With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement.
This morning we reach another important milestone on the road to fulfilling our new responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement. I have the honour of laying before the Assembly the first Budget agreed by the Executive Committee.
The management of public spending is one of the fundamental responsibilities of any Government, and this is the first time in almost 30 years that local politicians have had the privilege of accepting this responsibility. The Budget for the next financial year 2000-01 has been agreed by the Executive Committee, and in fulfilment of section 64 of the Northern Ireland Act (1998) I now lay it before the Assembly.
The Act and the Good Friday Agreement envisage that the Assembly and its Committees will be able to scrutinise the Budget proposals before voting on them at some future date. I want to explain the background before taking questions on this statement.
We have also taken charge of the Budget for the remainder of this year, 1999-2000. This will require very careful management by all Ministers to match spending to the resources available. However, today we are looking forward to the Budget for next year.
Our intentions in the agreement were that the spending plans should be embedded in and support the programme of government. As we take responsibility for the public services devolved to the Assembly under the agreement, it is vital that we develop a clear and coherent view of what we are trying to achieve and that that view is both realistic and visionary. That is right at the core of our new role, and we have a compelling obligation, but also a great opportunity, to set the new direction for the policies and services that are needed and wanted by our people. The programme of government will express the vision, and the spending plans will be one of the most important means of delivering that programme.
We now have to move from championing a few issues to deciding priorities among all the issues — from opposing to leading — and hence earn the respect of those who have entrusted us with this role. We must graduate from making demands to making decisions; from making demands against each other to making decisions with each other and for each other. The new politics will be not about arguing the worst in each other but about achieving the best for all.
Reaching agreement on the programme of government and the spending plans will mean addressing the hard choices that lie ahead. However, by virtue of the talks process, and from the experience that many Members have of working together in district councils and other bodies, I believe that we are well prepared for the task.
Some very clear guiding principles are expressed in the agreement. The Budget has to command cross-community support, and there can be no question of any Minister, or the Executive Committee as a whole, pursuing spending plans which are manifestly unfair. Quality and equality are the twin ethics which must inform the development of public policy, the delivery of public services and the management of public spending.
In the new structures there needs to be scope for each Minister and the respective departmental Committee to work together to produce detailed plans which will ensure that departmental budgets are used in the best possible way to serve the interests of all. Working closely with the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, my Department and I will be examining spending plans and proposals in order to get the best possible value for money.
Work is only beginning on the process of drawing up the programme of government, and we have entered devolution very late in the cycle for planning a Budget for next year.
For these reasons the Executive Committee has decided that the Budget plans for the year 2000-01 should roll forward the plans that we inherited.
This is not to say that the Executive Committee is satisfied with the total spending power given to us in these plans or with the detail of how the funds are to be distributed. We believe that the plans can and must be improved, and as we improve them our having democratically elected local politicians taking decisions will be seen to be making a strong, positive and valuable difference. However, our view is that the changes we make should be guided by the programme of government, when it is ready. It would be wrong to be rushed into premature shifts in spending allocations, especially at this stage of the year.
Time and circumstances do not allow us to demonstrate yet the difference devolution will make. To engage gratuitously in significant or even superficial reallocations at this point would be an indulgence tantamount to political joyriding with the associated risks of danger and damage.
The plans we have inherited give us a total of £8.9 billion for public services. Of that amount we have full discretion for about £5 billion. The rest is needed for the likes of social-security benefits or for matters that have already been defined, such as the EU peace programme, and for which specific additions have been agreed by the Treasury in London. The total is decided by the Cabinet in London, and we will need to do all we can to ensure that we receive a fair and acceptable share of the Chancellor’s cake.
As many Members are well aware from other contexts, once the final allocation is known, the remaining responsibility is to take the best possible decisions on the use of whatever fixed total amount of money is available. The allocations to the range of services we have inherited reflect the decisions taken by the previous Secretary of State in December 1998 following the comprehensive spending review, and those decisions set fixed totals for spending on that range. Much has happened since then, and new costs affect almost all of our public services. In the longer term we will need to take decisions on dealing with these pressures as we work to set out our priorities in the programme of government. In the meantime, the Executive Committee’s view is that it is best if each Department adjusts its spending plans for the first year, with the agreement of the Department of Finance and Personnel, to enable it to make the necessary provision for developments since December 1998.
The plans that we have inherited make provision for the new costs of the Assembly, the new Departments, the North/South bodies, the North/South Ministerial Council, the Civic Forum and the Equality Commission. These costs are significant, and, although we are in no doubt that the provisions of the agreement have to be paid for, we also have a responsibility to operate the new structures with a proper concern for economy. The Department of Finance and Personnel and the Public Accounts Committee, which has yet to be appointed, will seek to promote the need to get good value for money in all aspects of the new arrangements.
