I beg to move
That the Assembly takes note of the draft Budget proposal announced on 17 October 2000 by the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Yesterday, we debated the Executive’s draft Programme for Government. In calling for this debate my Committee wanted to ensure that Members also had the proper chance to scrutinise the Executive’s spending plan proposal for the incoming year and to make our views and concerns known.
On 17 October the Minister of Finance and Personnel presented the first Budget Proposal that has been prepared entirely under the discretion of the devolved Administration. At that stage the Minister remarked that the Budget constitutes a significant stage in the implementation of the Belfast Agreement and in the cementing of the new institutions. I agree, and, as was noted by a number of Members following the Minister’s announcement, the Assembly, through its Committees, has a statutory duty to consider and advise on departmental budgets in the context of the overall Budget allocation. My Committee believes that if it is to meet its statutory duty in the future, then all Assembly Committees will need to be given adequate time and opportunity to consider the Budget Proposal, and to co-ordinate their responses to the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Executive Committee for consideration.
I think everyone would agree that the timescales adopted this year have prevented the kind of research and in-depth analysis that is desirable if Committees are to contribute to a report that adds real value to the Budget consideration process. There must be a firm commitment by the Executive Committee and the Minister of Finance and Personnel to adhere to a satisfactory programme in future years.
In the Committee’s view, this should be based upon an acceptance that the autumn session of the Assembly should open with the presentation of the Executive Committee’s Programme for Government. The Programme for Government should be followed immediately by a Budget proposal. This will give significant time for the process of analysis and consideration.
In addition, each Department has a duty to ensure that its Committee has the information it needs to perform its statutory role in scrutinising and considering, and advising on, the departmental Estimates. It is our view that this process should commence in the spring and early summer of each year when the Departments are giving initial consideration to the formulation of the following year’s Estimates.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, I do not intend to go into the details of the Budget. Today’s debate will enable my Committee to listen to the issues that are raised, to form its proposals and to advise the Minister accordingly. I want to mark up, as I did yesterday, the issue of using the rates as a means of taxation to finance the Budget. That issue has come up in the Committee, and we need to discuss it. The purpose of this debate is to give Members the opportunity to raise their concerns, to give their support to the various provisions and to ask questions.
That will enable my Committee to co-ordinate a response to the Minister of Finance and Personnel that encapsulates the views of the Assembly and its Committees. Go raibh maith agat.
I will start with the Barnett formula because I imagine that many Members will wish to comment on it and its impact on our Budget. Clearly, its impact is not satisfactory. By definition as a formula, it is somewhat rigid and mechanical. Undoubtedly, when Mr Barnett, as he then was, devised the formula in the 1970s he did not intend it to be a long-term arrangement. Indeed, I understand that he has recently implied that he is surprised that it is still in use a quarter of a century later.
The formula does give a certain set percentage increase for Northern Ireland public expenditure. Northern Ireland’s population is taken as a percentage of either the population figure for England or the Great Britain population figure, depending on which change or base in public expenditure is most appropriate.
For example, that affects the case of the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, where there are clear cases of needs in Northern Ireland exceeding the relative percentage share of population. The percentage of long-term unemployment in Northern Ireland exceeds that in England. In percentage terms, there are also more 18- to 21-year-olds, and there are greater training needs.
What then must be done? First, I applaud the fact that the Northern Ireland Executive had success during the summer in negotiations with the Treasury in London, when the aim was to get a fairer base with respect to the changes in public expenditure in either England or Great Britain, which would then be set up for comparison and multiplication through the formula to give the Northern Ireland increase.
We could commission a fully fledged needs assessment to shift the measurements of increases in public expenditure in Northern Ireland from the rather mechanical and rigid Barnett-type formula to one based on an assessment of needs.
We could even — though this is a longer-term and perhaps tentative suggestion — allocate Northern Ireland a certain percentage of tax revenues that are collected locally. We could move closer towards the sort of federal system of revenue sharing that operates in a number of countries around the world.
At the same time, Members must recognise that the "begging bowl" approach — as it might be derogatorily described in some quarters — does have dangers. In some sectors a needs assessment might lead to Northern Ireland receiving a smaller percentage increase than it currently does because there are greater social needs in certain sectors in Wales or Scotland. When negotiating with the Treasury, Northern Ireland can only plead its special case status for so long. We have an opportunity to do that at the moment, but it will not last for ever. Northern Ireland’s GDP per capita is already higher than that of some regions in Great Britain, and its unemployment rate is lower than the European Union average.
Yesterday we received advance notice of the provision in the Budget for cross-budget activities and the implementation bodies. Their budget amounts to approximately 0·2% of the roughly £6 billion in the departmental expenditure limits. The total employment in the six implementation bodies in Northern Ireland amounts to several hundred, compared to a central Civil Service employment in Northern Ireland of 20,000.
I raise those statistical comparisons for the sake of some Members in this corner of the House who seem agitated about the extent of North/South activity. Those Members should recognise that much of that employment relates to activity that has been going on for many years — for example, running and maintaining waterways and maintaining lighthouses. Don Quixote attacked windmills; some Members of the DUP probably want to attack North/South lighthouses.
I am not tilting, but some of the Member’s Colleagues did so yesterday.
The Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee is disappointed by the small budget allocation to the critical area of adult basic education. That is especially so given the well-documented problems of adult illiteracy and innumeracy. That may be linked to my previous point, considering that there are problems with basic mathematics in some quarters in the House regarding the proportional importance of the six North/South implementation bodies.
I congratulate the Minister and the Executive on their first independent Budget for Northern Ireland. In many ways, however minuscule, it tries to reflect local needs rather than those of the United Kingdom. I hope that that development will continue over the years as more knowledge is gained and more flexibility can be created.
In the opening paragraph of his presentation the Minister made a very significant remark. He said that the Executive was disappointed that the increase in spending power that Northern Ireland received was markedly less than the increases applied to England, Scotland and Wales. The Minister went on to say that Northern Ireland could continue to press for a more equitable and sustainable approach to the allocation of spending.
Dr Birnie mentioned the Barnett principle, which, I think, is the kernel of the problem.
He expressed a cautionary approach, but I have no doubt that if we were to examine what has been happening over the years, we could clearly illustrate the ongoing annual shortfall in the block grant, as it is commonly known. I have listened to departmental debates for several months now, and I am shocked by how much Northern Ireland has been neglected during direct rule. This can be seen by the underspend on railways to the point where they are now unsafe, the gross and obvious underspend on the roads programme and the £80 million that is required to replace the entire water and sewerage distribution system which is also in a state of emergency. Why were we not told all of this during the years of direct rule? Why was that kept from us, and why was this neglect allowed to accumulate so that it would become a burden for the new Executive?
I recall a meeting with the then Minister, the good Lord, Lord Dubs, in December 1998 when privatisation of the shipyards was talked about, and the idea was that the resources raised from that privatisation would be used on the water system. It was obvious that they wanted to run fast with the privatisation of the harbour, but they held back on the £80 million required for the water and sewerage services so that the Assembly could deal with it. That was deliberate, and I am sure the same applied to roads, railways, water, sewerage and health; the hidden burden was being pushed forward until devolution took place, and then we would be left to deal with it.
I suggest to the Minister and the Executive that we re-examine what has happened over the last few decades, measure the shortfall in capital investment and compare it with that in England, Scotland and Wales. We should then renegotiate and say that we have been underfunded, that our block grant falls short of the requirement to sustain Northern Ireland’s infrastructure on the same basis as that in the remainder of the United Kingdom. We should then request that that funding be reinstated, maybe through a 10-year programme, so that we can catch up in those areas that have been neglected in the past.
Dr Birnie suggested that in future the Barnett principle should be dealt with on a needs-assessment basis rather than on a mathematical formula, because that does not address any of the real needs and issues of the communities that we represent. I do not intend to address any constituency and parochial matters, however tempting that may be, I will merely deal with some very broad departmental issues.
I have referred to the problem that was highlighted regarding the £80 million required for the updating of our railway system to the relevant safety requirements. The Department for Regional Development must spend money to address the public safety aspect, and an attempt must be made to modernise what is an antiquated railway system, but we must be conscious of the fact that the railway system serves only a limited geographical area in Northern Ireland. Many in the Six Counties do not have access to railways, but I would like to think that there will be the same importance and the same determination to achieve funding to improve our roads infrastructure as there has been to improve the railway system. If we boil this down to safety issues, many more are killed on our roads than on our railways, although that is a very crude criterion by which to judge the importance of the spending priorities. We will have to balance what we are doing on transport infrastructure between railways and roads. Roads must be given a much greater priority. There has been a gross and obvious underspend in that area over the years, and the state of repair of our roads is deteriorating as we speak.
As I represent a rural constituency, it will come as no surprise that I have great concerns about the future of rural communities. I am not just referring to farming incomes. I am concerned about the future of our rural communities in general — farmers, rural workers, rural dwellers and small factories, all of which are currently under siege.
They are not just earning a living from the land or the locality. We should be aware they are also the custodians of the countryside and of our natural assets. Unless we address that issue in a more dynamic way, that which we all love and value, and which we should be utilising as a natural earning asset through tourism, will be dissipated.
I will give one small example. We are all aware of the problem of public safety. In my constituency the sheep farmers have been banned from using the Mournes. That has had a direct impact upon their income, yet it has been done on behalf of all of us, but they are still not getting any real compensation for this. If they are banned up to the year 2005, as is anticipated, the natural environment, which has had sheep grazing on it for centuries, will change dramatically. It will cost as much to maintain it in a normal and natural state as it would to compensate the farmers to keep them on the land. They should be engaged in that process and employed on environmental works to keep this natural resource. One can apply that argument anywhere in Northern Ireland.
We must have a more dynamic approach if we want to sustain a proper rural community. Farming is not the only way to do that. We must consider a small business approach to farming. At present we do not do that. We hive off farming to the Department of Agriculture, and we talk about stock, fodder and transport costs. However, it is much more than that. These are small businesses, and we must adopt a LEDU or IDB approach to sustaining them. We must make it possible for farm products leaving the farm gate to be deliverable on the world market and to be of the highest possible quality.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment must take an interest in the huge workforce which exists in the rural community, and which has not been addressed as a workforce. They are treated as individuals who do not count. They do count. We are going to rue it if we do not give them full and proper consideration.
My greatest worry — this is true of every Member of the Assembly — relates to the provision of good quality, locally accessible healthcare. If we are all honest about it, we will admit having had personal experience of a general deterioration in the Health Service. There may be many reasons why that is so, but there are a couple of matters that should be addressed immediately. I was interested to note the reference in the Minister of Finance’s paper to the creation of a service modernisation fund, with the aspirations of cutting out bureaucracy and creating efficiency and value for money.
The first target should be the Health Service in Northern Ireland. We need to remove the bureaucracy, to get away from the inefficiencies in the purchasing and supplying of services, and to redirect the funding from administration back to the delivery of the service and to the treatment of patients in our hospitals and surgeries.
More money should be released for spending locally, which is the aspiration whether we like it or not. Whether it is contrary to the dictates of the Royal Colleges or not, our people want a health service in their local areas. We need to address efficiency and bureaucracy and challenge the validity of the vested interests dictating to us over the delivery of our healthcare.
I also want to touch upon local government. A point was made in the media early this morning — in order to catch the early media worm — on the regional rate, which has gone up by 6·6%. This has always been a bug bear for those of us who have served in local government over the years — it has a long history. I remember questioning the basis upon which the regional rate was cast year after year. I now regret my response to that because I was told by Minister and civil servant alike not to rock the boat. They said I was doing all right, to keep quiet and not to fudge it. I regret that I did not insist on having a full, public, detailed analysis of how that money was being spent.
When the rates bill comes through my door, and through the doors of every household in Northern Ireland, I want to see what services will be provided with the money being demanded of me. We know the history of this. Macrory restructured local government in 1972. Responsibility for health, education, water, sewerage, roads and planning were all transferred to central Government, and the regional rate was to cover that — they were previously funded by local rates. It is only since then that the regional rate has come into being to assess ratepayers for services that were regionally provided. Depending on what everyone says about reorganisation and the restructuring of local government, we can immediately address the issue of how that regional rate is spent on health, education, water, sewerage, roads and planning, big spending areas. We can tell the ratepayers what is happening and we will be able to see whether there is efficiency or not and whether we are getting a fair deal or not. With the splitting of the regional and the local rate, there is a danger that people are being doubly taxed, and I think that matters should be made absolutely clear and precise. I would like to think that there will be greater efficiency and that the regional rate increases, that grow year on year squeezing local government, will be addressed in a more scientific and open manner.
Finally, there is the question of whether the Northern Ireland Executive should seek to have some powers in respect of local government and local taxation. Scotland took it upon itself to have a 3% tax-varying power. I am not talking about increased taxation but rather about greater flexibility in how we deliver the services we have to deliver across the board.
