Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill

Published date : 10 May, 2023
Let me say at the outset that I wish we were not here once again discussing this issue, but we all know exactly why we are. For the purposes of form, I will say once again that my firm belief is that Northern Ireland is best governed when it is governed locally, and the best place for MLAs to be is in Stormont, getting on with what the people of Northern Ireland would expect them to be getting on with: the job they were elected to do.

The Bill may be necessary to help close what is being termed as the governance gap in the absence of an Executive, but the damage of not having the Assembly up and running and the Executive in place is obvious in terms of good government in Northern Ireland. Decisions taken in Northern Ireland by politicians elected in Northern Ireland with a mandate from the people of Northern Ireland will always be much better taken, much better informed, much more legitimate and have far greater transparency than any decision, with the best will in the world, ever taken in this place on devolved matters on their behalf.

Where the preferences and priorities of voters in Northern Ireland run counter to those of the Government in Westminster, it is an inevitability that when Ministers in Westminster exercise those powers, it will be in line with their own preferences and priorities, rather than necessarily those in Northern Ireland. That lack of legitimacy matters, as does the absence of political direction, which has results in the decision-making process.

From my own time in local government, I developed a great admiration for council officers and officials. They were knowledgeable and expert, and in a lot of cases they were delegated and tasked with many things, including taking many decisions that were considered operational or that were not considered to be of the scope or scale that needed a direct political decision from an elected politician. However, the primary role of a senior official in most cases is to advise, rather than decide, and where any decisions of a major or strategic nature need to be taken, they ought to be taken in line with the democratic mandates and priorities that have been established at the ballot box. The absence of locally appointed Ministers and a sitting Assembly to scrutinise the choices that Ministers make when big decisions are required is highly unsatisfactory.

Make no mistake, big decisions are going to be required pretty urgently, because following the setting of the recent budget by the Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council has stated that some £800 million of cuts, savings or revenue-raising measures are going to be required to fill the budget gap. To drill down a little further, the education sector in Northern Ireland faces a 2.7% cut, the Department for Infrastructure is going to be around £146 million short of its estimated requirements for the financial year and the Department of Finance says that it is now a matter of trying to

“plot the least harmful course we can”.

I think Northern Ireland deserves better than simply plotting the least harmful course that can be plotted, and it requires some major political choices to be made about how budgets are to be balanced, services are to be provided and better outcomes can be achieved.

Those are the sort of budgeting and policy decisions that simply cannot be taken or cannot be addressed in the form of salami-slicing in line with the ministerial decisions taken in years past. So the measures in this Bill that will allow the Secretary of State to request advice and information on developing options for a sustainable approach to the public finances, including revenue raising, are necessary, if inadequate. I would just say that it risks an element of paralysis by analysis and consultation in Whitehall. It certainly represents a very poor substitute for the people of Northern Ireland and the good operation of the services that they depend on, and it falls some way short of the level of scrutiny that ought to be applied to the spending of public money.

In drawing my remarks to a close, we support this Bill, but what we support most of all is the best solution of seeing a swift return of the Assembly and the Executive. We would urge the Secretary of State and his ministerial team to continue to do all they can in that regard to bring about that much better situation.

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