Devolution in Northern Ireland

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Mr. Öpik: Listening to the spokesman for the official Opposition, I am encouraged to hear that the Conservative party now supports devolution. Does he agree that those parties that have consistently supported the process throughout were right to do so, despite the fact that a number of his colleagues were wavering and probably being over-cynical in trying to disrupt the long march for peace.

Mr. Taylor: I am not sure that I understood that intervention. The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that the Conservative party has a range of political opinion. That is unremarkable. We have always had a range of opinions. If they were honest, most political parties would say the same.

Having dealt with that point, I shall now deal with whether my party has been consistently in favour of the Belfast agreement and devolution. An enormous body of record, not least in Hansard, would say that my party supported the Belfast agreement. In as much as the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to say that he found a certain congenial tone in my remarks, I am happy. If it pleases him, it pleases me.

I shall pick up the strands of my argument. One of the defects of the Stormont system to which I alluded was the lack of proper scrutiny by the House. If that had not been the case, mistakes might have been avoided. As members of the Conservative party, we wish the devolved institutions well and pray that they work for all the people of Northern Ireland. We also believe that a close and continuing relationship between the Assembly and this House is essential. Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and the on-going close involvement of this House will help to underscore that welcome fact.

11.49 am

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): The Under-Secretary ranged over the events of the past few months and gave us an admirable account. I will not follow him by dwelling on those matters, but I wish to make a couple brief points before turning to more general issues.

One particular point is worth bearing in mind. The Under-Secretary said that the suspension of the first period of devolution from February worked. That is correct, and it is important that people realise that. He also talked about the difficulties of setting deadlines. We must reconsider the argument in that respect. The reason why we, the Under-Secretary and others were advised that one should not set deadlines when dealing with republicans was that—we were told—they would never move under pressure or under threat. The reality is that they only ever move under pressure. Republicans did nothing until the last few days of January; they were given space and opportunity to make progress. It was only at the last minute, when suspension became a clear threat, that they started to do something. What they began at the end of January was clearly inadequate and it was only after the fact of suspension that we saw some genuine movement from them at last.

In the view of many, including many of my hon. Friends, the eventual movement was small. They would have liked more significant movement. That issue is separate. However, I hope that we will all be able to agree on the simple facts as I have stated them. Movement occurred only under pressure and that pressure would not have been applied without the threat and the fact of suspension. I hope that the lessons from that are well and truly understood.

It is equally important to say that devolution in Northern Ireland is still fragile. Much as we hope that it will take root and that it will succeed, we must bear it in mind that devolution is still fragile. There are still problems. The progress that we hope will be made may not be. We may find ourselves revisiting the problems that we had in January and February. I hope that we do not do that and that those who have made promises keep them. They should be under no doubt that the Ulster Unionist party will hold them fully to those promises.

Rather than dwelling on the past, I should like to reflect on the way in which the situation is developing in Northern Ireland now that we have devolution. I am glad that we have devolution. That is good in terms of providing better administration in Northern Ireland and it is good in itself, in that devolution in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland gives a reflection of the different national characteristics in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom is not a simple, straightforward unitary state. It is important that the UK's different national identities are reflected. In the distant past, that was done to a large extent through local government, but problems have been caused by the emasculation of local government, which occurred for a variety of reasons over the decades. We hope that those problems can be addressed through the development of devolution in the particular forms that it has taken in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and through the development of regional agencies in England.

Devolution is a necessary response to the changes that occurred in local government for a variety of reasons. The changes cannot simply be rolled back. There are matters to consider, but devolution takes account of the different national characteristics and is good for that reason. Consequently, the overall effect of devolution in the United Kingdom will be to strengthen the Union, not to weaken it. Already, in the year during which devolution has operated in Wales and Scotland, that process can be seen to be taking effect. I hope that that will happen in Northern Ireland as well.