We have spoken of certain areas that have required an enormous amount of funding over the years. I recall an opinion poll — it did not translate into votes, which most of us will be very conscious about — that said that the English electorate would vote wholeheartedly to suffer the burden of increased taxation if it were ring-fenced and devoted to the provision of a better Health Service. I hasten to admit that that did not translate into votes at the subsequent election. I am not advocating increased taxation; I am just saying that it is something we should look at to see if we in Northern Ireland could have some flexibility with general taxation which would allow us to catch up with, or surpass, the better infrastructure of some of our neighbouring countries in this new millennium.
It would have to be equitable, and it would have to be endured by those who could afford it rather than those who could not, and with our local thinking we could come to a reasonable arrangement. I hope the Minister and the Executive will address this problem — maybe not this year but some time in the not-too-distant future.
In conclusion, I would like again to emphasise my party’s appreciation to the Minister and the Executive for the Programme for Government and the Budget. I am sure it has not been an easy task. I have just one question left. It has been said in the House that the Budget follows the Programme for Government and that if we aspire to do something then we must pay for it. I suspect that, because of the block grant’s construction and its finite terms, in many instances the programme follows the budget. We cannot raise the finances to pay for what we want to do. We can only decide what we can do when we get the finances. That is not good housekeeping, and it is not good government. It is not the way to address local issues and I think that is another good reason to look at some aspects of the local tax situation.
We have been told that the Budget increase on the figure for the current financial year is approximately 7·3%. While that is quite a hefty figure, as the Minister pointed out in his statement to the House several weeks ago, it is significantly lower than Scotland, Wales and England. Therefore we are not reaping the same benefits as other parts of the United Kingdom from the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s largesse running up to the next election.
I would like to press the Minister about the way Northern Ireland is being treated under the Barnett formula. I know he has made representations with others to the Treasury in the past, but I would like him to spell out what he plans to do in the medium term to address Northern Ireland’s underfunding in the block grant situation.
May I also press him, although I am talking generally at this stage, about the Executive programme fund. These were praised by a number of speakers when the statement was first made in the House and have been referred to this morning. There is to be £16 million set aside in next financial year, £100 million the following year, and £200 million the year after that. Yet we have had no indication so far of what the indicative figures would be for allocations to Departments over the next two to three years. I would like to know exactly when the Minister proposes to give us those figures. We have the figures for next financial year, but I think it is important to have some idea for years thereafter — even if they are only indicative.
While people are welcoming the Executive programme funds I take it that the Minister will be confirming that there is no extra or new money involved here. Money that would otherwise have been allocated to Departments will be held back until later in the financial year. In effect, there is not going to be the promise or indication that this is new or extra money at all. In fact, this money is part of the Northern Ireland block and will simply be taken from Departments, put into the Executive and then handed back out again.
I would also like an indication from the Minister about the Programme for Government, which we debated yesterday. A number of Members indicated that there were some broad and sweeping statements, many of an aspirational nature.
When one analyses some of these statements it becomes clear that moneys have not been allocated at all in some cases, or that inadequate funds have been allocated to meet some of the targets which Departments bid for funding for. To what extent does the Minister feel that the Programme for Government and many of the actions therein have been adequately funded, and which of those have not been funded at all, in this year’s Budget? That would be very interesting and enable us to measure what the impact of the Programme for Government will be in real terms. It is all very well to talk about aspirations and visions. We all know that if no money is allocated to fund these programmes, then very little is going to change in the standard of living of our constituents.
Turning to the timetable, there is a general feeling that both the way we have looked at these issues and the time we have been given have been inadequate. The Minister has been pressed on this in Committee. Can he assure us that in future years, if indeed there are future years and the Minister is still in place, we will not be in this position of having to rush our consideration of the Budget?
I welcome the introduction of resource budgeting and accounting, as this will place more emphasis on the setting of output and target measures. That is a positive step, and I hope that it will continue in years to come. I am sure that it will.
When the Minister introduced the Budget statement on 17 October he said that these would not be a set of hand-me-down Budget proposals that simply rolled forward plans inherited from the period of direct rule. He referred to the previous year, when exactly that happened, for understandable reasons. However, the Minister was at pains to stress that on this occasion we would not be doing that. He said that this would be the first evidence of how we will begin to make a difference. I imagine that that whetted the appetites of some people and led them to believe that we would see some very different approaches to issues that have been difficult in the past. Earlier, Mr McGrady mentioned one such issue, the regional rate. However, the Minister then said
"The Executive has decided to roll forward the increase of 8% in the domestic regional rate which was assumed at the time of the 1998 comprehensive spending review."
Obviously, he was not just rolling it forward from the previous year. He was taking it forward from the 1998 comprehensive spending review, despite his having said earlier that we would not be engaged in the business of bringing forward a set of hand-me-down budget proposals.
I do not see much difference under devolution this year compared to the last number of years. The percentage increase in the regional rate is going to be exactly the same — far and away above the rate of inflation. I have not seen the Minister bring forward any justification for that, except to say that without this increase we could not have made the allocations that were made in the Budget. That goes without saying. The non-domestic regional rate is to rise by 6·6%, which will have a major impact on costs for industry and employers. That will, in turn, make us less competitive.
Obviously, if we increased the regional rate by the rate of inflation, we would not have as much money. Anyone can understand that point, but where is the justification for an increase of this magnitude? Look at the outcry that there has been, and rightly so, at the suggestion. I notice that some of the people who have been waxing eloquent about this issue have become silent when it comes to the rates, an issue that clearly bears upon many householders in Northern Ireland who are on low incomes.
What about the issue of the increase in Housing Executive rents? It is suggested — or assumed — for the purposes of housing benefit that they might increase by GDP plus 2%, but people are saying that that is far too high. When I was Minister for Social Development I indicated that I wanted it brought down to the level of inflation, but this figure of 8% has been thrown out here on the grounds that that is what it was in previous years, and if it does not continue at that level, there will be less money. That is unacceptable. The Minister needs to go away and rethink this issue.
Many Members of this House are local councillors, and we know all about the misrepresentation on a rates bill. When the rates bill arrives, people pick it up and say "Look at Lisburn Council" — I cite Lisburn because I am looking at Mr Davis — "and what it is doing. Look at the size of its rates bill." I am not looking at Mr Robinson, of course, because people in Castlereagh never say that; they look at their rates bills and say "My, what a wonderfully low rates bill". They then go on to say "But look at the size of the regional rates bill". Most councils in Northern Ireland have been reasonably prudent in managing their local rates and the burden that they place on ratepayers, but year after year the Government step in and increase the regional rate far above the rate of inflation.
Mr McGrady mentioned the idea of transparency. People should know exactly what they are paying for when these rates bills come through. That is right, but the problem is that the Minister has already made it known that this is just a general means of raising money. It is a taxation measure. We pressed him on this in the Committee. We asked him if the money that is being raised through the regional rate will be linked to expenditure on water or sewerage or any issue that is ring-fenced in any way, and he admitted that it was not. It is a general tax, which goes into the general pot and is then distributed as he and this Assembly sees fit. When we talk about taxation and tax-raising powers it is therefore clear that the Minister is a tax-raising Minister as far as the regional rate is concerned.
The Member is over-simplifying the situation. He knows well — and I am sure he will agree — that if the regional rate is not paid, then provision for the funding of water, sewerage, electricity, health and education will have to be included in the district rate. The ratepayer will still pay — as he always has done — for those services. We need transparency and then we will know whether the amount is right or wrong.
I want to deal with how we can improve the situation. It would be wrong if we were simply to stand here and say "We should not have this rate increase" or if we were to criticise certain aspects of what the Minister proposes without suggesting alternatives. That would be irresponsible, and I will deal with the matter shortly. The point I want to make now is that it is simply unacceptable for the Minister to come here and talk in generalities about needing this because otherwise we would not get the money in.
Until he rose, I thought that the Member for South Down agreed that any taxation — whether it be this Durkan tax or any other tax — must be for some specific service or product. By doing things this way, the Minister is pulling a figure out of the air and giving no justification for the amount. It is simply a top-up tax to meet his final figure.
The Member is absolutely right. This was backed up, and the Minister agreed with that analysis at the Committee. In previous years there may have been an attempt to link the money raised through the regional rate to expenditure on water and sewerage, but the Minister has made it absolutely clear that that is no longer the case. The money goes into the general pot and is distributed widely, as the Executive sees fit. What concerns me is that no proper justification whatsoever has been given for such a large tax increase, way above the rate of inflation.
Maybe one of the reasons why the Minister felt that he had to put forward such an increase was the provision for additional departmental running costs as a result of the devolution arrangements put in place because of the Belfast Agreement.
In 2000-01 an extra £26·1 million is being spent on running the Civil Service bureaucracy, not on delivering services or giving people the things they need to improve the quality and standard of their life. There will be another £26·1 million next year. That is £52·2 million so far. It will continue in the years after that.
The proposed Civic Forum will cost £300,000 to get up and running next year. Dr Birnie and his party, as enthusiastic advocates of the all-Ireland dimension, sought to justify expenditure on the North/South bodies. However, he would have better spent his time considering the fact that £8·2 million will be spent on that.
The Minister sent a letter dated 24 October to the Finance Committee, in which he said that expenditure on North/South bodies in 2000-01 was £8·2 million. Another document from the Minister, dated 12 October, says that costs for North/South bodies for the same year were £8·9 million. Perhaps I can help the Minister to clarify that. In one letter he tries to leave out the costs of the North/South tourism body, whereas in his original letter he includes those costs. They should be included, as it is one of the North/South bodies. The total expenditure on North/South bodies next year, including the North/South tourism body and the North/South Ministerial Council, comes to almost £18·1 million.
The First Minister recently told the House that expenditure would be about £11 million. He seemed to think that that was a trivial amount — why were we getting so exercised about over £11 million? The real figure is nearer £20 million when what should be added in is added in. The Minister himself added in these factors in his letter of 12 October to the Finance Committee.
There are those who say that we should not get too exercised about expenditure on the all-Ireland dimension of the Belfast Agreement. Perhaps they can justify this to their constituents: for every million pounds spent on the all-Ireland political dimensions of the Belfast Agreement, 200 extra heart operations could be carried out, 25 houses might be built for the homeless, or 1,000 homes could be adapted for disabled people. Some money has been allocated for that in this Budget, but not enough to deal with the demand in the community.
Members who represent their constituencies face the daily demand for work to be carried out to adapt homes so that people can live in their own homes in a safe, decent and proper way. For a million pounds we could put central heating in 300 family homes. Look at fuel poverty: 170,000 homes in Northern Ireland still do not have adequate heating. Six hundred people —
Can the Member explain the basis for his confidence that if the structures of devolved government, including the North/South bodies, were not here, and instead we had direct rule, the money saved would be spent on the services that he has mentioned, such as heart operations and heating for Housing Executive houses?
I would have very little confidence if I were putting the matter in the hands of direct rule Ministers. However, Members will have an opportunity to vote on the matter. I hope that those who are concerned about these issues will go through the Lobbies in favour of these things. Any who so wish may vote against, but that will be a decision for them and no one else. They will be responsible, answerable and accountable, and no doubt the people will hold them accountable.
I well remember the words of the Deputy Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party about a year and a half ago — I have not seen much of him since then — in one of the earliest debates we had in this House, when we raised the issue of the cost of the present system of devolved government and quangos. We have yet to see any proposals for a reduction in the number of quangos.
All we have heard about is a review of public administration. We have heard about it outside this House when it has been discussed at conferences for local government chief executives, at party political conferences, and in the media. However, there has been no ministerial statement — and we all know that we have ministerial statements on virtually every subject at the drop of a hat — about what this review of public administration is going to entail. No one has told us what it means, how long it will take, what it is going to cost, what the targets are, or what it hopes to achieve. However, Ministers have been at pains to say, in the Programme for Government, and in previous statements to this House, that one of the key reasons why it is not necessary to get so exercised about the costs of devolution is because these costs will come down when we get rid of these layers of bureaucracy. All I have seen so far is the building up of more layers of bureaucracy — the Civic Forum, North/South implementation bodies, and so on.
Then we look at the departmental running costs. I would be interested to know how the Minister will justify some of the figures that we have for increases in departmental running costs. In the case of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister — I take that as an example because it is the most glaring one — on page 37 ‘Budget 2001/02’ speaks of an increase of 20·6% in the departmental running costs for next year. This is a Department that does not actually deliver any services directly to people. The cost is for administration and the running of various units and departments that have been set up within the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. That is something that needs to be addressed.
I will be very brief.
The Minister — I mean the Member; I do not want to elevate him too soon, although after this morning’s performance he may get an approach — had an opportunity to say something on a number of issues, some of which I have already highlighted, during his own remarks.
I have already mentioned issues such as fuel poverty. I have mentioned homes being adapted, and so on. Money could be diverted from some of the expenditure on political correctness, bureaucracy, and all-Ireland, political North/Southery. That money would be better spent on addressing issues like fuel poverty. Other Members will have an opportunity to raise other issues. There are issues such as kitchen and bathroom replacements in the homes of people on low incomes who desperately need them. There are issues like the North Belfast strategy, which is one of the Housing Executive’s main priorities in view of the very pressing housing needs on both sides of the community in that area. There is also the need to maintain a proper, decent and adequate spending level on the maintenance of Housing Executive properties.