The only revenue measure which is under our control is the regional rate. This is now part of the financing of our total spending plans. We have inherited plans that depend on the domestic regional rate’s being increased by 8% per year for the next two years. One associated factor was the decision by the previous Secretary of State to increase spending on the water and sewerage system. This is necessary to enable it to reach the standards that have been set by the EU. We will need to review the regional rate as part of our work on the programme of government, but for the year immediately ahead the Executive Committee has decided to roll forward the plans that we inherited. This will mean an increase in the domestic regional rate of 8% and in the non-domestic regional rate of 5.3%.
The spending plans for 2000-01 do not yet include the expenditure which had to be deferred from 1999-2000 as a result of the delay in the sale of Belfast harbour. If the sale does proceed, it will be possible to go ahead with action on the key projects which were held up this year.
Also still ahead are the decisions on the new round of EU structural funds. There will need to be further extensive discussion on their use, and especially on the use of the new peace programme, which is a unique resource available to be used as effectively as possible in the new context we face. At this first formal opportunity, I would like to express our thanks for and appreciation of the consistent and patient support from the European Council of Ministers and the Commission, throughout the peace process and our thanks too for the goodwill that has also been shown by so many. We owe much to the former Commission, and especially to President Santer and Commissioners Wulf-Mathies and Flynn. We have already received indications of support from President Prodi and Commissioner Barnier, and we look forward to working with them and their colleagues to ensure that wider European experience can help us to grow as a region.
Members will be relieved to know that I will not attempt now to explain all the details of the spending plans for each service for the year ahead. Some of the key facts are covered in the Budget document which has been made available to Members. The figures for individual services for next year are in some cases higher and in some cases lower than for this year. There are various reasons for this, such as one-off items of spending in 1999-2000, changes in the responsibilities of departments for services and reallocations determined in the comprehensive spending review. Also, the figures are rounded to the nearest million, which I admit can distort the comparisons. The Committees will be provided with more detailed figures to enable them to scrutinise these proposals, and I am sure that they will wish to look at all of the factors in detail.
The allocations include the costs of devolution, which are higher than was specifically provided for in the comprehensive spending review. I refer here, for example, to the costs of the Assembly itself and of the North/South bodies. We have been able to cover the additional costs by using funds which had not been finally committed in the comprehensive spending review. Thus the allocation in this Budget for each of the new Departments will maintain the same level of service provision as in the publicly announced plans inherited from the comprehensive spending review.
Each departmental Committee will be able to take evidence on the implications for services for 2000-01 in its Department, and Ministers will provide details as appropriate. Many people working in key public services are depending on our decisions to enable them to make more detailed plans — for example, for their school or hospital. Thus the position needs to be finalised as soon as possible. In the meantime, Departments will be planning on the basis of the figures set out in the Budget document unless and until any changes are agreed with the Assembly, and they will be providing the necessary details to their sponsored bodies on this basis.
However, I encourage everybody to remember that these plans cover only the first year of our responsibilities. We should devote most of our energies in the next few months to developing a programme of government that can truly express our hopes and aspirations for our people. At the same time we will be participating in the next United Kingdom spending review, which will cover the years 2001-02 to 2003-04. This will be on the new basis of resource budgeting, which will make sure that, in a new way, our thinking is focussed on the outcomes we are trying to achieve and will bring home more fully the true resource costs of the options for action. Next year’s review will be not just about disciplined financial management but also about conscientious policy setting.
I look forward to the opportunity next year to present a Budget that is built on that process and demonstrates our view of the priorities and objectives for the services for which we are now responsible.
I am very grateful for the understanding, co-operation and support that have been shown by all Ministers during the urgent discussions that we have had on the Budget since devolution. I recognise the pressures that this Budget has entailed for them. Many Departments will be anxious to avail of any in-year easements or savings that may become available as 2000-01 progresses. This underlines the importance of disciplined financial management, and I hope that the Assembly Committees will take account of the significance of this need for discipline as they begin to examine the spending plans. The Department of Finance and Personnel and I will work with and for all the other Departments and Ministers. We will not be high-handed, but we will be hard-headed.
I invite the Assembly to consider these Budget proposals and to approve them following timely deliberation by the Committees.
