Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office

Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Bill

Colum Eastwood Excerpts
2nd reading
Monday 10th July 2023

(1 year ago)

Commons Chamber
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Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
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Members will be aware of my keen interest in all things the Union. In truth, I had intended not to speak but to come, listen and learn from colleagues from across the House who in many ways are much more closely attached to these issues than me.

I will start, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did, by thanking all those concerned for the amount of time and effort they have put into resolving these issues. They are tricky issues that have vexed minds finer than my own for many years in many different ways. In particular, in recent months I have noticed how much effort the Government have put into trying to resolve things. The Secretary of State has taken a very close personal interest in these matters, as has the Prime Minister through the efforts on the Windsor framework. I recognise and acknowledge that, as well as the involvement and effort of Opposition Members in the negotiations and ongoing discussions.

I want to tiptoe carefully into this debate by asking some questions around the context, in particular picking up on a couple of comments the Secretary of State made from the Dispatch Box. On the introduction of the Barnett formula to the discussion, while I understand the potential attraction of that kind of settlement, from a Welsh perspective I urge caution. I would not by any means describe the Barnett formula as a settled matter in Wales. I would urge caution about a move to a needs-based formula. In Wales, we have an economy—I say that word almost in quotation marks—that is largely public sector dominated. It is not a functioning economy in the way that we might think is vital, with the role of the private sector in driving, growing and sustaining the wider community, so the provisions are questionable.

The first point I want to speak to relates to institutions. The Secretary of State mentioned good governance and, several times, made points about the democratically elected representatives in Northern Ireland. That is really important, because we have elected Members in Northern Ireland, both in this place and in Stormont. As I understand it—I am happy to be corrected by any Member here—those Members have acted within the rules of that institution. The fact that Stormont is not sitting is a technique that has been used by others in previous years. It is not new; it is not original. It is a function of the arrangements we have in place.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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My grandmother once told me that two wrongs do not make a right. Is the hon. Gentleman making the argument that just because Sinn Féin brought the Executive down for three and a half years, it is okay for the Democratic Unionist party to do the same?

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar
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I am not sure how the hon. Gentleman got there from what I said, but that is not where I am going. That is absolutely not where I am going. I simply made the observation that they had done it and that others were doing it, and that validated the existence of a mechanism in place which people have used. That is all I said.

The point I would make, though, is that if there is a democratically elected body and the mechanisms within that institution are being used, how is that not upholding the institution in place? If that is the case—the function of the institution and the rules that underpin it are being upheld—what is the good governance that the Secretary of State is seeking? Is he seeking something else? Is he seeking something outside the rules that are in place to uphold that institution?

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Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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I think we are really through the looking-glass now. It is great to hear real unity from those on these Benches about the problems that exist in Northern Ireland’s public sector and the budgetary difficulties that we have. It would be a lot better if members of our political parties were saying it in a different Chamber that has responsibility for bringing in budgets for the Departments of Northern Ireland, for dealing with the health service, the education system, the police service and all those other areas of public policy that we need to deal with as a matter of urgency—but I will let that one hang.

It is interesting to listen to the Secretary of State, because he has let the cat out of the bag. It is absolutely clear that this Budget is a tactic to put pressure on the DUP, but actually he has swung, missed the DUP and instead hit the most vulnerable people in our society. Is it the responsibility of a child with special educational needs and disabilities in a school to get the DUP to go back to work? Is it the responsibility of an elderly patient waiting for a hip replacement—remember, one in four people in Northern Ireland are on hospital waiting lists—to get the Executive back up and running in Northern Ireland? No, it is not. This is a callous, cack-handed attempt at political positioning and it clearly is not working.

Not that long ago, I brought the Secretary of State to watch a football match in Derry. We did not get to watch the whole match because it was interrupted by a bomb scare, but he listened to me—he had no choice, because he was sitting right beside me for most of the match—talking about the difficulties in the city and the need for proper investment in drug and alcohol recovery. He was sitting in the Ryan McBride Brandywell stadium. Ryan McBride was a wonderful captain of Derry City who sadly died far too young. There is a foundation in his name—the Ryan McBride Foundation—which does fantastic cross-community work with schoolkids in all types of schools right across Derry and Strabane, but it has had its funding to deliver those projects cut.

We are nearly at the point where the Ryan McBride Foundation will not be able to exist if it does not get replacement funding. That is one thing that has resulted from cuts being made to our budgets. The Foyle cup will see thousands of young people coming to Derry next week to play football—people from all around the world—but it is now under pressure because of cuts from these decisions.