England and Wales are now paying the price of under- investment in maintenance over the years. They are now facing a massive bill to try and make up for under- investment. We in Northern Ireland have kept up a reasonable standard of maintenance. That must not be allowed to drift. We need to put more money into it. We need to look at the supporting area of weak community infrastructure. Money needs to be spent on that as well.
I urge the Minister to think carefully before he proceeds with the allocations he proposes in terms of the all-Ireland machinery and to divert that money to better uses.
The sitting was suspended at 12.34 pm.
On resuming (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair) —
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will address the lack of impact which this budget has had on the state of our health services. At a time when the media are telling us every day about the serious state —
Mr Leslie rose in his place and claimed that fewer than 10 Members were present. Assembly counted, and 10 Members being then present —
We learn of the crisis affecting the Health Service — bed shortages, patients on trolleys, waiting lists for cardiac and orthopaedic surgery, shortages of nurses, acute services in turmoil and insufficient primary services provision. In addition, winter pressures are bearing down on us earlier than was anticipated, while the problem with our Ambulance Service continue. The historic and ongoing underfunding of all levels of NHS health care must be acknowledged by the Assembly and by whoever is attempting to fund essential services in this part of Ireland.
The new revenue and investment on a per capita basis should be at least equivalent to the NHS national plan in Britain — this point should be indisputable. Nevertheless, in a recent ‘Belfast Telegraph’ article, John Simpson said that the Barnett formula, which was introduced in the late 1970s, has been responsible for reducing the differential between the per capita spend on health in the North of Ireland and that in England. In 1984, the per capita expenditure on health in the North of Ireland was 25% higher than that in England. This differential has now been reduced to five per cent. The formula for the division of extra money is calculated on the basis of the population of an area. The health needs of the people of the North of Ireland are much greater than the needs of the people of England. For instance, the coronary heart disease mortality rate is 20% higher in Northern Ireland than it is in England. John Simpson argues that, as a result, per capita expenditure on cardiology and cardiac surgical services in Northern Ireland should be 20% higher.
We could examine the history of how the Health Service in the North of Ireland has been diluted, underfunded and neglected over the years. Reckless, long-standing neglect of health services here is inextricably linked to the present acute crisis, and to deal with that there will have to be more planning than there has been to date. I suggest that a five-year plan, perhaps even a 10-year plan, is required to fund the Health Service, rather than periodic bandages in between recurring crises. That is how we have been treating the Health Service. We have not been caring as we ought for those at the cutting edge of the shortages in it.
The challenge for the Assembly, a LeasCheann Comhairle, is to agree a strategy which will address the current emergency and enable our hospitals to deliver the first-class service which our patients and our old and infirm deserve well into this century. This Budget does not even begin to address our current problems, let alone our future.
The Minister might well ask where the money is to come from. In her proposal to the Executive, she requested £275 million. People said that that was money for a wish list. But as we look now at the formidable task before us, we can see that £275 million was far from money for a wish list. The £154 million that she received will do no more than put a sticking plaster on the predicament which confronts us.
Whatever our political differences, we always agreed that the health of the people in the North of Ireland required our urgent attention. It is something that affects every Member of the Assembly, and it affects our families and the community. If we stand idly by we will be complicit in the neglect that has been inflicted on the Health Service over the last number of years. We must take some measures, however painful. We will not be forgiven if we do not treat this matter with the urgency it deserves.
We have to go back to the Exchequer. We must make an urgent case to the Treasury, and those members of the Executive who are centrally involved in this must beg, plead or borrow to get the money from somewhere. However, we must not only address our existing problems but also formulate a strategy which will insure against repetition of this crisis. A neglected Health Service must become a thing of the past, and if it does the Assembly will be seen to have addressed health and the care of our old, young and infirm as our first priority.
This draft Budget is inextricably linked to the draft Programme for Government that was discussed yesterday. For the sake of consistency I pose the same question as I posed yesterday. What opportunity have the statutory Committees had to consider this draft Budget? I use the word "consider" deliberately, because that was the word used by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister when they introduced the draft programme.
I want to emphasise that statutory Committees have a more important responsibility. The statutory Committees have a duty, a duty enshrined in law, to do much more than consider the draft Budget and the draft Programme for Government. They are obliged to scrutinise these documents, and scrutinise means to "examine in minute detail". I contend that it is only after the completion of this scrutiny that they should come to the Assembly, we hope, for final agreement on a cross-community basis.
I further contend that the opportunity for proper scrutiny has not yet been afforded to the Committees. It will not be possible to fulfil this statutory function adequately given the predetermined timescales within which we are operating. I would like to give Members a couple of examples.
The Finance and Personnel Committee has spent weeks scrutinising the Ground Rents Bill. The Ground Rents Bill may well be an important piece of legislation. However, in terms of giving priority to scrutiny, and to the depth of that scrutiny, should we spend more time on a Ground Rents Bill than on a Budget that will affect every man, woman and child in this community. I know what my answer is. We should have been spending that time on our Budget. We should have been spending that time on ensuring that we get the Budget right. I feel, sadly, that we are being railroaded towards a vote on a Budget without proper scrutiny. That places a huge question mark over the word that has been used by so many people: "transparency". It also places a question mark over the word to which we should all bow the knee, as it were: "accountability" — accountability to the people who elected us.
Having got that off my chest, I see that my primary role here today — this was mentioned by the Chairman of the Committee — as a member of the Finance and Personnel Committee, a Committee that should have an overarching role in budgetary matters, is to listen to the views of Members from other Committees in the House. No doubt there will be other opportunities for further constructive criticism of the Budget.
However, as the regional rate falls directly within the purview of the Finance and Personnel Committee, I wish to take this opportunity to object in the strongest possible terms to the proposed 8% increase on this nebulous and iniquitous tax. I do so for a number of reasons, one of which was referred to by Mr Dodds when he quoted what the Minister said when he introduced the Budget on 17 October. The Minister told us
"this is not a set of hand-me-down Budget proposals" — note these words —
"simply rolling forward the plans inherited from the period of direct rule."
That is a laudable approach which I commend.
However, what happened then? When it came to the regional rate, we were told
"The Executive has decided to roll forward the 8% increase in the domestic regional rate which was assumed at the time of the comprehensive spending review".
How could anyone in the House support that iniquity? Anyone who has been a member of a local authority, as the Minister has, for a number of years could not, cannot and should not support this iniquity that is called the regional rate. It is beyond me how anyone could support such a tax. I have been a councillor for 27½ years, and — hand on heart — in this time I have never heard a councillor throughout the land support the regional rate.
The tax is despised by every councillor and local authority in this land. Why? Because when district councils strive honourably to keep —
Does the Member agree that every tax is despised and that the regional rate is no different? Since he has been a fairly vociferous proponent of tax-raising powers for the Assembly, can he tell us what less despicable tax he would like the Minister to use to raise finance?
I thank the Member for that intervention. I will address his questions. No doubt the Member will stay to hear.
I also hear a lot of calls to resign. I hope they are not addressed to me because I do not know what I would resign from — I am not a Minister or a member of a Government that hopes to inflict such a penal taxation on the Northern Ireland people.
District councils strive valiantly each year to keep the district rates at a level acceptable to their electorate. They are consistently horrified at the extent to which the regional rate is increased. Until this year we blamed those swingeing increases on a non-accountable, unsympathetic, direct-rule regime — unaccountable to anyone living in Northern Ireland. What will be the accountable politicians’ excuse after the Budget is passed? Whom will they blame?
That is your starter for 10, and you have answered correctly.
What will the excuse be? How will those who insist on this type of tax face the people when, we having been given power over our own affairs, they do exactly the same as those we heaped scorn on in the past? The word "hypocrisy" springs to mind.
Just a few days ago the increase in electricity costs was debated in the House. Members from every quarter justifiably expressed their horror, disgust and contempt for this swingeing increase, and I supported them. Are they now going to turn a blind eye to bringing about an increase that will affect those they claimed to protect when they were shouting about electricity costs — housewives and those running a family on a small fixed budget?
Does the Member not agree that there is a fundamental difference between electricity costs, where the revenue passes mainly to the electricity company, and partly to its shareholders as dividends, and the regional rate, which is redistributed in its entirety to the Northern Ireland economy?
Yes, sophisticated arguments like that work well. However, I am referring to the ordinary individual — you might call him Joe Citizen — who receives a bill in which he sees a 9% increase in electricity costs, or, if this proposal is carried, an 8% increase in the regional rate. He will draw no distinction between the two increases because the pound in his pocket will have been equally affected in each case.
Consider the effect on small businesses, which are the backbone of this economy. They will be hit by an escalating rates bill. What are we to say? Whom are we to blame? The Minister? The Government? I will go further than that: I will blame anyone, any elected representative, who supports this increase. I am making it clear that neither I nor my party will indulge in this type of hypocrisy. The Alliance Party will support neither a budget nor a Programme for Government that is funded, even in part, by an 8% increase in the regional rate.
A day or two ago this Member was described in the House as being a slow learner. I am tempted to repeat that, but I will watch with interest, through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to see how the Democratic Unionist Party votes on the regional rate. I will also watch with interest when we come to discuss the proposed increase in Housing Executive rents. We will wait and see.
As Members have already stated, I have long articulated, both in the House and outside it, the need for the Assembly to have tax-varying powers — not tax-raising powers, as a Member said earlier. It may well be necessary to raise taxes in certain circumstances. I do not run away from that possibility, as Mr McGrady suggested. There are many advantages in ring-fencing particular taxes and making them attributable to certain increases in public expenditure. For example, I have no doubt that the people of Northern Ireland would agree to pay increased taxes to fund additional intensive care beds, and that is a different argument from the proposal to use the regional rate as a vehicle to increase taxes.
I am diametrically opposed to such use of the regional rate. Why? Because the regional rate fails all tests of what is a fair tax. It takes no account of one’s ability to pay. It is a regressive tax. It attacks those on fixed incomes. It militates against property improvements. A further tenet of good taxation is that those who strike and levy taxes should be accountable to the people on whom they levy those particular taxes. The Assembly must therefore be accountable to those whom it taxes. That would not happen with this "sleight of hand tax", which in effect, passes the buck and the bill — at least in the eyes of the people — from the Assembly to local government. That is fundamentally wrong. Councillors are accountable to the electorate for the district rates they levy against their electorate. Councillors must not continue to be the whipping boys and girls for the actions of this, or any other, Assembly.
I have referred to another area which gives me great cause for concern: the refusal of the Minister for Social Development to give an assurance to this House that Housing Executive rents will not increase beyond the level of inflation. We have heard many excuses for this refusal, but the reality appears to be that people were on the side of the poor Housing Executive tenants until they found themselves in positions of power. Only then were they prepared to burden those same tenants with inflation plus increases. How can anyone be so barefaced and then face the electorate?
I give notice that the Alliance Party will not accept such above inflation increases. We will honour our social consciences, and I call on other Members of this House to honour theirs. I realise my critics will point and say "It is easy to say ‘Do not put this up, do not put that up, but where are you going to find the resources to fulfil a Programme for Government?’ " This is where I return to my starting point. If only the Statutory Committees of the Assembly were given their proper scrutiny roles, I have no doubt we could find the necessary money. That could be done by cutting out wastage. Administration in every Department has merely rolled on from direct rule, although the Minister said we were not going to have anything rolling over. Have any of us in our Statutory Committees had the opportunity to look for efficiencies and savings which do not affect services? Have savings been found which do not cut back on services which people are expecting and demanding?
This topic came up yesterday during the so-called debate on the Programme for Government. The Executive in its wisdom has produced a document containing strategies, public service agreements and promises about what will happen. The Assembly has existed since 1998. We are fighting the same battles as last year. We are trying to get powers vested in Statutory Committees to do the jobs for which we were elected. We have a scrutiny role we have been unable to fulfil because we are told we have to work to predetermined timetables. That is wrong. We have to get our priorities right.
I will give a further example. The Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, has had the opportunity to examine some Northern Ireland Audit Office reports. Anyone who has even a cursory glance through these reports will see the millions of pounds that have been wasted through inefficiency, inaccuracy and the mistaken expenditure of public money. We are an accountable body, and we must demonstrate that accountability by ensuring that all past wastage and maladministration is subjected to scrutiny, with improvements being made. I would much prefer to see that happening than to turn a blind eye and levy an 8% increase in the regional rate, the same as was enacted under an unsympathetic direct rule regime.
I wish to speak on some Budget issues raised in the Social Development Committee. Various Ministers told the House that Targeting Social Need would be at the heart of all departmental spending policies. Nothing in this draft Budget comes remotely close to fulfilling that assurance. It will make the poor poorer and increase the economic and social exclusion felt by many in society.
