Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill

21st March 2018

Shailesh Vara responds to the Second Reading of a Bill necessary to safeguard public services in Northern Ireland in the absence of a restored Northern Ireland Executive.

It is a great pleasure to follow the moving words of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound). I thank all those who have contributed today from across the political divide. It is particularly good that we all broadly agree about the way forward for this Bill. In bringing it forward, alongside the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill, which the House considered yesterday, we will be providing support for public services and finances in Northern Ireland.

The Bills deal solely with matters that are rightly the responsibility of the Executive and the Assembly and I very much hope that they will be dealt with at a devolved level and in a devolved Assembly in future, as that remains our overriding priority—one shared, I know, by Members across the House. In the absence, however, of an Executive and sitting Assembly, it falls to the UK Government to bring forward necessary measures, such as those in the Bill.

Setting the regional rates will give certainty to citizens and businesses over the level and frequency of their bills and to the Northern Ireland Departments that rely on the revenue from those rates. The extension of the cost-capping regulations for the Northern Ireland renewable heat incentive scheme will protect the public purse in a way that fairly upholds the interests of those receiving payments under the scheme. It is important that we take action now to address those issues.

I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), who opened on behalf of the Opposition. I felt that some of the points he raised were dealt with by the Secretary of State. I am also grateful for the comments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). The comments made by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) were very much appreciated, as were those made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley).

I thank the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) for her moving and passionate speech, which certainly had the attention of all the House—I do not mean that the House was not listening to everyone else, but it listened more attentively to the hon. Lady. I also thank the hon. Members for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The Secretary of State and I are both particularly grateful for the kind comments that the hon. Member for Strangford extended in our direction.

I will try to cover some of the questions raised, but I am mindful that brevity is the order of the day and of this particular debate. The measures being taken are necessary and proportionate to safeguard public finances and public services in Northern Ireland. The decision to raise the rate was not taken lightly. The Secretary of State took account of the budgetary scenarios outlined by the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland and spoke to the parties and to stakeholders. It was clear that, to enable Northern Ireland to live within its means while safeguarding growth and addressing pressures in key areas such as health and education, the right course was to ask households to pay slightly more—in this case, less than £1 per week per household. The levels outlined in the Secretary of State’s statement on 8 March strike that balance and offer a necessary, fair and reasonable position on regional rates.

In the absence of an Executive and sitting Assembly, the measures in the Bill will help to safeguard public finances and services in Northern Ireland. I propose that the Bill be read a Second time.

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