an Executive. This determination would supersede any made by the Secretary of State under this Bill. To ensure that we do not again find ourselves in the situation where MLAs remain on full pay when there is no Executive and no panel determination covering the situation, the Bill allows a determination made by the Secretary of State in the current period to apply again should that situation arise. To be clear, it is the determination that would apply again: the power to make a new determination would in that situation remain devolved.

Overall, the focus of this Bill is narrow, and I consider that taking the power to set MLA pay is a necessary step to uphold public confidence in Northern Ireland in the absence of an Executive and sitting Assembly.

I recognise the extent of the ask of the House in considering all three Bills in one day. As I conclude, I would like to reaffirm that the Government have considered very carefully the necessity of and timing required for this legislation. We are doing this reluctantly in order to put Northern Ireland finances on a legal footing for the financial year 2017-18; to provide more certainty and a sustainable footing for the financial year 2018-19, in the interests of protecting public services; and to ensure good governance and uphold public confidence in Northern Ireland. I believe that these Bills reflect our approach of intervening only as necessary, and only at a point when it is critical that the measures are taken forward. I hope noble Lords will agree that it is important we now make progress to see the measures of each Bill passed into law. I beg to move.

Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain (Lab)
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My Lords, I, along with other noble Lords, was proud to be a member of a Government who devoted so much time and effort over a decade to help Northern Ireland move from the horror of its violent past towards a better future. The devolved institutions set up in 2007, after a settlement that I helped negotiate, have not functioned for the past 15 months, and there appears to be little prospect of a change in that position. I have heard nothing from the Government to suggest that they have a clue what to do. Former serving Ministers in Northern Ireland such as myself and my noble friends Lord Murphy of Torfaen, Lord Reid, Lord Mandelson, Lady Smith of Basildon, Lord Browne, Lord Rooker and Lord Dubs, feel passionately about the way that the enormous peace progress made has gone so badly into reverse.

It gives me absolutely no satisfaction to say that I really do not think this Government get Northern Ireland. I make no criticism of the Minister or the arguments he has made, or of the Secretary of State—they are both new Ministers and I wish them all the best. But I observe—as I have said before, as has my noble friend Lord Murphy—that the Prime Minister’s approach, which is a kind of fly-in, fly-out diplomacy of insufficient in-depth detailed negotiation and relationship-building with all the parties and their leaders in Northern Ireland, was never going to work. You cannot achieve success in an impasse such as the one we face with this kind of approach. I urge the Government—No. 10 in particular—to reconsider this.

The measures in these Bills should never have had to come to us in the first place. They represent direct rule in all but name. But I do not think we can simply nod them through as a matter of process without addressing some of the implications of the current political impasse. The people of Northern Ireland are left in limbo, facing, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has pointed out so graphically, a serious crisis in the National Health Service, probably worse than in any other part of the UK. Last week I had the privilege to meet a group of remarkable people for whom that limbo is particularly cruel. They were members of the WAVE Trauma Centre’s injured group, and I will briefly recount two of their stories.

Jennifer was 21 in 1972 when she and her sister, who was shopping for a wedding dress, went into a Belfast city centre cafe for a coffee. A no-warning IRA bomb tore both Jennifer’s legs off. Her sister lost both legs and an arm. Noble Lords from Northern Ireland will recall the horror of the Abercorn bomb. Peter was 26 when he was shot by a loyalist gang in 1979 in a case of mistaken identity. Because of the configuration of the flat where Peter lived, the ambulance crew could not manoeuvre a stretcher around the stairs. They brought Peter down in a body bag. His father Herbert arrived at the scene and thought that his son was dead. “Oh my poor Peter” were his last words. He had a heart attack and died as Peter was carried to the ambulance. Peter is paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.

There are many more similarly harrowing stories. It is estimated that around 500 people in Northern Ireland are classified as severely physically injured as a direct result of the Troubles, with injuries that are at the very top of the scale: bilateral amputees, paraplegic, those blinded. All the injuries are life-changing and permanent. Because of their injuries most have been unable to work to build up occupational pensions and today have to survive on benefits. The levels of compensation paid through the adversarial criminal injuries compensation scheme were wholly inadequate and there was no disability discrimination legislation in the early days to protect them. Frankly, these people were not expected to live beyond a few years. But they have and the passage of time has compounded their problems as many suffer increasing physical distress as a result of deteriorating health and chronic pain.

