Budget (No. 2) Bill: Second Stage
Executive Committee Business
Francie Molloy (Sinn Féin)
I inform Members that confirmation has now been received from the Committee for Finance and Personnel, in accordance with Standing Order 42(2), that the Committee is satisfied that there has been appropriate consultation with it on the public expenditure proposals contained in the Bill. The Bill will, therefore, proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.
Mr Wilson (The Minister of Finance and Personnel):
I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill [NIA 8/11-15] be agreed.
Today’s debate follows the approval of the Supply resolution last Monday by the Assembly for the expenditure plans of Departments and other public bodies as detailed in the 2012-13 Main Estimates and the second Supply Resolution for the excess resources for two Departments in 2010-11.
As Members are aware, accelerated passage of the Bill is necessary to ensure Royal Assent prior to the end of July. If the Bill did not proceed by accelerated passage and receive Assembly approval before the summer recess, Departments and other public bodies may have legal difficulty in accessing cash, and public services would, therefore, be significantly affected prior to our return to the Chamber in September. However, I am glad to note that the Bill can be given accelerated passage, because the Committee for Finance and Personnel has confirmed that, in line with Standing Order — [Interruption.]
From a sedentary position, the Member says that he told me so. It was my powers of persuasion and nothing more that ensured that this would happen. The Committee is satisfied that there has been appropriate consultation with it on the public expenditure proposals in the Bill.
The Committee of the previous mandate took evidence on several occasions during the development of the Budget 2011-15, of which this Bill represents the second year, and played a useful and constructive role in co-ordinating the responses of all the Committees at that stage.
I had a constructive meeting with the Committee last week, and I thank the Committee for its agreement to accelerated passage for the Bill. I also acknowledge that the approval process is rather convoluted; it lacks transparency and is open to delay — a point that the Finance Committee and Members have made to me repeatedly. Members will be aware that I have initiated a review of the financial process that would improve the Assembly’s scrutiny considerably. I can only hope that my Executive colleagues expedite that review and allow me to bring about the process amendments desired by the Committee and, indeed, by many in the House.
Standing Order 32 directs that the Second Stage debate should be confined to the general principles of a Bill. I shall endeavour to keep to that direction and, at this relatively late stage of the day, encourage others to do likewise. That is probably a futile request, but let us hope that it happens.
The main purpose of the Bill is to make further provision of cash and resources for use on services, in addition to the Vote on Account, provided in the Budget Act in March up to the requirements of Departments and other public bodies set out in the Main Estimates of 2012-13. In addition, the Bill makes provision for excess expenditure by two Departments in 2010-11 over the amounts approved in the 2010-11 spring Supplementary Estimates and the related Budget Act. Copies of the Budget Bill and the explanatory and financial memorandum have been made available to Members today, and the 2012-13 Main Estimates and the 2010-11 Statement of Excesses were laid in the Assembly on 11 June.
The Bill will authorise the issue of a further £8,203,787,000 from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund and the further use of resources totalling £8,424,156,000 by Departments and certain other bodies listed in schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill. The cash and resources are to be spent and used on the services listed in column 1 of each schedule. Of course, those amounts are in addition to the Vote on Account passed by the Assembly in March, bringing the total amount of cash provided for 2012-13 to just over £15 billion. In addition, the Bill sets out for the current financial year a limit for each Department on the use of accruing resources. Accruing resources are current and capital receipts totalling £2,160,054,000. Therefore the resources authorised in the Vote on Account in March and the resources and accruing resources now provided in this Bill bring the total resources for use by Departments in 2012-13 to just over £18 billion. Of course, the amounts of resources include not only the departmental expenditure limits (DEL) on which our Budget process mainly focuses, but departmental demand-led annually managed expenditure (AME).
Clause 2 provides for the temporary borrowing by my Department of £4,101,893,000. That is approximately half the sum authorised by clause 1(1) for the issue out of the Consolidated Fund. I must stress to the House that clause 2 does not provide for the issue of any additional cash out of the Consolidated Fund or convey any additional spending power, but it enables my Department to run an effective and efficient cash management regime and ensures minimum drawdown of the Northern Ireland block grant on a daily basis. That is very important when contemplating the daily borrowing by our Departments.
Clause 5 makes provision for the excesses of approximately £2·8 million of resources by DCAL and an excess use of resources of some £10·2 million by the Department for Social Development. The Public Accounts Committee, in its seventh report on the 2011-15 mandate, has recommended, on the basis of its examination of the reasons for excesses, that the Assembly provides the necessary amounts by means of Excess Votes.
Finally, clause 6 removes from the statute book two Budget Acts from 2009 that are no longer operative.
The Budget Bill is admittedly technical, and, on the surface, it can be hard to translate the figures that it contains into real world public services. However, it is important to emphasise that every school and hospital and, indeed, every public service provided for under the authority of this Assembly is affected by this Bill and requires the legislation to operate legally in this financial year. So, while it may not appear so, it is crucial legislation for our public services. On that note, I will conclude. I will be happy to deal with any points of principle or detail of the Budget Bill that Members may wish to raise.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm labhairt ar an Bhille, ar son an Choiste ar dtús báire agus ansin ar mo shon féin. I rise to speak first on behalf of the Committee and latterly on behalf of myself and my party. As outlined, the Bill makes provision for the balance of cash and resources required to reflect the departmental spending plans in the 2012-13 Main Estimates. The Bill also includes provision for excess cash and resource requirements by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Department for Social Development for 2010-11.
On the latter issue, the Committee noted the work undertaken by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee, which recommended that the necessary sums be provided by Excess Votes by the Assembly. Both Committees have indicated that they are content in that regard.
Members will be aware of the delay in the Bill receiving accelerated passage. The reason for that was well aired in the debate on the Supply resolution. Therefore, you will be pleased to hear that I do not intend to rehearse that here today. Following provision of the necessary papers by DFP after the Committee’s meeting on 6 June, the Committee took evidence from departmental officials on 13 June, which was followed by a ministerial briefing on 20 June.
On behalf of the Committee, I acknowledge the steps taken by the Minister to reassure the Committee, and I thank the departmental officials for their prompt responses to a series of questions for written answer that were issued for reply before the briefing from the Minister on 20 June.
The engagement last week will, no doubt, help to restore the constructive working relationship that has existed between the Committee and the Department, and I can now say that we have shed our differences — no pun intended. In any case, the evidence from the Department has provided explanations for a series of allocations, reductions —
The evidence from the Department has provided explanations for a series of allocations, reductions, technical adjustments and transfers with GB Departments that have been made since the Budget allocations were initially set out in Budget 2011-15. Clarification has also been received on the borrowing provisions included in the Bill, and the level to which similar provisions have been used in the past.
Members also questioned the use of terms such as “miscellaneous” as a Budget heading. At the evidence session on 20 June a range of issues were also discussed with the Minister, including asset realisation, capital receipts and funding that is held at the centre. Further queries around the reallocation of funding between Departments were also addressed. By scheduling two additional sessions into its work programme, the Committee was able to take detailed evidence on the Main Estimates and the Budget (No 2) Bill. Therefore, following the Minister’s briefing, the Committee agreed that there had been appropriate consultation with it on the public expenditure proposals contained in the Bill in accordance with Standing Order 42(2). The Committee was therefore content for the Bill to proceed by accelerated passage procedure. The Chairperson informed the Speaker of the Committee’s decision on 20 June.
Though the Committee is satisfied that the requirements of Standing Order 42(2) have been met, there remains a wider issue: the scrutiny of the related estimates by other Committees. In evidence to the Committee, the departmental officials have advised that:
“the Estimates are not completely new. They are just a further evolution in the Budget process that kicked off a year and half ago.”
Any changes that have occurred since the initial allocations were made in the Budget 2011-15 have been notified through monitoring rounds and other statements to the Assembly.
I reiterate the point previously made by the Chairperson that Statutory Committees will not have had an opportunity to consider the cumulative effect of those changes in their entirety, particularly given that there is just one week between when these complex documents are laid in the Business Office and the Assembly debate.
The Committee questioned why it was necessary to embargo or restrict the Main Estimates 2012-13 until 11 June, and the Budget (No 2) Bill until after its introduction on 18 June, and asked whether that has the effect of curtailing scrutiny by other Statutory Committees. Members also queried whether it would be possible for other Departments to provide their Committees with draft Estimates for scrutiny in advance.
In response to those queries, DFP advised that the embargo:
“has been the convention for a number of years”
— and that, while that relates to the combined Estimates document, individual Departments are encouraged to provide their departmental-specific information to their respective Committees for analysis at any stage during the process, bearing in mind that it is not final until agreed with the supply divisions within DFP. The other Statutory Committees may, therefore, wish to note this point, with regard to the potential for them to undertake scrutiny of Estimates in the future.
The Committee made a comprehensive response to the Executive’s review of the financial process on behalf of the Assembly, and we look forward to seeing how that work is progressing. In tandem with this, the Committee itself recently issued a discussion paper entitled ‘Maximising the Assembly’s Contribution to the Northern Ireland Budget Process’ to key stakeholders. Indeed, responses are due back today.
The Committee will seek to ensure that the Assembly and its Committees can add real value to the Budget process and that they are afforded the time and the information to enable them to undertake scrutiny and exercise influence at the most appropriate stages in the process.
In the meantime, in respect of the more immediate issue before us, on behalf of the Committee, I support the general principles of the Bill.
I will now make some points on my own behalf and on behalf of my party. The Minister has noted that I am in the habit of questioning him about revenue-raising issues. I note that, earlier in the year, we were told that £1·3 million had been realised by February of this year. Last week, during the Supply resolution debate, the Minister informed us that that had leapt to a figure close to £200 million, which was £29 million in excess of the target that was set. That is a huge increase. I see the Minister nodding. Perhaps he thinks I have got it wrong, but those are the figures that I have in my notes. During a previous debate, Mr McCarthy asked him where that money came from, what was sold, by whom and for how much. The Minister, not being encyclopaedic in his knowledge, was unable to answer, but I would like to see more detail on those figures in the future, and I am sure that the Minister will reassure me by providing me with those figures.
In the course of examining the Estimates, it was noted that a figure of £198,000 was set against the Northern Ireland Events Company in the DCAL chapter. I believe that that is accounted for by legal fees involved in the winding-up process. We have to bear in mind that DCAL initially commissioned two separate reports on the demise of that company, which were paid for out of the public purse. The matter was referred to the PSNI, which could find no grounds for prosecution. Even so, DCAL officials, supported by the Minister, insisted on referring the matter to the DETI investigation unit, thus incurring further costs. We could get into a situation in which the winding up and inquiry into the facts behind the company will cost us more than the initial loss. In my view, that is somewhat ironic. Perhaps the Audit Office needs to inquire into that when the DETI investigation has been completed.