The Minister will be aware that there was some discussion yesterday about the cost of the North/South Ministerial Council. In the Budget statement, references are made to approximately £8 million of expenditure, distributed among five Departments. There is also a reference to the sum provision of these costs in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Can the Minister tell the House what he considers to be the likely first-year cost of these bodies? Also, can he confirm that these costs will be divided equally between the Northern Ireland Assembly and Dáil Éireann — in other words, that the amounts spent by the Assembly will be matched by amounts by Dáil Éireann?
Secondly, may I draw the Minister’s attention to his remarks about the sale of Belfast harbour. He said that if the sale were to proceed, it would be possible to go ahead with key projects which were held up this year. If this sale does not proceed, does he envisage some of the infrastructure projects, which are of considerable importance in a number of areas, being funded in other ways? Does he envisage trying to make savings elsewhere in the Budget in order to enable these projects to go ahead even if the sale of the port does not proceed?
I understood that I would take a series of questions and reply to them in the way that happened yesterday.
If we achieve the sale of the harbour this year we will be able to make moves on deferred projects that it was intended should be undertaken. If we do not do that, we will not be able to move on those projects, and the Departments that would have been sponsoring them and the Department of Finance and Personnel will have to see what options remain. Those decisions would have to be taken not by my Department but by various Departments and the Executive Committee.
The cost of the North/South bodies is shared between ourselves and the authorities in the South, and the manner in which that happens varies from body to body, depending on the nature of the work involved. We do not pay any more than a fair and reasonable share of the costs.
It should also be understood that these bodies were set up to achieve benefits, and they will achieve those benefits. We should not look at those bodies simply in terms of cost. We need to look at the benefits that will accrue from the programmes that will be undertaken and at the savings that may accrue from the workings of the bodies and from broader North/South co-operation in the future.
I welcome this Budget and the Minister’s statement that future Budgets
"will be on the new basis of resource budgeting, which will make sure that, in a new way, our thinking is focused on the outcomes we are trying to achieve and will bring home more fully the true resource costs of the options for action."
I recognise that it would have been difficult for the Minister, in the short time available, to look at the vexed question of student grants and loans. In future budgets, will he look at the possibility of making money available to the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment so that it can meet this expenditure?
The Minister for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment has indicated an interest in this question, as has the departmental Committee. We will wait and see what comes from that. I should point out, however, that there are financial implications. The abolition of fees would mean that the institutions would lose that part of the £1,025 per student fee income that they receive from private sources. To compensate the institutions for that would cost us some £15 million per year at today’s prices. In exploring our options we need to understand that any such expenditure would have to come from somewhere else, and those immediate cost implications are not the only ones. This matter is for the Minister and the departmental Committee to explore. I am simply pointing out the cost implications.
On the broader area of resource budgeting, Members should not see this as some new, dry financial management advice from the Treasury. It is a means of making sure that our approach to public expenditure moves beyond a fixation with inputs and with comparing one year’s inputs with the next year’s. The traditional approach has been to increment the inputs year on year, without focusing on achieving the real outcomes we want, or even on what those outcomes are. The shift to resource budgeting will create convergence between necessary disciplined financial management and conscientious policymaking. Having identified the outcomes that we want, we will then compare budgets and performance to see that output is related to outcomes and that input is sufficient to achieve those outcomes. This will be better than the more limited and, in policy terms, less effective approach that we have been used to.
I cannot see whether the Minister has a red briefcase, but I know that he has a red file, which is a good start.
The Minister has set out a cost of £10 million against the 10 new Departments. That is a little less than the £90 million postulated by the Ulster Unionist Party’s financial whizz-kid, Jim Nicholson, but it is still a significant amount. The Minister also set aside £8 million for the North/South bodies. What are the costs of the North/South Ministerial Council and the Civic Forum, which is buried somewhere in the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers?
The Minister also said that it has been possible to cover the additional costs by using funds that were not finally committed in the comprehensive spending review. This is a little different from the approach that he took last year when he said that there was an understanding at the round-table discussion that over the life of the Assembly the additional costs for the new arrangements would be recovered elsewhere.
Mr John Taylor also indicated that any extra expenditure should be offset by rationalising the remainder of public administration in Northern Ireland.
What plans does the Minister have to reclaim this money from other sources — for example, by reducing the number of quangos? Members heard yesterday that more quangos are to be created. The money for these new institutions would normally have gone to schools or roads if it had not been used. How does the Minister intend to reclaim the money to fund these institutions?
Five hundred thousand pounds has been provided to meet the costs of the North/South Ministerial Council, and £360,000 for the Civic Forum.
As I said in my statement, the costs of the new institutions are being carried in such a way that the Budget allocation for each of the new Departments will allow the same level of service provision as was provided for in the publicly announced plans of the comprehensive spending review which we have inherited. The costs are not being levied against any of the planned programmes.