They are campaigning for a special pension of the type that is in place in most other countries that have suffered from conflicts similar to that in Northern Ireland. All they want is some semblance of financial security and independence as they grow into old age in the most difficult circumstances. I find their argument compelling. The pension has been costed by independent consultants at around only £3 million to £5 million per annum—a figure which will reduce year on year as the majority of the severely injured are moving into old age. I appeal to the Government to provide this money now. It is a small amount to rectify a big injustice.

All the Northern Ireland parties are on record as saying that they support the idea of a pension for severely injured people such as those who come to see them and argue their case. But saying they support it is about as far as it has gone because their support for the severely injured is not unconditional. Of the 500 severely injured, there are 10 or so who were injured by their own hand; for example, planting a bomb that exploded prematurely. Of the 10, six are loyalist and four republican. It is no surprise that the DUP and Sinn Féin are split. The DUP says there can be no pension for those injured by their own hand. Sinn Féin insists that they cannot support a pension that excludes them as this would be tantamount to accepting a hierarchy of victims.

The injured group, who are unfairly drawn into this toxic debate, argue that it is not for them to say who should or should not qualify. What they do insist is that it is unjust, unfair and immoral for politicians to say that because they cannot agree about 10 people the other 490 must get nothing. I totally agree with them, and I hope the Minister will respond positively. The injured group, all of whom have been injured through no fault of their own, regard their plight as being as much a part of the legacy of Northern Ireland’s violent past as anything else, and the legacy issues are not devolved entirely. But the Government refuse to accept that they are part of the legacy for which they have responsibility. If the devolved institutions are, for whatever reason, unable to deliver on this—and of course, suspended, they are unable to deliver on this; and tragically, we are unlikely to see those institutions in place for some considerable time—the Government at Westminster surely must step in now, because it would be shameful if the people who have suffered so much through no fault of their own were told that nothing can be done because of political buck-passing.

On 20 February, in the other place, the Secretary of State said that she recognised the Government’s responsibilities to,

“provide better outcomes for victims and survivors—the people who suffered most during the troubles”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/2/18; col. 33.]

I agree, and I appeal to her and to the Minister to act now. They have the power to do so. It is a very small amount; it would not be noticed on the overall allocation for Northern Ireland or, indeed, the Whitehall budget. It would not be noticed at all. I have met men and women in the WAVE trauma group who by any definition have “suffered most”, in the Secretary of State’s phrase. Unless both this Parliament and the Government accept that responsibility and act immediately to provide pensions for these 490 people, it will be to our eternal shame.

Break in Debate

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it has been a fascinating if short debate. It has been a timely one, too, because this is the last occasion we will debate this issue in either House of Parliament before we celebrate or commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday or Belfast agreement in two or three weeks’ time. Looking around the Chamber, I see Members of your Lordships’ House who played a huge part in that agreement. The noble Lords, Lord Maginnis, Lord Trimble, Lord Empey and Lord Bew, and others brought that enormous triumph to fruition just two decades ago. Of course, these three Bills are the result of the institutions which the Good Friday agreement set up collapsing. That is the tragedy and reality of today’s proceedings. We should not have these Bills because there should be a functioning Assembly and a functioning Executive.

With regard to the Bill on the budget, my friend in the other place, who until recently was the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Smith—I deeply regret his departure from that job because he knew a great deal about Northern Ireland and had a lot of experience—as well as my noble friend Lord Hain and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to the pensions of victims of the Troubles. The opportunity for the Government to deal with this matter is before us. I know there is controversy on this point, but if controversy surrounds just 10 victims as opposed to 490 who are not subject to controversy, I see no reason why we cannot park the argument about the 10 and carry on giving compensation to the nearly 500 remaining victims. After all, as my noble friend Lord Hain said in his very moving speech, that number will inevitably reduce as the months and years go by.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to the inquiry under Sir Anthony Hart, and the compensation for victims of historical abuse in Northern Ireland. There seems to be no reason at all why the Government cannot under these powers ensure that compensation is paid to those people who have suffered abuse in the decades gone by.

