Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Bill

Published date : 04 September, 2023
I, too, welcome the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) to his new position, and I look forward to working alongside him as we discharge our respective roles in opposition to the Government.

I will begin with the now customary bromide that we all wish we were not here to discuss this, and that all the relevant decisions should be made in Stormont, which should be up and running again, scrutinising a functioning Executive—but the fact is that we are back here, and, as I said on Second Reading and as other Members have also said, this is not a budget in any meaningful sense. It is about the allocation of money and what it can be spent on, but it is devoid of any political steer for the emerging priorities and challenges facing communities in Northern Ireland. It is a hospital pass given to the civil servants who have been left to administer, effectively, a salami-slicing exercise with little more than the guidance that they

“must control and manage expenditure within the limits of the appropriations set out in Budget Acts”.

Even within that total, however, the budget has reduced the overall amount available to departmental budgets in Northern Ireland, which means that funding is heading in the opposite direction not only to the pressures of inflation, but to demand for public services and the pressing need—in a cost of living crisis—to negotiate a fair set of settlements across the public sector. Overall, even with the spending decisions that can lawfully be taken at the moment, Northern Ireland is heading for a budget overspend of about £500 million. Expressed like that, it just sounds like a big number, but it is a big number with enormous consequences, and, as ever, those who will be affected are the most vulnerable groups in society, the least well off, and those who are most dependent on public services.

It is not my intention to go through every line of the budget and all the programmes that will be cut, the services that will be reduced and the areas in which people will simply have to do with less in the absence of decision making. However, it is plain that ministerial decisions are urgently needed for the setting of a budget with the necessary strategic direction, which can provide the clarity that will enable the civil service to work with it and deliver not just sustainable public finances, but sustainable public services.

Let me suggest to Ministers, as gently as I can, that standing back and watching Northern Ireland’s public services suffer with less money, and observing the consequences in communities, is a tactic that will have limited effect if the intention is to drive people back to negotiations. The solution to a non-functioning and non-sitting Stormont clearly lies elsewhere. I do not underestimate the challenge that will eventually face an Executive when one can return, but nevertheless this is not the way to bring about the set of circumstances that we all wish to see. The solution that will enable Stormont to sit once again, and enable an Executive to be formed and to function, self-evidently lies elsewhere, and I urge Ministers to continue to do all that they can—to do more, in fact—to help to bring that about.

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