The wider and slightly longer-term question of making good those costs by achieving savings in other administrative areas will be addressed in the programme of government. These savings will not be achieved overnight, and we must ensure that the total administrative structure is working effectively. The new Departments, having a greater focus on their own responsibilities — and perhaps being able to brigade together the more compatible and less incongruous ones — will be able to deliver more effective and efficient programmes.
Many of the new Departments may also be in a better position to explore other options, such as the private finance initiative, than previously.
A Chathaoirligh. Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an tuairisc seo agus ádh mór a ghuí leis an Uasal Durkan ina phost nua. I welcome the report and offer support to the Minister in his new role. All Members will take time to study the public expenditure plans. Previously, by lobbying, I and others secured a commitment from the Department of the Environment, in conjunction with the Department of Finance and Personnel, for a review of the £2,900 allowable-costs limit for houses in rural areas which are not yet connected to a water main. I look forward to such matters being resolved in the immediate future, because decisions of this nature were put on hold until the transfer of powers was complete. I look forward to the Ministers’ working with the heads of Departments to clear up such outstanding matters.
I also look forward to an increase in the overall Northern Ireland Budget and to the peace dividend, with the increasing normalisation of society. Go raibh maith agat.
I am not sure if the outstanding matters that I have to clear up relate to some of the security issues or to water connection charges. I cannot comment on the latter, as another Department is directly responsible for them. Naturally, the parent Department will wish to address the matter in consultation with the Department of Finance and Personnel, but it would be wrong for me to give an undertaking that pre-empted or cut across the role of any other Department.
With regard to Mr McElduff’s kind remarks, I would like to say go raibh maith agat.
Having listened to the Minister’s statement, I am convinced more than ever that the Assembly should have tax-raising and tax-varying powers in line with those of the devolved Parliament in Scotland. The Minister mentioned the importance to his Department and to the yet-to-be-formed Public Accounts Committee of the Assembly’s getting value for money. Does he agree that, in line with the Westminster convention, the Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee should come from a party other than the four that make up the Government? Prior to devolution an Ad Hoc Committee was established to consider the sale of the port of Belfast. Does the Minister agree that it would be worthwhile debating the report that was tabled by that Committee to enable the matter to be progressed as quickly as possible?
Issues to do with the sale of the port of Belfast are the responsibility of the Department for Regional Development. As I said in response to an earlier question, it is not for me to say what should or should not happen following publication of the report of the Ad Hoc Committee or any other measures that are being explored. Let us be clear about this: my Department’s interest in the sale of the port of Belfast relates solely to securing the £70 million that was factored into the spending plans for last year. We would like to be able to secure that £70 million this year. How such a sale is to be achieved is a matter for the Department for Regional Development. It will also be considered by the Executive Committee, so it would be wrong for me to speak out of turn about specific favoured options.
I fully appreciate the point that Mr Neeson made about the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee. I made a similar point during the agreement negotiations, and during consideration of the Northern Ireland Bill — the Bill that was to give legislative effect to the agreement — my party and I pointed out to the Northern Ireland Office that Westminster convention should be followed when this appointment was being made. Provision for that was not included in the legislation. Perhaps people thought that, in the circumstances, it would have pointed towards a particular Member’s being given that role. I do not know. However, I understand and sympathise with the Member’s point.
Tax-raising powers were not in the agreement that we negotiated. However, we should be careful about what we ask for in that regard. Would having an Assembly on the Scottish model, with tax-raising powers, necessarily be in our best interests? First, given the size of our income-tax base, would it yield the significant amount of money that people think it would? Secondly, if the Assembly had that power would the Treasury not treat us as though we were using it, whether we were or not, simply because we could?
We could find ourselves very quickly having a new experience with the Treasury. Many of us, from all parties, have often had arguments with the Treasury over additionality. If we got tax-raising powers, we might find ourselves dealing with the Treasury on a new concept of subtractionality.
I have a question about the sale of the harbour even though Mr Leslie, a Member for North Antrim, has already addressed the subject. This idea was floated by a Tory Government, and then a Labour Government was elected and tried to pursue it. Mr Durkan appears to agree with the idea because, in speaking about the sale of the harbour he said
"The spending plans for 2000-01 do not yet include the expenditure which had to be deferred from 1999-2000 as a result of the delay in the sale of Belfast Harbour."