Moving on, I recall that, initially, the Minister told us that he hoped to raise £125 million from the reserves of the Harbour Commissioners. As yet, we have had no reports of progress on the realisation of that money. I think it was said that legislation would be required in order to remove that amount of money from the Harbour Commissioners. Has the Minister made any progress on that issue, or is it dead in the water? Again, no pun intended.
The Minister also told us that the Executive had agreed to reclassify £250 million of current expenditure as capital spending over the budgetary period. He predicted that capital spending would reach, I think, £1·5 billion by 2014. What is the Minister’s view on the progress that has been made in that respect?
We have discussed on a number of occasions the effects that welfare reform would have on our citizens here in Northern Ireland. A figure of £450 million was mentioned as having been taken out of the economy. Originally, the Minister disagreed with that. Perhaps, later on, he came round to being closer in agreement to that. That obviously has a huge effect on the most vulnerable, with a knock-on effect for the retail trade. My concern is for the most vulnerable people. Unfortunately, this Budget does not contain any obvious measures to mitigate the effects of those cuts. We did have a social protection fund of £20 million. That has already been spent. In my view, the most vulnerable remain open to the effects of these drastic cuts. We hear today that the Prime Minister will be making those cuts even more stringent.
It is with regret that I say that the Budget does not deal with welfare reform. However, perhaps there will be time during the coming year to improve that situation. I hope that we will be able to do that.
Paul Girvan (DUP)
I support the Second Stage of the Bill as presented to the House. I want to come back on a few points. A document has been put together for Members to read and browse. In some ways, it works, but in some ways, you may think that it was designed as a cure for insomnia. I will go into more detail of what has happened. In Committee, we have been kept informed, not just at this Stage but right through the process, of how we are progressing with budgets, Estimates and spending reviews — the whole process.
One good thing is that we are not handing back any money. The Minister made representation to Her Majesty’s Treasury to allow us to hold on to £49·5 million in resource and £13·6 million in capital. This year, we have underspent in those areas: £46·3 million in resource and £5·8 million in capital. Historically, we have had a problem with hundreds of millions being handed back that should have been spent in Northern Ireland. Departments are to be congratulated on how they have managed their budgets this year. That fiscal responsibility has borne out. Some Departments have done it better that others, but, on the whole, it has been better than in the past.
The debate is a good opportunity for us to come forward and discuss things that are of some significance and interest to us. In South Antrim, a bit of a noise has been made about our accident and emergency department. Accident and emergency departments are, and have been, very much under pressure. Noise has been made about the allocation of funds and how those funds are going to be spent. Some of that will be spent in 2012-13. Waiting times in the accident and emergency department have been quite long. I welcome the newbuild accident and emergency department at Antrim Area Hospital. Building has already started on that. I appreciate that it will take some time for that to be completed, but we will benefit from that.
I appreciate that the capital receipts that were received during the past financial year were mentioned, what they were and how they calculated out. I welcome the £29 million that was not accounted for, in that we got receipts for £171 million, which is £29 million more than the original prediction. So it is good that we have some additional moneys that we can make use of.
In anyone’s estimation, £18 billion is quite a large amount of money, but let us be truthful: if we did not have our link to the United Kingdom and Great Britain, I do not think that we would be anywhere near having a receipt of that amount. I do not think that we could get that at all through the amounts that we raise through taxes here. We are doing exceptionally well with what we have, but that does not mean that we cannot do better. We are trying to grow our economy, but there was an issue about that in our draft Estimates and those for 2012-13. The only way to grow our economy is to focus on small and medium-sized businesses in Northern Ireland, as they are the core employment provider. We do not have very many large companies involved in that, so we must focus on supporting and increasing small and medium-sized businesses. I congratulate Invest NI and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for their work in encouraging new schemes and new programmes. I also congratulate them for their work in encouraging inward investment, which will do much to grow our economy and possibly reduce our reliance on public sector employment. I appreciate that that may not be a message that everybody wants to hear, but we need to reduce our public sector to a level that allows us to sustain it with some of our private sector employers.
I agree with Members about the work that the Committee did; it was intense at times, but we did it nonetheless. One of the issues mentioned today was scrutiny of the Estimates when they come through. Some areas were dealt with in the Estimates prior to their being presented to the House and minister..." class="glossary">placed in the Library on 6 June this year, but I believe that we now need to see whether we can have more openness and transparency in how those areas are presented. The Estimates include too many bland areas where items come under miscellaneous headings. As the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee said, those areas need to be tightened. We want a totally open and transparent process so that there is traceability not only of what we are doing but of the areas on which we are ensuring that the public can see spend. That is vital. Some Departments have more work to do on that than others, and that body of work needs to be carried out to give us more accountability and to ensure that there is such awareness. After all, one of the Committee’s jobs is to ensure that we have accountability for what is being presented. We want to see that work progress.
I welcome the work on improving the processes that we, as a Committee, are dealing with. That work has to be done. I feared that we would not get to this stage this week, as one of the hiatuses appeared when someone commented in Committee last week that there was much of a hullabaloo about “a puff of smoke”. We all know what that refers to, and, to be honest, it achieved nothing except to delay the process further. However, we are here today, and I support the Bill. I also hope and pray that this will create a way forward, because it allows Departments to move forward with the confidence that they have Members’ support. They can also now commit their spend, not having to worry about spending up to 95%, or whatever the percentage might be. Those are the facts. By going forward with this process, we can release the money and make sure that we can deliver the full spend.
The Department for Regional Development has committed to a few major spends on major projects. One of the things that it has failed to look at is maintenance of the existing infrastructure, which is causing us major concern. I appreciate the need for new roads in certain areas, but the focus that DRD has on roads maintenance has caused concern. A number of roads are falling into very serious states of dereliction, and that is something that we have to address.
Mitchel McLaughlin (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Speaking on behalf of my party, I make it clear that we also support the Bill’s Second Stage.
I acknowledge the Minister’s efforts to deal with the issues that the Committee wished to discuss, as well as the co-operation and assistance that we got from his departmental officials. The Committee has focused for a number of years now on trying to demystify the Budget process to achieve a level of engagement and understanding right across these Benches. That has been the case in the past, but the situation is significantly improving. In the past, very significant sums were not even voted on for expenditure. They were being spent by Departments or their third-party organisations to deliver public services, but they were not actually being voted through during the Budget process. That is an issue to which the Minister and his officials have responded and been working with the Finance Committee to improve.
The Deputy Chair very comprehensively set out the range of issues raised with the Department and the Minister, both in direct discussion and in correspondence, as well as the responses that we got that satisfied the Committee. However, we are very conscious that other scrutiny Committees are still somewhat outside the process owing to time constraints. Those Committees reported to us when the Finance Committee was making a consolidated report to the Assembly that they are very dissatisfied with the time and opportunity that they have to scrutinise their own departmental budgets. More work needs to be done in that respect. However, I think that developments are positive, and Paul mentioned what I consider to be a very strong positive. In the lifetime of the Assembly, going back to the first mandate, as it is known, a very significant improvement has been made in financial projection and management. Departments are now regularly achieving their targets.
Another issue arises, and it is one that would affect any Administration, in good times and in bad. Of course, we are operating in very difficult economic circumstances, and the issue that I wish to see developed as we reform and refine the budgetary process here is that we become able to track the cost of administration against delivery of programme priorities. If we can do that, we can be satisfied that, when we set ourselves efficiency targets, they will actually be that, as opposed to cuts to vital front line services. I felt that we got a fair enough reception from the senior departmental officials on that point, and I look forward to that happening in the years ahead, because I think that you have to operate on more than a one-year canvas. You need to be able to address the issues over four or five years, possibly even cutting back from one mandate to the previous one to track the impact of measures. They are cumulative, so it can be difficult to keep a perspective. In setting out the Programme for Government targets and matching them to the available Budget, I think we can be satisfied that a genuine effort was made. That makes it all the more important that the process is as transparent as we can make it. We may never be able to totally satisfy opinion, because critical discussion and engagement is very important for ensuring that we have the most rounded perspective. However, I record my appreciation as a member of the Committee. I have been a member of this Committee since the earliest stages and have seen the changes and responses. I think it is proper to put that on record.
We also dealt with the issue of the Excess Votes. Again, an explanation was given by the Department and referred to by the Minister last week, which is very acceptable. That set out the circumstances and the responses. We also got the detail that was required on reallocations and transfers and those issues that can affect or amend the starting position of the budgeting process. I think Members of the Assembly can take some assurance that they have the up-to-date picture now, and that this motion is worthy of support.
Leslie Cree (UUP)
I am pleased that we are in a position to debate the Budget Bill today. I think it was right that the Committee took the stance it did, and the Minister well knows that we should have had more time to consider and scrutinise the information. However, it was also right that the Minister came before the Committee last week to explain the situation. I commend him for doing so, and, although I was unable to attend due to a prior engagement, my colleague Roy Beggs was there, and I am fully aware of the content of that meeting.
We are all conscious of the fact that, under Standing Order 42(2), the Committee must be satisfied that there has been appropriate consultation with it on the Budget before accelerated passage is granted. We were not satisfied that the consultation was appropriate at this stage last week; however, the Minister will have learned that, if he works with the Committee in a constructive manner, we can resolve most of our difficulties.
The Finance Minister’s attitude has at times not been helpful. He accused various members of the Committee of being truculent, petulant and opportunistic. My opinion is that the Committee was simply seeking to do its job in carrying out the obligations placed on it. We were also given conflicting stories as to whether the delay was caused by the Minister or by an oversight in his private office. Some doubt still remains over the root of that problem, although I think we have probably heard enough about that.
I also want to record my disagreement with the Minister’s comments that 95% of the Budget was already outlined in the four-year Budget, and that, as a consequence, we should not have had much to talk about. That is wrong. Each Budget year is a stand-alone Budget year. Each Budget year, which authorises the spending of some £8·2 billion, should be given the necessary scrutiny both in the Finance Committee and in this Chamber. The public, rightly, expects that to be the case.
The precedent set this year is that each year’s Budget will be given the proper consideration and not glossed over because some in this House previously agreed a four-year Budget. If we consider the changes that have been made from the 2011-15 Budget document to the figures dealt with today and in the Main Estimates, it is clear that allocations have been altered in respect of the 2012-13 Budget year. For example, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has just under £8 million less resource; the Department of Education has £30 million and the Department for Employment and Learning has nearly £40 million more in resources. Those are just a few examples that illustrate the point. However, I reiterate that I am pleased that we have reached the Second Stage of the Budget Bill and that the Committee felt able to grant accelerated passage.
