I wish to make a statement on the Main Estimates for the financial year 2000-01 and the Supply resolution that is being tabled, and which the Assembly will be asked to debate next week. I also wish to comment on the substance of the Appropriation Bill that I hope to introduce today.
It is highly appropriate, on our first day of business following the restoration of devolution, to have an opportunity to review the full range of public services for which we are now responsible. As I emphasised in December, the management of public spending is one of the fundamental responsibilities of any Government.
The restoration of devolution again gives us the opportunity to assume our full and appropriate responsibilities — to move from championing a few issues to deciding among all the issues, and from opposing to leading. We have an opportunity to work together in a unique form of administration, pursuing quality and equality in the management of public services for the good of all the people. The Main Estimates and the Appropriation Bill are at the heart of our responsibilities. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and in line with principles that apply in both London and Dublin, it is my responsibility on behalf of and with the agreement of the Executive Committee to seek the Assembly’s authority for spending on public services. These formal processes very strongly emphasise the Assembly’s role in protecting the interests of the public and ensuring that money is spent well.
I have been working, and will continue to work, with the Finance and Personnel Committee on the process of planning public spending. Members can, and will, hold Departments to account for the money they approve in this process through the Public Accounts Committee. The Main Estimates document provides the reference point and detailed analysis of the spending plans of Departments for this purpose.
It may help if I set out briefly the main financial planning and control processes, which are now our responsibility under devolution. That is the context in which these financial issues should be considered. The key planning process is, of course, the formulation and approval of a programme for government, linked to a budget, which sets out the total expenditure which each Department or programme expects to incur over one or more years ahead.
In normal circumstances the Executive’s proposals for the programme for government and the budget would have been considered by the Assembly and settled before December. However, Members will recall that the start of devolution late last year meant that the budget proposals for this financial year were only put before the Assembly on 15 December, and it was not possible to complete the scrutiny of the budget before the process was interrupted by suspension. During suspension the Executive’s budget proposals were confirmed at Westminster. The Secretary of State supplemented them by additional allocations for spending on the health and education programmes from new money provided by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his March Budget.
The approved budget is the basis on which Departments plan expenditure. However, separate authority to spend money on specific services in a financial year must be sought from the Assembly through the process of Supply. The Supply process involves a number of distinct steps, each of which is important. In the first instance, the Executive must inform the Assembly of the amounts it seeks for specific services. That is the purpose of the Estimates booklet published today and made available to Members. Copies have also been placed in the Library. An advance copy was made available to Members on Friday. As Members will see, the Estimates are quite detailed requests for cash for specific services. They show the estimated amount that can be drawn from the consolidated fund to support each service this year. In some instances receipts will arise in an area of expenditure, and the estimate will show how much of these receipts can be set against spending to reduce the need to vote new funds.
The next stage is that the Assembly should be afforded the opportunity to scrutinise and approve the Main Estimates as published. The means by which that opportunity is provided is the Supply resolution that the Assembly will be asked to debate next week.
In order to give statutory authority to the moneys voted for services, and to ensure that funds provided to the Executive for one purpose are not used for other purposes, the sums voted are legally appropriated to the specific services and the authority to draw money to meet these expenditures will be confirmed in an Appropriation Act.
Members will recognise from this brief description that the Estimates and the Appropriation Act are central to the Assembly’s control over the use of public funds. The appropriation accounts, which will be produced after expenditure has been incurred, will be produced on a corresponding basis to the Estimates. This will enable the Assembly to compare actual expenditure with the Estimates that it approved and to have an explanation of any significant differences.
I emphasise that the form of the Estimates is a matter to be agreed between the Executive Committee and the Assembly. For the moment I am content to proceed on the basis of the well established practice of presenting Estimates for the cash amounts needed to finance services.
Looking to the future, the Assembly should be aware that work is well advanced on moving the planning and control of government expenditure to a resource accounting and budgeting basis. This would bring the treatment of the Government’s finances into line with commercial practices. It would also allow a better appreciation of the full resource cost of pursuing each of the objectives in Departments and hence help to improve decision taking. This shift in accounting and budgeting practice would have to be reflected in changes in the form of the Estimates. I look forward to discussing these matters with the Finance and Personnel Committee and the Assembly in due course.
