Last week on Wednesday 27th April, there was a short debate on the theme of the Shared Prosperity Fund and there were three MPs who raised questions with Brandon Lewis who is the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The response was very disappointing and indicate that Lewis is not willing to acknowledge that the European Union was a very positive supporter for Northern Ireland. Given that the Northern Ireland was one of the UK locations that voted for us to remain in the EU it is also very disturbing, given how Lewis and his colleagues responded to those vote results. The full questions and answers are available here. The first to speak was Ruth Jones who is the Labour Shadow EFRA Minister. She started the discussion of with this very straight forward question. “What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the shared prosperity fund on Northern Ireland.” Along with Ruth Jones the others who participated were Peter Kyle who is the Hove Labour MP and also the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary. The third person is Colum Eastwood who is the Social Democratic and Labour Party Foyle member from Northern Ireland. Here are some of the comments that indicate that there is a need for clarity and indeed more support for Northern Ireland from our Government.
Ruth Jones: According to the latest Asda Cebr income tracker, Northern Ireland has seen the largest relative fall in discretionary income, amounting to a huge drop of 13.3%. Living standards in Northern Ireland are under the most pressure in the UK, thanks to the Tory cost of living crisis, made in Downing Street. Does the Secretary of State agree that short-changing Northern Ireland with the shared prosperity fund, as in Wales, will only make things worse?
Brandon Lewis: we have just put in the largest block grant budget for Northern Ireland since devolution began in 1998, and that is aside from the extra investment we are making through the community renewal fund and the new deal, with £400 million for a range of infrastructure projects. We are making the biggest investment in Northern Ireland in decades, and I am proud of that.
Peter Kyle: The Northern Ireland Finance Minister has said that the shared prosperity money for Northern Ireland is £90 million short of what was provided by the EU. The Conservative manifesto promised that the shared prosperity fund would “at a minimum match” the size of the EU structural funding it replaced. When can we expect the shortfall to be made up?
Brandon Lewis: At the spending review we announced that the funding for the UK SPF will ramp up over the years, so that we get to a point where it will at least match the receipts of the EU structural funds. The EU regional development fund and the European social fund, on average, reaching about £1.5 billion a year
Peter Kyle: But is the Secretary of State aware that in the first round of levelling-up funding, Wales applied for and received almost 50% more than was first allocated, and for Scotland the figure was 10%, yet Northern Ireland got 3% less? Will he assure us today that the same will not happen with the shared prosperity fund, and that levelling up for Northern Ireland means more than just being hit by the same tax rises that are being inflicted on the rest of the UK by this Tory Government?
Brandon Lewis: Again, the hon. Gentleman needs to look at the figures in the round and realise that, as I have said, we have been making the biggest investment in Northern Ireland in decades—indeed, he may want to apologise for the previous Labour Government’s lack of funding for Northern Ireland. We now have the biggest sum of funding since devolution began in 1998. I saw for myself just this week the benefits that the levelling-up programme and the community renewal funding are making to community projects and businesses in Northern Ireland. That builds on the £2 billion from New Decade, New Approach and the £400 million new deal money, which will boost Northern Ireland. We will continue to do that to see Northern Ireland prosper in future.
Colum Eastwood: The Secretary of State will know that there is £300 million in a bank account in Stormont that cannot be spent because the Democratic Unionist party walked out of the Executive. He will also know that there are families in Northern Ireland who cannot heat their homes or feed their children. If the Executive cannot meet after the election, will he commit to working with me to get that money into people’s pockets as soon as possible?
Brandon Lewis: I agree in part with the hon. Gentleman —it does not happen all that often at the Dispatch Box—because I want to see that money being spent for the benefit of people in Northern Ireland, but I disagree with his analysis of why it is not being spent. That is money from last year’s budget, and for a couple of years running now the current Department of Finance in Northern Ireland has consistently underspent. The Executive needs to find ways of ensuring that the money is properly spent. I have to say that the hon. Gentleman has also identified a real issue with the Northern Ireland protocol, because the UK has put substantial extra money into the pockets of people across the UK through VAT and fuel duty cuts, but we cannot do some of that directly in Northern Ireland because of the protocol. We have therefore made that money available to the Executive and I want to see it get to the people of Northern Ireland.
It is clearly a challenge for some of the people living in Northern Ireland and it is vital that the Government will acknowledge that and act in a more effective way.