Exchanges in the Commons yesterday revealed more tension between Stormont and the new coalition as well as anxiety about the impacts of cuts. The ” envelope” that is, the total amount to be cut, will be revealed in the June 22 budget as well as some specific cuts and tax changes like a CGT increase but most details will be worked out between now and the autumn and announced then.
Two maiden speakers yesterday put on a brave front about the state of Northern Ireland and called for the cuts to be sensitive. SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie opened with the usual pen portrait of the constituency ( courtesy, Percy French and others ). She went to make interesting if as yet unsupported reflections on economic policy for the province.
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Margaret Ritchie columns 253-254
As a former Northern Ireland Minister, I told the previous Government that a policy of pressing people into work when there are few jobs to go to could not prosper, and I repeat that message to the new Administration. I share the Government’s desire to help more people enjoy the dignity and self-sufficiency that comes from gainful employment but, in Northern Ireland, a policy of hounding people away from benefits when there are few new opportunities for employment will cause only hardship and resentment.
But let us be positive: I believe that we in Northern Ireland have it within us, now that all the pointless violence has ended, to make our economy take off for the first time in generations. We are attracted to the possibility of devolving tax-varying powers to the Stormont Executive-powers that will allow us, for the first time, to compete as equals in the quest for foreign direct investment. I very much welcome the indications from the Government that they will help us harmonise corporation tax on the island of Ireland.
We can do more for ourselves in many other areas, too. Northern Ireland has potentially a very rich renewable energy resource. It can be at the centre of our plans to develop the green economy. We also have huge potential in our agriculture and food industries to drive for higher added value. We have a well educated and trained work force, and a world-class broadband infrastructure that can be the platform for the growth of our tradable sectors. We must get all of this moving if we are to be credible in offering work to everyone.
Patrick transcends all our historic quarrels in these islands and in particular within the two traditions in Northern Ireland. He is a unifying figure and his message is one of reconciliation. He was a Roman Briton, and as such was our greatest ever import. He is, and can be even more, our greatest ever export. In special parts of South Down, we hold the sites where Patrick first landed in Ireland and where he built his first church, the healing wells where he bathed, the place where he breathed his last, and the grave where he now rests.
A maiden speech is no place to crow about a predecessor’s defeat. Naomi Long began with compliments to Peter Robinson.
While our political perspectives are distinctively different, I want to pay tribute to him for his 31 years of dedicated service to the constituency as Member of Parliament, and particularly for his contribution in recent years, as First Minister, to making Northern Ireland an immeasurably more stable and peaceful place than the one to which he referred in his maiden speech. I wish him well as he continues in that important role.
It was of course the Alliance’s debut in the Commons as well as her own. She introduced her party as well as herself.
Alliance was formed in 1970 by people from across the traditional religious and political divide who were committed to healing the deep-seated sectarian divisions in our community… Unfortunately, it was an idea ahead of its time … However, now, with a functioning Assembly, based on those same principles and endorsed by the overwhelming majority of people, the quality of the original idea has been proven. Importantly, however, those people also offered a vision of a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland. In doing so, they gave hope to people such as me, growing up in circumstances where both vision and hope were in short supply.
Today’s debate about economic issues and challenges is a fitting context in which to introduce my constituency to the House, as it was once an economic powerhouse, which I believe it has the potential to be again. The challenge that faces us is how we realise that potential in the current economic difficulties. A very sizeable proportion of my constituents are employed in the public sector and severe cuts to public expenditure will have a disproportionate effect there. That is of concern not only to those directly employed in the public sector but to the many others whose small businesses depend on it to stay afloat.
In Treasury Questions earlier Mark Durkan was on punning form but got little joy from the Chancellor.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP):
The Chancellor could take the opportunity today to spell out to us how he and his coalition colleagues hope to popularise their cuts agenda. We seem to be being told that the public will be consulted on which spending should continue and which cuts might be made. How will that “axe factor” approach to Government play out?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the pun-but this is a very serious national challenge, which whoever won the election was going to have to face. The 11% budget deficit will not disappear. A very large part of it is structural, and so will not automatically reduce as growth returns to the economy. We want to make sure that all political parties, including his, and the brightest and best brains across Whitehall and the public sector, as well as voluntary groups, think tanks, trade unions and members of the public, are all engaged in the debate and discussion about how, collectively, we deal with the problem. After all, it is our collective national debt.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP):
The Government have indicated that they do not want to divide the country or to target the most vulnerable with the cuts that are ahead. However, to a degree the country is already divided economically, with regions such as Northern Ireland lagging behind others, despite our best efforts. To avoid widening that gap, we must be sensitive to regional differences, and to the particular challenges faced by Northern Ireland as we emerge from years of conflict. To do otherwise would risk the best opportunity for growth that we have had for a generation. If the proposed cuts are too deep and too swift, and are not balanced by job creation, there is a serious risk of simply moving many of my constituents out of productive public sector employment into the welfare system, which will do nothing to protect public services for the vulnerable, to generate growth in the private sector or to raise aspirations, dignity and confidence.
The Chancellor mentions those areas heavily dependent on the public sector and the impact on different regions of the United Kingdom. I welcome that commitment, but in order for it to be real, as opposed to simply rhetoric-he talks about the Finance Ministers quadrilateral meetings discussing the spending review-will there be a robust resolution mechanism, so that not just the Treasury decides what happens with regard to the devolved Administrations, which, after all, have their own independent administrations, budgets and economic settlements?
Mr Osborne: The devolved Administrations have to be part of the wider spending review. With the best will in the world, we cannot let the three devolved
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Administrations simply determine what they will spend, particularly when most of them do not have significant tax-raising powers, but I give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that we will engage in an open and frank way and that we will listen to the concerns from Northern Ireland. I am well aware that one of the big challenges in Northern Ireland is how we can stimulate the private sector in Ulster, and we want to work with him on that. As I am sure he knows, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has some ideas in that area. We will engage not just with the Administration in Northern Ireland but with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly and its Administration. For us, this is genuinely about trying to bind as many people as possible into a collective discussion which I hope other Opposition parties will be part of, even if the main Opposition party does not want to be.
Let me explain to the House how the review will work. First, we will build on the in-year savings that we have already made in order to drive for efficiency and value for money. We are creating a new efficiency and reform group at the heart of Government, which brings together a variety of bodies that are separate across Departments in order to try to bring to one place expertise on renegotiating contracts, maximising collective buying power and the like. We will ask for administrative spending in central Whitehall and quangos to be reduced by at least a third. Each Secretary of State will appoint a Minister with specific responsibilities in their Department over the next three months for driving that value-for-money agenda across their Department, and we will place a new obligation on public servants to manage taxpayers’ money more wisely by strengthening the role of the departmental finance director.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London