The figures in the Estimates booklet are testimony to the importance of the business we are dealing with today. For the health sector, we are seeking to spend almost £2 billion this year to sustain hospitals and pay the doctors and nurses who provide health care for everyone. In the education programme, the £1·2 billion we are seeking will fund over 1,300 schools and pay for 20,000 teachers to educate more than 350,000 schoolchildren.
The same holds across the total range of public services. Roads and public transport, support for industry and our farming community, support for the housing programme and the many other important services and programmes across all Departments depend on the money the Assembly is being asked to approve in the Estimates and in the Appropriation Bill.
I hope that the Assembly has found this brief description of these important financial instruments helpful. There will be a full opportunity to examine matters in detail in the debate next week, but I will endeavour to respond to any general queries on the Estimates which Members may have.
I misunderstood what was happening today. Had I heard about a second statement I would have reserved my remarks for that. If I offended you in any way, Mr Speaker, I apologise. As you have indicated, I can raise that matter now.
People were thrilled to know of the situation in the aircraft industry and delighted to know that the union between the Canadian company and Short’s has been so fruitful. I am sure we all wish them well. We were also delighted about the shipyard news, though what was announced was different from what happened with the investment from Canada in Short’s
There have been some alarming newspaper accounts about a big question mark hanging over the company concerned. It is dealing with large luxury vessels of immense price, yet it can only find an office in a red-brick villa in a street somewhere in Luton. It could not be contacted by phone, and people who ought to know seem to have no knowledge of it.
I do not know what truth there is in those rumours. However, I would like the Minister to set our minds at ease. Some of my constituents say that their jobs must now be in greater jeopardy than ever.
The hon Member is correct in referring to the great sense of encouragement everyone felt when they heard the news about Short Brothers plc and Harland and Wolff Shipbuilding and Heavy Industries Ltd. Some of the questions asked recently about these firms are connected with the issue of the Estimates. However, there are particular matters on which the Minister of Trade, Enterprise and Investment is working, and I am aware that the IDB is working closely with Short’s and Harland and Wolff to maximise the prospects that were apparent for both companies. It would be inappropriate for me to talk up any other difficulties or to speak out of turn about a matter which is the responsibility of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. I am seeking guidance from the Minister or from you, a Chathaoirligh, because, as has been said, the suspension made it impossible to deal with these Estimates in the normal way. I am reminded of the recent announcement about the IDB’s essential failure despite its substantial budget. I am concerned, even from my own constituency perspective, that if the money spent by IDB had been allocated in a better or different way there might be a far better record — or even a record — of job creation in quite a number of constituencies. Mr Durkan and you, Mr Speaker, have touched on a matter specific to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: when will we have an opportunity to discuss that Department’s estimates in detail? How was that money spent, and how might it be spent better in the future?
In my statement, I outlined the different stages that I propose would be used for the Appropriation Bill and the Supply resolution. I indicated that, next week, the debate would be much more comprehensive and detailed. Members will be able to pursue aspects of the Estimates that are of interest or concern to them.
I take it that the Member was referring in particular to the recent report of the Public Accounts Committee. The IDB is preparing a formal Department of Finance and Personnel memorandum of reply to the Public Accounts Committee, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the report until that document has been provided. That is established practice.
I thank the Minister for his statements and for his efforts to brief the Department of Finance and Personnel Committee on these matters. We realise that we have an inherited programme and, therefore, inherited costs. At this stage there is little opportunity to tweak them. However, we will have an opportunity to tweak them with the preparation of a programme of government which, the Minister has indicated, will be completed before December.
It is essential to remember that when we move into the next set of Estimates the debate will, to a large extent, have taken place before it comes to the House. The allocations will have been horse-traded before that point is reached. Can the Minister advise us on the timetable he sees being pursued in order to have that debate carried out. Also, what role does he see for himself, as the person holding the ring in many of those negotiations?