With regard to the rates, obviously we have to agree with the increase—I put them up myself when I was the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland a long time ago. It is not a very nice thing to do to the people of Northern Ireland but it is essential to ensure that services are maintained. I agree that we should support the Government on that Bill and, indeed, on the RHI issue. I hope that the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, with regard to that matter will be taken up by the Minister in his reply.

With regard to the pay for MLAs, obviously we agree with the Government’s intentions and with the indication in Trevor Reaney’s report that there should be a 27% reduction in their pay. It should not affect their constituency offices or their staff but of course it will be welcomed by public opinion in Northern Ireland. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that we have to take great care that we do not dismiss an entire political class that has arisen over the past 20 years. If we took away their pay completely we might have to start all over again, and I do not think that is a very good idea. In a sense, it is an admission of failure to have to reduce the pay of MLAs. Indeed, when I was Secretary of State for some years, although I reduced the pay of MLAs, I never stopped it. I was criticised for not stopping it but it was important to ensure that the political class that had grown up in Northern Ireland was maintained.

Of course, the answer to all this is the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive. The noble Lords, Lord Lexden and Lord Hay, both talked of the importance of that. I do not underestimate the difficulties in bringing the Assembly and the Executive back. After all, it has to do with trust and confidence on both sides. That is not always easy. Obviously, the sticking point is the Irish language but there are other issues as well. Members of your Lordships’ House who were involved in those negotiations over 20 years ago will remember the issues that we were discussing then—police, the release of prisoners, the issue of consent, the Assembly, the Executive, human rights, equality, criminal justice, the change of the Irish constitution, and so on—but we managed it. It took us a long time to do it but we managed it, so it does not seem a huge issue to be overcome.

I remind your Lordships’ House that in a way these three Bills are drifting towards real direct rule. I do not believe the Government want that. I do not believe that anybody in this Chamber actually wants direct rule. It certainly is not the answer. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, referred to the importance of having local people taking local decisions. Certainly, when I was a direct rule Minister for five years, I did not think I was the right person to be taking decisions on hospitals, schools and roads when I represented a Welsh constituency in the House of Commons. It was not right that I should be doing all those things; nor is it right now that civil servants, for all their effectiveness and knowledge, are taking decisions about the lives of people in Northern Ireland; nor should British Ministers be doing it.

The other problem is that when we have direct rule, politicians become supplicants. They do not take decisions, they ask for things. Sometimes it is easy to have direct rule—not to take the difficult and nasty decisions on closing a hospital or building a school somewhere or whatever it might be. Those are harsh, difficult decisions and sometimes it is easier to be the supplicant rather than the decision-maker.

It will be disastrous in the long term if there is direct rule. I just want to repeat some of the things that the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and my noble friend Lord Hain said about trying to ensure that none of this happens. The involvement of the Prime Minister is vital. As we look back on how we achieved the Good Friday agreement 20 years ago, it was because two Prime Ministers were negotiating these issues day by day and through the night, over a period not of months but of years. Perhaps we need an independent referee. In two weeks’ time Senator Mitchell will be in Belfast commemorating that anniversary—perhaps we need another Senator Mitchell.

It is important that all the parties in Northern Ireland should be involved in transparent talks, not just the two big parties—they are the most important ones, of course, but there are other parties in Northern Ireland and often issues can be raised and challenged in all-party meetings. You would have to involve the Irish Government as far as you could, constitutionally. As the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, touched on, we should not let Brexit distract us from the importance of ensuring that we restore our institutions in Northern Ireland.

The problem is that over two decades people have become a little complacent. They have taken things for granted. They forget what it was like 25 or 30 years ago in Northern Ireland. A whole generation has grown up not knowing the Troubles. You would have to be in your 40s in Northern Ireland to understand what it was like before we signed the Good Friday agreement, and then you were only a child.