In addressing the Budget Bill, I will concentrate on the Department of Finance and Personnel, which has a sum of £132,585,000 granted for its general purposes. That includes the Central Procurement Directorate, which is responsible for reviewing and developing procurement policy for that up to a £3 billion annual spend. The Finance Committee conducted a very worthwhile and useful inquiry into public procurement in Northern Ireland that resulted in 41 key conclusions and recommendations, and the Minister will be aware that the inquiry has subsequently been debated on two occasions in the Assembly. Minister, in the context of the Budget Bill for 2012-13, what reforms will we see for public procurement during the coming year? What efficiencies and value for money will be delivered in that area, and how will that affect the Budget in monetary terms?
The Minister should seek to raise revenue in his Department, and I am interested to learn how that is factored into the Budget. The Department has economists, legal, advisory and business consultancy professionals at its disposal, and we must be creative in the current economic climate. Another issue raised by the Minister was the prospect of Land and Property Services using its expertise to collect money in the private sector. I would appreciate a response on where we are with projects of that nature over the coming year.
I also note in the Budget Bill that the Department is responsible for the sponsorship and provision of secretariats for other independent bodies, and, as far as I can see, that is not covered in any detail in the Main Estimates. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten the House as to what specific bodies are covered and how much is afforded to each. I realise that the Minister may not have that level of detail today, and, if that is the case, I ask him to write to me.
Lastly, the equal pay claims for the Northern Ireland Civil Service remain unresolved. I understand that £26 million has been set aside for the purposes of meeting the equal pay claim and that that will still be available this year. However, there is an urgency to the issue, given that, as far as I am aware, there are no assurances that those funds will be in place indefinitely. The Minister has a duty to ensure that those claims are settled equitably, and I ask him to provide an update on the stage at which proceedings are.
Judith Cochrane (Alliance)
I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of the Budget Bill, following last week’s successful passage of the prerequisite proposals on the Supply resolutions for the 2012-13 Main Estimates and the 2010-11 Excess Vote. As stated, the Bill provides for a balance of cash and resources that are required to reflect departmental spending plans in the 2012-13 Main Estimates. Others have described the process that has brought us to the debate, so I will limit my comments to a few specifics in the Bill.
I turn first to social development matters, as I serve on the Committee for Social Development. I do not know what the implications will be, given that there are likely to be significant delays in passing the welfare reform legislation, with no introduction of that legislation expected before recess. However, I believe that responsibility and due diligence are required from Members in advance of welfare reform, and proactive measures could and should be pursued if we are to seek to address the potentially negative consequences of those changes.
Our community and voluntary sector plays a vital role in providing services to our community. It often offers considerable value for money and is uniquely positioned as a sector that is not only innovative but effective and efficient. However, that does not seem to guarantee its protection when it comes to departmental reductions. Arguably, the current impact of the recession, combined with the future impact of welfare reform, calls for more services in the voluntary sector rather than less. Vulnerable people in our society are facing money problems, and an increase in advice services to assist with financial planning would go a long way. There is an evident need for enhanced financial education through organisations such as Citizens Advice and others in our community and voluntary sector, and we must be willing to shoulder the burden of responsibility for the fiscal competency of our society and to enhance the financial opportunities and status of our most vulnerable people.
With reference to the expenditure programme for OFMDFM, it is worth noting the supported pledge in the Budget Bill to develop and implement the new childcare strategy. That strategy will be imperative, especially in light of the overlapping nature and potential impact of welfare reform legislation. Providing an exceptional level of service and support to our children and young people should be at the heart of any progress that we want to achieve in the financial year. It may be worthwhile considering alternative initiatives that have previously proved successful in other parts of GB and in Ireland. In England, for example, the London borough of Tower Hamlets has recently piloted a scheme that seeks to provide up to 15 hours of funded childcare for two-year-olds from low-income families. That is in addition to the nursery provision that is already in place for three- and four-years-olds, which guarantees a funded place for a maximum of up to six terms or two academic years.
Such allowances enable those who might not otherwise be able to afford adequate childcare to benefit from this enhanced support mechanism, empowering them to better balance work and family life, as well as giving these children a head start through preparing them for primary school and their formative childhood years.
Another issue of particular interest in my analysis of the Bill and the figures detailed within is the mention by most Departments of provision for settling outstanding Civil Service equal pay claims. Having met a wide range of constituents directly affected by this issue, it is my sincere hope that, in this financial year, we may, at last, be able to adequately address any unresolved claims once and for all. I believe there is a moral obligation to do this.
Finally, so as not to disappoint the Minister, I will mention the costs of maintaining a divided society. These costs manifest themselves across all Departments and spending areas, and our Executive and Assembly must ensure that the provision of good facilities and services reflect the changing attitudes to, and preferences for, sharing and integration. We must make a genuine commitment to addressing such matters. I support the Bill.
David Hilditch (DUP)
I support the Budget Bill and the agreed principles within it, although I do appreciate that there are various views on how some of the departmental budgets are spread and distributed throughout.
With the economic difficulties that we continue to face in every sector, it is crucial to support the process before us as we attempt to balance our economy. I am pleased that the issues that dominated last week’s Estimates debate have been resolved, and, as a member of the Finance and Personnel Committee, I am pleased that the battle lines that had been drawn were quickly erased. Peace broke out, but not only that, a way forward was found.
Hopefully, that joined-up working can continue throughout this budgetary period, as this Assembly strives to improve the financial process and we look forward to the outcome of the Budget review work and the financial review process. That said, I do welcome the provisional out-turns of each Department and the work that has gone on in Departments, particularly aided by the useful and sensible approach in the monitoring rounds, with Departments reaching their targets and achievements. I hope that will continue over the budgetary period and, indeed, the mandate.
The Committee has undertaken considerable work, and I will not go through that again, as it has been highlighted by other Committee members. Previously, I had highlighted, within this year’s spend and Budget, some of the benefits of devolution locally and some of the issues that Members would be supporting and lobbying for. I welcome some of the DRD’s major infrastructure projects being delivered through this year’s spend in my constituency, such as the A2 and A8 projects; the major environmental improvement schemes that are under way in town centres throughout the Province through DSD, in conjunction with other measures that the Finance Minister has initiated to help our retail and small businesses; and the stadium projects that will progress our main sports. I, personally, hope that many others will benefit from these schemes as they progress and that DCAL will not inadvertently create a hierarchy of sport. I am confident that it will not.
There are, however, some areas of the Budget that cause me concern in relation to local delivery. One is the reduction to be borne by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency in the Department of the Environment. Over time, in my constituency, I have witnessed a reduced service delivery on the part of that agency, specifically in the section that deals with monuments and buildings of special interest — our built heritage. I refer, in particular, to a landmark on Belfast lough, Carrickfergus Castle. We have just learned that, due to this year’s financial projections, the very popular Lughnasa Fair, which attracts tens of thousands of people to the area, has been cancelled to provide a saving to the agency. This is purely a budgetary decision, and it has been met locally with disbelief. It is a major blow to the town, although that is perhaps not surprising, as we tend to play second fiddle to the only other walled settlement, Londonderry, when it comes to financial assistance for this type of cultural-heritage budgetary support. I hope that finance can be found in one of the monitoring rounds to reinstate that popular festival, which celebrated its fortieth anniversary last year. There are other issues about the castle and its fabric, parts of which are in urgent need of replacement. However, as those are not in this year’s spend, I will leave that argument for another occasion.
I would like to touch on a number of other areas of the Budget, one of which is the continued provision of effective firefighting and rescue and fire safety services. I pay tribute to those involved in that for their sterling work in the dangerous environments that they have to attend. That is an area of the Budget where we are witnessing a reduction. I am not saying that it cannot meet its requirements and needs, but I would like the Department to take a look at the provision of the service in greater Belfast locations and at getting the right balance between the work of the full-time and part-time service. I believe that such an exercise would be of benefit to that particular budget.
I note the uplift in the budgets for the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Older People and the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund. I welcome that and look forward to further detail from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister over the coming months.
I support the Bill.
Adrian McQuillan (DUP)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill as a member of the Committee for Finance and Personnel and as a Member for the East Londonderry constituency. The Bill would see the transfer of the remaining moneys to the Departments and associated agencies to the end of the current financial year. The Bill is obviously necessary as it grants the Minister of Finance and Personnel the authority to do that. If the Bill were not approved, the Departments and agencies would not be able to function and would simply grind to a halt.
The focus of the remainder of this financial year and, I suspect, of many years to come is on the local economy. The moneys detailed and set out for transfer to individual Departments and associated agencies in the Budget (No. 2) Bill are vital in order to maintain the running of our health service, schools, universities and colleges and for the maintenance of roads, among many other services and resources provided for the people of Northern Ireland. It is important that the Executive maintain a standard of living for those suffering as a result of the economic downturn, never mind those suffering from long-term illness or disability.
The Executive must ensure efficiencies at this time. Much of this has been forced by the Government in London. They led a campaign based on cuts in 2010, which led to a reduction in our block grant. The Executive have already used their only fiscal power responsibility, that of raising additional moneys through increasing the regional rate. The Executive have ensured that the regional rate has remained the same in real terms and, hence, have limited the burden on households at a time when households’ costs are soaring.
In the Programme for Government, the Executive committed to the reform of local government, reducing the number of councils from 26 to 11. It has been demonstrated that that will save money in the long term and, ultimately, will result in savings for those in East Londonderry, whom I am honoured to represent. The Executive have, therefore, demonstrated an ability to ensure efficiencies and to generate savings, while investing in our future.
That investment is demonstrated by the Executive’s decision to freeze student fees at their current rate, while plugging the gap resulting from that decision. Universities in Northern Ireland are, therefore, no worse off. That is encouraging for young people or even for mature students who are seeking to gain a qualification in order to advance or kick-start their career. However, there are many people out there who have exceptional qualifications but are unable to obtain a job. That is why I am pleased that the Executive have committed themselves to creating 25,000 jobs within this Assembly term. That is what we need in order to reduce unemployment, while offering our young people jobs that meet their expectations, ability and level of education.
At this time, demand outweighs supply, but we must make the best use of the resources we have and utilise them in order to assist those in need, to support training and education programmes and to support our private sector in order to generate growth.
I support the Bill.
Roy Beggs (UUP)
Thank you for this opportunity to comment on our Budget.