Reference has been made to our experience of the Stormont Parliament as it functioned from 1922 to 1972. Like some of my colleagues here, I grew up during the Stormont Administration. Looking back, I now see that to some extent the way in which I perceived it, while I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, was not fully rounded. There were several weaknesses in the arrangements, the primary one being that it was the only devolved Administration in the United Kingdom. We stuck out like a sore thumb, and that was unhealthy.

An additional weakness related to the trappings of sovereignty around Stormont and the terminology that was used. A clear view existed for a long time that the Stormont Administration had acquired some sovereign characteristics. That view was held not just by the people of Northern Ireland but, at one stage, by the Law Officers of the Crown and, indeed, the Labour party, which famously decided, in the 1920s, to stop organising in Northern Ireland, because it was an independent state and no longer a part of the United Kingdom. If the Minister goes back over his party history, he will find that that is why his party ceased to organise in Northern Ireland. He may want to review the matter, because the factual basis on which the decision was taken is perhaps not as robust as was thought.

Mr. John M. Taylor: Has the right hon. Gentleman any comparable advice for my party?

Mr. Trimble: I shall resist the temptation to proceed; I fear that to accept that tempting offer would be to change my comments entirely. I intended what I said as a passing comment.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): My right hon. Friend should point out to the spokesman for the Opposition that the Conservatives have already tried to do so.

Mr. Trimble: I will not add to that.

I want to mention the difficulties with what was called the convention, which my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South touched on. Issues relating to Northern Ireland were not adequately considered in Westminster in the period up to 1972. Something else flowed from that, which was just as significant. Northern Ireland's elected representatives were marginalised in the institution, even in the pre-1972 period. Northern Ireland society and the people as a whole found that they were marginalised in national politics. That was not and is not healthy.

The present arrangements avoid the problems that I have identified, because devolution is happening in a clear United Kingdom context, which is evident not just from the comparable arrangements in Wales and Scotland, but also from the practical outworkings of devolution. Two aspects of that are important. The first was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South. The various concordats that are being evolved between the devolved Administration and Government Departments are significant. They provide ways for the devolved Administrations to communicate with national Government and co-ordinate activity with national Government in important matters.

One extremely important context for what I have described is in relations with the European Union. The hon. Member for North Down pointed out that policy on a very significant industry of ours—agriculture—is determined effectively in Brussels. However, we are working out arrangements with the Government on representation that will enable Northern Ireland to be involved, within the United Kingdom representation on the Council of Ministers, more effectively than in the past. Similar arrangements are being made in relation to Wales and Scotland, which are especially useful. The arrangements that are being developed with regard to joint ministerial councils are also useful. It would be desirable if more publicity could be given to the work of joint ministerial councils, both nationally and within the House. They bring together Ministers in the devolved Administrations with the appropriate Whitehall Ministers to consider policies that have implications for the devolved regions. Those JMCs are significant in co-ordinating policy and with regard to the operations of the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South referred to the Government's response to the fourth report of the Select Committee on Procedure relating to the procedural consequences of devolution. He referred in particular to the Government's recommended resolution on how questions could be tabled. The Government recommended that, with regard to devolved matters, the areas in which questions could be tabled should include:

    Matters which...are subject to a concordat or other instrument of liaison between the UK Government and the devolved executive, or UK Government ministers have taken an official interest in.

I am unsure whether that very good resolution has been passed by the House, a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South.

If that resolution is passed, that would mean that questions could be tabled in the House on any matter being considered by a JMC, such as health, in which my hon. Friend is keenly interested. There have already been three JMCs on health. If that resolution is passed, my hon. Friend will be able to table questions for answer in the House on matters that relate to Northern Ireland and which have been considered by the JMC. As that involves the entire health service, it opens up a significant field. I am unsure whether Members of the House appreciate its significance. I make those comments on the assumption that the Government's recommended resolution has made progress within the House, and if it has not, I urge the Government to ensure that it does so. We should not be cautious about opening up such matters for debate. The convention that existed from 1922 to 1972 was unhealthy and I believe that it is desirable to raise a wider range of devolved issues for debate in the House.