As Mr Leslie is aware from previous discussions we have had with the Finance and Personnel Committee, we want to improve the planning process in relation to public expenditure, and we want to make sure that the Committee and the Assembly have far more foresight in relation to these issues than the procedures that we have had to follow on this occasion have allowed. As I indicated in my statement, I believe that the shift to resource accounting and budgeting will help afford us greater opportunities in that regard in terms of the quality of information available and the sense of direction people will be able to give through the different sort of procedures we have been talking about. Clearly it is not a matter for me as Minister of Finance and Personnel to ordain precise procedures. We genuinely want to discuss and develop these with the Committee and with the Assembly. I previously had some discussion with yourself, Mr Speaker, on exactly how we could improve these procedures in everybody’s interests, but not least in the interests of the Assembly being able to have a significant and helpful say, in terms of both scrutiny and proper planning of expenditure.
The Minister refers to the key planning process of government as being the formulation of a programme of government. I totally agree. Does he agree that we are indulging in what is, to a large extent, a cosmetic exercise? The cart has been put before the horse. In effect we are following, rather slavishly, certain attitudes. We are seeking to impose a form of government which is being brought about by a totally unaccountable regime. If we are to fulfil people’s dreams and achieve a new beginning, we have got to change — fundamentally change — the direction in which government has been going and the way in which it has been applied to the people of Northern Ireland.
Very recently, for example, we all received a press release from the Housing Executive. This year the Housing Executive is faced with a budget reduction of about £13·7 million compared to last year. We know, for example, that 40,000 dwellings are unfit for human habitation, yet, by following slavishly a programme drawn up by unaccountable administrators, we are going to be approving these types of figures. Until we get a programme of government — one which has to be fundamentally different to that which applied before — we, if we are truly going to be doing the job for which we were elected, have got to move in a totally different direction. If we do not, we will be failing the people, failing to give them new opportunities and new hopes and failing to fulfil their aspirations.
Today, many parents will have had dropping through their letter boxes —
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
My question is about the letters to young people who are hoping to go to university this October. They are being told that their circumstances will have to be assessed. Forms will be sent out on which they will have to give details of income. I am sure that the Minister will agree that that is not right. We must restore student grants and get away from the fact that the ability to pay is some sort of gauge as to whether students can afford to go to university. Does the Minister agree that there are many areas like this where direction must be changed through a new programme of government?
I was going to ask the same thing.
The hon Member, in his opening remarks, described today’s exercise, and, I assume, the exercise that I have talked about for the coming weeks, as cosmetic. It is not a cosmetic exercise; it is a vital legal requirement. If we were not to go through such a process we would not have the money to continue to discharge the vital public services that we have been talking about.
When I originally brought the budget proposals to the House on 15 December I did not pretend that we were working on any basis other than that of the allocations previously laid down by the Labour Government in the comprehensive spending review. We have been upfront and open about it. It was agreed by each Member of the Executive Committee, and we put proposals to the House on that basis. It was the only way we could conduct business in the absence of the programme of government, which we are seeking to develop.
Some aspects of the points raised are for relevant departmental Ministers. However, the gross resources available for housing under these Estimates could be around £602 million — hardly cosmetic, and not to be dismissed. Within that total, the Housing Executive’s gross resources will be £528 million, and £71 million of that will be for housing associations, whose funding will be supplemented by an additional £49million from private finance. I note the point made in relation to the Housing Executive press release. However, I would make the point relating to the total Estimates provision for the housing programme.
In relation to the issues of young students hoping to go into further and higher education, the Member is aware that my colleague the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment has initiated a review of student financial support and we await his report.
Members may be having difficulty hearing what is going on in the Chamber. I encourage all Members to put their questions and make their remarks as clearly as possible. We are looking into the technical side of things to see if improvements can be made.
I will be as clear as possible.
I would like to raise the issue of European funding because there is much concern that money under the European programme — Peace I — may be exhausted at the end of June. Hundreds of jobs could be lost, particularly in the community sectors — valuable sectors — because Peace II, the second European peace programme, will not be coming on stream for some months. I note that the Department of Finance and Personnel has the authority to borrow on the credit of the sums. What does the Minister intend to do to ensure that the gap between Peace I and Peace II is bridged, possibly by borrowing? Can he ensure that jobs will not be lost as a result? [Interruption]
I thank the Member for her question. The development of the new structural funds programmes —an important development — is a lengthy process and involves negotiation and agreement of a community support framework, the operational programmes and the programming complements. We are pressing ahead with negotiations with the European Commission with all speed, partly to ensure that the gap between the old and new programmes is minimised. All the funding bodies in the existing programmes were fully aware of the need for sustainability and to have suitable exit strategies in place. However, I recognise that some existing projects, particularly those under the single programme, will have difficulty in sustaining their activities and interim funding arrangements have been introduced by Departments, in particular the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. There does not appear to be the same need under Peace I, particularly when £160 million of the total programme allocation remains to be spent before 31 December 2001.