I will illustrate that by making three or four brief points. Last year the Housing Executive budget was reduced by £14 million. Some additional resources were found later in the financial year, but the cut was still severe. Many of us thought that in this financial year, with local Ministers in charge, there would be a real possibility of an increase in that budget. How wrong we were. The Housing Executive budget will be reduced in real terms this year for the sixth consecutive year. The difference this year is that these cuts will be imposed by Ministers elected to this Assembly by the people of Northern Ireland.
As a result of the cuts in the Housing Executive budget, the planned housing programme for North Belfast has been, at best, shelved, yet few would disagree that the area has some of the worst housing conditions in western Europe. Where does cutting the Housing Executive budget, which has resulted in the north Belfast programme being taken out of the plans, fit into the overall strategy of targeting social need?
Rents are programmed to rise next year by 2% above gross domestic product (GDP), or 4·5%. If the Social Development Committee were to recommend reducing rents in line with inflation, £5 million or £6 million would have to be cut from the Housing Executive budget. That would result in bathroom and kitchen replacement schemes for Housing Executive tenants having to be cancelled, another first for Targeting Social Need.
Of course, some will attempt to argue that, since 80% of Housing Executive tenants claim housing benefit, these rent increases will affect only the remaining 20%. The argument is that 80% of tenants are protected from any increase, and since housing benefit is paid from the consolidated fund rather than the Northern Ireland block, this is a method of increasing Housing Executive moneys.
That may be true, but it shows a cynical disregard for the 20% who must pay full rents, including many senior citizens who have worked all their lives and accumulated small occupational pensions. These hard-earned pensions place such people above the benefit threshold, and they have to pay the Housing Executive rent, plus any increase, in full. While pensions rise by 2% this year, in line with inflation, Housing Executive rent increases, if unchecked, will rise by the same amount on average. Consequently, those people will be left even worse off.
Many Housing Executive tenants in low-income jobs must pay the full rent. It is inevitable that those people will consider leaving employment and returning to welfare. If Targeting Social Need has any aim, surely it is the elimination of the poverty trap. Despite that, I stand here in a legislature that is supposed to be locally accountable, and contemplate the potential for widening that poverty trap.
Benefits are the only source of income for many people living on the margins of society. Last year alone, £7 million of income support benefit was unspent — moneys that should have gone to those in need. Unfortunately, this does not reveal the whole picture. Income support, as we all know, is a passport to other benefits. In reality, when we consider an underspend of £7 million in income support, we have to recognise that once other unallocated benefits are taken into account the real sum is probably in the region of £10 million to £12 million. What is the response of the Department for Social Development? It reduces, in real terms, the amount of money we allocate to advice services throughout the Province. I suppose that is in keeping with our policy of targeting social need.
How can we cut housing executive budgets, increase rents, reduce expenditure on advice giving services — all matters that impinge on the lives of people living on the margins in this society — while at the same time increase spending by £50 million to ensure that we can get the trains to run on time?
I commend the Minister on his Budget proposals and welcome the opportunity to comment on them. In particular, I would like to touch on the areas of equality, disability and education.
I welcome the commitment to a single equality Act because it will help develop a cross-departmental approach to community development. I also commend the policies relating to gender, race and disability. I ask the Minister what the impact will be on the statutory work of the Equality Commission if the £500,000 deficit in funding is not met.
There is ongoing consultation between the Equality Commission and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister with regard to this matter. Now that the issue of funding has been raised, I hope that it will be seriously addressed in future Budgets, if we are to take into consideration the recommendations made by the disability task force. Those recommendations would greatly enhance what is already in progress here in Northern Ireland in relation to equality.
If the Equality Commission is to engage in a full programme of activities, it is important to eliminate discrimination and promote equality across the range of issues for which the commission has responsibility, such as fair employment, gender equality, disability, race and, in particular, the statutory duties. Significant funding needs to be allocated to this.
I very much welcome the £1 million allocated for disability within the commission and hope that it will help to target social need and promote social inclusion for one of the most disadvantaged sections of our population. This is a positive move towards redressing the current imbalance in provision for people with disabilities. I take this opportunity to add that I was delighted to see the issue of disability addressed in their own budget proposals across three of the Departments collectively in this Government.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment proposes to create 400 places on the access to work programme, 50 places on the employment support programme and 60 work trials under the job introductory scheme. In addition, the Department for Social Development has allocated moneys to the Housing Executive to facilitate an increase in the number of adaptations to existing buildings, to provide access to about 1,500 buildings for people with a disability. This will go some way to improving the access for disabled to avail of these increased jobs and training opportunities. Adding to that, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has committed itself to making 40 venues across Northern Ireland accessible for people with a disability by 2001. With this combined effort across Departments, it can only be seen to promote access in both social and work facilities and a very positive move for inclusion for the future.
I turn now to the additional moneys made available for education. It appears that the allocation only allows for the maintenance of current spending, plus some extra to cover inflation. Northern Ireland is not getting a fair deal in money for education. Money allocated for education is not ring-fenced, unlike that in England, which goes directly from the Chancellor to schools.
Northern Ireland, along with Scotland and Wales, is evaluated under the Barnett formula, and the money actually goes into the block grant. Under the Barnett formula, only 3·3% is awarded, calculated on an overall population basis, which means that, in reality, there is a shortfall of some £7 million, compared to the allocation of extra funds in England. In fact, to have any impact we would have had needed at least 5%, and I am asking for the matter to be addressed in the revised Budget.
I had hoped that extra money would be allocated to help alleviate some of the areas of hardship in many schools, especially illiteracy, innumeracy and special educational needs. However, it appears that will not be the case. Under the social inclusion section of the Programme for Government, it is acknowledged that these areas will have a significant impact on social disadvantage. But in order for that to happen effectively, the £9·5 million earmarked for schools estates would need to be doubled. That will, in turn, help to address the current problems, continue development on an ongoing basis to ameliorate the issue.
The funding of education is an investment in our future, and we need to invest, not only to stop the system from deteriorating any further, but to develop a comprehensive and inclusive system of education which will reap benefits for our society in the short, medium and long terms.
There is a lot to be commended in the draft Budget proposal, and I appreciate that it is difficult to divide up the cake between competing Departments. However, it is imperative that we address the current inequalities and begin to work towards upgrading those services most in need, such as equality, education and disability.
Before getting to the bones of what I intend to say, I must comment on some of the things that have been said so far.
I was astounded by Mr Cobain’s generosity, and I am sure that Mr Campbell, the Minister for Regional Development, will be delighted to learn that he has now got an additional £50 million for the railways as opposed to £20 million actually in the Budget. Of course, we can excuse Mr Cobain — he has got his figures mixed up before, occasionally, and has had to eat his words. If he is prepared to give that money from the Department for Social Development to the Department for Regional Development, I am sure the Minister will be delighted.
Neither do I sit on the Social Development Committee nor am I the Minister, so I can give no guarantees. But I wait with interest to see what recommendation the Social Development Committee brings forward to the Minister as to how much it believes he should raise the rents by. I am sure the Minister will take complete cognisance — [Interruption]
Do they want cuts in the housing budget or do they want a rise in the housing budget? Those questions have to be answered. We look forward to the constructive and positive items that the Chairperson of that Committee will come up with.
I found Mr Close’s contribution very interesting — very articulate, as usual, but that did not disguise the flaws. He talked a lot about the regional rate and how it was an immoral rate, a bad rate, a bad tax system. He used words such as despicable and detestable. What other system could replace the regional rate? Perhaps the Alliance Party could come up with something novel, more closely akin to the poll tax? Something, perhaps, that takes account of individuals, unlike the regional rate, which takes account of the property that people live in. Of course, the means whereby district councils raise their revenue is via the district rate, which is based on the same premise as the regional rate. Properties have a rateable valuation, and a penny-in-the-pound levy is set against that valuation. Are they going to change that as well?
Again, I suggest that hon Members acquaint themselves with the facts. The Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Poots) should take a brief course in taxation before criticising those who are putting forward alternative ideas. Will he accept an 8% increase in the regional rate — yes or no?
I thank the Member for the lecture on taxation. The only problem is that he told us about taking up ideas but did not come forward with any ideas himself. We will take a further look at the Member’s arguments. He talked about the Housing Executive — [Interruption]
The Member talked about an increase. He assumes that the Minister for Social Development will impose a massive rent increase on the ordinary people of the Province but does not say what he wants the Housing Executive to do. He does not want the Housing Executive to raise rents, but he does not seem to mind having cuts in the Housing Executive budget.
The Member refused to answer the first question about whether he accepted or rejected a rise in the regional rate. Will he please tell us whether he will accept an increase in Housing Executive rents of 2% or more above inflation? That is a simple question, and I would like a simple answer — yes or no. He should try to answer at least one of my questions.
I thought that that would be a simple question, so I was happy to give way.
My party will look maturely at each situation and will consider the needs in each area. We will propose what we believe is right. Mr Close said that he had no doubt that if people were asked whether they wanted two more intensive care beds, they would be happy to put more money into the regional rate. If we said to the people on the Ormeau Road or Ravenhill Road "We are not going to do any improvements on the water system here — it can flood next year and every year after that. We are going to keep your regional rate down to 2% each year", they would not be happy. So, we have to look at things maturely and reasonably — [Interruption]. I will have to get on with this, because I have other items to raise. The Alliance Party has talked at length about tax-raising and tax-varying powers, but is it serious?
Will the Alliance Party tell us that the 8% was wrong and that we should really have a 15% rise on the regional rate? I hear the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Close) saying "Yes". Perhaps he is even saying "Yes" to 20%.
Mr McCarthy is shaking his head. Yesterday he had a wish list the length of his arm of what he wanted the Executive to do. The reality — for Mr McCarthy’s benefit — is that there is only a certain amount that one can spend — [Interruption] If he wants the things on his wish list he will have to raise taxes. Perhaps the Alliance Party will learn to be mature about that.
The Alliance Party backed the December 1998 deal, which proposed that there should be 10 Departments, thus supporting the spending of extra millions on administration in the Province.
I would be happy to return to six Departments and see the old Department of Environment split into two Departments, as the DUP proposed at the time. That would lead to better, more joined-up government. However, it was decided to spend more money then, and now there is less money to spend on housing, sewerage, roads, transport, and so on. I thank those who supported the new structures for doing that for the general public; it was very kind of them.
I want to speak on some issues of interest to the Committee of the Centre. First, there is the failure to allocate money to victims. There was a request for £500,000 of extra money for victims — not a penny was allocated. That flies in the face of the Bloomfield Report, and it goes against what was set out in the Programme for Government.
E-government is an area where the Government could make savings. There would have to be an initial investment, but it would lead to savings in the long term. It could even reduce wastage, and I am sure Mr Close would be interested in that.
Two bids were put in for e-government — one for £14·9 million and one for £0·9 million. Neither bid was met, so not a single shilling is going to be put in to e-government. There is the service modernisation fund of approximately £3 million. That fund will come under severe pressure. It will not go any way towards meeting the needs of e-government and it will be subject to bids from other Departments.
The Government have stated their plans for e-government. They want 25% of key services to be capable of delivery by 2002, and 100% by 2005. That is not achievable if the money is not being put in. The bid, as detailed by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, was to increase the accessibility of Government service for all and improve the efficiency, effectiveness and economy of Government services. Furthermore, this bid was to enable social inclusion and to put the concept of sell Government once into place. The insufficient early funding of this work may place all the achievements at risk and leave Northern Ireland at a disadvantage. This is contrary to the ethos of the knowledge-based economy.
The words spoken by the First Minister yesterday are hollow, especially as there is no funding in that area. He said
"In addition, as set out in the final chapter, there are a number of cross-cutting initiatives that can improve the effectiveness of the Government. These include the increased use of electronics to create new and more effective means of providing services to and information for citizens and to handle data and information within the Government".
Legislation has been passed on equality issues. A £500,000 bid was made to implement much of the legislation that has been put before the Equality Commission, but it was not awarded.
All of this contrasts with those bids made in respect of departmental running costs which seemed to be met in full every time. No attempts were made to reduce those bids. For example, the economic policy unit bid for additional staff and received £479,000 — the full amount of the bid. The office of the legislative council sought additional staff and received its £106,000. The race equality branch bid for £125,000 for additional staff and received it. The list goes on. Government Departments received all the money they sought for additional staff in the departmental running costs.
The same situation exists in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The agriculture budget has risen by £25 million, however the farmers will not be any better off. It is a good budget for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, but it is not a good budget for agriculture. It is alarming that the budget for agriculture amounts to almost twice the profit of the industry. It costs twice as much to administer the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland as the farmers are making.
There are a number of environmental issues that must be dealt with. I welcome the 12% increase in direct funding and the possibility of a further 2·3% increase as a result of retaining the receipts from the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS), planning and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Northern Ireland (DVLNI) — and I thank the Minister for his co-operation in that — but there are matters of concern to the Environment Committee.