That statement made the assumption that the Assembly has already agreed to the sale. We have been threatened by the Tory Party and by Lord Dubs. Neither is accountable to the Assembly, but the Minister is. We have had 30 years of people like them threatening us and telling us what we should do, and now we have one of our own Ministers telling us that we have to sell the harbour, or at least implying as much. He further stated
"If the sale does proceed, it will be possible to go ahead with action on the key projects which were held up this year."
Again we are being told that if we do not sell the harbour we cannot proceed with the key projects. Let us look at where these key projects are. With the exception of the Westlink, they are mostly outside Belfast, yet we are talking about selling Belfast harbour to pay for them. Belfast harbour is a jewel in the Assembly’s crown, and there is not another Government in the world that would sell land of that sort. We have had the report from the Ad Hoc Committee —
I know that it is not a debate. I am coming to the question, but I want to ensure that people understand why I am asking it.
Can the Minister tell us why he said this and why he is going down the same road as Lord Dubs and not allowing the Assembly to put forward other ideas for raising money? The £70 million that the Labour Government said we were short of has, all of a sudden, appeared. These key projects could be done, but there should be other ways of raising the money, and the Assembly has not had an opportunity to explore them.
First, I should point out to the Member that, as I made clear, I was presenting this Budget on behalf of the Executive Committee. I am not imposing the sale of Belfast harbour on the Assembly or on anybody else.
We are dealing with a Budget that is based on the spending plans that we inherited, and those spending plans were predicated on certain key projects, including receipts from the sale of Belfast harbour. If we do not sell Belfast harbour, for whatever reason, those receipts, which were factored into the plan, will clearly be lost to us. The money that we would have raised will have to be removed from the plan or made good in some other way. If we accept that we are dealing with a permanent loss of £70 million, we will have to cut other things to pay for projects that were to have been resourced from that sum.
Mr Leslie asked about other funding sources. We shall have to look for other funding sources for various projects anyway.
The Member referred to the fact that an Ad Hoc Committee of the Assembly did meet to consider the subject. This was a cross-party Committee. It explored the issues and, in its report, favoured a scheme for the sale of the port. Let us be clear that while that report has not been adopted or endorsed by the Assembly, it is not a question of the Minister of Finance and Personnel or the Minister for Regional Development trying to impose this on anybody on a go-it-alone basis or of trying to hold anybody to ransom.
The Ad Hoc Committee has looked at the issue and has been able to explore the various options that the Member seems to be touching on. It is a little disappointing to hear some of the arguments presented here today. It has been suggested that I am going down Lord Dubs’s road — as if the Department of Finance and Personnel and I were imposing on the Assembly things which a cross-party Committee had considered and explored.
I have many questions, but I will restrict myself to allow others to come in.
First, I must express some disappointment that certain areas are not covered in the Budget. I do not see any mention whatsoever of the victims of the past 30 years. Will the Minister indicate the amount of money which will be put into a fund for victims this year and next year? Will he also say how it is to be spent?
Secondly — and this is a vital point — we have seen an increase in terror on our roads. There is a huge public outcry for road safety because of the number of people, particularly children, being killed. In the Budget, £4 million, which is not to be increased in the next financial year, has been allocated for road safety, while £142 million, which is to be increased to £163 million, is allocated for roads. Four million pounds is far too small an amount given the number of people being killed.
Can the Minister explain why more money has not been provided for road safety?
The Member may recall that in yesterday’s discussions her Colleague Prof McWilliams asked why victims were listed as a responsibility of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister although Adam Ingram, the Northern Ireland Office Minister, has responsibility for victims and the victims’ fund. The fact is that the dedicated expenditure for victims is a responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office, as Prof McWilliams indicated yesterday, and not of the Assembly.
It is for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to ensure that due consideration is given to the needs and concerns of victims under the devolved arrangements and that the policies and programmes which bring Departments into contact with victims are sufficiently and properly sensitised to their needs. We do not have a dedicated victims’ fund. The dedicated victims’ fund is under the jurisdiction of the Northern Ireland Office.
The Member also asked about road safety and mentioned the amounts spent on roads and road safety. The amount of money which is allocated to road safety is an issue that will have to be considered, but in many cases money is spent on roads to remove accident black spots and to deal with clear road safety questions. A false economy could be made by favouring road safety above roads. Road safety, under the new arrangements, is a matter for the Department of the Environment.
The thinking behind the creation of the new public safety arm within the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety was that it would take a greater overview of the responsibilities of all the Departments on safety — and that includes road safety.
As someone who takes an interest in local government affairs I was interested in the Minister’s reference to the regional rate. He said
"We will need to review the regional rate as part of our work on the programme of government, but for the year immediately ahead the Executive Committee has decided to roll forward the plans we inherited. This will mean increases of 8% in the domestic regional rate and of 5.3% in the non-domestic rate."