The man in the street will find the Budget process rather difficult to understand. Indeed, many of us who do not come from specialist accounting backgrounds find it equally difficult to understand the process involved. Let us take, for example, the requirement that, every year, the Budget Bill will be subject to accelerated passage and will not have a high level of scrutiny or accountability or significant input from Committees in suggesting alternatives or looking at options for how the money could be better spent. I think that there is a weakness there, and I welcome the fact that the Committee for Finance and Personnel has recommended improvements to the overall finance system, supported by the Minister and the Department. That area must be pursued. Clearly, there needs to be improved transparency and accountability.
At the bottom of this, we all need to remember that this is not our money. It is not the Minister’s money. It is not the Finance Department’s money. It is the public’s money. We all have a duty to ensure that there is transparency and that the best use is made of that money in the interests of the public, not for some narrow purpose that an individual Minister may wish to pursue.
I urge that improvements be made to the system. During our evidence session on the finance, we learned that around that time the Education Minister was opposing the new process, and I understand that his party is reluctant to support it. There must be a clearer movement forward in this area, and there must be transparency and accountability in our Budget so that money is well spent. I hope that the entire Assembly will ensure that the process moves forward, even after the Budget. Huge sums are involved, which are difficult for any of us to visualise. Eight billion pounds has already been put through the Consolidated Fund; there is a further £8·4 billion for resources through schedule 2 to the Bill; and there is £2·16 billion for accruing resources. These are huge sums, and difficult to grasp.
I concur with the points made by the Deputy Chair earlier about the Budget. The Estimates were given to the Finance Committee, but why were they withheld from all the other Committees? What harm would there have been in giving that information to the other Committees to allow them increased scrutiny? I cannot see any difficulty that would have resulted. It would be interesting to know. For the sake of improved accountability, that would have been useful. I certainly asked some questions about the Budget figures in the Estimates for which it was difficult to get answers. Other Committee members appeared not to be aware of some of the details that relate to the Budget.
Some changes in the summaries that were provided to the Finance Committee primarily concerned the Department for Regional Development with the changes to the A5: there is a minus £189 million but then a plus £123 million. The Department of Health benefited by £37 million capital, but there is a technical reduction of £3·7 million, so a net £34 million to the Department is, I understand, contained in the budgetary figures.
Accident and emergency departments are under considerable pressure. I certainly support additional capital moneys going to the Department of Health, which will help our Health and Social Care services and hopefully reduce some of the difficulties that they have been experiencing.
East Antrim is one of the constituencies without a hospital with an accident and emergency department. There is a minor injuries unit adjacent to us in Whiteabbey, which is valued by the local community. However, for Larne and Carrickfergus, there is little minor injuries provision, and that is an areas that I would like to be seen to be able to improve in the future. For accident and emergency, East Antrim is largely served by Antrim Area Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital. I hope that there will be continual improvement there. They have been unsatisfactory, with some of the longest A&E waiting lists in Northern Ireland. Clearly, that needs to improve. If some capital funding helps to do that, that will be good.
I think that this capital funding could be particularly useful because much of the pressure on our accident and emergency departments can be caused by patients who feel that they have no alternative but to go to an accident and emergency department. They frequently may, and ought to, be treated in other primary care settings, and Larne and Carrickfergus clearly fall into that category. With additional moneys, along with the co-operation of GPs and the new financial health models that are emerging within health in terms of an increased use of primary care, some of those patients could be treated in primary care, and critical A&E delays would be removed. As I said, I support additional capital moneys going to the Health Department, and I hope that some of it makes its way to my constituency. East Antrim has a particular need for improved health and care facilities.
Two of our primary health centres — the one in Talyors Avenue and the one in Gloucester Avenue — are badly outdated. They have poor infrastructure and their layouts are not correct. Additional capital moneys to those centres in the Budget would help to right those problems, so I hope that that is the case. Certainly, this is an area that continues to need support, so that GPs, many of whom already have specialist capabilities, can take on more responsibility. With the right infrastructure, GPs will be able to assist in improving everyone’s health, because more people will be treated locally, and the speed at which those who require accident and emergency facilities at Antrim Area Hospital or the Royal are treated will be increased. So, it is important that investment in our health capital infrastructure continues and that more responsibility is passed down to our GPs to enable them to treat more patients in their locality.
One of the questions that I pursued during the Committee’s consideration of the use of accelerated passage was the allocation of £4·9 million to the Middletown Centre for Autism in the Estimates, which related to the capital budget for education. When we pursued that allocation with the officials, we were advised that it has not been possible to move the money in the Budget process, even though the Department of Education had requested it. One of the officials indicated:
“When we seek to change the system and Budget allocations, we do so through exercises that are agreed by the Executive. We have not had an exercise on the 2012-13 allocations since the Budget. The first opportunity available to the Department to do that will be June monitoring, so we will seek to do it then.”
I look forward to the statement tomorrow. However, why do the Executive not have a process for reallocating money earlier instead of allowing figures to follow forward when everyone knows that the moneys are not in the right place? I hope the Minister will be able to tell us why there could not have been a meeting of the Executive and some of those moneys reallocated, so that, ultimately, they would have been in their correct positions at an earlier stage instead of the movement occurring some three months into this financial year. I understand from the officials that it has been known for several months that that allocation would not be pursued. So, for our Budget process and the Budget figures that we are presented with, there is clearly room for improvement. I just used the Middletown Centre for Autism allocation as one small example.
As a community, we need to ensure that we get the best for our funding, that we make the best use of it and that we make the time available to spend it as long as possible so that it can be well spent. There is a danger, if money has be spent in a short time, that it may not be as well spent as it could be. I have heard horror stories about fax machines in the old days being very busy in March because Departments had to spend their budgets. Whether or not some of the items purchased in those days were entirely necessary is another thing, but, as an Assembly, as a Finance Committee and as an Executive, everyone needs to work together to ensure that we get the best value for our community from our Budget.
William Humphrey (DUP)
It has been said by many that the key element in the Programme for Government and the Budget is the rebalancing of the economy. That is absolutely the case. It is pivotal to returning Northern Ireland to the economic success that we had a few years ago.
I support the Second Stage of the Budget Bill. I want to touch on a number of Departments and their work in my constituency of North Belfast and across the city of Belfast. This is a hugely important week for the city of Belfast and the people of Northern Ireland, with the visit tomorrow and Wednesday of the head of state, Her Majesty the Queen, to Northern Ireland and to this place, and, in the latter part of the week, the Irish Open in Portrush. Those hugely important events for our people are happening on the back of other significant events. Earlier this year, we had the launch and opening of the Titanic signature project in Belfast. Just last week in the Chamber, in response to a question I asked, the tourism Minister confirmed that 200,000 people had already visited the Titanic signature project. That is hugely welcome because those who come to Northern Ireland and the city of Belfast will, hopefully, go away with a positive experience having enjoyed their stay here and be persuaders for others to come and holiday in Northern Ireland.
We are on the cusp because next year we have the World Police and Fire Games, which, I think, is second to only the Olympics in the number who will participate and come along. Again, that is a hugely significant event for the city of Belfast. We are also in the first year of our decade of centenaries, which, again, will be hugely important, and significant with regard to the maturity of our society in Northern Ireland.
I also welcome the fact that the business improvement districts Bill has been agreed by the Executive and will come before the House. That is hugely important because those of us who represent cities and towns across Northern Ireland will be aware of the concern among not only ordinary individual traders but chambers of commerce and city centre managers. This is a hugely difficult period for trade. I recently met Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce and walked around the city centre. When you take the time to do that, you see the effect that this period is having on the high street, and not in just Belfast. I recently visited Bangor, which has been hugely dealt a hard blow. So, business improvement districts, and the Department for Social Development working closely with local councils and chambers of trade and commerce, will be very important.
Very recently in north Belfast, we had investment from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in the new Titanic distillery at Crumlin Road jail. That is tremendous in that it is a new brand and a significant year for Titanic whiskey to be launched, if I can use that term, and also to see that investment coming to a part of the city that is very run-down and deprived, and giving that old building, which is significant to our history, a new lease of life, in one of its wings anyway.
Also in north Belfast, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Department for Social Development have been working with elected representatives and Assembly Members, led by the constituency..." class="glossary">Member of Parliament, on a range of issues. We got agreement on a cultural corridor that will pass up Donegall Street through Crumlin Road and up to Clifton Park Avenue, taking in all those lovely, old and architecturally significant buildings and raising the profile and streetscape of that area. The development of the North Foreshore is hugely significant and key for north Belfast.
We look forward to Crusaders Football Club, which had a significant season winning the Setanta Sports Cup and are all-Ireland champions, and winning the League Cup. They just missed out to Linfield for the Irish FA Cup.
Girdwood is a site that will be of significance in the years to come. Again, despite the antics of some in recent weeks, we have had agreement on Girdwood and on taking that site forward for the benefit of the communities that will live cheek by jowl and abut the Girdwood site, and that is to be welcomed. I raised this issue in the Chamber last week and I have to say that there was absolutely no dirty deal done around Girdwood and the Maze. Those who peddle that lie, for a lie it is, simply do a disservice to all four parties in north Belfast.
One of the blights in north Belfast is Crumlin Road jail. That causes concern to the people who live in the area and those who represent it. We have to work with local and regional government, the Environment Agency, the Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust and historic buildings organisations to secure that lovely old building and restore and return it to new use.
A collaborative approach is absolutely vital as we move forward. For too long in Northern Ireland, we have had a situation whereby local councils have had their facilities and regional government, education and library boards and private clubs have had theirs. This country is too small, and there needs to be economies of scale. We need to share facilities and we need to share the cost. I see no reason why that cannot happen.
It is important to provide some reassurance to the general public and to taxpayers and ratepayers that we have that collaboration so that we can get the joined-up approach that will deliver cost-effectively. That is why it is important that the Assembly works with local councils and bodies such as the SEUPB, the universities and the education and library boards to ensure that we get that joined-up approach. We will see that work tremendously well when we host the World Police and Fire Games.
Education is a hugely significant and difficult matter in North Belfast, particularly in the greater Shankill area, which I represent. Educational attainment, preschool provision and a poor schools estate are three of the key issues. Therefore, I was very disappointed earlier today when it became clear that the new school that was promised some years ago to the principal and the board of governors of Glenwood Primary School on the Shankill was not included in the Minister of Education’s announcement. A new school had also been promised to the principal and the board of governors of Springhill Primary School in West Belfast, which is in a very poor state of repair, but it has not been delivered.