For example, there was a bid made for £1·38 million to lift the moratorium on the historic buildings grant. The Programme for Government states that the Executive will seek to bring in additional funding through a number of private initiatives as well as the lottery. However, as a result of the Department of the Environment not receiving the £1·38 million for the EHS, the Department is going to lose out on a large amount of lottery money. We have to have the money to pump-prime those projects so as to release the money that would be available from the lottery.
A further £461,000 is needed to maintain the Department’s own historic properties, and that has not been provided. We need to take a serious look at our built heritage, not just through words in a document but by awarding funding through the budget. In the resources element of the exchequer grant for the local authorities it is also a concern that our councils will lose out on around £556,000, while the councils in England, Scotland and Wales got their rewards in full. Those are matters that need to be addressed.
I am concerned that there has been a 0·1% drop in the money that will be spent on roads. I know that roads are not exactly the darling of a lot of people’s eyes and that cars are not deemed as being environmentally friendly, but we all use them. We all like to have good quality transport, drive down good quality roads, and get to where we are going in a reasonable time. Roads continue to deteriorate and it is important that we look after them. We need good quality roads and we must look at the budget and ensure that more money is invested in the Roads Service.
I welcome the additional £20 million that has been invested in the rail service. It has been crumbling for years, and if the money had not been invested, there would be no rail service in a few years’ time. In yesterday’s debate on the Programme for Government, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister stated that it wanted more buses of a higher quality and a younger fleet. Unfortunately that was not addressed in the budget, and the Department for Regional Development’s bid for additional money for buses was not met. It received £5·1 million, which will replace 28 buses a year, but 80 buses need to be replaced over the next three years just to bring them up to a reasonable standard.
With regard to Culture, Arts and Leisure, more money should have been invested in libraries. A high increase of 18·7% was allocated to the arts and only 5% was allocated to libraries, but libraries are more accessible to Joe Public. I also have concerns about the allocation to the Northern Ireland Events Company. Some years ago we saw quite a lot of money squandered in projects in the Positively Belfast debacle. The Northern Ireland Events Company should be more accountable for its finances. I would also like to ensure that the money is spread throughout the Province of Northern Ireland and is not spent solely on Belfast.
A LeasCheann Comhairle. Ar dtús ba mhaith liom argóint a dhéanamh i bhfabhar na cothromaíochta do mhuintir Thír Eoghain agus Fhear Manach sa díospóireacht seo. Leis an fhírinne a rá, níl rudaí cothrom sa tsochaí seo, agus caithfidh an tAire — leoga, caithfidh an t-iomlán againn — seo a chur san áireamh agus sinn ag plé leibhéal an ráta réigiúnaigh, mar a thugtar air.
Rather than argue for more money for roads, it would be much more productive if Mr Poots could persuade his party’s Minister to attend the Executive meetings where those arguments take place and where decisions are made. I oppose the idea that the regional or Six Counties rate should be applied uniformly throughout, ie, 8% domestic and 6·6% non domestic, because it does not take into account the fact that the playing field is very unequal.
As an Assembly Member for West Tyrone, I am acutely aware of the historical legacy of discrimination, neglect and underinvestment west of the Bann — and I refer specifically to County Tyrone, County Fermanagh and County Derry.
The allocation of resources is unequal, and the playing field is not level.
When arriving at the regional rate, the Assembly must legislate for those areas that have been completely denuded of essential hospital services. County Tyrone is a case in point. There is no maternity hospital, and expectant mothers have to travel unacceptably long distances on poor-quality roads. Lives are being lost, there is virtually no midwife cover at weekends, the out-of-hours surgery and GP cover is inadequate, and people from places like Eskra and Carrickmore are expected to travel to Enniskillen and Craigavon. That inequality needs to be legislated for when striking the regional rate. These are areas where the health service has been in steady decline for many years. It has been constantly eroded and virtually disassembled, brick by brick.
Similarly, the Assembly must legislate where there is no rail provision; where the road infrastructure is completely inadequate; where rural roads are not gritted unless there are 1,500 vehicles per day (not even school bus routes qualify); where official job-creation agencies have failed the people consistently; and where access to many public services which are taken for granted elsewhere has been denied to whole communities.
I do not believe in this uniform approach to striking the regional rate. It is fundamentally wrong and should be reviewed, because it disadvantages rural communities. After all, the M1 stops at Dungannon, and the M2 stops beyond Antrim. People west of the Bann should not be subject to the same percentage increase.
I wish to raise the issue with Nigel Dodds in the strongest possible terms. Earlier, he argued very unconvincingly about North/Southery, as he calls it. He said that North/South development constitutes a waste of public money. That is a completely irrational, party political approach that ignores the evidence that the creation of a single island economy and the avoidance of duplication is the way forward.
Let us go about the business of creating a single island economy and take account of the huge savings that such a rationalisation would bring about. We would not have two health systems, two education systems, two agriculture systems, two tourism systems, and two industrial development systems. Ireland is far too small a nation to have two systems of health, education, and so on.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Dodds did not mention the Celtic Tiger very often. In my book, there are rather more compelling reasons for deepening and expanding the role of North/South implementation bodies. That is a far cry from Mr Dodds’s invitation to justify those bodies from a defensive standpoint.
Today I spoke to a professional person from County Fermanagh who is very concerned about the level of the rates. He said that at the end of the day the only hope for Counties Tyrone, Fermanagh and Derry might lie with the Twenty-Six Counties. Then we might get our kitchen adaptations and house adaptations, our operations and our central heating; and our rural housing, which is unfit, might be addressed.
I want to touch briefly on other relevant issues. The Executive and the Assembly need to begin to define medium-term spending priorities so that we can use these to argue for increased spending targets for 2002-03 and 2003-04 and in future spending reviews. The present proposal to increase commercial rates by 6·6% is going to further cripple traders in town centres, who are already suffering stiff competition from out-of-town commercial centres. In Omagh, there has been a huge outcry from traders at the huge increases in their rates year after year without any hint of a reprieve or any demonstrable understanding of their plight.
On another point, where is this peace dividend that we have heard so much about? Where is this concept of making a difference for people living west of the Bann? Where and when is the balance to be addressed and redressed? Finally, we need to raise public awareness about the whole business of the regional rate being stuck. We need to demystify it and explain it.
Mr Dodds referred to people receiving their rates bills and distinguishing between the regional and district elements. I do not think people do that. People receive their rates bills and wonder what public services they are getting in return. In rural areas there is a particular deficit of confidence in this regard. As other Members have outlined, the district councils have to bear the brunt of the blame from people who, quite understandably, do not fully understand the procedures and methodologies involved. I want to promote a programme of public awareness to aid transparency. Go raibh maith agat.
We need to ground our examination of the Budget in reality. We can all come up with a wish-list of what we would like the money to be spent on. Indeed, if we were to add up the wish-list we would probably find that it amounted to twice the Budget that we are discussing today. We should not lapse into the green-tinted Utopia that the Member opposite seems to advocate — a 32-county Utopia that would cure all our ills. Suddenly there will be no ill people, and there will be money flowing in by the bucket load.
The reality is that we have got to look at how we can play a better role as part of the United Kingdom, which is an economy with a population of 58 million, and not at an all-island economy based on a population of 5 million. If the Member opposite understood anything about economics he would realise that what he has put forward is simply a recipe for Northern Ireland to go backwards into economic decline.
Members opposite are obviously able to speak on their own levels of expertise. I presume that they have many skills and insights which some of us on this side of the House would not be party to.
I give a cautious welcome to the broad thrust of the Budget. That will come as a surprise to many Members, because I am not noted for saying positive things in the House. I will reassure those Members a little. Whatever positive remarks I make about the Budget, I will try to temper them with concerns, so that there will be no undue excitement in the Chamber today.
It is easy to welcome a Budget when we are in a position where, with the exception of the regional rate, or the Durkan tax, as it was called earlier, we are not actually raising any taxation. Instead, we are reallocating the largesse from the Northern Ireland block grant.
Although there are arguments that Northern Ireland could have done better, we are able, following the comprehensive spending review, to have reasonable increases in spending across the board. That is to be welcomed. However, it is easy to deal with a situation where we are essentially looking at what additional bits of the cake can be brought into play. The real test of any Budget will be when we are faced with no net increases and are having to reallocate money on that basis. That may happen in future years.
I add a further caveat. The Finance and Personnel Committee, albeit having a somewhat inadequate amount of time to do so, will be scrutinising this Budget very closely. It is clear from remarks made today that this is not a perfect Budget and that there are changes that need to be made. I advise the Minister that the Finance and Personnel Committee will be doing its job properly and scrutinising the Budget. We will not simply undertake a rubber-stamping exercise. We will be looking at where improvements can be made. He need not think that we are going to put a big tick at every aspect of the Budget.
Having said that, I want to deal with a number of specific aspects of the Budget. First, a general welcome must be given to the spending increases in education and health. The key test of both of those — indeed, of any local administration — will be the extent to which people on the ground feel the benefit. In education, there is a massive backlog in the capital schools spending programme. The Health Service is in a shocking state. Last week a constituent of mine was injured in a house fire and a bed could not be found in the whole of the Eastern Health and Social Services Board area. That person had to be taken to Craigavon. That is an absolutely deplorable state of affairs. The key test of any increase in spending on education and health, indeed across the board, will be the extent to which it benefits people on the ground, rather than simply adding money to administration. Health and education must be watched closely.
I also welcome additional spending within the Department of Environment on planning services, which has not been mentioned so far. Members will agree that there are problems surrounding planning issues. Many regional plans are out of date. The provision of more money to accelerate various development plans is to be welcomed. I was at a meeting last night in Donaghadee, where there have been a lot of complications with the Planning Service, but North Down is not an isolated example. It is a problem right across the country. The budget increase of 23·5% for the Planning Service is to be welcomed.
It is important that we are putting more money into the railways. I would not be as dismissive of that as another Member. During direct rule, and probably before, regional development tended to be the poor relation of the Northern Ireland Budget. Public transport has been the poor relation within regional development, and the railways have been the poor relation within public transport. As a result, the railways have been underfunded for years. The additional £20 million that has been put forward is an attempt to rectify those problems. This is not a question of luxury spending on the railways; it is an absolute necessity. If we do not spend money on the railways now, as recommended by the AD Little report, we will not have the opportunity in five or 10 years’ time. If we do not spend it now, the railways in Northern Ireland will be completely untenable.
Some people refer to spending on railways as if it were some sort of glib project. A lot of that money has to go into track safety improvements. The events of the past month, both in England and now sadly in Austria, show us of the danger of not paying enough attention to rail safety and the threat to human life. This money being put into the railways is welcome.
If, however, we are going to consolidate the railways — which I think is the right course — it cannot be done by neglecting the rest of the railway line. We have got to see this as part of an overall project of real investment in the railways to ensure that Northern Ireland is not the poor relation of the British Isles while vast amounts of money go into transport both in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
Those things are to be welcomed. I also have some concerns, some of which have been raised already. I am concerned about the regional rate. I do not have the experience of local government as some of the other Members who have spoken, so perhaps I do not have the same personal axe to grind, but I remain to be convinced of the merit of the rise in the regional rate. It has to be made clear why that is taking place. I also share the concern that, at the moment, there is no transparency with the regional rate.
If money is to be raised through a regional rate or some such device, it must be made clear that the decision has been made by the central Administration at Stormont and that local councils are not directly responsible for it. Councils must not carry the can for decisions that are made by other people. We could call it the Stormont tax, or even the Durkan tax, but it must be clear that it comes from Stormont, rather than local government. Furthermore, I remain to be convinced that the rise in housing rents can be justified.
Finally, I express concern at the increase in departmental running costs. Many of us had concerns about whether 10 Departments were appropriate for the administration of Northern Ireland. Setting that aside and looking at the budget figures, we can see that there have been large rises in departmental running costs for the majority of Departments. Not all of those rises are due to the transition to devolution. In each case, the rise in departmental running costs is above inflation. In most cases, running costs are increasing at a higher rate than the level of spending by that Department. There must be a close examination of that.
We have had a useful listening exercise, although the last Member to describe it thus did a great deal of talking for someone who was so interested in listening. We must ensure that we get the Budget right. This is a tremendous opportunity, and we must ensure that it is used to benefit the people of Northern Ireland, rather than just to put money into the Administration.
The Budget is primarily about distributing the block grant allocation to Northern Ireland determined by the Chancellor, under the notional Barnett formula. Total spending is now about £6 billion a year. The Barnett formula has been in existence for about 25 years. Northern Ireland gets a share based on its population.
The allocation does not, however, reflect relative regional GDP. That would give us more, on a pro rata basis. Northern Ireland is almost doubly dependent on public sector spending as a proportion of GDP. Over 60% of our economic output is dependent on the public sector; the rest of the United Kingdom is much less dependent on the public sector. Our economy is largely driven — or perhaps constrained — by the public sector. The challenge for the Assembly is to decide how the new administration can give new impetus and thrust to the local economy, so as to generate more economic activity, create more jobs and produce higher value added output from the private sector?