Is there an implication that he intends next year to have a reduction in the regional rate? Or does he intend to use the regional rate to compensate for our lack of tax-raising powers?
There was no such implication. We will have to look at the whole rating structure, but, as the Member will appreciate, the area of rates is rather like quicksand once you get into it. We need to look at both the regional rate and the district rate, and, from my experience in local government, I realise how difficult district councillors find the interaction between the two. In many ways councils end up carrying the blame for the regional rate as well as for the district rate. Maybe that will change since we will have to take the blame for the regional rate from today. That may ease the concerns of councillors in that they will have somebody more obvious to point to.
The future of the rates will have to be addressed. I do not pretend that the programme for government is going to give the answer to that. However, it will probably create the context in which we explore the rating structure and our reliance on it for revenue. There will have to be various changes in rating policy, and they will include our having to conform with the worldwide trend of basing rates on capital value rather than on rental value, or whatever. A number of issues need to be explored, but they will all have to be dealt with in the round if we are going to come up with anything coherent. People in a neighbouring jurisdiction abolished rates and thought that that would be great, and others have tried to reform them, so we know that if we approach this on a partial or ad hoc basis, we will end up creating more problems than we solve.
It is great to see a local Minister presenting the Budget. How does he anticipate the regional economy’s being reshaped to face the financial challenge ahead on the management of public finances? We know that the subvention will not grow in the future.
Does the Minister accept that the new programme for government over the next three to five years must be radical in how it tackles the task of making this region more self-sustaining and productive in the medium to long term?
The Member touched on the importance of the programme of government — something that I emphasised in my speech. So far as I am concerned, future Budgets will be informed and influenced by the programme of government as agreed by the Executive and in consultation with, and with input from, the Committees. A programme of government which is developed on that inclusive basis, on which everyone has influence and input, will be qualitatively different from the public-policy and public-service management schemes that were in place before. We will have to make hard choices. We will have to start getting used to the concept of priorities. At times, indeed, we will have the hard task of reducing a number of priorities to one. As a great socialist leader once said,
"Priorities should be the language of politics, and it should truly be spoken in the singular."
This is something we have to get used to and we will do so in a way which will ensure that, as public representatives, we will not only make a positive contribution to reshaping society but enable all sections of the community to do likewise as well. They will be allowed to play their part, to fulfil their prospects and their capacities, in the private sector, where we will become more competitive, productive and less reliant on the public sector, and in the voluntary and community sector as well. Within that sector people will be able to solve many of the difficulties that we have had to contend with over the last 30 years and ensure that the voluntary and community sector moves towards the much more important and productive work of developing the social economy.
In taking on these new responsibilities and coming to terms with them, we will not just be left with hard choices and cold financial management decisions; we will have an opportunity to create new, radical public-policy initiatives, and both the private-sector and the public-sector economies will be healthier as a result.
May I sympathise with the Minister, who has been given the title "the Judas Iscariot of the Executive". I refer, of course, to the fact that he was the treasurer for the 12 disciples and held the bag. He will have to hold on to the bag very tightly, given some of the things we have heard.
The First Minister has given a commitment to his party in respect of the additional Departments. They agreed to the formation of 10 Departments, conditional on their cost being neutral over the lifetime of the Assembly. What progress has been made in the Budget for next year to move towards that neutrality of cost?
The Minister said that there would have to be very careful management on the parts of all Ministers to ensure that spending matched the resources available. Has he conveyed that message to the Minister of Education, who, although he might look like Art Garfunkel, is sounding more like Abba singing ‘Money, Money, Money’? Last week, in the space of two days, he promised to spend money on rural schools, on Irish schools, on integrated schools, on capital funding and on abolishing the 11-plus. Will the additional £87 million that the Department of Education will have next year fund all of that, or will the Minister be sent on a basic adult-education course to learn how to count?
Regarding the additional costs of the new departmental structures, a commitment was given that we would try to neutralize those costs over the lifetime of the first Assembly. That commitment was not just given by the First Minister to his party; it is one that we gave to the Assembly. We cannot do that with next year’s Budget as we intend to go ahead with the plans that we inherited, which divide the money among the new Departments.
In accommodating the costs of the new structures — the new Departments, the North/South institutions, and so on — the Assembly has ensured that those costs will not affect the budgeted programmes for next year under the comprehensive spending review. That should be understood and appreciated. How we achieve neutralisation and, indeed, greater efficiency and effectiveness in our administrative structures or programme systems will have to be worked out in the programme of government. We will be undertaking that work in the context of the next Treasury review, which will be informed by the whole shift to resource budgeting.