I return finally to the fact that we are commemorating that agreement signed 20 years ago, which should be the spur to local politicians, the Government, the Irish Government and all of us in Parliament to ensure that we restore those institutions as quickly as we possibly can.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, this has been a very wide-ranging discussion, as it always is when we confront the serious issues we encounter in Northern Ireland. I am struck by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, who spoke of the Belfast city deal and the Derry/Longdonderry city deal. Would it not be great if that was all we were talking about today: the UK Government’s contribution to a deal determined by an Executive in Northern Ireland which was about jobs, growth, employment and prospects? Would that not be something that we could celebrate?

However, we are not doing that, and more is the pity. I do not detect any dispute among noble Lords today that we must take forward these three Bills. I recognise that we are doing so in an expedited manner, and for that I apologise on behalf of the Government, but that is what we must do today. I am conscious that a number of the issues that have been raised today are about future spend, and it is important to stress that the Bills before us here today are, in effect, about regularising the 2017-18 spend, the spend that we are currently engaged in delivering. A separate Bill will be brought before another place and this House with regard to specific provisions of future spend inside Northern Ireland. That will be an opportunity again to touch upon a number of these issues as we go forward.

Before I delve into the budget itself, it is important to talk a little about future talks and the future status as a number of noble Lords have raised those matters—I thank the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for doing so. We are in a period of reflection. That is sometimes used euphemistically, but it means to look inside and ask yourself what is going on and what should be going on. This period will be short, I hope. It is also important to stress that during the talks progress was made. We did not get to the other side of the chasm, but we made substantial progress, and it is on that basis that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland continues to emphasise that she is of the view that we will find the means of bringing about an agreement upon which we can build and which will, I hope, supersede all that we do here today.

As we consider the various elements that might help us move forward—the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, has raised a number of these points—we welcome Senator George Mitchell to our shores. We pay tribute to the service he rendered our country in helping bring about that agreement in the past. As I have said on more than one occasion, we are not ruling out an independent referee, to use that term. If I may be frank, I would welcome noble Lords’ thoughts in that regard. Nothing can be ruled out. We need to be conscious of that.

It is important for me to emphasise that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been very active in this regard, and I do not doubt that she will continue to be active. Indeed, as we mark and celebrate the Belfast agreement—the Good Friday agreement—the Prime Minister will be in Belfast taking part in those celebrations, marking that important moment and meeting participants at that time.

The core point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, was the notion of what model we can look at to see this afresh. Part of the challenge for anyone who listened to or read of the outcomes of the two recent conferences of the two principal parties in Northern Ireland is that it is clear that there is no alternative model ready to be pulled off the shelf. I am sad to say that, but it is a simple statement of fact. If there was, I believe we would have done so already. That does not mean that it cannot be found, but it certainly means that we have not yet found it. It is sad, but I must reflect upon that point.

If I may touch upon the Bills themselves, I am struck again by some of the very useful remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey—they always are useful. I will not go into the details of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, which I suspect are well known in our House, but it remains our overriding priority to see devolution restored—I cannot, frankly, say that often enough—so that a new Executive can take decisions on a range of strategic issues and respond directly to Sir Anthony’s report. For anyone who has read it and recognised what it contains, it makes challenging reading. Of that there is no doubt. The courage and dignity of those who have taken part in that particular inquiry are to be commended. I acknowledge the frustration so many feel about the lack of progress, particularly in the absence of an Executive to consider that particular report. But I welcome the preparatory work being taken forward by the Executive office to enable action to be taken swiftly once an Executive is restored.

As to the matter of the wider question of legacy, we do have a very clear duty to survivors and victims to bring forward proposals to address the legacy of the past. There is broad agreement among victims and survivors that the legacy institutions, as they are currently set up, are not working. That is a sad admission in itself. We continue to seek the implementation of the legacy institutions in the Stormont House agreement as the best way to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors. We believe that the institutions have the potential to provide better outcomes. We believe that very strongly. The proposed Stormont House legacy institutions would be under legal obligation to be balanced, proportionate, transparent, fair and equitable. The next phase is to consult publicly on the details of how the new institutions will work in practice. A public consultation will provide everyone with an interest the opportunity to see the proposed way forward and contribute to the discussion on the issues. The Government want to begin that consultation soon with the aim of building support and confidence in the new legacy institutions from across the community. We are obliged to move forward so that the victims and survivors are able to see progress—not just hope that it will occur in due course. We continue to support reforms of the legacy inquest system to provide the best way to address this. We are also committed to provide £150 million—