Would the Minister agree with me that when exercising government, meeting demands for additions to some budgets means, because of the block allocation of finance, reductions to other budgets? It is easy to make demands, but it is not so easy to fill the hole.
I note that the allocation in the Estimates for local government services shows an increase that is below the rate of inflation. Local government elections will be held next year. Can the Minister assure us that sufficient finances have been allocated to ensure that local democracy will go ahead unhindered?
The Environment Committee has identified a very serious lack of education officers for road safety. Will the Estimates that the Minister has put before the House today assist in the employing of such officers as a matter of urgency?
I thank the Member for his very helpful and responsible observation about how easy it is to propose spending as opposed to resourcing. I am sure that that point will be used repeatedly by my Department and me in reply to him and others.
In answer to his second question, I refer him to his initial remarks.
Most of the matters that Mr McCrea raised are the responsibility of the Department of the Environment. On some of the issues of local government funding, the Department has been working closely on options with a representative group of council chief executives and finance officers. They have been reviewing the formula for the distribution of the resources element of the general exchequer grant to district councils. That review is being progressed as a matter of urgency, and I hope a new formula can emerge. That would, however, require the amendment of primary legislation, and that would entail full consultation with district councils and the Assembly. Expenditure on road safety is a matter for the Minister and the Department to determine.
I think that the Minister will agree that the accelerated passage of the Estimates is not the most ideal way in which to deal with them, but will he agree with me that this book of Estimates is in itself a statement of the enormous advances that we have made over the last number of years and months? It is a detailed account of a programme of government which we will be pursuing for the next 12 months, and it is a tribute to the civil servants and officials who have reorganised government in Northern Ireland into the new Departments. It is also a tribute to his own Department. Will he accept that I will not be so kind to him next week?
I am surprised that he has been so kind to me even today, so I certainly have no expectations for next week.
I would like to take up the point about the production of the Estimates themselves. I did say that we issued advance copies of the Estimates last week. Clearly things have moved quickly. Estimates do not just reflect the allocations as outlined in my statement here on 15 December; they also include the further Estimates that have resulted from the Chancellor’s budget allocation, the allocations to health and education that were made by the Secretary of State and confirmed by the Executive Committee only last Thursday. Estimates are absolutely up to date, and it is a tribute to the various civil servants involved that we have completed so much. It is certainly not their fault that we are caught in circumstances, not of our own making, that mean that we cannot subject the Appropriation Bill to the length of stages that would ordinarily be available to us under Standing Orders.
Once again, I emphasise the importance of ensuring that we get as much certainty and clarity about this as about all the other matters on which people have said we need certainty and clarity. It is not in anyone’s interests to conduct Assembly business in ways that lead people to worry that the money needed to continue to fund public services could run out before the end of the summer recess. That is why we need the accelerated passage — to ensure that the money is available and that everyone’s efforts and concentration can be directed towards managing the money properly, rather than worrying about whether it is available.
First, I wish to thank the Minister for saying that he will give us some clarity and certainty in the answers that he provides to the House. I hope that will be clearer than the clarity given to some members of the Ulster Unionist Party and that it will not take the form of secret letters. With regard to allocations, I understand that the process is not satisfactory and all Members will agree. However, because of the interim arrangements, it is probably something we have to live with.
The figures are based on the outcome of the comprehensive spending review and, as some Members have indicated, there are questions as to how satisfactory that has been in ensuring the allocation of moneys to particular issues. After we adopt the Appropriation, I am unclear as to whether there will be an opportunity during the year for reallocation, not only within Departments but between Departments, if it is thought that there will be an underspend of budget allocations at some stage. We have already seen the problems with the Housing Executive, and with other areas, and we will need to look at these. I understand the opportunity cost of doing this. However, will there be an opportunity to look again at reallocating between Departments?
