Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill

20th March 2018

Shailesh Vara responds to the Second Reading debate of that enables decisions to be made on the Northern Ireland budget for 2018-19 in the absence of a restored Northern Ireland Executive.

May I say what a pleasure it is to be in this debate this afternoon, Mr Deputy Speaker? I thank right hon. and hon. Members across the House for their contributions. In particular, I thank the Opposition Front Benchers for their support for these necessary steps to safeguard public finances, public services and public confidence in Northern Ireland in the continued absence of devolved Government. In bringing forward the Bill, we are taking an administrative but hugely important step to formalise spending totals for the previous year. Given the largely technical nature of what is proposed, I intend to be brief while also responding to some detailed points that have been raised.

In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) made several points, many of which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State responded to. There has been some confusion about the purpose of the Bill, and I hope the hon. Gentleman takes comfort from the fact, and will appreciate, that the issue of victims’ pensions is one for a devolved Assembly.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) raised a number of points. Although the Secretary of State will reply to him in detail regarding the specific questions he raised, I just say that as far as schedule 3 is concerned, this is cash to be drawn down from the Consolidated Fund to pay for revenue and capital investment, while schedule 4 is for the use of resources only. It excludes capital but it includes non-cash items, such as depreciation costs.

We covered the Hart inquiry extensively. Other Members spoke about that as well, but my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire will appreciate that no recommendations were made by the devolved Assembly before it collapsed. That was something that my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), the former Secretary of State, was able to confirm.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire also spoke about the costs of the border to the Northern Ireland Administration. I emphasise that this budget Bill deals with the 2017-18 budget. Detailed spending decisions, including any allocations required for Brexit costs, remain for the Northern Ireland Administration to take. The Secretary of State’s written ministerial statement from 8 March on the budget set out departmental allocations for the years 2018-19 only. The decisions that underpin those are for the Northern Ireland civil service in the absence of an Executive.

May I clarify one particular point? In response to a question following last week’s statement, the Secretary of State said she would write to the “permanent secretaries”. In actual fact, she meant the “permanent secretary”, and she is more than happy to provide a copy of the letter to my hon. Friend. I hope that that has clarified the issue.

The Minister will undoubtedly be aware that last week—I am sure it was last week—the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, David Sterling, gave evidence under oath to the renewable heat incentive inquiry. He explained—I have no reason to doubt what he said—that in the past some Ministers had instructed officials and civil servants not to take minutes of meetings and decisions about expenditure to avoid freedom of information requests. Since permanent secretaries are now to be given budgets and to be making decisions about expenditure, will the Minister confirm for our benefit and that of the people of Northern Ireland that that policy is no longer in place and that permanent secretaries are indeed keeping minutes of all meetings and decisions relating to the budget?

I hope that the hon. Lady will appreciate that this is an ongoing inquiry and that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on it.

With the greatest of respect to the Minister, for whom I have enormous regard, this has nothing to do with the RHI inquiry. I am not asking about the inquiry, which his ongoing, as he rightly says; this is a separate issue. In evidence to the inquiry, the head of the civil service in Northern Ireland, David Sterling, confirmed that Ministers—I understood him to mean Sinn Féin and DUP Ministers—had instructed civil servants not to keep minutes of meetings to avoid freedom of information requests. [Interruption.] I am pleased to see that there is some head shaking from DUP Members. Will the Minister confirm that all permanent secretaries, who are now running Northern Ireland Departments, have instructed civil servants to keep minutes of all meetings and decisions recorded afterwards?

I hope that the hon. Lady will appreciate that there are no Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It would be for them to give instructions to permanent secretaries, not Ministers in Westminster, so I cannot give her the assurance she seeks. It is a devolved matter.

I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). She spoke of the delay in the Bill coming forward. I hope that she will appreciate that we were very keen to get the devolved Assembly up and running again—only recently there were intensive talks to try and progress matters—and that we therefore left this to the last minute. We had hoped not to have to take the decisions we are taking today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) raised several issues. The Secretary of State’s budget statement on 8 March gives financial clarity to Northern Ireland Departments and reflects the feedback from the Northern Ireland civil service budget consultation and advice from the Northern Ireland civil service on where key pressures lay, such as health and education. It is a balanced budget that provides a secure basis for protecting and preserving public services.

My hon. Friend also mentioned city deals. She will be aware that work is ongoing on these deals. Councils, the Northern Ireland civil service, the Northern Ireland Office, the Department for Communities and Local Government and Her Majesty’s Treasury are all involved in charting the way forward, but she and the House will appreciate that we need the devolved Assembly, because it has a huge contribution to make to progressing those city deals.

My hon. Friend referred to the apprenticeship levy. The Northern Ireland Administration have been allocated their share of the apprenticeship levy, so it is available to the Northern Ireland civil service for allocating. In line with the devolution settlement, however, it is not for the UK Government to dictate how Northern Ireland’s share is spent. Apprenticeships are a devolved matter. That is another issue that highlights the need for a devolved Assembly to be up and running.