We can learn from our neighbours in the Republic. That is why I give a particular welcome to the economic aspects of the North/South institutions and to the meaningful co-operation between the northern Administration and the Administration in the Republic. Why do some parties in the Assembly feel so aggrieved and threatened about spending on these North/South institutions? The promotion and development of economic activity will be to our benefit.
Regardless of the political differences in our attitudes to "North/Southery", does the Member accept that there is a great deal of expense associated with the North/South Ministerial Council meetings? Written Answer No 169 revealed that the cost to one Department of ferrying officials back and forth was £16,000. Does he not realise that that is a waste of resources? I am sure he could come up with ideas on how that money could be better spent in his constituency. I could certainly come up with a whole lot on how it could be better spent in mine.
I thank the Member for his comments, but my attitude is not to prejudge outcomes. Let us give new institutions and mechanisms a chance to operate, then apply some qualitative assessment to their performance. Let us learn from the Republic in a collaborative and productive way. The five Executive programme funds, in my opinion, offer the greatest potential for stimulating and promoting what I call public policy redirection, for resource adjustment to kick-start the private enterprise sector in Northern Ireland and to enhance general economic activity.
The drawing up of public service agreements in Departments is a welcome development proposal, which offers a new opportunity for us to contribute at three levels to improving the performance of this small regional economy. There is a great need for a stronger interaction and engagement between politicians in this Assembly, civil servant policy formulators, and the other social partner stakeholders — Northern Ireland commerce and industry and the voluntary and community sector.
I welcome resource budgeting if it leads to better Government departmental performance, where targets based on predetermined objectives are set. It is absolutely essential that output performance is continually measured, so that corrective action can be taken in the remit of public accountability and ultimately deliberated upon in this House.
The thematic approach in the Budget and in the Programme for Government is welcome. Creating a more competitive regional economy is necessary. The primary themes are based on equality implementation and New TSN. To those people and sections of our community who need help, this must deliver an encouragement to develop themselves and their communities. Community development has been very successful over the last ten years, particularly in rural Northern Ireland. How can this administration stimulate and enhance more widespread urban community-based developments, striking a sensible balance between the social and economic parameter objectives? That is now the challenge. The European Union initiatives and money have greatly enabled this process. I regard the five programme funds as a similar public policy mechanism to enable better economic and public performance. I make particular reference to the service modernisation fund, which I believe can lead to a better performance. The new directions fund can enable new directions to be created and can add to the private sector enterprise-driven approach which needs to be developed in Northern Ireland.
Many people have talked about the infrastructure capital fund. We all know about the neglect of investment in roads, rail, water and sewerage over many years. Some Members asked today why nobody had blown the whistle early on. I ask that question again. Surely we should have been informed ten years ago about the under-investment in these funds and projects. We have now reached the stage where massive investment is needed for this region to perform better economically. That is the reason I welcome the discussion about using private finance. We should have no ideological hang-ups about using private finance for public sector investment. However, private finance should be used in such a way that we do not add handicap to the public purse. It must be used in a meaningful way that does not add extra costs or burdens.
In the early 1990s the Irish Government secured £8 billion from the 1994-99 European structural funds. We received only £1 million. The economy in the Republic has performed extremely well since. The reality is that in the same period we in Northern Ireland got £3·5 billion per year from the British Exchequer — £17·5 billion in total. We can reasonably ask what are we doing wrong that we do not have a better local regional economic performance.
I want to highlight three issues, the first of which concerns the spending on roads. We welcome the fact that there is going to be a substantial amount of investment in the railways. It seems to be specifically directed at the safety aspects, and we would like to see more money being put into that category. That poses some questions. What would happen if the Westlink does not go ahead? Where would that money go? Would it go directly into the railways or into other road schemes?
With regard to the budget for the Department for Regional Development, we are all aware of the needs. Important roads schemes have been put on the long finger. For example, the Comber bypass has been on the list to be constructed for the past 30 years. Today all we have is the land, which has been recently acquired, but we have not got a start date. Perhaps, at long last, work could commence in the current financial year. There must be some criteria to deal with long-delayed projects such as this. We have waited too long for a road scheme the need for which was recognised 30 years ago, and the problem has been exacerbated during this time.
The second issue is cultural and linguistic diversity. I want to deal specifically with the promotion of Irish- medium education. The Programme for Government document refers to viability criteria. What does that mean? Where does Ulster Scots appear in this? It seems to be solely about Irish-medium education. Are there viability criteria for Ulster Scots in the education system? Can the Government ensure that Ulster-Scots will be allocated funding equal to that set aside for Irish-speaking schools and the integrated education system? In the interests of fair play we want to see this matter resolved. In the programme there is no fair play for the Ulster-Scots language, nor for our culture or history.
The third issue concerns the health sector. We must all be aware of the needs of the community. I want to target a particular group — those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. I find it disappointing that in the proposed Budget there has not been further consideration given to the needs of an ever increasing elderly population. In the next few years there will be an increasing demand upon the Health Department. As people age the possibility of dementia increases as well.
It is estimated that Alzheimer’s disease will affect more and more people, yet in the Budget of £2,284 million it has been given no specific consideration. We should be looking at ring-fencing money for the care of those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. If that money were to be set aside it would mean a full range of care and support services in each of the trust areas. One of the concerns is that in our contact with the boards we have found that only one that has set aside money for the problem. The Western Board has set aside just over £2 million.
None of the other boards has got as far as that yet. That is very worrying. It shows very clearly that the Health Department itself does not seem to have acknowledged the problem. They have had a programme with recommendations sitting on the table in their Department for five years, and nothing has been done. The health boards themselves, with the exception of the Western Board, have not even got to the stage of putting this on their list of things to do. That speaks volumes the lack of commitment from the boards and from the Health Department
Are the health boards and the Health Department hoping that the dementia problem will go away? That certainly will not happen. There is a responsibility on the health boards and the Health Department to provide dementia services. They need to be provided now, and the strategy needs to be put together at once.
At present there are 16,000 people in Northern Ireland who suffer from dementia. In the Eastern Health and Social Services Board area — my own area — there are 7,200, by far the largest number in any board area, and yet they have no programme whatsoever at this time. That is despicable. We depend upon volunteers. Everyone recognises the good work that volunteers do. There are some 40,000 volunteers who look after those 16,000 people who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
If a little was spent now, a great deal could be saved later on. Early diagnosis costs would be one way of doing this. At the moment, an early diagnosis costs £330. With a distinct possibility of having 1,500 new cases each year, the total cost could be £0·5 million. However, if we do something now, we will have fewer concerns later on in relation to health and the cost of looking after those suffering from dementia. There are also drugs available. Money should be spent to combat Alzheimer’s disease. There is also a host of volunteers who are quite willing and able to give aid to those suffering.
The Assembly and the Department have the power to ring-fence moneys. I would like to see that happen, as that is the only way to ensure that dementia sufferers will be cared for. We have to recognise the growing demand on resources. We all recognise that. This is not just a wish list. These things are very important. An increasing number of people will need help, yet there is no security of funding. This must be addressed in this year’s Budget.
Many people already feel isolated and socially excluded. It is not just the sufferers but also those who provide the care. Purchasing plans should recognise the need for the development and availability of a full range of care and support services in each community unit and trust area. That is what we are seeking. Service providers should plan to ensure that appropriate support and care is based on an assessment and maintains the quality of life and independent living of people with dementia and their carers. We have to ring-fence the money and ensure that it is there in this financial year.
Members might like to have a progress report on how we are doing. There are 15 Members still to speak, as well as the Minister, who, by convention, has 10 minutes for each hour of debate. I am sure that he will manage to get his words in in that time — about 60 minutes. Mr Leslie will wind up. I am not putting any limit on your time, but I am making a little suggestion that it might be wise to try to think of something absolutely new to say, because there is a tendency towards repetition.
Much has been said on the Budget proposals already, and you will be glad to hear, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I do not believe in repetitiveness. I wish only to comment briefly. I wish to underline my total and absolute opposition to the proposed 8% increase in the regional rate. My Colleague Seamus Close has adequately spelled out our total opposition. I welcome the speech this morning of Nigel Dodds, who was also in opposition.
This increase is a breach of two important taxation principles. First, the people who spend the money — namely, the Government — should be made accountable for expenditure. However, when people receive their rates bills, they do not make a distinction between the regional and council rates — they see them as a lump sum. Councillors recognise this, and there are many of us in the Chamber. It is councillors who will be blamed for the rates increase, rather than Mr Durkan or the Assembly.
The second principle is that taxation should be progressive — the more you earn and the more you spend, the more tax you should pay. However, this regional rate is a form of regressive taxation. Everyone needs to live somewhere and most people end up paying rates, directly or indirectly. Rates payment often hurts the elderly and single parents, who do not have a regular income. Has this proposal for an 8% increase been equality proofed?
The First Minister told us yesterday that the new Administration is responsive to the community it serves and that it is in tune with the people who elected it. That was a very important statement. When the Executive discovers that many representatives, including councillors, are opposed to this 8% increase in the regional rate, will it act accordingly and take alternative measures?
The Alliance Party is not opposed to increased spending by the Assembly; indeed, the opposite applies. The people of Northern Ireland want properly resourced public services and they are willing to pay for them. My Colleague Mr Close suggested means by which this can be done — namely, through a reduction in waste and greater efficiency. However, the Alliance Party is opposed to the use of the regional rate as a back-door mechanism for finding extra money. The Assembly should be upfront; it should also be arguing for tax-varying powers for Northern Ireland. This morning I was glad to hear that Mr McGrady is coming round to our way of thinking.
No. The Member did not have many constructive comments to make, so I will not waste time now.
It is a good idea to set up a common fund under the common authority of the Executive to examine such cross- cutting issues as e-government and children. While these funds are relatively small this year, there will be a more significant sum over the next couple of years. The Alliance Party welcomes some of the specific increases to be made in spending for individual Departments. Nevertheless, I am concerned that the requests from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure were not met and that libraries, which are an important facet of the community, are not being properly funded. The lack of funding for our rural road system is another problem.
Health is the biggest concern of the people of Northern Ireland. We welcome the 5% spending increase on paper, but we are suffering from insufficient provision of major equipment, a shortage of intensive care beds, and so on. This problem has been best illustrated by the case of a burns victim from Bangor, who had to be taken to Craigavon Area Hospital before a bed could be found for him. This type of incident is a total disgrace, which cannot be tolerated, and while it continues, every Member should accept some responsibility for the problem and take the necessary action to secure sufficient funding so that this never happens again to any member of our community.
The Budget tells us that this extra money will enable the Department of Health to respond effectively to the needs of an ageing population and to the rising costs of modern medicine. It also claims that there is provision for the continuation of such essential commitments as addressing winter pressures, waiting lists and the deficiencies of the ambulance fleet.
This is certainly a bold claim; we will be able to judge it as time goes on. Let us hope that the ambition will be achieved. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Northern Ireland will still remain well below the European average for health spending as a portion of GDP. Many more resources are needed. At the same time we must ensure that the money is spent wisely and efficiently. A review of health administration is inevitable, and the sooner this is done, the better.
We in the Alliance Party are anxious that more resources are devoted to preventative medicine, cancer research, care in the community and public health. Such investments can help to avoid much greater costs later.
This Budget leaves a lot to be discussed and debated. I am most unhappy with its contents and look forward to a much improved Budget when the Committees have carried out their duties. Finally, I will not support a Budget which is funded in part by an 8% increase in the regional rate; I will not support a Budget which is funded in part by inflation and by a 2% increase in the Housing Executive rents.
Most of my questions are to do with transparency and accountability. Though I have digested these figures during the year, I find it very difficult to follow them through from the Estimates into this draft Budget. The Minster has mentioned the ability that we have now to draw into the block funds some moneys to which we previously had no access. I want him to address that issue.
Where did the £63 million go? I asked this during the last discussion of the Budget for the New Deal, and I note that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot find it now. This is a substantial sum. It may be worth noting for the record that £63 million is more than what some Departments have to spend. I want to draw attention to the fact that, though we in the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee have inquired about its whereabouts, we still cannot find that money. A huge sum of money was set aside. We were not allowed to spend it, and we were told it was ring- fenced. As it cannot now be found, there may be a question mark over whether it was ring-fenced. It would be good to have an answer to that before today is out.
I would also like to ask the Minister how he managed to get such a huge increase in the Executive programme funds. The sum of £16 million has been set aside this year, but will that rise to £200 million? While we have been talking about increases of 5% or 8%, year on year, in the devolved expenditure, here is an increase of over 1,000%. How have we managed to rise from £16 million to £200 million? Are these the funds that we were formerly forbidden to touch, or is this some type of new money?
I would also like to ask the Minister who will be held accountable for that funding. Which Committee will scrutinise the Executive programme funds? I must emphasise again that £200 million is more than the entire budget allocated to some Departments. Perhaps a special committee should be set up to query this Budget. I am not for one minute suggesting that I am not happy to see it; on the contrary, I am delighted to see it. However, if we are to exercise a scrutinising function to hold people accountable for spending — as the Assembly requires us to — I would like to know how we intend to do that with such a large Budget.