We are actually talking about cutting funding for university places. We should be trying to expand university places in Northern Ireland. I hear from the Secretary of State and everybody else that skills are the No. 1 issue for turning the economy around, but we are talking about cutting away at that as well. We are cutting Invest Northern Ireland—the people who are tasked with bringing jobs to regions of Northern Ireland.

Others, including the shadow Secretary of State, talked eloquently about the issues in our Education Department. We have cut the holiday hunger payment for the most vulnerable kids in our society—that is what we are doing. It is absolutely shameful. A number of weeks ago, I went to see Bunscoil Cholmcille, a school in my constituency. It is a great Irish-medium primary school. Those kids are being taught in huts with holes in the walls and damp in the cupboards—the place is falling apart. It will have its 40th anniversary next year. It is a wonderful school doing great work in our community, but we are teaching kids in huts that are falling apart, and rain is getting through the roof. We cannot even pay our teachers or classroom assistants the wages that they should be entitled to.

We have already talked about the massive issues in the PSNI, and although we are told that there is £32 million extra for it, there is a massive hole in that budget. A police officer was nearly killed a number of months ago because people in Northern Ireland are trying to kill police officers, and they would if they could get away with it. And we are telling them: “You have to find cuts in that budget as well.” The implementation of the domestic abuse, stalking and people-trafficking legislation cannot get done because of a lack of funding.

Our community sector is being absolutely decimated. Community groups, particularly in the most difficult and disadvantaged areas of Northern Ireland, have stepped into the void during decades of difficult times. They are stepping into the void where Departments are not dealing with the issues that they have to deal with, but we are going to decimate those groups as well.

We have talked about health. I hear all the time about transformation in health and the waiting lists that we have. We cannot do anything about those if we do not put money in up front. Yes, we absolutely have to take tough decisions, but health needs to be properly funded and resourced so that we can do that.

All the while, there is €500 million in the shared island unit to fund projects in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government are investing in Northern Ireland. Only two or three weeks ago, I was able to secure £38 million to expand the university at Magee in Derry. We have seen support from the Irish Government for the Narrow Water bridge. And lo and behold, the Department of Health in Dublin is funding 250 nursing and midwifery places at a cost of €10 million. That is only the start of the investment that the Irish Government are making in Northern Ireland.

Maybe we need to think about that. We do not even sit in Dáil Éireann and we are able to bring that kind of money into our communities in Northern Ireland. Imagine the impact that we would have if 20% of Teachtaí Dála in Dáil Éireann came from Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] I think some people sitting not too far away from me have done an awful lot for the cause of Irish unity, and I am very grateful to them for it.

We hear a lot about the Barnett formula, and it is useful that we discuss how the funding envelope is decided, but it is maybe also worth considering why we need so much underpinning from the British Government. Has the economic unit of Northern Ireland ever really worked to its full potential? I would argue that it has not. I think that is a discussion we will have in the coming years, and I look forward to having it in a respectful manner.

If the Secretary of State is serious about getting the DUP to go back to work in Stormont, I will be with him in that endeavour, but it is long past time that a time limit was put on this nonsense. Have the discussions, have the debates, work with the Government—I am all for all of that—but we need to be back in government, dealing with the people’s problems and the people’s concerns. If that does not happen, we cannot have this kind of direct rule by the back door, because the next step in that—people should listen to this—has to be greater involvement of the Irish Government in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

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Steve Baker Portrait Mr Baker
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The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I shall come on to it in a moment, but I want there to be no mistake about this, either: as far as I can see from my vantage point, there is a pretty close correlation between poverty and paramilitarism in Northern Ireland. Leaving a primary school surrounded by razor wire in Shankill, I was struck by some of the murals I saw in that housing estate, commemorating and celebrating people who ought not to be celebrated. If I go to other areas of Belfast and elsewhere, there will be murals celebrating the other side.

It is time for Northern Ireland to be moving on. It is time to lift people out of poverty so that they have a better hope than the commemoration of a past that should never have taken place. No more looking back to a past that never was; it is time to look forward to a better future, founded on prosperity and sound public finances. Call me old school, Mr Speaker, but I like a balanced budget. Let us move forward.

Capital investment for a safe return from investors around the world, the rule of law, good government—the conditions are set. We have an entrepreneurial population, great skills, comparative advantage in financial services, cyber-security, advanced manufacturing and more. Crucially, we also have an institutional arrangement that, if people would only see it, is unique in all of the world: access to the UK as of right and to the EU as a privilege, UK services law and access to the UK’s free trade agreements. That is a unique set of institutional arrangements to promote Northern Ireland’s prosperity for the long run and deliver just the transformation that is needed.