Too often, I hear politicians talking about what needs to happen in the greater Shankill area. They talk the talk, but they do not walk the walk. We need to tackle the issue in working-class areas, not just in North Belfast but across the city, because educational attainment and preschool provision are hugely important and will be on the desk of every MLA who represents the city.
I warmly welcome the announcement of the relocation of the University of Ulster campus to North Belfast. That will provide a huge boost to the lower part of the constituency, in and around the Shore Road and York Road. That area will be completely revitalised and will link in well with the Cathedral Quarter and the north-west part of the city centre around Royal Avenue, North Street and Donegall Street. The relocation is hugely welcome, and I look forward to it.
My colleague Nelson McCausland and I met the chief executive of Belfast Metropolitan College last week. The college faces a huge challenge, because it must provide courses and make them available and relevant to the young people who live in the area. We cannot simply deal with the issue of education in isolation from vocational training. There are lots of young people, particularly young males, in working-class areas across the city who are not getting a fair deal. The Department for Employment and Learning, in conjunction with Belfast Metropolitan College, needs to step up to the plate so that we have the training and provide the skills to produce joiners, sparks, plumbers, and so on, not just for the world of industry, but so that they can go and set up their own businesses as well.
As a member of the green and white army, I welcome the investment that will refurbish Windsor Park football ground. As the new manager starts his work with the national team, I hope that the refurbishment will provide the impetus for a new era. As a long-standing Northern Ireland supporter, I take this opportunity to express my sympathy to the family of Alan McDonald on his very untimely and sad passing at the weekend.
Earlier, I mentioned the architectural significance of some of the buildings along the cultural corridor. One of the key buildings in North Belfast is the former Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church, which used to be known as the Methodist cathedral.
Last week, I was very pleased to go along with some council colleagues to look at the work that has been being done to ensure that the building is stabilised and has been weathered. I pay tribute to the Department of the Environment and the Minister for providing money to do that.
North Belfast, again, and the Crumlin Road prison provides an opportunity for the location of a digital hub for Belfast. The digital hub can benefit small businesses. Ironically, the cell system in the prison can be used in a very positive way to provide units for those small businesses. It makes sense in the economic situation in which we find ourselves, but the prison also lends itself well to the arts, computers, electronic industries and so on. The Department should give consideration to that.
I started off by talking about tourism, and I will conclude by talking about tourism. Often, this place is portrayed nationally in a very negative way. We have come a long way. By no means is Northern Ireland perfect, but we stand here in an Assembly questioning a devolved Minister who has responsibility for the finances of this place. I am pleased that that responsibility rests with a unionist. He has done an exceptional job. I said last year in Committee and in the Chamber — we see it again today — that Minister Wilson is a “no surrender” Minister in the sense that he makes sure that money does not go back to the Treasury in London. We should all welcome that; surely everyone across the Chamber, as we come to this time of year, agrees that he is a “no surrender” Minister.
Tourism figures reflect the progress that we have made. In 2011, the city of Belfast had 7·9 million visitors, 1·6 million of whom were overnight stays. They spent £401 million, £168 million of which was spent by the overnight visitors. Hotel occupancy last year was 65%. This year, it is up by a further 13%. By any stretch of the imagination, that is a good news story for Belfast and Northern Ireland. What is better than the fact that those people come and then go away and are persuaders for Northern Ireland is the fact that so many people are employed. This reflects the import of tourism and hospitality to our Northern Ireland economy: somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people are employed in the tourism and hospitality sector in the city of Belfast. That is huge progress. Belfast is now nationally and internationally seen as a must-see destination. It is also a very popular place to come for city breaks. That is a positive story; it shows progression and development. It shows that this local Assembly is working and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
You take me by surprise, Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker. I thought that, some having resisted accelerated passage, this would be a most protracted process. Here we are at the end of the debate; if I am being called, I assume that it is the end of the debate. Of course, last week’s sham fight turned out to be exactly that. Shrinking violets like me had to listen to all sorts of bellicose trading of insults across the Chamber. We had the Minister talking about the Committee being truculent and petulant. He was told by Mr Murphy to wind in his neck and that he was talking himself out of accelerated passage and all of that. I assured the Minister at the time that they would kiss and make up. It was indeed all bluff and bluster that signified nothing. Where is Mr Murphy — “Discriminator” Murphy? He is off to become the crown steward of somewhere or other in the United Kingdom. What an end for the man who was leading the fight against the oppression of the Department and all of that. He melted away spectacularly.
When the Minister went to the Committee on Wednesday morning, far from it being a no-holds-barred, daggers-drawn encounter, the Committee just collapsed and did not ask him the hard questions. The Minister had come to the House and said that he took responsibility for an oversight, but no one seemed to trouble to press him on what exactly that oversight was. When did your Department issue the papers? When did you receive them? Where were they in between? What was the oversight to which you referred? If ever a Minister was let off the hook, it was the Finance Minister on that occasion. Of course, it was always only a little bit of play-acting, and so it turned out.
We now have accelerated passage, whereby it takes all of just over one hour’s debate to get the weighty matter of a Budget through the House. Things go on as they always do. There was I a week ago thinking that it was another occasion of “never, never, never”, with the Committee never, never, never going to roll over. Yet there they were like pussycats on Wednesday morning. All was forgiven when they kissed and made up. Mr Humphrey referred to the Minister as a “no surrender” Minister. It was certainly not a “no surrender” Committee, that is for sure. It surrendered spectacularly last Wednesday morning.
Therefore, we have a Budget with a plethora of expenditure to which I object once again. That includes the bloated expenditure on this bloated structure of government in which we have four Ministers in one Department, joint First Ministers, and far more Departments than we need. We will continue to have far more Departments than we need. Out of political expediency, we just might get round to getting rid of one of them some day. That Department will go, not because it is the most deserving one to go but because it happens to be the one held by the Alliance Party, which had two Executive seats unjustly. I do not know what would have happened if the Alliance Party held the Health Ministry. I suppose that we would have had to just abolish the Department of Health, such is the political expediency of all this. I have not seen that Bill. Maybe it has reached some hitch, but I am sure that it is coming. I am sure that it will also have super-acceleration through the House.
In the meantime and thereafter, we will continue to squander whatever it takes to keep the extravagant structures of this House in place, including all those Departments and, of course, 108 MLAs, which is far more than this House needs. Judging by the workload of this House, I think that it is certainly a lot more than this House needs. We will pour fresh money into keeping all that going. We will pour money into those useless North/South bodies. We will keep priming that pump and pouring the money down the drain. You talk about leakage, but there has never been such leakage of valuable resources than those that flow down the drain of the North/South bodies. As I said last week, we will squander more on spin doctors, photographers and hospitality. Never mind; it is supposedly a period of recession, but there is not much sign of it when it comes to all that. And, oh yes, the Maze shrine will certainly will get whatever it takes. Mr Humphrey says that there has been no deal about the Maze shrine, but his problem probably is that, if there was a deal, it would have been done well above his head and he would be one of the last to know about it. There certainly was a radical road to Damascus conversion from Mr Humphrey’s party about the Maze shrine from the days when he and others, such as his deputy leader, Mr Dodds, were telling us how utterly unacceptable it was. Now it is to be built with the buildings as an integral part. If they were not an integral part, it would not be being built there whatsoever. One Member of this House, Mr McCartney, has already told us how those buildings will be used for storytelling the type of nightmarish stories that his party wants to tell. So, this Budget has the money for that.
We hear a lot of talk that the Budget is about rebalancing the economy. How many years have we not heard that? I walk down the main street of Ballymoney or Ballymena and see a lot of rebalancing, but it is rebalancing in the wrong way. It is another shop closed, another set of shutters down and another business driven off the street. Yes, there is much need for rebalancing the economy, but it seems that there are priorities far beyond that such as the Maze shrine, the North/South bodies and all that essential squander that lies at the heart of government in this place.
I say, without repeating all the points that I made, that this Budget does not have its priorities right. As long as it continues to highlight and prioritise such squander, it will be a Budget that shows itself with no real interest in turning round the economy and the fortunes of Northern Ireland. It has a greater interest in sustaining the political process that is this place, and that is the top priority of this Budget and this Executive. It is not about turning around the economy of Northern Ireland but about sustaining, at whatever price it takes, the structures of misgovernment in this Province, and, whether that will ever be admitted, it is undoubtedly the truth. With those few stumbling remarks, I make my contribution to the Budget debate.
Danny Kinahan (UUP)
I am pleased to speak on the Budget because it is the lifeblood of everything that goes on in Northern Ireland, and we need to consider whether it is being spent in the right way. We listened to Mr Humphrey earlier and heard about all the things happening in Belfast, and those of us from other parts of Northern Ireland are beginning to wonder why it all goes to Belfast. However, it is our capital, and it deserves it. However, you have to be careful when promoting your own place so much that others do not want more in their areas.
One thing that puzzles me about the Budget process is the amount of time that we spend debating it, the Estimates and other issues in the Chamber. We seem to go round and round with petty point-scoring. There are good debates and poor debates, and we could do it better. I urge the Minister and this Assembly to look at how we can do that more efficiently.
As I am now Deputy Chair of the Committee, I want to speak more about education. A hefty sum of £1·083 billion is being spent on schools, yet we know that it is not enough. We recognise that times are hard and that money is limited, and we know that we all have to learn how to manage it best. We should maybe debate today and on other days how to try to get that done properly. Some £50 million is being spent on preschool education, yet some goes to crèches, nurseries and to other types of education. We really must find an efficient way to make sure that everybody who needs preschool education is getting their money and their chance. The Minister wants everyone to have a preschool education, yet, somehow, we have not found a way of doing it. It needs to be reorganised better, and I ask the Minister to pressurise the Education Minister when dealing with such matters, especially so that we deal with helping out the working poor and others who really need help in preschool education.
In the Committee, we saw that the proposals on early years were roundly opposed by almost all of the groups. We must find a way to deal with early years provision properly. It needs to be reviewed and reformed. It is possibly in the Department of Education’s headings as “certain services for children” or even in OFMDFM’s headings under “children and young people”, but we must find a way forward, and I ask the Minister to push for it.
In the UK, some 80% of the funding for schools is spent at the schools level, whereas here it is some 49% or 50%, with a great deal of money going to other, smaller matters before it even gets down to the schools. Once again, I ask the Minister to keep the pressure up. ESA is one possible way of resolving that, but we want that to be properly debated and consulted on to come up with a really efficient system that allows the schools to have better funding and finance at their fingertips.