I thank the Member for his question. A series of monitoring rounds conducted during the year help to identify programmes under particular pressure because of greater demand than expected and identify easement in terms of anticipated spend. Clearly, one of the reasons for the monitoring round is to ensure the identification of available resources in-year and to properly and strategically redirect them, at that time, to areas where they are needed. Members will recall the exercise that took place after the December monitoring round when further moneys were made available to various programmes and Departments. In particular, extra money was allocated to the Department of Health to deal with apparent winter pressures. It is for this type of circumstance that the in-year monitoring round exists. I intend to work with Departments to try to make the most of those opportunities, and I am sure that Departments will work with their Committees in that regard. I have had discussion with the Finance and Personnel Committee to ensure that they have earlier sight of, and a better insight into, some of the issues involved in the monitoring round.
I accept what people have said about this process. By and large, it is better if people feel that they are not finding out everything about public spending by looking in the rear-view mirror, but that they can see these things coming up ahead and can get information from the dashboard. That is part of what we are trying to do and improve.
When the Chancellor allocated an extra £3 billion in his budget statement, only £86 million came to Northern Ireland for additional public spending. Proportionately Northern Ireland should have received about £140 million. Does the Minister agree that we lost out because no Minister or Executive was in place at that time?
Can the Minister assure us that when additional funding is made available from Westminster we shall not be sold short again?
The issue raised is much bigger than the question implies. That does not mean, however, that I shall give a much bigger answer at this point. The question clearly raises issues that touch upon the Barnett formula, and precisely how Northern Ireland gets its share of the money identified and allocated at UK level. Obviously, it is an issue which not just my Department and the Committee on Finance and Personnel wish to examine and work on. It is being considered by the Executive Committee itself, since we are in a further Treasury spending review due to end in a matter of weeks. That spending review will determine the levels, forms and patterns of public expenditure throughout the United Kingdom up to 2003-04. The issues raised by the Member are therefore certainly on everyones’ minds.
However, I stress that the money from the Chancellor’s Budget was very welcome. Last week the Executive confirmed the Secretary of State’s allocation of over £14 million to the schools programme and £53 million to health. There will be further decisions on the allocation of a further £18 million soon, along with moneys available from last year’s end-of-year flexibility exercise of the spending round. We shall shortly allocate that pool of money.
I wish to raise a point about the Estimates in the Appropriation Bill specific to the Minister. He said that £1·2 billion would be spent on education. Can he confirm that the £7·1 million made from the sale of the former Scrabo High School will be included in that money? Can he also confirm that all moneys received from that sale will be used for education provision in the Strangford constituency?
Unfortunately I cannot give the Member the confirmation he seeks regarding the latter point. I cannot pledge, or promise, that money allocated to, or released in, the overall programme, whether at the Department of Education or at any other Department, will be spent in a particular constituency. I simply cannot start to deal with questions about different Departments’ programmes in that fashion — it would be inappropriate. That may be disappointing to the Member, but it is the honest answer.
The Minister has said the role of the Assembly is to protect the public interest and ensure that money is spent well. Therefore it is incumbent on Members to ensure this is the case. Is the Minister convinced that sufficient resources are available to combat social security fraud in Northern Ireland? There is a strong perception that one area of social security fraud — namely, motability fraud — is causing great public concern, and it appears not to be beneath some people in this Chamber to rip off the most needy in our society.
Again, the Member has raised a matter that is the particular responsibility of a ministerial colleague—in this case, the Minister for Social Development. Clearly, I want all programmes operated with total probity, effectiveness and value for money. Public expenditure has many areas, and it is distributed in a variety of forms. All sorts of questions might be raised or impressions given concerning the degree of abuse with regard to different public moneys.
We want to see proper and appropriate use of all public moneys. Where any Minister or Department comes forward with analysis that identifies levels of abuse that they wish to tackle, my Department would want to work with them positively on that basis.
I noted with interest the exchange between the Minister and Mr McCrea on the limitations of the budget being considered. Can the Minister confirm that my Colleague, Mr Close has been consistent in his attitude to the need for tax-varying powers in order to provide the essential services for the people of Northern Ireland? Will the Minister also acknowledge that he and his Department have accepted that principle by their own proposal to increase the regional rate by 8% this year, thereby dealing with the potential arguments about block grant being reduced because of taxes being added here? Perhaps he could also tell us if he is just as keen as the DUP on the consequences of his policy leading to, for example, a £13·7 million reduction for the Housing Executive this year.