Baroness Harris of Richmond Portrait Baroness Harris of Richmond (LD)
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Could the Minister give us some indication about how long the consultation process will be?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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That was a question I did not anticipate. I thought you might ask when it would begin, but not how long it would be. On that basis, I will write to the noble Baroness with the specific duration, as I do not have that information to hand.

If I may turn my attention to the harrowing remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who opened the debate today. There are complex issues. A number of noble Lords have touched upon this. I have in front of me a very clear statement of the Government’s position, which I will read out. We will work to seek an acceptable way forward on the proposal for a pension for severely physically injured victims for a restored Executive to take forward. I hope a new Executive might bring forward a pension proposal that has the support of and meets the need of victims and survivors in Northern Ireland. I know that does not respond adequately to the points he raised in his remarks. If he will forgive me, might I suggest we meet after this point to discuss this further? That would be useful and important.

Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain
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I am grateful to the Minister for his positive response. May I ask him to reflect before we meet—and I am grateful for that invitation—on the fact that we do not know how long it will take to restore the Executive? This Government and this Parliament have responsibility ultimately for legacy matters. There is no reason why the small cost could not be proceeded to at least rectify one injustice while the wider question of the legacy issues is addressed.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I thank the noble Lord for that point. Yes, I will reflect before we meet, and I hope we can meet soon.

If I may touch upon some of the wider issues raised, a number of noble Lords made the point about the question of particular meetings taking place without minutes being taken and so on. I thought I had better seek guidance from the wise people in the Box. They have come back simply saying it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the actions of the Northern Ireland Civil Service nor the ongoing public inquiry. What I can say in my own personal capacity is that minutes matter and should be taken.

I am conscious that a number of points were raised about the RHI question. There is an inquiry exploring how the scheme itself was constructed and put together, and I invite all noble Lords who contributed today to take the opportunity to make their points very clearly to that inquiry. I am aware, however, that the Bill before us today has a very specific purpose, which is to allow an extension of one year only to the current arrangements with a sunset clause. I am conscious that a number of individuals will be concerned about this initiative, and we need to find a way to bring some comfort to them as they contemplate what that will mean. I hope there will be a welcome outcome. I have specific notes here saying that there will be a 12-week consultation period—helpfully, this time I have the exact duration—between April and June, when these views can be put. We are working against the deadline of 31 March for the longer-term solution. There is a recognition that there needs to be a longer-term solution to address these aspects.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, described himself as blunt. I think we can all endorse that view. The points that he made are none the less important. Specifically, he questioned how the Northern Ireland scheme compares to the scheme in the rest of the UK. If he will forgive me, I will write to him on that point so that we can set out in greater detail how the two schemes measure against each other. There are a number of technical aspects that I hope will be able to be addressed in that letter.

I emphasise again that the purpose of moving this forward for one year is not to enshrine this approach for ever but rather to provide an opportunity for the incoming Executive to focus quickly and carefully on what I believe are a number of the well-established flaws in this approach and to address them head-on. We have, I hope, time in which we can do that, and the notion that we are creating primary legislation in this instance should be no impediment to that because of the manner in which the Bills themselves are drafted. I hope that will help the noble Lord to address this.

I am aware that on more than one occasion the noble Lord has raised the point about the wisdom that is contained within this House. I too am grateful for that, even during today’s debate. I believe that, as the talks and discussions are ongoing, that wisdom should be drawn upon. I welcome again the meeting that took place between my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and some of your Lordships earlier today. I would like to see that happen with greater frequency so that we can ensure that, as the ideas begin to coalesce and crystallise, the views in this House are taken forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, raised the issue of how we can understand the breakdown of the data. After the last time when we spoke on this matter, I am aware that I promised to give him that breakdown of the data but I fear that I may not have done so as yet. The noble Lord is right: it is important that we not only understand what we are doing at the moment but see it as part of a longer trend so that we understand exactly what is happening in Northern Ireland and interrogate the data where there appear to be things that on the surface do not look as if they are comparable with anywhere else. I would much rather see the five-year rolling cycle of data that can be fully interrogated. I commit again to breaking down the data with regard to the educational question, and I hope to be able to give some greater clarification in that regard.