In the future, we will have a mass of area planning and a mass of changes to schools. Yet, nowhere in what we are seeing are we learning the cost of area planning or the benefits. There must be costs at the beginning, and there must be savings later, but we have not seen any facts or figures. All of us need to get ready for the summer and the autumn as the area planning changes cause everyone to have concern about their children’s schooling and to contact their MLAs. We will need to know what we will say about that and how much it will cost.
Buried in the Budget are hidden factors that we need to know more about. There is £13·77 million for miscellaneous educational services. We need to know what is in these figures and that it will be spent in a fair and proper manner and not just kept as a contingency fund, whether that is for more Irish schools or other purposes. We must know what it is being spent on. Another £5·5 million is also under the heading of “Miscellaneous Educational Services”. In this Budget process, we need to know more detail on all of the figures. Too much is hidden.
Turning to council finance, I agree with my colleagues that we need a seeding grant or something up front to help the reorganisation of councils. Buried in the changes to councils is this concern that many councils have huge debts. If we are to look at proper use of public money and gearing it properly by borrowing from the Scottish system, which I have touched on before, we must learn how to make the best use of public and private finance. In response to a question that was asked previously, we were told that the councils would be best placed for that. We should consider whether they are going to be best placed if they are all borrowing to the hilt before we get there. Should we not be looking at how we do that ourselves at Stormont and not just at councils? Minister, I am looking to see whether we can make better use of public and private funding.
Lastly, I have a more minor point on the jargon that is thrown at us throughout all of these Estimates and budgeting processes. It made me smile when I found a heading entitled “Notional Charges in Non-Budget”. Notional means that it is either a guess or it does not exist. If it is non-Budget, it is not in the Budget, so we have an empty figure or a guess of a figure that is in the Budget but not really there. Maybe I need to do a course. I did once have a Bachelor of Commerce degree in accounting, but we never came across non-Budget or notional charges.
Joanne Dobson (UUP)
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the Second Stage of the Budget Bill. The debate really only follows on from last week to give effect to the 2012-13 Main Estimates, but, conveniently, we now have the time and the flexibility to raise a number of specific points. As the Ulster Unionist Party’s spokesperson for agriculture and wider rural affairs, I will largely keep my comments to this area. I agree with a number of Members who expressed concern about the manner in which some of the information for the Estimates and Budget Bill has been presented. There are still a number of items of expenditure that few Members know the true purpose behind. I will raise a number of specific points on the Budget with the Minister. Although I appreciate that he does not necessarily decide where the money goes in the Agriculture Department, his opinion will be welcome.
At the start of the year, I called on the Minister to review the level of capital support available to farmers, and I used Scotland as an example of where a fair compromise seems to have been found. However, over the next 12 months, DARD will be making even less grant funding available to farmers than in the previous 12 months. In addition, the Department has an absolutely awful track record of tackling TB in Northern Ireland. Over the past 15 or 16 years, the Department has spent well in excess of £300 million on its bovine TB programme. That programme has failed, given that, in some areas of Northern Ireland, incidences of bovine TB are rife and the overall rate remains far higher than it was in 1996. Rather than spending huge sums of money on compensation to farmers and fees to private vets, the Department could have resolved the problem by now if it had properly addressed the situation.
I have looked at where it is proposed that some of the money should go. In DARD this year, over £50 million is going to the Veterinary Service alone. Until Minister O’Neill is prepared to listen to advice from experts in the industry, DARD will continue to spend huge amounts of money every year on an issue that it is not genuinely trying to resolve. That was seen clearly in the run-up to the publication of the PFG. There is also continued significant investment in the Forest Service this year. Although that is welcome, my party is keen to further explore the utilisation of the agency’s existing assets.
The Ulster Unionist Party is deeply concerned about the threat of infraction fines imposed by the European Union and the subsequent detrimental effect that that could have on the Northern Ireland block in general and on the budget for agriculture in particular. The Minister is already aware of the almost self-inflected wounds in DOE and DARD in relation to their inability to manage the horse mussels in Strangford lough. The danger is that that is likely to result in more fines. Of course, those could not have been budgeted for; nonetheless, it is something that the Finance Minister must think about.
Last year, it was proposed that the axis 1 expenditure in the rural development programme was to be £15·1 million. In reality, the Department managed to spend only £10 million. Although I acknowledge that the majority of axis 1 underspend related to schemes that were 100% EU funded and can later be reinvested and, therefore, are outside of the remit of the Bill, it still does not bode well for the financial competence of the Department.
The common agricultural policy, through the administration of the single farm payment, is another area that exposes total financial mismanagement at the heart of the Department. Legislative proposals for CAP reform post-2013 have now been published, but include a number of potential pitfalls, of which the Executive must remain conscious.
Since getting elected just over a year ago, I have strongly believed that the agrifood industry could be particularly valuable in driving forward Northern Ireland’s economic regeneration, creating wealth and providing much-needed private-sector employment. It is one of the economy’s greatest strengths and something that we should seek to constructively exploit at every opportunity. Although there is little that they need through the Bill or the Main Estimates, it is vital that DARD and DETI retain their current interest in promoting that section of our economy and allocate the fairly minimal resources where necessary.
DARD, like every other Department in the Executive, has had to make some difficult decisions. Although, in cash terms, the line remains fairly level in the overall four-year budget, it actually means that the Department is being asked to find approximately £40 million of cash savings to help fund pressures, which is a decline of 11% in real terms when comparing 2014-15 with 2011-12. The Budget Bill merely reflects the tightening of resources in the Department.
Mike Nesbitt (UUP)
I will say little in my capacity as Chairperson, except to thank the officials who, over the year, have given us occasional briefings and updates, and organised a visit by the Committee to the former army barracks at Shackleton in Ballykelly, which is something that I will to return to in a moment. The Minister very kindly suggested that if we had any specific queries he would be happy to address those for us. So, perhaps the Minister can enlighten me on a couple of issues that I have as a Member of the Assembly and a member of the Committee, and in a personal capacity.
First, there is the social investment fund. Originally, it set out with a budget of £80 million over a four-year period. That, of course, has not been taken forward on time. I know that the Committee is yet to see a timetable. Perhaps the Minister can clarify the situation. The Main Estimates last week and the Budget (No. 2) Bill today shed very little light on the situation of the £80 million. I know it may be considered a bit of a drop, given that the OMFDFM allocation in this year’s Budget is £48,659,000.
I also want to bring up the childcare strategy, which is absolutely fundamental if we are going to make a genuine effort to rebalance the economy and empower parents and guardians with the maximum opportunity to gain and retain employment. As yet, we have no detail on the exact resources that OFMDFM plans to put into that vital strategy over the year in question.
As we all know, the victims’ sector is undergoing some major changes, with changes in the commission, the introduction of a victims’ forum and the introduction of a Victims and Survivors Service. I wonder if the Minister will have any comment on the location of the Victims and Survivors Service. It seems to me that Millennium House on Great Victoria Street is quite an expensive location for the service and, perhaps, not the most appropriate, given that the entrance means that the victims more or less identify themselves just by walking down one of the main thoroughfares of Belfast to access the building. That is unlike Windsor House, for example, where the Victims’ Commission is located. People could be visiting one of a large number of government and arm’s-length bodies in that building.
Perhaps the Minister can also address the historical institutional abuse inquiry, which we were hearing about earlier today. When will the inquiry be factored into the Budget in a detailed manner? It is included in the Bill that is before us under the heading of support for the inquiry into historical institutional child abuse, but it was not contained in the Main Estimates.
The delivering social change programme aims to deliver a sustained reduction in poverty and associated issues. Unfortunately, as the Minister will know, the direction of travel is opposite to that planned, as is the case with fuel poverty, and again in both cases, sometimes for reasons beyond our control. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us as to when we are likely to see a costed implementation plan for that programme, as it is not currently available.
I will finish by returning to the issue of Shackleton Barracks. Some weeks ago, I was surprised to discover that when the Ministry of Defence offloaded Fort George in Derry/Londonderry, it was, first of all, gifted to the Londonderry Port and Harbour Commissioners, which then sold it to the Department for Social Development, which discovered that it needed some remedial costs, particularly for decontamination. The Department for Social Development was able to claw back some £3 million to £4 million, from memory, from the Ministry of Defence. That was on the principle that the polluter pays. Surprisingly, that does not seem to be the case with army barracks that were “gifted” to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
I know the Committee has visited Shackleton Barracks. It has looked at that vast site and at some of the issues, such as the pumping station that no longer appears to be fit for purpose and some of the drains, the annual maintenance of which seems to have drifted somewhere behind optimum provision. There are annual costs for the maintenance and security for those sites, and then there is the much bigger issue of the cost of decontamination, which, apparently, will not be met by the Ministry of Defence but will have to be met by the devolved government.
Perhaps the Minister can give us some clarity on the costs and timescales there. He will know that, specifically with Shackleton Barracks, the way forward is so contested and the disagreement between the key players is so deep that it is now officially recorded. I wonder whether the Minister believes that, when the Ministry of Defence was withdrawing from Northern Ireland and no longer had need for those military sites, it realised the potential cost of making them fit for another purpose, be it housing, light industry or recreation, and realised that it was looking at a multimillion pound bill and decided that it would see if it could hoodwink the Executive by saying that they could have the land as a gift, without pointing out the many millions of pounds that the Executive will now have to find in order to make the sites fit for a new life and a different purpose.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
There are still some Members here, and I will not detain them. I am sure that everyone wants to get home, but points were raised during the debate, and it is only right that I should respond to them. First, I am glad that we did not have a repeat of last week’s debate. Apart from Mr Allister and Mr Cree, no one mentioned the little dispute between the Committee and me. However, I wish to allay Mr Allister’s fears that there was a cuddling session at the Committee and that we all kissed and made up. I did not have to hug Committee members, and I did not even have to air kiss them. We had a robust exchange. I explained my position, they explained their position, and we got on with the job of doing what the Committee had to do, which was to ask questions about the thing. The one point I will make is that, last week, Mr Cree was very indignant about my treatment of him and the Committee, but he did not even bother turning up to hear the explanation. Obviously, he was not that indignant about the situation.
Leslie Cree (UUP)
I know that the Minister is inclined to forget things, and he might not have been paying attention to what I said. However, I explained to him that I was at a previous appointment doing other work, which was almost as important as that which detained the Committee, but the rest of the Committee looked after it fairly well.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
He explained to the Assembly how he was offended at not being properly consulted, so what could have been more important that he did not come along to hear the answer? Obviously, he had something more important to do than listening to me, and I can understand that. Anyhow, we have now got to the point where the Committee has agreed to accelerated passage. I was somewhat dismayed by the kind of response that there was, and I want to put on record that the Committee has been well served by DFP officials and me. In fact, we have the best record at responding to papers and queries from the Committee and at getting papers to it quickly. Indeed, officials often go along and are asked about one subject, but the topic wanders into other subjects, and they still oblige, even though they have not been asked to do that. However, I will leave that aside.