I accept the point in the Member’s question about the consistency of his party Colleague in terms of seeking tax-varying powers. I would ask people, before they think that is going to be the panacea for everything, to remember, whether we have tax-varying powers or not, that we are still going to have finite resources to allocate. Even with the additional moneys that might result from tax-raising powers, we are going to have to take priority-based decisions on their allocation and on their management. We need to consider carefully the experience of other places with tax-varying powers. I have warned previously about the risks of us experiencing a concept of subtractionality in our dealings with the Treasury in that regard, as opposed to some of the questionable experiences of additionality we have had in the past in relation to some moneys.
With regard to the housing money, I stress, yet again, we should not forget the money that is going in to the housing programme. Yes, it is a housing programme which, by its nature, has actually been changing. Like all other programmes, it will have to be examined and assessed in the context of the development of the programme of government. I want to see that all these programmes that are of concern and interest to Members — because they do perform vital services for people throughout the community — are given proper and adequate consideration and, in turn receive the proper and adequate funding. As Members of the Assembly, we are all here to satisfy ourselves on that matter. I will work with the Committee on Finance and Personnel to improve the systems which assure us on that. I have no doubt that the Ministers in their respective Departments and all the Members of the respective Departmental Committees will want to contribute to that. When we made the original budget statement in December we said we wanted all the departmental Committees to peruse the budget proposals in respect of the programmes that came under their Departments. We want these things properly proofed on behalf of Members of the Assembly.
I thank the Minister for his work. Does he take comfort from the fact that all political parties have shown sincerity this morning in taking charge of their own affairs and that never again will the affairs of Northern Ireland be in the hands of absentee landlords from Westminster?
Certainly I do, but when I consider the range of questions I am facing here, and being given notice of some of what I am facing next week, I am not sure that I entirely agree. It is a bit like what Talleyrand is reported to have said of Voltaire and Robespierre:
"When I think of either I prefer the other".
Therefore, in this situation, some of the devolution decisions do not look too bad, or it looks handy enough that somebody else is taking those particular decisions. The Member’s point is a good one. This is part of our political induction in taking up our new responsibilities as an Assembly and an Executive. Unfortunately the procedures do not lend themselves to the sort of input and exchange that we would want, but those are circumstances in which we are particularly caught.
I am certainly encouraged by Members’ very positive and well-motivated interest across the range of programmes and the range of Departments. I have made it clear all along that I see the job of the Department of Finance and Personnel as being working with and for all the other Departments. And that means working with and for the Assembly, as well as all its Committees.
A Chathaoirligh, in terms of health services, Minister, are you making provision for areas that might be deemed disadvantaged? I am thinking in particular of areas west of the Bann. Ian Paisley Snr asked a question about the shipyard and Short’s. I do not know if he has asked you for money for those projects. If money is going to be allocated to them, will the allocation be equality-proofed in terms of the employment position, particularly in relation to Harland and Wolff?
In respect of the question about additional money for Harland and Wolff, I have made the point that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the IDB are working on this. If additional assistance were to be made available beyond what has been talked about and what has been provided for, that would be a matter for future estimates; it is not covered in these Estimates.
In respect of the Member’s equality question, the Estimates have been drawn up on the basis of expenditure plans which meet the requirements of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and, indeed, the new targeting social need policy. The Member talked about the breakdown of the allocation in the area of health and personal social services. He is perhaps a bit like Mr Shannon when he asked if money in a particular Department’s programme could at this stage be earmarked on a subregional basis. It would be inappropriate for me to do this simply because in the nature of most programmes, and not least in one such as the health and personal social services programme that applies right across the region, it is not always easy to specify.
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, like the other Departments, is trying to bring forward new targeting social need measures and achievements in that regard, and clearly it would be a matter for the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to articulate those plans. I would, however, like to point out again the significant amount of money that is going into the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, particularly towards health and social services.
It is not just the extra £53 million that came from the Chancellor’s last Budget announcement — we are talking about £169 million above the planned amount for last year for health and personal social services. That is a cash growth of 9%, and obviously we hope that that cash growth will manifest itself in a helpful and an attractive way in all areas of Northern Ireland.