We will be approaching many things from a different angle, and I hope we will be able to achieve savings that will go further than the target of neutralising the extra costs. It would be wrong for me to go any further at this stage, as I am only one Minister in an Executive which will be carrying out the wider review.
Sammy Wilson referred to my remarks about the Budget for the remainder of this year. Is the Minister of Education aware of that? Yes, he is. Our approach to the rest of this year’s Budget and next year’s was agreed by all the Ministers in the Executive Committee. It will be very difficult for Ministers to manage this, and I hope that all Committee members — even Rottweilers or any other kind of beast — as they deal with Ministers and contribute in their Committees, will appreciate that. It should also be appreciated that the amount allocated to the Department of Education for next year, which Mr Wilson referred to when he talked about the Education Minister’s running around making promises that extra money would be put into schools, includes an extra £22 million for the schools capital programme. That is provided for in the Budget.
A Chathaoirligh, I welcome the Minister’s speech. It is rather unsatisfactory that I received a copy of the public expenditure plans just this morning and have had very little time to look at them.
My question concerns the flexibility of this year’s Budget and how much movement is possible within it. Probably very little. How much room for manoeuvre is there in an economic plan for the North, and to what extent is the west being considered in comparison with everywhere else? Any action that is taken will be within the terms of the present plan, which has not been finalised — there is still some room for consultation over the ‘Shaping our Future’ document. However, I am concerned that the west may not be looked after. That document points to major development along the main transport corridors, and much of the housing is directed towards Craigavon and areas around Belfast. It seems that people are shifting from rural areas to the larger towns, and this will not help us to get small businesses in rural areas.
I am worried that we will be bound in with this plan for the next 25 years, that we will not be able to move away from it and that it will in some way be able to limit any plans developed by the Assembly. Is there flexibility in the present Budget to do something about these matters in the rural areas? Does the Minister look forward to having something in place so that the area west of the Bann will be looked after?
I welcome the cross-border institutions, the all-Ireland institutions and those issues in ‘Shaping Our Future’ that dovetail with the national development plan for the South, whose economic plan will not be available for another two years.
I thank the Member for his many points and questions.
Flexibility in the Budget will come about only if there is very strict discipline in its management. If we run the Budget tightly we may get easements which will give us some flexibility.
The Member said that the Budget and the statement were available only this morning. That is not unusual with exercises of this type. The Budget was finally agreed in the Executive Committee only yesterday, and work still had to be done on some of the figures. Information has been provided in as timely a fashion as possible, but I appreciate the Member’s concern.
I will be meeting with the Finance and Personnel Committee this afternoon to discuss many of these issues. All the Committees will be able to look at their respective programmes and allocations, and we will provide more detailed figures for them. This is not a hit-and-run Budget that everybody is stuck with. There will be consultation, input and scrutiny, but we will have to make final decisions early in the New Year, as Departments need to be able to deal with their secondary and end budgets, so that they can plan for next year.
In terms of the geographic balance, the Member referred to ‘Shaping Our Future’, which appeared to dovetail with the national development plan in the South. That is probably so on a variety of levels.
The Member appeared to criticise some of the measures covered in the Budget in terms of their locations. Measures to deal with locations across Northern Ireland are also compatible with ‘Shaping Our Future’, so we cannot say that we like the document at one level but that we should not abide by it at another.
I am sympathetic to the Member’s point about the west. This is a natural reaction — I come from there. I have taken a Pledge of Office which obliges me to serve all the people of Northern Ireland equally, and I am determined to uphold that pledge. With regard to future Budgets, we need to make sure that public-spending plans, the development of public policy and the management of public services are informed by the twin ethics of quality and equality. In the programme of government we must find more ways of enabling us to ensure that people can see quality and equality at the forefront of all plans, including those for public expenditure, and in their outcomes.
As an Assembly we will have to address the concept of resource budgeting and its focus on outcomes. As I said last week to the Finance and Personnel Committee, resource budgeting should be tailored to our needs rather than dealt with on a hand-me-down basis from the Assembly. So when we are focusing on the outcome requirements of resource accounting and budgeting we must factor in equality considerations as well and give appropriate weightings to them. We must work on this issue in the longer term, not just in the context of the programme of government but throughout the working of the Assembly itself.
I congratulate the Finance Minister on his first Budget. It was commendably concise — not of Gladstonian proportions. Indeed, Members will not have to tear it up, unlike Mr McCreevy’s recent productions in Dublin.
At the end of page 5 of the report the Minister speaks of ongoing consultation with regard to the European Union funds. As a party we agree about the value of that, and almost all Members would stress its importance.