I will come to some of the points that were made. Some points are common to a number of speeches that Members made. Mr Bradley spoke on behalf of the Committee. He talked about the consultation process and said that, because Estimates were not made available at an earlier stage, Committees often could not scrutinise, and I had complained about them. There is no reason why Departments cannot share their Estimates with the relevant Committees when they are in draft form. That would ensure better and longer scrutiny. The problem is that the Department cannot force other Departments to share that with the Committees, but it would be a useful step forward.
Mr Bradley also raised the issue of the money that was paid out in respect of the Northern Ireland Events Company, even though it had been wound up seven years ago. He argued about whether it was necessary to have that amount spent. First of all, it is only a notional amount; in other words it is an accounting adjustment so there is not a real resource cost. That will, perhaps, address the point that Mr Kinahan made earlier, about notional amounts of money. However, under ‘Managing Public Money’, where a departmental accounting officer has any fear that fraud has been committed, he is duty bound to ask for a report and trigger an investigation. Mr Bradley said that it was perhaps something that the Northern Ireland Audit Office would be interested in. I suspect that, had the accounting officer not done that, it might be something that the Northern Ireland Audit Office would be interested in. So, it was a necessary step because of the accounting officer’s fear.
Mr Bradley also raised the issue of capital receipts and indicated this vast jump from £1·3 million, around January, to £1·71 million, which I had reported. There is some confusion. If I caused it, I accept responsibility for that. There are two sources for the receipts. First, there are receipts from asset management unit sales, which is the £1·3 million to which Mr Bradley was referring. The figure that was set for asset management unit sales for this year was £2·5 million, and the unit actually achieved £2·8 million. The other source was for capital receipts from sales made by Departments. The target there was £142 million, and £171 million was realised. That was a better performance than we had anticipated.
Mr Bradley also raised the issue of welfare reform and asked what there was in the Budget to deal with what he claimed would be a reduction in spending in Northern Ireland under welfare reform. He seemed to indicate that, somehow or other, I was coming round to the SDLP’s version of events as far as welfare reform is concerned. Let me make something very clear. There will not be a reduction in spending on benefits as a result of welfare reform. What will happen is that spending will not go up as quickly as was anticipated. Between now and 2015, the amount of money spent on benefits in Northern Ireland will go up by hundreds of millions of pounds. That is the first thing; the second is this. Mr Bradley asked what the Executive are doing to help people through the impact of welfare reform on the most vulnerable. The whole point about universal credit is that it is designed to address poverty through getting people who are workless at present and dependent on the state into work. I would have thought that that is something that everyone in the Assembly wants. Why do we want a population that is dependent, or which has no incentive to work, or some of whom have no incentive to work? The whole point of universal credit is to try to address that problem.
Let us get those two things straight. First, there will not be a reduction in the total amount of money available; there will be an increase. Secondly, I believe it is a worthy objective to get people into work and give them the dignity of employment —
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
Yes, I will give way in a moment.
It is a worthy objective to stop the kind of dependency culture that, I must say, I have heard about from the SDLP time and again. There are people across Northern Ireland, whom we all represent, for whose families worklessness has become a generational problem. The grandfather did not work, the father did not work and the son does not work. The argument is that that is a disgrace, and it is right; it is a disgrace. If we can move people away from that through reforming the benefits system and doing the work that the Executive have set for themselves on rebalancing and growing the economy, that should be a good thing.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I totally agree with what he says. It is certainly a laudable aim to get people back into work, but unfortunately, there are no jobs for them. First, we have to get the jobs. Secondly, how does the Minister reconcile the fact that he says that there will be increases in benefit payments with what the Prime Minister said today at Westminster?
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
First, I was answering the Member’s point that, as a result of welfare reform, Northern Ireland would lose hundreds of millions of pounds of spending. That is not the case. The projections are that we will get hundreds of millions of pounds’ additional money, but the increase will not be as fast as had been anticipated. Secondly, as I understand it and as all the commentators do — I was listening to the Minister for Work and Pensions on Radio 4 this morning, and he made it quite clear — the Prime Minister was today setting out his stall for what will happen after this Parliament and in the next Parliament. Even with that, there are a lot of caveats, but I am not here to defend the Prime Minister or the coalition Government. I am here to explain the impact of the Budget on the current proposals and to answer the Member’s questions.
Mr Girvan, along with a number of other Members, raised the issue of the vagueness in some of the Estimates and especially the use of the word “miscellaneous”. I welcome that point from all the Members who raised it. Time and time again, I have said that I have absolutely no fear of transparency in the budgetary process and the figures that are given to the Assembly, because there is no one as much as me who wants the money that we allocate to Departments to be well and properly spent and for Members to have an opportunity to question why it is spent in a particular way. If we are going to allocate money to Departments, I want to make sure of that, even if it is sometimes embarrassing and people find out that money is spent on things that cannot really be justified. That is the job of the Assembly.
During the Budget debate last year, I was the one exhorting Ministers to make sure that they gave their savings delivery plans to the Committees early so that the Committees could see where they intended to make their savings and what they intended to spend their money on. I do not think that any Finance Minister would want ambiguity with a Budget. I say again to Sinn Féin Members, who are probably sick and tired of listening to me: we do review the financial process. It is stuck with the Executive; it is designed to improve transparency; and it is designed to streamline the whole system of scrutinising the Budget. For the life of me, I cannot understand why it is continually held up. I hope to meet the Education Minister tomorrow to discuss the issue, and I trust that I will get the same response from him that I got from the Committee last week. I am not talking about rolling over or anything like that. I am simply saying that we will have a good exchange of views. We will explain our position, and we will then move on constructively together, which is what the Committee and I did last week. I hope that we can also do that with the financial processes paper.
The Minister is portraying himself as a knight in shining armour; champion of scrutiny, transparency and accountability. That does not quite match up with his attitude to the Audit Office. He seems to want to control the finances and the Audit Office, and, indeed, usurp the role of the Audit Committee.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
Totally to the contrary. I want to see the Audit Office live up to the strictures it places on Departments. For example, I want to see it be responsible for the money that is allocated to it; be accountable for the money that is allocated to it; not underspend consistently; and surrender money in time so that it can be used properly for spending on other services. I have made it clear that I am not against the Audit Office. I simply want to see the Audit Office apply to itself what it would like to see in Departments. When it makes recommendations, I want to see that those recommendations are not a box-ticking exercise. Members have complained, very often, about box-ticking —
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
I will give way in a minute.
Members have complained about the box-ticking exercises, the slowness and the caution that there is in Departments. Very often, of course, that comes as a result of recommendations that sometimes are not appropriate to the quick running of and quick decision-making in Departments.
You can be absolutely sure of one thing: when you mention the Audit Office, people pop up everywhere to defend it. All I am saying is — [Interruption.]
Danny Kinahan (UUP)
The very vicious Chair of the Audit Committee. No; not at all.
Does the Minister understand that a change of rules is needed so that we can report the answer to the question that is being chased? That information was available in a report. We just cannot pass it to him. At the same time, there has to be a fine balance between the Audit Committee’s independence and the Finance Minister’s wish for certain information. There will always be a battle between the two. However, instead of discomfort, there should be comfort in how it works.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
I am not too sure about the balance that the Member refers to. The only thing I want, and I do not think it an unreasonable request, is that the Audit Office be as open in its dealings and as efficient in its spending as it expects Departments to be. I am sure that that is what the Assembly wants. Maybe we will get round to that at some stage. We will, of course, debate this tomorrow afternoon. We will have plenty of time to discuss it then.
I express my appreciation of the way in which Mr McLaughlin has dealt with the Budget, and of the leadership he has given in getting it moved along. He raised the issue of administration costs. I welcome his call for transparency in administration costs. One thing we said in the Budget last year was that, if we were going to have restricted budgets, we did not want the axe to fall on front line services. We wanted to see the more efficient running of Departments. If you look at the record for this year, with a £5·3 million reduction — or £5·8 million, I cannot remember; I think it was £5·3 million — in the administration costs of Departments, you will see that by and large we have succeeded in doing that. That money has then freed up resources for front line services.
Mr McLaughlin also raised the issue of matching budgets to Programme for Government targets. Although I have some sympathy with that, we have to be realistic. Some of the key commitments in the Programme for Government do not match actually lines in departmental spend. Given the way in which Programme for Government targets and commitments are worded, high-level ones especially, they do not match up. Budgets are related more to the spend on specific things in Departments. So, matching the two is not always possible.
I mentioned Mr Cree, and I am glad that he confirmed that he was not snubbing me last Wednesday; he had a prior engagement. He raised a number of issues, including the PSNI equal pay claim and the ring-fencing of the money for that. There is £26 million available for that. That money was available until the end of the previous financial year, and I made sure that it was carried over into this financial year. The Treasury has made that money available to us. Mr Cree will be aware that the PSNI equal pay claim is going to the courts; I think that the hearing is set for September of this year. So, it would not really be appropriate for me to discuss in this forum the exact nature of the difficulties while a court case is pending. All I can say is that, as I have always expressed, I have no difficulty with the claim, because, first, as a party, we negotiated for the money to be put into the police budget for any equal pay claim when the devolution of policing and justice powers took place, and, secondly, if there is a legitimate claim, we will give it our full support. Indeed, our intervention to make sure that the money was rolled on, given that the issue had not been resolved, is an indication of our support for the claim. At the end of the day, however, before that money can be drawn down, it has to be shown that there is a legitimate claim. I do not want to say anything more about that.
Mr Cree also raised the issue of the timeliness of the Estimates. He said that they are important in providing the Assembly with the latest financial position. Again, however, he fails to understand that the Budget is a moving process and that, by tomorrow, the figures will be out of date, because we will, of course, have the June monitoring round. Three times during the year, Departments have to say whether they have reduced requirements, which we want to get as early as possible, and we then make reallocations. That, of course, then changes the amount of money that is in the Budget. Compared with what we agreed this time last year for the four years, such monitoring is one of the changes that will be in this Budget. The Assembly supported some movements that were made in the monitoring round statements to improve spending on various matters.
Ms Cochrane raised the issue of the preschool expansion programme. In the 2011-12 school year, 23,000 children received funded preschool education. The Programme for Government has a commitment to provide one year of funded preschool education for every child whose parents wish to avail themselves of it. That will be reflected in Departments’ spending, and the childcare strategy will be part of that commitment.