Another route by which devolved issues can be raised in the House is in considering funding arrangements. Until 1972, the funding arrangements for Stormont were very much ad hoc and had developed a long way from the basic legislation contained in the Government of Ireland Act 1920. There is now some consistency in funding for the devolved regions because, for all of them, funding is based on the Barnett formula. That formula evolved in 1979 and recognised different levels of expenditure in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on need. It also provided that when expenditure is increased for England and Wales, an increase based on a per capita percentage of the population in the devolved area should be introduced for comparable programmes. The significance of that is that it provides for increases for comparable programmes, and if block grants are determined by reference to the comparability of programmes, that will enable people in the House to question those programmes. An important point underlying that is the parity principle, which was one of the main principles on which we operated during the Stormont years. The parity principle is simple; people in Northern Ireland, like people in Wales and Scotland, pay the same taxes as people in the rest of the United Kingdom. Consequently, they are entitled to the same quality of public service. The parity principle applies not only to benefits, but to quality of service. People who pay the same taxes as every other citizen in the United Kingdom are entitled to the same service quality, or at least one that does not differ significantly. It may cost more to deliver a service in a dispersed rural area such as the highlands and islands of Scotland or parts of Northern Ireland than in more densely populated areas. However, that is beside the point, as people who pay the same taxes are entitled to the same quality of service.

The question is what is needed to deliver the service. Whether it is achieved through finance measures or more general policies, there should be greater opportunity to consider these matters in the House. Mentioning the Barnett formula brings to mind one of the discoveries that I made about it after devolution. Before devolution, I had believed that the formula was a good thing from the point of view of the devolved Administrations, as it guaranteed significant levels of funding. However, I discovered after devolution that it does not necessarily provide such a guarantee. In fact, it can operate retrogressively in respect of the devolved institutions.

I shall give two examples of how significant increases in expenditure for programmes in England and Wales have had a deflationary effect on available expenditure. First, in the past financial year, spending on health in Northern Ireland was 8.6 per cent. above the national average. As a result of the health spending increases that were announced by the Chancellor in his Budget statement, additional sums were made available in Northern Ireland. However, they were calculated on a per capita basis rather than on a needs basis, although the original Barnett formula was based on needs. After those increases were made, the amount that was available for spending on health in Northern Ireland was only 4.8 per cent. above the national average. The steepness of the increases meant that per capita spending dropped from 8.6 per cent. to 4.8 per cent. above the national average. Of course, people in Northern Ireland will expect the same increase in service, which will be difficult to cost when there is not the same percentage increase in the funds that are available.

My second example is education. When funds are increased in England and Wales, Northern Ireland receives an increase that is based on per capita figures. However, we have a higher percentage of people in education than England and Wales. Off the top of my head, I think that 16 per cent. of the population in England and Wales are in primary and secondary education, while 20 per cent. of the Northern Ireland population are in such education. The consequence of our per capita increase is that for every £1 per pupil of extra spending in England and Wales, Northern Ireland receives 76p, although we are expected to fund the same increases in service provision.

Those are clear disadvantages to a formula that we thought to be useful, but which has serious deflationary effects. We can live with that problem in the short term, but in the long and even the medium term, it will cause serious problems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I know that it is the habit of some English Members to speak about Barnett with a completely different agenda in mind. They may not appreciate the extent to which there are problems in the operation of Barnett in the devolved regions and the consequent need for a proper needs-related assessment of expenditure.

I return to the basic principle of parity. For paying the same taxes, everybody in the United Kingdom is entitled to the same quality of service. The question is how to assess the cost of providing that service in the different regions. Those issues are of a different type from the matters that have engaged the Committee in the past, but it will increasingly have to consider them. The extent to which it is able to do so will be the true mark of the progress that we are making.

12.9 pm

 
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