The right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) spoke in his customary manner and with his customary passion. It was good that he helped to clarify the purpose of the Bill, given that there has been some misunderstanding among Members. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) also made a passionate speech, which he normally delivers. He spoke of the way forward for the devolved Assembly from his own perspective, but also recognised the need for crucial decisions to be made, as, indeed, we are making them today.

The hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) spoke of her personal experience, and it was certainly beneficial to the House to hear that. She, too, spoke of the need for decisions to be made and gave the example of the special needs sector in education. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan), again, spoke of the lack of decisions, giving examples relating to education and health. He also highlighted the additional funds from the confidence and supply agreement, and it is important to remember that those will benefit all the people of Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reinforced the need for decisions to be made.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) asked two specific questions, about golf tourism and the youth Commonwealth games. I appreciate the vital importance of golf tourism to the economy, as, I think, does the House, but I am going to give him the answer that he does not want: that, along with the youth Commonwealth games, is a matter for the devolved Assembly, which is another reason why it is so important to try to get the Assembly up and running.

I wholeheartedly agree that, yes, in the best case in the world that is a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly, but let us have a reality check. The Northern Ireland Assembly has gone for now. We would love to have it back, but the Minister needs to start preparing an emergency plan that will give certainty about the funding of events in the future. That does not detract from our desire to see the Assembly restored as soon as possible. I just hope that the Minister will take this message to his officials. I hope that he will say to them, “Please give certainty to these organisations in relation to sport and our games bids.”

I take on board what the hon. Gentleman has said, but he will appreciate that, as I pointed out at the beginning of my speech, the Bill is technical and specific. I hope he will forgive me if I stick to the terms of the Bill, but I hear loud and clear what he has said.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) spoke of the coffee business in his constituency. I hope that he will be pleased to know that last Thursday I was at Borough market in London supporting some 14 Northern Ireland businesses dealing with food and drink. They all seemed to be doing very well and to have made contacts with traders here who are happy to take goods from them in the future and sell them in London. That was a very productive event, and I greatly enjoyed it.

The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) asked a specific question about the Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999. Article 4(3) provides that decisions may be made by senior officials. Permanent secretaries consider legal authority for decisions every day in line with legislation. It is a technical issue, but I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some comfort.

The Minister is right to refer to paragraph (3) rather than paragraph (4); I misdirected him earlier.

Of course legislative opinion may be sought, but does the Minister not believe, having reflected on that provision, that it fundamentally undermines the blanket stance that no decisions can be made until Ministers are appointed? There is more flexibility in that legislation than is suggested by the current political atmosphere and the discussions that are taking place in Northern Ireland. Given that it is there, we should use it.

The hon. Gentleman is a distinguished lawyer and will therefore appreciate that, given the context in which we are speaking, I would prefer, speaking as one lawyer to another, to read that paragraph a wider context before making any further commitments to it, and he will appreciate that I am not in a position to make that comment now. I hope that he will be content with that; I think the smile on his face says that he knows he is trying his luck there. [Interruption.] Trying his luck in terms of pushing me further than perhaps I ought to go.

I reiterate the point made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the Bill does not set out in law the allocations outlined in her written statement of 8 March. That will be done in the summer through a budget Bill—I hope, by a restored Executive— following on from the equivalent estimates process for UK Departments. This Bill confirms departmental allocations for 2017-18, reflecting final spending totals and revised allocations during the year. It also provides a pro forma authorisation for spending in the early months of the next financial year in anticipation of the budget Bill. To be clear, this is all money that is either locally raised or has been previously subject to a vote in Parliament. This is simply about formalising reallocations of funding during the year in Northern Ireland Departments to meet key pressures.

As for providing authorisation for spending in 2018-19 without formal departmental totals, I can reassure colleagues that this is exactly in line with usual processes. Last year, Northern Ireland permanent secretaries were forced to rely on emergency powers under section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in the absence of legal authority through an Act of this kind to spend money. I hope colleagues will agree that it will not be acceptable to invite the same uncertainty.

The issue of scrutiny and accountability was raised, and of course it is important to appreciate that that is there. The measures before us relate to the formalising of allocations for the previous financial year. As the former Secretary of State my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup put it, arrangements are in place to allow the reports of the Northern Ireland Audit Office and Northern Ireland departmental responses to be placed in the Libraries of both Houses when they concern audit or value for money issues. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State placed the first two departmental responses to NIAO reports in the Libraries to fulfil that commitment, and we stand ready to continue that process over the coming months. We shall reflect on whether any further scrutiny arrangements are merited to enable appropriate oversight of the use of public money.

We would very much have preferred these budgetary steps today to have been taken by a restored Executive and we waited for as long as possible for that to happen, but in the absence of an Executive, this Bill is required to give much-needed certainty for the Northern Ireland civil service as it safeguards public services for the people of Northern Ireland. That is why it is so important that the Bill be passed on Second Reading today.

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