It is true, as hon. Members have indicated in relation to the Windsor framework, that that comes at the price of a difficult compromise, with some EU law still in place. I confess it is a difficult compromise for me, as I have said in the past. However, we have to choose from available futures. At the moment, Northern Ireland’s future looks bleak indeed unless we get behind the reforms that are needed to balance the budget for the long run. I believe that if we do that, if we come together in unity for our good purposes for Northern Ireland, we can achieve great things.

On the quantum that is available, the hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) seem to be united in the idea that the budget is some sort of punishment. The hon. Member for Foyle suggested it was a tactic. I say to him that that is categorically not true. This spending envelope is the spending envelope that the Northern Ireland Executive would have faced had they not collapsed. It is not the case that we would be punishing people in the way that has been set out. To listen to the debate—

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood
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Will the Minister give way?

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Baker
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I will, as I referred to the hon. Gentleman.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood
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It was not me who suggested that that was a tactic. The Secretary of State outlined the tactic in his own speech: he said that the next stages of the Bill will not be introduced until after the summer, and that that would give us all time to work together to get to government. It is clearly a tactic, although it is not going to work as a tactic. There are better tactics in my view, and I have laid some of them out to the Minister before, but it is a bit disingenuous to pretend that this is anything but a pressure point for the DUP that is clearly not working.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Baker
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I say to the hon. Gentleman that the simple fact is that the reason we are not doing all stages today is that summer recess approaches and we would trigger the Parliament Act inadvertently—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State does not accept that this is a tactic. The reality is, as we have said, that this is the spending envelope that would have been faced by a returning Executive.

I have to say that, listening to the debate, one would think that the spending envelope in Northern Ireland was at the discretion of my right hon. Friend, but of course, as Members know, nothing could be further from the truth. Long, dreary documents on how spending works are available for the public to read. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) knows very well the documents to which I refer—I have given them a go. These things are fixed by our right hon. and hon. Friends in the Treasury; it is not at the discretion of me and my right hon. Friend to decide how much is spent. This is the envelope that the Executive would have faced.

The hon. Member for Foyle mentioned the shared island initiative, but that large sum of money was agreed, I believe, through the North South Ministerial Council and comes with a number of caveats. However, he reminds me that there are a number of super-tankers at sea here that have evolved through a number of political agreements. I think that we all need to be working with a restored Executive to rationalise how that spending goes forward. That can be done only with a restored Executive.

A review for the Barnett formula was touched on. My right hon. Friend said earlier that we recognise that introducing a needs-based factor in the application of the Barnett formula for Northern Ireland according to a mechanism similar to that implemented in Wales is an option that could be considered to put Northern Ireland’s public finances on a sustainable footing. However, it took a number of years for the Welsh Government and the Treasury to agree a formula, and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) wisely cautioned us that that matter is not settled. He also cautioned us about the dominance of the public sector. That is why I am so firm that Northern Ireland must be founded on a revitalisation of its vibrant private sector.

Let me turn to the funding premium and the comparison between the percentage of funding for Northern Ireland and the equivalent spending for the rest of the UK. Let me be really clear because, in listening to the debate, one could misunderstand the position. Funding for Northern Ireland will increase from 20% to 25% extra in 2024-25. Insofar as that funding premium is forecast to fall below 20%, it is by the early 2030s but not immediately.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for mentioning revenue-raising measures. We will have full advice by the end of this month. He referred to the remarks made by the permanent secretary at the Department of Education. We are very well aware that, to live with its budget, the Department of Education has already taken significant steps to reduce expenditure. I am aware that, despite that, there is a funding gap. Our Department continues to engage with the Department of Education and the Department of Finance to address that. A previous political agreement such as NDNA recognised the structural inefficiencies in Northern Ireland’s educational system, about which Members may perhaps see that I feel passionately, and recommended a review to address them with reform. I welcome the recent completion of the review into special educational needs provision, and I look forward to the outcome of the review of education provision for 14 to 19-year-olds.

There has been a great deal of interest in the particular details of per-pupil funding. I propose to write to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) in detail on education funding. I shall place a copy of that letter in the Library for all Members who have expressed an interest.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) in particular raised section 75 duties and whether they are carried out by us and so on. As the ones taking the decisions, Northern Ireland Departments completed indicative section 75 assessments that were considered by the Secretary of State when he set the overall budget allocations. In light of those budget totals, Departments are now completing final assessments.