I am also concerned about the lack of transparency. Perhaps the Minister would have a word with the headmaster and the deputy headmaster. I draw Members’ attention to page 26 of the Budget, which refers to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister — it gives us three lines.
If I had asked my students to answer an examination question and had given them as little information as this, I would have expected very little back and would have marked them down accordingly. I am disappointed that something that was set up as innovative and was given such huge responsibility should deliver a Budget like this. It tells us about the Secretariat’s functions, but not about how much money is to be assigned to each constituent part.
We talked about the Programme for Government yesterday, and justice is one of its themes. The programme says there will be a strategic policy on victims, but this is not mentioned once in the draft Budget. No mention either is made of funding or of any allocation to service the unit. This issue has been raised on the Floor before. I am asked over and over again who is responsible. I thank the Minister for telling us that responsibility is split between the Northern Ireland Office and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
Where does this fall under the Budget and how much money is assigned, for instance, for equality and the Civic Forum? Members opposed to the Civic Forum have often asked how much it costs. The Civic Forum is up and running now, and it would do us no harm whatsoever for those questions to be answered. We know how much it costs, and that should have been included in the Budget.
I know that this is asking an enormous question of the Minister, but why has there been such a huge increase in departmental running costs? For example, the running costs for the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment have increased by 16%. I would like to think that we could send out a message that year-on-year departmental costs should not rise by more than 4% to 5%, and occasionally 6% to 7%, depending on the introduction of new programmes. I sit on the Higher Education Committee, and I am unaware of any new programmes. In a recent announcement the Minister of Higher Education said that he intended to consolidate his Department by bringing in the Training and Employment Agency. That should cut running costs rather than increase them.
I think the Minister misunderstood a previous question about groups going to the wall as a result of transitional European funding. I am delighted to hear the plea that we continue our excellent work in the community and voluntary sector in Northern Ireland. The Programme for Government states that it will attempt to build on that work, given the divisions we have had to face over the years in our communities, and it applauds that sector for interfacing across the sectarian divide.
The Minister has probably received letters from these groups and will know that they are making many people redundant, either because they do not have transitional funding to tide them over or because of sustainability. This is a crisis, an emergency, and the Minister is as aware as anyone else of what is facing the groups on the ground.
In order to see a way through this, I would ask what plans we should now be making to draw down funding such as lottery money or other outside funds. The Programme for Government speaks loudly about developing a social economy. I am glad to see the words "social economy", but that idea should be built into the Budget, and I do not see how that can be done if funding and resources are unavailable.
The women’s sector of the lottery funds has been spending many millions of pounds on work that has many indicators of success, but the National Lottery Charities Board has said that it is now struggling, either because the lottery is going down or because not enough people are buying lottery tickets. On average, £20 million a year was given out to that sector in Northern Ireland and funding has now decreased. It is no longer able to facilitate the large number of women’s and community groups in particular. They have written to us and pleaded for someone to look at this seriously. Perhaps we should look at drawing down National Lottery funding into Northern Ireland — we were told that we might be able to do that after devolution — and then take responsibility for how much comes here. I know that decisions about what happens to the money here are made in London because I once sat on the National Lottery Charities Board when questions were asked about what would happen and how much more flexible it would be upon devolution. The Minister has not been assigned that yet, but, given that we do not seem to be able to mainstream funds, the good work is going to the wall. We are not able to sustain it, so we may have to consider how we use outside funds.
How flexible will this Budget be in terms of policy changes? We are currently undergoing a student review, and we may not have the answers to that in time to incorporate them into this Budget. No doubt they will be held off until next year’s. I hope not. However, other issues will arise.
Members may be aware that a High Court judge ruled the other day in the case of a 12-year-old boy who had previously absconded from residential care and had been given a place at Lisnevin juvenile justice centre — where he should not have been for a minor disorder charge. He was there because no secure beds could be found for him. The lack of secure beds resulted in this child ending up in a juvenile centre. There is now a secure bed, but unfortunately, in spite of the High Court judge’s ruling that he be given 24-hour supervision, they are unable to find him. He disappeared 45 minutes after entering the residential-care home. That shows the crisis we are in. The Programme for Government and the Budget say that some additional beds will be made available. It is important for us to note that number is only 12 — 12 when we need 115. We have many young boys and girls absconding all over the country.
I am glad that we have got 10 extra psychiatric beds because the mental health problems of our young people are excessive. They have not been provided with the necessary services, particularly in the light of the troubles. We are facing a crisis unless we incorporate some policy changes into the Budget. I would put down a marker that we stop waiving budgets, that particular issue relates to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
I am pleased to see that some Ministers have said what they were not successful in bidding for. The Minister of Further and Higher Education, Training and Employment said he was unsuccessful in obtaining any money for foundation degrees. However, I see in the Programme for Government that that is one matter that we will be taking care of. Therefore, if we are talking about cohesiveness, let us have that between the Programme for Government and the Budget. There is no point saying that we hope to do things and then find from the Budget that we cannot.
Finally, can we have a little bit more clarification in the final plan of what was in the Chancellor’s initiative in the past, what was non-devolved, and what is now in the Executive programme funds. We can understand the figures. What we cannot understand is that when we voted last year on the Estimates, a figure was available to us yet in this draft there is no longer a figure for the year 2000-01. I want to see those figures because I want to see what is available for this country, the total that was available last year under the Chancellor’s initiatives, and what is available out of the Executive programme funds for next year. I want to see how much new money we have and whether we will continue in a crisis management situation.
I welcome the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s well-presented Budget for 2001-02, especially its laudable aims of transparency and greater flexibility in departmental accounting. However, I have reservations about the real impact of the Budget on farm incomes. In determining the expenditure limit for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the new formula of resource accounting and budgeting has replaced the old cash accounting system. The rationale for this is set out for all Departments in the explanatory memorandum attached to the Executive’s public expenditure plan for Budget for 2001-02. The danger of this system, which is consumption- driven rather than cash-driven, is that Departments with the culture of saving as opposed to spending will be the losers, while Departments with a big-spender mentality will gain — in short, waste will be rewarded.
The Department of Agriculture, as in the United Kingdom, sees itself as a regulator rather than as a support mechanism for farmers, which is what happens in France, for instance. This is borne out by the more selective targeting of animal disease compensation — what the Minister calls "enabling planned provision to be aligned more accurately with anticipated requirements". This targeting is reminiscent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s targeting of additional money for pensioners, which has caused such a furore nationally with its implications of means testing. This may be prudent financial management, but it looks miserly in the context of the real crisis in farm incomes and hardship in the farming sector.
The Minister must avoid the temptation, which seems to afflict all Finance Ministers, of becoming the Scrooge of Government. The year-on-year percentage drop in the budget for rural development is disappointing, especially as this is an important supporting mechanism in enhancing farm incomes. I question the calculations because the expenditure remains almost unchanged at £8·3 million, and this implies that inflation is only 0·4%. Even with the United Kingdom’s enviably low rate of inflation, and the Irish rate of almost 7%, our figures cannot be as low as that.
Therefore the agriculture sector needs our protection, and so does the fishing industry. It seems that everything under the remit of the Minister of Agriculture is under serious threat. For example, the average net profit of a trawler has fallen from over £29,000 to just under £3,000. This needs immediate action, as it represents a reduction in profitability of over 90%. With so many of the areas under the Minister of Agriculture’s control in a state of crisis, I often wonder if the Minister becomes depressed. I am sure that the active solutions the Ulster Unionist Party can offer her must be of great comfort to her, and I hope that the Budget will go a long way to alleviate the present problems in the agriculture industry.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I noted your opening remarks and will confine myself to one issue — one that has been mentioned by Ms McWilliams. I ask for the allocation of greater resources to address the needs of adult education, lifelong learning and community-based projects operating in this field.
A close examination of the allocation of resources to the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment reveals that the percentage increase does not allow the Minister to address these issues as I am sure he would wish to. A written answer from the Minister of Education this week made it clear that the Department will be unable to meet its targets for improving literacy and numeracy in secondary schools. The problem does not begin in secondary schools but starts almost from the moment a child is born. For more than 250,000 people between the ages of 16 and 64 the problem will continue for the rest of their lives unless more money is made available to address this injustice. This is happening in a society which, it is claimed, has the best education system in the world. We need to pause, stand back and remind ourselves that it is not just our city centres that need to be lit up as we emerge from the dark days of the past. The lives of our people must also be rekindled. The Programme for Government, which was discussed yesterday, promises to do that, but there must be adequate resources to address the needs of those who have been marginalised in the past, including those who have lost out on education and training.
Last week I saw a chink of light when I visited a cross-community project on the Ligoniel Road in north Belfast. Here the local community, including parents, teachers and children, work as a team to ensure that no child leaves school without being able to read and write. The project depends on public funding which will run out in a few weeks, unless resources can be found to keep it going. What will that mean for the children? Little Jimmy has moved house three times since September. He has serious learning difficulties, but his workbooks suggest that, slowly but surely, he is building a vocabulary of words that will form the foundation for his future. He is helped by a classroom assistant from the community, who has benefited from the same community education project. Sitting beside him, I remember little Rebecca, another child who now has an air of confidence about her as she receives personal help from another classroom assistant. I intended to spend no more than half an hour there, but after two hours I was still excited by what I was learning.
In the heart of this socially deprived area there is hope for the future. Each child is important and is aided by dedicated teachers and community activists. The neat classroom and tidy playground tell me that this community is holding its head up for the first time. I wish that as many Members as possible could visit that project and see the power of community education and community groups. For those who are interested, the school in question is St Vincent de Paul on the Ligoniel Road. I have no doubt that there are many other equally deserving projects. There are many fine community-based projects across Northern Ireland, but more must be done if social inclusion is to have its proper meaning. If the Assembly is to make a significant impact on people who have been disadvantaged during decades of neglect, we must continue to target social need and find the resources to continue the work of regeneration.
Yesterday I spoke of the regeneration of towns and villages, but today I refer specifically to the regeneration of people who have existed in the twilight world of neglect, presided over by an uncaring Government and the political instability of the last thirty years. As I said goodbye to the school principal and the organisers of that community project in north Belfast, I promised that I would use my influence to ensure that little Jimmy and Rebecca, and all the other children, would continue to have all the support that they need. We must do everything possible to ensure that no more children join the 251,000 who have gone through the education system with either undetected or ignored learning difficulties. The Assembly has a responsibility to ensure that continuing education and lifelong learning is a reality and that all those involved in delivering that service have the resources to continue their work to redress the educational defects of the past.
I am concerned that the budget for the Department of Further and Higher Education, Training and Employment will not be adequate to address the concerns I have spoken about. I petition our officials, the Executive and the Minister to revisit this issue, for it is of fundamental importance to the success of the Good Friday Agreement and of the Assembly.
The events of the last two days have shown the Assembly at its best and at its worst. Yesterday’s debate earned us no brownie points whatsoever. The spectacle of a large number of Members standing up and rattling through prepared notes for five minutes in a desperate attempt to fit in as many subjects as possible can certainly not be construed as a debate. Today we have at least seen some healthy scrutiny of the Budget and some exchanges between Members as they tried to tease out very important points. Mr Close has starred in his normal role: exciting, enlightening, and blighting us all — and making some important points. I probably did not agree with a word he said, but I felt that his points were well put.
In future, if we are to combine a debate on the Programme for Government with the crucial issue of the Budget, we must avoid squeezing everything into two days. No matter what our views of the Executive and its plans, this is without doubt the most important matter we shall deal with as an Assembly. It is important that we call the Minister of Finance and Personnel to account, probing, questioning and making life difficult for him. He has a chauffeur-driven car and a very healthy salary, and he should earn them. Therefore the more probing and questioning we can direct at him, the better.
Turning to the Budget itself, I should like to welcome the 27% increase in the budget allocated to the Department of the Environment, though I suspect it will not be enough. There is absolutely no doubt that the work of the Environment and Heritage Service and the Planning Service, two major constituents of that Department, has suffered enormously as a result of the last 30 years’ underinvestment. I tabled a question to the Minister, Mr Foster, on the subject of the designation of areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs) — the highest accolade which can be awarded to an area of natural habitat in the Province.
The legislation which brought in the ASSI designation was the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. I was in the old Assembly when we ploughed through that legislation line by line, and it took many months to go through. Fifteen years ago we expected that, once the Order was in force, all the ASSIs in Northern Ireland would be designated within five or 10 years. I was horrified to learn that only 175 areas have been designated, with at least another 80 or 90 in the pipeline. It could be another 20 years before all these areas are designated. That is simply unacceptable. Indeed, under direct rule the Department gave an assurance that the complete designation process would be complete by 2000. We have only about six weeks of that year left, and it is obvious that it is simply not going to happen.
I welcome any injection of funding which will increase the amount of work done by the designation team. It is a sad reality that, without designation, an area of important wildlife habitat can be destroyed. The owner or occupier can destroy it or denude it of its scientific value, and nothing can be done unless a planning application is required. If a farmer decided to chop down some ancient woodland in the Minister’s Londonderry constituency in the absence of a tree preservation order or a requirement for planning application, he could do so.