As to the notion of the Commonwealth games, I am happy to give a personal commitment on that matter. I would like to think that the Government would join me in that commitment; that is an initiative that would be well worth taking forward.

I am conscious that the noble Lord, Lord Browne, raised an interesting point regarding the continuity of the business rate support scheme. Helpfully, the little note that I got back from the Box simply contained the word “Yes”, so I believe that that particular scheme will indeed be continuing. If the noble Lord requires further details, I can provide them as well.

I shall touch on some of the matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. I am aware that we have squeezed this debate into a very short time, and for that I apologise. I would much prefer a Northern Ireland Executive to take as long as they felt they needed to interrogate all this. I would much prefer that Executive to be dealing with it because they are living it, rather than sitting on burgundy Benches, but we are not quite there yet. I hope I have addressed the issues about the minutes to the noble Lord’s satisfaction—or as best I can. I am aware of the concern he raised about the heating initiative and I hope we can make some progress to give certainty there.

As for the wider questions of legacy, support for victims and so on, the noble Lord is absolutely correct: this needs to be above politics. It is humanitarian; it is not and should not be a matter for partisan division, and I hope we can take it forward on that basis. Progress will need to be made on that sooner rather than later.

My noble friend Lord Lexden raised an important issue about mental health. I can confirm that there will be £10 million in the budgetary cycle of 2018-19 to address those specific and serious issues, which I believe will be necessary.

Commenting on the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, we too, on this side, regret the departure of Owen Smith. He was an asset to the ongoing discussion and leaves behind a void. I am sorry to see that.

In conclusion, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, pointed out that he was not the right person to take forward direct rule in Northern Ireland. Nor am I. I am no better equipped—frankly, far less equipped—than he is.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass
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Before the Minister sits down, I draw his attention to one thing that he and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said: perhaps it would be a good idea to have a second-generation George Mitchell. We do not want another George Mitchell. Much as we loved him, much as we worked under him and much as we sought to achieve an agreement, that agreement was voted on north and south. I have nothing more to concede as an Ulster Unionist, and I hope noble Lords will remember that.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, who makes his point clear, as always. I understand exactly what he is saying.

On that basis, I hope your Lordships will accept that this is not what we want to do, it is not how we want to do it and it is not when we want to do it, but it is what we must do.

Lord Empey Portrait Lord Empey
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Before the noble Lord sits down, I ask him to reflect on the Judge Hart inquiry. If I picked up him correctly, he indicated that this would await the return of an Executive. I point out to him that every solitary MLA I am aware of supports the implementation of that inquiry. Other parties represented here can say no if they disagree. Every party supports it. Some of the material in the report is very harrowing. One lady started off in the system at four years old. She is now 87. How much more do we have to put these people through? I therefore ask the Minister to discuss with his colleagues and reflect on that.

Secondly, on the RHI scheme, although I appreciate that this is a renewal, it was originally based on no substantive information. I suggest that the Minister again consult his colleagues and ensure that a proper working party is established to alleviate this, because people are losing their livelihoods as a result of this botched scheme.

Lord Morrow Portrait Lord Hay of Ballyore
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Just before the Minister gets to his feet, I should like to say that I broadly agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said. There is no doubt that all the political parties in Northern Ireland want this issue resolved. The issue I raised earlier was that the institutions that carried out the abuse should be made to pay for some of that abuse and repent for all of it. I do not think there is an issue in resolving this, but it would be totally wrong if only taxpayers’ money was used to resolve it.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I thank both noble Lords for their interventions, and I will reflect on them.

As to the RHI scheme, there will be an opportunity to feed in about past failings. The key thing now is to ensure that its future workability is also examined in some detail. These are matters on which I hope we can move forward on that basis. Therefore, I beg to move.

Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time, and passed.