Can the Minister outline what lessons have been learned from the experience of the European structural fund rounds of 1989-93 and 1994-99 which will be taken forward to inform the new round of funding between next year and the year 2006?
Secondly, the Minister refers — again at the end of page 5 — to the peace programme as a unique scheme. I assume that that is partly a reference to the additionality aspect of funding, so I would like to know what lessons have been learned from the previous special programme for peace and reconciliation and, in particular, about the sustainability of funded projects, which will be taken forward to the new round of funding next year.
First, in relation to the structural funds, we must continue consultation on the proposals for making the best use of them. Because of time and process requirements the Secretary of State had already submitted a plan to Brussels prior to devolution.
I am quite clear, as is my Department, that the plan is necessarily flexible and is structured in such a way as to allow the new institutions sufficient latitude to ensure that the precise balance of the programme is well informed by our particular priorities and by the needs we are trying to serve.
Of course, we will have to ensure that we take account of the EU’s requirements. It will have its own particular requirements with regard to the balance of that programme. The money is not ours to use as we wish; we will have to use it in accordance with the programme priorities of the European Union.
With regard to building on the lessons learned from previous programmes, that has, to a degree, already been taken account of in the submitted plan. Some people argue that one plan is too much like the other. That is one of the reasons why we are being so protective of the whole concept of flexibility.
Dr Birnie was correct about the peace programme. The finance is additional, and that very fact makes it unique. That does not mean that it is money to be frittered away, and we do not treat it as a feel-good fund. We are concerned about the concept of sustainability. With regard to the peace programme, we are trying to ensure that we balance the regeneration and reconciliation needs in ways that are sustainable and effective. We want regeneration and reconciliation to move together, almost like a piston driving an engine forward. This is the approach we intend to take. It is not a matter of economic development versus social inclusion; rather it is a matter of economic development and social inclusion working together to bring reconciliation and regeneration to those areas that can best capitalise on such benefits. We understand that social inclusion does not happen on its own and that it is a feature of economic inclusion.
Therefore, to ensure sustainable social inclusion we must have programmes which help to sustain ongoing economic inclusion. We will have to try to achieve that balance. It will not be an easy task. The social partners have different pressures and priorities, and there is also the very important perspective of local government and its role.
We shall have to try to manage the existing flexibility in the structural fund plan and the peace programme in ways that meet the competing preferences and priorities of different interests, and we will have to do that over the coming months.
In his response to an earlier question, the Minister referred to the £8 million cost of the North/South Ministerial Council’s implementation bodies. The impression given was that that was the complete cost. Is the Minister referring to the cost to the Assembly, which is only a portion of the total cost since the Dáil has to provide a similar amount?
Why should the urgent infrastructure connections, which have been neglected by Governments for many years, be linked to the sale of the port of Belfast? If those finances are not available and realised, will the Member, as the Minister of Finance and Personnel, attempt to direct savings from the Assembly’s block funding to fill the gap? The people west of the Bann cannot be put at any further disadvantage.
Will the Minister press the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom for agreement that road tax should be directed towards roads instead of into the coffers of the Exchequer?
First, with regard to the North/South bodies, the figure before the Assembly is the cost of our programme. It might be helpful to make the point that our cost for these bodies is £8.2 million. The cost for the Republic of Ireland is £25 million. That is a ratio of about 3:1. I indicated that we were not paying more than our fair share. Let us remember that there are also economic and service benefits to be derived from these bodies. I hope that there will also be savings as a result of co-operation in wider areas.
Secondly, we have inherited plans that provide for some key infrastructural projects to be undertaken based on the receipts from the sale of the port of Belfast. For the time being we are dealing with those inherited plans.
For the programme of government we will have to plan on a different basis. This planning will be a lot easier, and we will have more leeway and more scope for creativity if we already have the receipts for Belfast harbour and can proceed with that work.
Supplementary questions are normally allowed after questions to Ministers. These are not questions to Ministers. This is a statement to the House, which may be responded to with questions. No supplementaries are permitted. The Executive has agreed with Standing Orders which insist that there shall be questions to Ministers between 2.30 pm and 4.00 pm on Mondays.
The Executive Committee has agreed with us a rota of Ministers who will be available for those questions. The first set of questions will be on Monday 17 January 2000. During Question Time three Ministers will be available to answer questions for approximately 30 minutes each.
That is the context for questions to Ministers, and an element of supplementary questioning will be possible when oral questions are set down in advance. Members must send their questions to the relevant Departments in advance. There is a timetable for Members on the Assembly’s Internet site.