Mr Hilditch went through a number of issues concerning his constituency. I think that doing that adds colour to the dryness of the Budget Estimates; indeed, a number of other Members did the same. We talk about the billions of pounds that have been allocated to Departments and about what each one has, but we need to think about what that means for constituencies. For example, Mr Hilditch mentioned the A2 and the A8 in East Antrim, the improvements to Carrickfergus town centre and the rates reductions that were made available to small businesses, which, again, enabled some such businesses to keep their head above water. He also mentioned the money that was spent on the Fire Service, and, given the incident at the weekend, that illustrates the importance of the service. We have to remember — in fact, I made this point at the end of my opening remarks — that this is not just about some very complicated and technical legislation, but about money being made available for services on the ground.
Mr McQuillan spoke about the regional rate, and I welcome his comments. I emphasise again the Executive’s commitment to fair rates in our society. Rates have been the headline time and again, and a number of groups have latched on to that. It is worth emphasising that, in the previous four-year mandate and for this four years, there has been a dramatic change in the way in which we have viewed local taxation. Do not forget that, before the previous Assembly was set up, the last direct rule decision was to increase rates by 19%. Before that, the Assembly had increased the regional rate steadily. Indeed, when the SDLP held the Finance Ministry, rates went up by around 9%. We have held them — frozen them — for the past five years now and will do so for the next three years.
We have lower local taxes than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. We have concessions to manufacturing, to small businesses and to those who have properties that they cannot let that are more generous than those anywhere else in the United Kingdom. When people ask what the Assembly has done or how it has responded to the particular economic difficulties that we face, I can say that we have not dipped into the pockets of individuals or businesses in the way in which Administrations in other parts of the United Kingdom have. It is worthwhile repeating that. At the same time, we have said that we will look for the savings required to do that, because do not forget that that is revenue forgone. We will look for that revenue in the kinds of efficiency savings that Mr McLaughlin referred to in his speech.
Mr Beggs spoke about Middletown and the timing of Budget changes. He asked why, if the decision was known before June monitoring, the Executive could not have agreed it sooner. The implication almost seemed to be that the Executive did not care and that we should have agreed the funding at previous Executive meetings. We have a system for dealing with in-year changes to the Budget that is proportionate and enables Departments to have flexibility: it is called the monitoring rounds. We cannot have a monitoring round every month or at every Executive meeting. Departments consider what reduced requirements they have and what bids they want to make. Sometimes, people say that, even done three times a year, there is still not enough discussion with Committees about reduced requirements and bids for additional spending. If a monitoring round were done monthly, as Mr Beggs seems to be suggesting, in order to have that flexibility, I do not think that it would work. The reallocation of money is done at the beginning of the year, so, unlike he suggested, there is not a very short time to reallocate it — there is the rest of the year for that money to be spent.
He also raised the issues of the accident and emergency department at Antrim Area Hospital and capital funding for health. I suppose that the good news for Mr Beggs is that we now have a Minister who deals with health issues and has not, as the Minister from Mr Beggs’s party did for four years, sat on his hands and fiddled while the health service went into decline and no decisions were made.
We now have a Minister who is making decisions and making improvements to the health service. He has a long-term vision -—
Michael McGimpsey (UUP)
On a point of order, Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for Mr Wilson to say that I sat on my hands for four years? This is the Finance Minister who told me in a bilateral meeting that I had 4,500 more nurses than I needed when compared with England. This is a man who thinks that we need thousands fewer nurses in the health service. That is the sort of decision that he expects people to make.
William Hay (DUP)
Sorry, hold on. The speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker has the opportunity to respond.
The Member has now had the opportunity to put his views on record. I am sure that we can leave the matter there and continue with the Budget debate.
Sammy Wilson (DUP)
Since the matter of health was raised during the debate, I am sure that you will allow me to respond to the points that were made.
I will just point out that we have now come through the first year of the Budget. We were told during the Budget debate last year that, given the allocation that was made, the health service would be on chapter 11 by the end of April this year. I still do not have a clue what American bankruptcy laws had to do with the health service of Northern Ireland, but I suppose he hoped that nobody would discover this. We were told, anyway, that the health service would have collapsed by this stage. Not only has the health service not collapsed, but decisions have been made that are turning it around and that will enable the health service to live within the budget that has been allocated for it for the next four years.
When I said that the previous Minister sat on his hands, I think I am probably being fairly generous to him. It is quite clear that no major decisions were made during his time. I suppose he could not have sat on his hands anyway, because all he ever did was hold his hands out for more money. He could not live within his budget. It took a DUP Minister to show how not only to live within your budget but to use that budget to improve the health service and have some kind of future for it. I bet that Mr Beggs wishes he had never raised the issue of the health service now.
I will move to the remarks of Mr Humphrey, who again went through a range of things that have been done. The one thing about Mr Humphrey’s contribution was that he linked some of the projects that we have spent money on to the impact that they have had. I will take one example. He mentioned the amount of money that went into events to improve tourism and the impact that has had on room occupancy in Belfast. We are now nearly up to London levels of room occupancy and have 15,000 people employed in the hospitality industry. Some people criticised the Tourist Board and DETI for putting money into events, but that is a good illustration of where that pump-priming of the tourist economy has reaped benefits in jobs, business, profits for business, return for investment in the hotel industry, and so on. That was a good illustration of the effectiveness of one area of government spending.
Mr Kinahan raised the issue of schools and area planning, and the Education Minister has stated that he will formally adopt the area planning exercise in the final quarter of this financial year.
Mr Allister’s predictions are always wrong. The first thing he said was that this is a very short debate. He said, “here we are, only an hour in, and I am being called, so it must be the end of the debate.” He got that prediction wrong, and the predictions kept going wrong the whole way through. I already mentioned the sham fight and the kissing and hugging and everything else. He raised a number of issues. He talked about the money that is spent on bloated government and the need to reduce spending on government, and I have absolutely no difficulty with him on that point. In fact the DUP has expressed its desire to bring the number of Members down to 72 and the number of Departments down to eight. However, he knows as well as I do that that will require bringing people and parties along in the Assembly. Therefore, from that point of view, we are singing off the same hymn sheet, but it is about how we get to the end result. Of course we want to bring the cost of government down.
Mr Allister also mentioned the bloated North/South bodies. All that I can say to him is that the Finance Minister in the South is supportive and is as insistent as I am in making a 3% reduction in the cost of running the North/South bodies. Indeed, the SEUPB is already under notice that, by the end of the year, it must bring forward a plan to reduce the number of its employees from 65 to somewhere in the 40s. Where I have control, I have no difficulty in looking for ways of reducing the cost of North/South bodies or government bodies here in Northern Ireland.
Mr Allister also had the usual list of things, such as the North/South bodies and the Maze shrine. He told us that we should mark his words, that the redevelopment of the Maze was a trade-off for the Girdwood site and that there would be a shrine at the Maze as a result. All that I can say is that Mr Allister’s record shows that he has eaten his words many times in the past. When Sinn Féin agreed to the terms that we had looked for in the policing and justice settlement, we were told by Mr Allister that the trade-off was an Irish language Act. However, that trade-off has not happened. When police and justice powers were devolved, we were told that Gerry Kelly would be in charge of the police, that Martin McGuinness would appoint the judges and that policing would be under a North/South body. How many years have policing and justice powers been devolved for? Is it three? That has not happened. We are used to Mr Allister’s predictions, but they are not the case. Eventually people will realise that people can say anything, but whether those words come true is another thing.
Mr Allister also talked about rebalancing the economy and asked why, if we are rebalancing the economy, he has walked down the streets of Ballymoney and Ballymena and has seen closed shops and everything else. There is a recession on, and I do not think that he can blame the closure of shops in those towns on the Executive not seeking to rebalance the economy. Indeed, as I outlined earlier, we have done many things, such as rejuvenation schemes, local taxation and the help that we give to promote towns by bringing events to them — this week, the north-west will benefit as a result of the money that the Tourist Board has put into the Irish Open and the money that has gone into the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre. The Assembly has sought to try to counter the effects of the recession in many different ways, but there are limits to what can be done.
Mr Kinahan raised the issue of private funding, and asked whether we could find additional sources of private funding. We have had this discussion in the Assembly on a number of occasions. I have no difficulty looking for resources from other places. However, the problem is that any private funding that we bring in must not offset money that we get through the block grant. It is about finding ways around the Treasury rules, which are the big problem. Despite the fact that the construction industry has talked about that issue time and again, it has never actually come up with any ideas for drawing in private finance, and, of course, in the current climate, it is even more difficult for it to do so. They want the Government to take all the risk. Once we take all the risk, it scores against Treasury rules.
Jo-Anne Dobson raised the issue of EU farm fines. I share her concern about DARD’s ability to manage the CAP disallowance issue. The penalty in 2011-12 was in the region of £10 million. DARD was able to find that from its own resources. Do not forget that, at about this time last year, it was given some money to undertake a mapping exercise that will, hopefully, reduce any liability in the future as far as single farm payment and the proper mapping of fields is concerned. However, I expect DARD to address the issue of fines internally, and I hope that that will be a discipline on it to make sure that it does behave in lackadaisical ways that incur fines.
Mr Nesbitt raised a number of issues about OFMDFM. I have to say that all of them were issues that I would have expected to be not part of a Budget debate but part of the scrutiny that a Member would engage in with officials when they come along to the Committee. He talked about the historical abuse inquiry, Shackleton Barracks and other issues, including the social investment fund, childcare strategy etc, all of which are more appropriate to the OFMDFM Committee. I encourage him to make sure that when he has finished decimating his party by kicking people out, he gets along to the Committee and makes an effort to ask some of those questions, which can be properly addressed there.
The one thing I will say, because it is actually a Budget issue that he asked about, is that the historical abuse inquiry is not currently funded in the Budget. No allocation has been made. The costs, as was brought out in the previous debate, have not yet been clearly identified. However, I accept that it is an issue and it is worthwhile taking the opportunity to say to the Assembly that it is an issue that will have to be addressed at some stage in the Budget. It is an unfunded, as well as an unknown, pressure.
That concludes, really, the remarks that I want to make. I thank Members for their indulgence. Everybody will be glad to get home and, therefore, I commend the Budget (No. 2) Bill to the Assembly.
William Hay (DUP)
Before we proceed to the question, I remind Members that this motion requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That the Second Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill [NIA 7/11-15] be agreed.
Adjourned at 7.43 pm.