I agree with Dr McCrea’s reference to the swings-and-roundabouts nature of the process, and Mr Close voiced his concerns, particularly in relation to the Housing Executive. In replying to Mr Shannon, the Minister said that he could not specify what would happen to any funds that would result from the sale of the school in his constituency.
But, going back to the housing issue, many Members will have heard from district and regional managers their great concern about the shortfall in the Housing Executive budget. They are also concerned that they cannot make use of the funds from the sales of houses. Will the Minister, in liaison with the Minister for Social Development, look into this issue in order to redress the housing shortage?
I am aware, as all Members are, of the pressures felt throughout many public service programmes, including housing. Housing Executive district managers talk to me as much as they do to any other Member. I refer Members again to my earlier remarks about the money going in to the housing programme. It is not uncommon in these exercises for everyone to talk about the little bit of money that is not going in rather than the large sum that is. Housing programme resourcing questions for the medium to long term are a matter on which the relevant Minister may bring forward views, not least in the context of the programme of Government. I wish to ensure that arrangements are in place to allow such resources, as can be released, to go to the various programmes. We have to look at that in the context of all the priorities and experiences in the Northern Ireland block. Arguments and cases brought forward will have to be carefully examined.
A Chathaoirligh, this time I am speaking with my Mid Ulster hat on. I want to return to the question of directing funds to particular areas. It is accepted that ours is a society emerging from conflict, and that has social and economic consequences. If we are to redress some of the problems emerging from that and rebalance the services, it will be necessary to target social need in the area west of the Bann, and we will need to direct finance to that area. Mr John Kelly asked about the hospital service. We need to rebalance the hospital service west of the Bann and redress the neglect that has occurred over a number of years. Will the Minister consider directing most of the 9% increase in the health budget this year to that end, specifically to ensure the South Tyrone Hospital is not allowed to close for lack of funding?
I am glad the Member welcomes the extra money for health. Pay and inflation have been particular problems within the health budget for some time. The funds now available remedy the pay deficit and raise the baselines to 2000-01 price levels. I will not pretend that all the extra money is going in to service developments. However, approximately £79 million will be available for that purpose, and Members will want to address the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on how that should best be used.
With regard to the wider questions of equality and targeting social need, all Departments and public bodies are obliged under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to conform to clear and proper equality standards in their plans. The Executive will be developing its work in that area. It is already developing new Targeting Social Need policies, measures and standards. My Department wants to see real targets and indicators in use, rather than the unsatisfactory, impressionistic and anecdotal measures that have been relied on to date. We do not want Targeting Social Need to be another "It’s the thought that counts" — or, worse still, "It’s the afterthought that counts" — exercise. We want to see real targets and indicators used, as far as possible, throughout all programmes. My Department has a role in helping all Departments to come up with sound indicators and targets.
Can the Minister assure me that within the budget set aside for regional development there will be moneys allocated to the upgrading of certain roads in east Antrim — in particular, the A8 from Larne to Belfast? That route is essential for tourism and for the transportation of goods to the rest of the United Kingdom and throughout Europe.
The Member will be aware of announcements already made by the Minister for Regional Development and the announcements that were made on the basis of the budget allocations as indicated. If the Member was satisfied with those announcements I do not think he needs anything else from me.
The pressure on the textile industry is something we are all very much aware of. From experiences in our constituencies, many of us know just how vulnerable the textile industry is. The issue has been actively taken up by the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
The Member mentioned training. The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment has a direct interest in that regard. He and the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment have been trying to look at ways of helping to strengthen the textile industry. They want to mitigate the sort of pressures which make it so vulnerable, resulting in job losses, and help to make it sustainable and viable, both on the marketing and trading sides. Also, very importantly, they want to bring positive developments to bear, as well as provide assistance on the training side — something that the Members touched on.
Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh. I would like to welcome the Minister’s commitment to Targeting Social Need. I understand the time constraints on the passage of the Appropriation Bill. Nevertheless, the public expectation of the Assembly is that it will do things differently. It should seriously consider directing finances to areas of long-term disadvantage. Even a cursory glance at this year’s Estimates indicates that we are going to have more of the same. This is unfortunate. There is a finite amount of resources, but how is the Minister going to balance the finite amount and address the areas where there has been serious long-term underspend by the Government under direct rule? In particular, I would like him to explain why £91 million of public money has been committed to the Odyssey project. How does this address the area of targeting social need?
