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Budget (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003

12.41 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Lord Williams of Mostyn) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th June be approved.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, it is a matter of regret that this legislation is not being considered by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The main purpose of the draft order is to authorise the balance of the 2003–04 main estimates, which is in addition to the vote on account that was approved by Parliament in February. That vote amounted to approximately 45 per cent of the total voted provision for the 2002–03 financial year, enabling funds to continue to flow to public services until the main estimates could be presented.

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The main estimates reflect the allocations announced on 11th December last year in the budget for the Northern Ireland departments, and follow closely the priorities and approach adopted by the Northern Ireland Executive in developing its draft budget in September 2002. The order also authorises excess amounts amounting to 6.3 million in respect of the 2001–02 financial year. This matter has been the subject of consideration by the Public Accounts Committee and its subsequent report concluded on 19th March this year that it saw no objection to the sums being provided by excess votes.

The balance of the 2003–04 main estimates amounts to 8 billion resources and 5 billion cash. When added to the vote on account, it will take the total amount authorised for 2003–04 to 13.2 billion resources and 9.2 billion cash. Considerable detail regarding the sums sought is set out in the documents supporting the 2003–04 main estimates and the statement of excess for 2001–02. Copies of these documents have been placed in the Library of the House. I shall of course be happy to respond in writing to any noble Lord who would wish to raise matters of detail. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th June be approved.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for bringing this order before us. It would be remiss of me not to say that it is sad that it has to be debated here. We would all have preferred that it had been debated and dealt with in Stormont. The order has been well debated by the Northern Ireland Grand Committee in the other place. I am comforted by the fact that the distribution of the budget is based on the priorities and objectives of the Northern Ireland Executive that was in being in December. Indeed, we debated some of that in this House at that time. I have little to add, except to restate the fact that it would have been a considerably happier occasion were this order not before us today, having been passed in another place. Let us hope that by this time next year everything is up and running. We can be comforted by the fact that the distribution as laid out in the order has been agreed at least in draft and in principle by the members of the Assembly Executive. I support the order.

Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, we on these Benches also welcome the order. I should like to make a few comments and ask the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House a few questions.

The significant amounts of money being sought must lead to clear improvements in services for the people of Northern Ireland. Like the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, I am also disappointed that we are having to deal with the order here, because we would all have preferred it to have been dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly, where it would have received proper scrutiny by people on the spot, who know the needs of the communities there better than we do.

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The proposals to run services were put together by the former Northern Ireland Executive, so we welcome the continuing commitment of the Government to those proposals. There is a need to reform how priorities are set and money is spent, and I have had some small experience, as a former county councillor in a huge rural area, around reform of services to communities. I was also a former member of a health trust board. I was struck by a quotation by Mr Trimble that I picked up from the debate on the draft budget in another place in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. He said that,


    "it is vital for Departments to operate more effectively and with greater efficiency, as we will have increasing difficulty in financial terms in Northern Ireland unless we change how things are done.


    The Administration could look forward to the future, but without major reform there will soon be huge problems. The expansion in public expenditure in the past two to three years allowed the Northern Ireland Executive to avoid having to make any awkward choices, but that expansion will not continue into the future. There is no alternative but to find more efficient ways of using the available resources and more efficient ways of doing things".—[Official Report, Commons Northern Ireland Grand Committee, 3/7/03; col. 28.]

I ask the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House what departments are doing to demonstrate better efficiency and more effective use of significant amounts of extra money. Are proper outcomes for delivery of service established? How are day to day decisions affecting the lives of the people of Northern Ireland being made? How do departments determine their needs—is it a return to rule by civil servants?

The sooner that we can return to having an Assembly run by the people of Northern Ireland, who can determine their own future, the better it will be. In the meantime, we on these Benches support the budget order.

Lord Lyell: My Lords, perhaps I may, from the Back Benches, take one minute of your Lordships' time and thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord President for presenting this budget. I have mixed feelings. It used to be a pleasure many years ago when I would try to present these figures to your Lordships. Can the noble and learned Lord or the department confirm a matter relating to pages 4 and 10 of the order—schedule 2 and 3? Your Lordships will see that the first department listed in the sums granted in those schedules is the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will be able to ensure, with all of his power and that of the Government, support for all of the measures set out in the Explanatory Memorandum. The noble and learned Lord, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, are aware of the enormous importance of agricultural support, and all the activities that are listed in the schedules, to rural life in Northern Ireland. On a matter of detail, can the noble and learned Lord ensure that the take-up of all of the development grants is at a relevant level, since the value of the grants to the rural community is especially appreciated in Northern Ireland—particularly in County Fermanagh, County Tyrone and County Londonderry. It is enormously appreciated. From my experience many years ago, I certainly know

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the department's efficiency in spending that money and above all in ensuring that the value for money achieved is of the highest order.

Perhaps on another day and outside your Lordships' House one might be able to have a word or two with Mr Trimble. However, I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord President and to your Lordships for allowing me one minute.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am very grateful to those of your Lordships who have spoken. If I may, I will deal first with the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, on agriculture. He is quite right in stressing the critical, central importance of agriculture to the Northern Ireland economy, which I think is very often overlooked by those of us—I am not looking at the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran—who do not live in Northern Ireland.

I can, I think, give some comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Lyell. A very significant part of the DARD estimate will in fact directly benefit farmers. Some 173 million is for subsidy payments direct to farmers under the CAP, a very substantial sum in the context that we are discussing. There is also, to take up his other point, 13 million for agri-environmental schemes. In the "Resources Other Current" section, there is an allocation of 22 million for animal disease compensation and 18 million for agri-environmental schemes. So I think that I am able to please even a chartered accountant, which is a first for me.

As regards the general point made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, I could not agree more. I do hope that I shall not be in this position next year. I think that that is the very firm view of all sections of this House.

On the noble Baroness's specific questions, she quite rightly deals with the question of reform of spending plans. I am happy to be able to assure her that every Northern Ireland department has produced and published a reform plan for service improvement; she is quite right. So it is not in fact rule by civil servants. Of course more Ministers from the House of Commons have been active and engaged on Northern Ireland affairs since the Assembly was unfortunately suspended. The noble Baroness also specifically mentioned outcomes. There will be performance targets in the form of public service agreements. So it is another significant advance.

Obviously we would prefer that the day-to-day decisions were made by the Executive and the Assembly, but I think that we are moving forward in the direction which the noble Baroness indicated. I am grateful for her questions because they have given me the opportunity to give that public reassurance. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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