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The first thing that we should celebrate is the fact that the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill has come back from the other place, and this House is now, at long last, free to implement the Brexit will of the people. That is good news.
This is a difficult time of the year for those who have the dubious honour of lifting that red case. There are always groups who are happy to see a cut or happy not to see a cut in some sectors, depending on their opinion, but we all know that rises are inevitable when the aim is to cut one’s coat to suit one’s cloth.
I want to speak about the increase in national insurance on behalf of the 4.8 million self-employed workers in the European Union who will be affected by it. The rate of class 4 national insurance contributions is to rise by 1% to 10% in April next year, with a further rise planned for 2019. There have been some murmurs from the Government that the move may be reviewed. I know that some Conservative Back Benchers are not happy about it, and I hope that the Minister will tell us what the position is.
Given that small and medium-sized enterprises in Northern Ireland employ more people than large companies and the public sector combined, it is essential that we provide support rather than further burdening a group who pay more than their share in tax. I have, of course, heard the cries from Conservative Members that the increase is “only a few pounds a week”, but that refers to last year’s Budget. The fact is that the cumulative rise will put more pressure on those who work so hard as it is. I do not think it is right for the Government to cut the coat to suit the cloth at this stage. Again, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
The Budget is a curate’s egg, containing some good things and some bad things. It is good news for the NHS that it will receive £425 million in Government investment over the next three years, and congratulations should be given where they are due. However, the British Medical Association has expressed concern, saying that
“the plans need at least £9.5 billion of total capital funding to be delivered successfully.”
Can the Minister confirm that there are indeed no plans to privatise further any aspect of the NHS?
I want to speak about health issues, too. The number of full-time GPs has fallen by nearly 100, while overall there has been no real increase in the number of GPs working in GP practices. I ask the Government and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who is looking responsive—as a former Health Minister, that is important —what steps are being taken to ensure that students are encouraged to take up the GP mantle. Some things could be done. I am aware of incentives last year that offered golden handshakes of up to £20,000 to become a GP in an understaffed area. Again, I am not saying that that will be the norm for the Government, but we need to address those issues in a positive way. Whatever way we recruit more GPs, I ask that consideration be given to that.
I conclude on one issue that really concerns me and many in this House. No specific funding has been allocated to children’s palliative care. Research by Together for Short Lives on equitable funding for children’s palliative care shows that voluntary sector children’s palliative care organisations receive just 22% of their funding from statutory sources, compared with 30% for adults. The Government have stated that commissioners and providers of services must prioritise children’s palliative care in their strategic planning. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that that happens? Will they provide further guidance to commissioners of children’s palliative care charities to address the inequity in financial support received by these organisations, which do tremendous work, deserve to be helped and provide lifeline care to children with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions, and their families?
As I said earlier, this is a curate’s egg of a Budget. There are good things and there are bad things in it. Among the things we need to address are the health issues. Among the good things is the extra money that has been set aside.