I am sure the Member was not suggesting that the £91 million she mentioned towards the end of her question would be sufficient to address social need in Northern Ireland. The Executive is going to have to develop how we properly articulate and manage an effective policy in relation to targeting social need, and I have tried to explain that previously. Those are responsibilities for the Executive. There are measures that Ministers and their Departments will want to develop within their own particular programmes. We are also going to have to agree priorities and measures across the full gamut of public affairs and public management. We are committed to doing so. It is simply not within my gift to say that I will direct all the money to every social need that everybody in this Assembly can identify with.
We need to ensure that we design the overall allocation system and manage all our spending programmes in ways that effectively target and meet social need.
The Odyssey Project is costing a total of £91 million. There is a range of funding partners — the Millennium Commission, £45 million; the Sports Council for Northern Ireland, £2·5 million; the Sheridan Group, a private sector investor, £16·9 million; Laganside Corporation, £9·25 million; with £16·9 million coming from the Government. It is important that that detail be noted. The total spend is not coming out of our programme; Lottery money and private money are also involved.
I remind the Minister of the previous question asked by Dr McCrea about the council elections. Is sufficient funding being set aside next year for those elections, as the amount of money does not seem to take account of inflation?
The Minister of the Environment was possibly one of the most mean-spirited Ministers during the 72 days of the Assembly prior to suspension. He did not spend any money. Can the Minister assure Members that there is enough money in the Environment budget to do something about the major planning backlog, in particular in relation to area plans? Has the Minister of the Environment enough money to take action to help alleviate these problems?
The budget was agreed by the Executive Committee. All Ministers and Departments would obviously like more money. All Ministers and Departments are able to point in a very real and credible way to pressures they are experiencing in the management of their budgets. In the Department of the Environment, there are future issues in local government, along with current and pressing issues, and some long-standing matters like the difficulties in the planning area. My Department will continue to work with the Department of the Environment and others to ensure that they have sufficient resources, and that they make the best use of those resources to provide Departmental services efficiently and effectively.
I add my thanks to the Minister for the clarity and transparency with which he has handled the many different questions. Can he assure us that when the INTERREG III programme comes into effect later this year the mechanism agreed in line with EU considerations — namely, that the money be administered at local level, in our case by the three cross-border committees at local authority level — will continue to apply? Can he assure us that the Department will not be indulging in any kind of additionality or centrality?
I thank the Member for the question. First, I remind Members that the special EU programmes body, established as a result of the agreement, will have a direct interest and a real management role in relation to a variety of EU funds and programmes, including INTERREG.
Secondly, we want to see the sort of models — that ensure more local delivery and local appraisal of the use of key European funds — develop right across all the future European funding programmes. We also believe that it is a model that could usefully be applied in many of the departmental mainstream programmes.
Will the Minister comment on what seems to be a huge percentage increase in the forecast for the superannuation budget for health and personal social services? It is more than the Housing Executive was looking for, and £15 million more than was forecast. Has something incredible happened to bring about a 54% increase, way above the 1999-2000 forecast of about £28 million? The figure has turned out to be about £43 million.
The New Deal money is ring-fenced and often cannot be touched by Northern Ireland. It has been reprofiled and some of that money has been spent elsewhere. How did this happen? Was that a precedent? Can it be done in future years? I congratulate those who succeeded in doing it, but will the Minister comment on it?
In terms of the detail of the reprofiling, I would appreciate more details from the Member so that I can properly pursue the matter and give a fuller and better answer. I am not quite sure about the facts she is raising. I am not disputing them; I am simply asking for more details so that I can give a fuller reply. I certainly will pursue the matter.
In terms of the increases in superannuation, let us remember all that happened in previous years when a Department was bidding for its budget allocation and the Department of Finance and Personnel was agreeing overall budget allocations. We have been informed by previous experiences and by the upcoming pressures that we know about. There is nothing provided for that is not needed, and for which real demand is not clear, visible and apparent. That is why the increase is there.