All 1 Lord Murphy of Torfaen contributions to the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2023

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Tue 7th Feb 2023
Northern Ireland Budget Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading: Part 2 & Committee negatived: Part 2 & 3rd reading: Part 2

Northern Ireland Budget Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office

Northern Ireland Budget Bill

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Excerpts
2nd reading & Committee negatived & 3rd reading
Tuesday 7th February 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Northern Ireland Budget Act 2023 Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 23 January 2023 - (23 Jan 2023)
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it has been a long night and a difficult debate on difficult issues. I begin by wishing the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who is not in his place, and his family all the very best in the weeks ahead. He is a very old friend: I have known him for 27 years. I hope all goes reasonably well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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