We saw a very good example recently — not in my constituency but close to it in Killyleagh — when a property developer decided to fell five acres of very important woodland, since he felt that it would be awkward having it there when he put in his planning application to build houses on the land. One morning he moved in with a bulldozer at the crack of dawn and destroyed it. There was nothing anyone could do, for the area had not been designated. These areas cannot just be designated ASSIs in their own right; they can also be designated special areas of conservation (SAC) and special protection areas (SPA) under European legislation.
The way the Environment and Heritage Service has been carrying out this work, it has not been possible to designate SACs and SPAs until the area has been designated ASSI — holding up the whole implementation of the European directives in Northern Ireland.
In this Province, we are fortunate to have some incredibly important areas for wildlife — such as Strangford Lough, Lough Foyle, the Antrim plateau, and most of County Fermanagh. The equivalent areas of habitat in other parts of the United Kingdom have long since been destroyed. In Northern Ireland we are fortunate to still possess many important areas and it is vital that they are designated and protected. That is not happening because of the lack of funding.
I am also deeply concerned about the lack of progress that has been made in the designation of areas of outstanding natural beauty. Why has Strangford Lough not been redesignated under the terms of the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985? Why have there been so many delays in protecting some of our very high quality areas of natural beauty? Again it has been lack of funding. Only £300,000 per annum has been set aside for the management of areas of high quality landscapes such as the Mournes, the Antrim plateau and the Sperrins. In any other part of the United Kingdom the budgeting for these areas would have been much higher. Of course, most of them would be national parks and have a very large amount of money set aside for their management. Northern Ireland is like Cinderella in that we have some of the best landscapes in the United Kingdom, with the smallest amount of money to protect them.
My favourite area is north Londonderry. The representatives for East Londonderry — the Limavady and Dungiven area — have an incredibly attractive area around Benevenagh. It is one of the great unsung treasures of this Province, and many people do not know that it exists. Areas like that require much more protection than they are receiving.
I am concerned that in the Budget and the Programme for Government the crucial words "global warming" do not feature. Anyone who has been watching the media over the last few weeks will see that there is now almost conclusive proof that, as a result of the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we in this Province and people throughout the world are facing radical changes to our climate. The Executive should have given some thought to the implications of that for Northern Ireland. I accept that most of our coastline is not so low-lying that we will suffer inundation or coastal erosion to the same extent as east Anglia, Yorkshire or Lincolnshire. Any responsible Executive must be looking at the implications of such a major change on our agriculture, lowland flooding and drainage systems, all of which should be considered. This issue has not been addressed and there is no excuse. All these points where arising whilst the Executive was forming its Programme for Government and devising the Budget.
I welcome the 23·5% increase in the budget for the Planning Service. Many Members will be aware of the enormous pressure that the Planning Service is under at the moment. They are being deluged by a huge increase in the number and complexity of planning applications and I fear that the Planning Service is going to break under the pressure. Gone are the days when they simply had to deal with an application for a couple of dozen houses. We now have applications for major developments in the countryside, running to 200 to 300 dwellings. If the Planning Service decides to turn those down, often with public and local authority support, they then have to fight public inquiries at great expense, both in terms of money and manpower. At the moment Northern Ireland has had a huge increase in inquiries. The budget for the Planning Service has been insufficient to meet those demands.
The Executive have missed an opportunity. The Planning Service requires a radical increase in funding and a radical upgrading of its status. We expect them to implement and oversee the regional development strategy and develop area plans for a large proportion of the country, yet we still have it within a Department, simply as a planning service. Is that sufficient to meet the demands being placed upon it and should we consider upgrading the status within the Department, perhaps making it a Department in its own right?
If we do not increase the status of the Planning Service, it will simply buckle under the pressure from the big developers. Those Members representing coastal areas will know of a huge increase in the number of applications for apartments and the amounts of money that are being paid for sites. I do not believe that the Planning Service has the status or the resources to fight the battle that is going to stretch from Donaghadee to Kilkeel and Rostrevor, and all along the north coast. There is a major battle ahead for the Planning Service, and we must give it the power and the resources that it needs.
I want to make one point about area plans. A great swath of Northern Ireland is covered by area plans that are out of date. So far the Planning Service has not had the resources to start the ball rolling to update them. Given the present difficult circumstances, and considering the 23% increase in funding, I suggest that it should engage consultants to do most of the donkey work involved in preparing the plans. There simply is not sufficient qualified planning manpower in Northern Ireland to undertake this work.
Because of the pressures for development we must very quickly reach the stage where every part of the Province is covered by an up-to-date area plan.
My other interest is regional development. I congratulate the Minister Mr Gregory Campbell, on securing such a healthy increase in his budget. It shows that there is no need to be sitting round the Cabinet table with Mrs Brown and Mr McGuinness to put in a strong bid for increased funds and to achieve what is needed for one’s Department. I congratulate both Mr Morrow and Mr Campbell on being so successful. I am particularly pleased that Mr Campbell has achieved a £100 million package for the railways. For once, the tide has turned in favour of public transport in this Province.
We now have a three-year programme attempting, once again, to make up for the gross under-expenditure on the Province’s infrastructure. We can now turn the tide in favour of the railways. I asked the Minister at a recent meeting what would happen after the end of the three years. There is no guarantee that the work will continue when that funding is over. Obviously, I am hoping that, having spent £102 million on the upgrading of the tracks and rolling stock, we will find ourselves in a position where we cannot turn back.
But what has happened to the Prescott money? The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, announced a very large package of about £2 billion, which I understood was to lead to an upgrading of, and a massive investment in, public transport throughout the United Kingdom. I distinctly remember the words "the United Kingdom" being used. However, at a recent meeting with the Minister for Regional Development and his officials it was far from clear whether any of it was going to come to Northern Ireland. Under the Barnett formula at least one fortieth, or 2·5%, of the amount would normally be allocated to Northern Ireland. That would allow massive investment in public transport in the Province. However, no one can tell me what has happened to that money. Is it coming to us? Is it coming to us as additional money? Perhaps it is not coming at all.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Durkan, must find out exactly what is happening. If it has not yet been earmarked for Northern Ireland he should ensure that it comes our way. If it comes as additional money it will do a tremendous amount to upgrade the tracks, the bus service and public transport in general.
Another crucial issue facing the Assembly — and one which will dog us for many years to come, if we survive that long — is the infrastructural deficit in respect of both the Water Service and the Roads Service.
I have to thank the Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee for the following figures. He always has these figures at the tips of his fingers. That Water Service requires £3 billion in the next 30 years, and the Roads Service requires £2 billion over the next 10 years. We do not have tax-varying powers — a euphemism for tax-raising powers. Without the ability to raise revenue except through the regional rate — and our rate base is too small to raise this large amount of money — there is absolutely no way that the Assembly, under the present budget restrictions, can ever raise that type of money. We have to accept that it cannot happen.
Therefore I have to agree with Mr Byrne that we must explore every other possibility of raising this money. Such a massive amount is needed that we must bring in the private sector, not to take over our infrastructure but to assist us in its financing.
There are currently many difficulties. What private operator will want to come in and run our railways? They would have no return for their capital, and if there were a return it would be so small that they would be far safer investing their money in the stock exchange, gilts or a deposit account.
The Executive and the Programme for Government must find ways of getting this money to upgrade services — roads, water, and railways — without inflicting the cost on the taxpayers. If we can crack that one, we are worth every penny. It is going to be difficult, but that is something that we are going to have to concentrate on over the next few months.
I have not been parochial yet, but I have to be just once. I am beginning to think that this is not the Northern Ireland Assembly but the west Tyrone Assembly. I am getting tired of the gallant six from West Tyrone standing up time after time and saying "What about poor downtrodden Strabane and Omagh? We never seem to get anything." You would think that once you crossed the boundary into west Tyrone you would find people walking around barefoot and hungry-looking, with thatched cottages, and pulling their groceries home in a donkey cart.
Any time I visit West Tyrone it seems a perfectly average part of Northern Ireland which has underspending in some areas but perhaps no more so than Londonderry, North Antrim, South Down or anywhere else. But week after week we hear them, and I noticed in last night’s television coverage of the Assembly that yet again there was the trio from West Tyrone saying the same things. What is the definition of an Assembly Member for West Tyrone? He is someone who when he sees light at the end of the tunnel goes out and orders more tunnel. That is exactly the impression I am getting. Their cup is always half empty — that is a totally irrelevant aside.
But if they are allowed to be parochial, as they always are, maybe I can mention one issue that must be tackled. It is relevant to my constituency and elsewhere. Many small towns in this Province are being strangled because of traffic congestion, and all that is required is a relatively modest amount of expenditure to take traffic away from them in order to let the towns return to their former glory. A classic example in my constituency — and, I maintain, one of the worst examples in Northern Ireland, much worse than anything West Tyrone can produce — is Ballynahinch.
Anyone who wants to see real congestion in this Province should go to Ballynahinch at four o’clock on a Friday afternoon in the summer and see the gridlock caused by thousands of cars en route to Newcastle, Kilkeel or other parts of south Down.
I have to come in and support my Colleague from South Down. Does he not agree that not only is Ballynahinch a congested town in the evening but it is causing the strangulation of the tourist trade which has been designated as the only possible economic growth area in our constituency? The consequences are very serious. On the one hand the Government are pumping money into centres such as Newcastle to promote the tourist industry, and on the other hand they are cutting it off by not supplying the access.
I agree entirely with Mr ONeill. We are totally united on this issue. Not only is Ballynahinch being strangled but Ballynahinch is different from other parts of Northern Ireland in that you have no option but to go through the town if you want to travel from the Greater Belfast area to the tourist area of south Down.
Unless one has a detailed map showing the rural routes, an alternative road is almost impossible. Not only is Ballynahinch badly congested, but the tourist industry of the Province is adversely affected. Tourists, quite rightly, are put off by having to sit in a queue of traffic — possibly for half an hour going through Ballynahinch and half an hour coming back.
That problem could be relieved by an expenditure of between £5 million and £7 million spread over several financial years. Dr Birnie tried to defend the expenditure on the cross-border bodies, the "North/Southery" as it is called. A fraction of what is being spent on the North/South institutions could solve Ballynhinch’s by-pass problem immediately, build a new harbour in Kilkeel and retain Downe Hospital. Money is being wasted on the shenanigans of running up and down to Dublin.
As Mr Paisley Jnr stated, the £16,000 spent on one set of Ministers travelling to a North/South body would employ a classroom assistant or a trainee nurse in south Down. That is a lot of money.
It is important that the Finance and Personnel Minister allocates sufficient money to the Department for Regional Development. Some of that should be ring-fenced to clear those bottlenecks. That is an environmental issue. It is not healthy for the residents of places such as Comber and Ballynahinch to be sitting in towns that have a lot of car exhaust fumes caused by large numbers of cars waiting to pass through the town. The quality of life for people in those areas is extremely poor because of congestion in the towns.
I ventured into the area of parochialism even though I was concerned that I might be criticised. It is one of the most pressing regional development issues in my constituency.
Finally — [Interruption].
Yes, I have, but I need my second article for the ‘Mourne Observer’.
There are enormous funding difficulties in the Water Service, and I am concerned that the new filtration plant for the Silent Valley will not be finished until 2004. That means that the sheep grazing ban in the inner Mournes will last for at least another three seasons, which will cause enormous difficulties to the farming community in south Down. The Minister should ensure that the funding for that project be speeded up to enable its quick conclusion.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will be speaking on agriculture, but I will keep as far away from sheep as possible.
As Mr Wells said, why do people try to focus on everything in the Budget? It is almost a natural progression from the ideas that are to be found in council — if you leave anything out you are seen as not supporting it. People then feel that they have to justify their support for almost every issue. I am also glad that Mr Wells thinks that there might be future Budgets for the Assembly to discuss.
Overall, it is a good Budget. When Members sit on different Committees they have different interests, and they try to focus on what most deserves extra funding. In particular, the Assembly is unsure where the funding that went to the Executive will be designated. With regard to the block grant, our gross domestic product is much lower than that of the South or parts of Europe. Therefore there is the difficulty of having a block grant which is too low.
Given that we are a population growing out of conflict, the least we could have expected was the British Government to bear their own responsibility by enhancing the Budget for some years to make up for the underfunding over the past 80 years. All Departments cross-cut with agriculture and they all have a part to play in developing rural areas. There has been a question mark over the Executive obtaining funding, and over Departments boxing off moneys for their own projects.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development made bids of about £10 million for visioning and £9 million for administration that was not paid for in other years. Do they still expect to receive that money, or will it come from other budgets that we are keen to support or push for in other years, such as supporting farming developments that would give money directly to farmers? That is one of my difficulties with this Budget. There is nothing in it for farming development and the possibility of receiving money in future years will be just as difficult to achieve.
The allocation to agriculture is low because the British Government policy is anti-farmer. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has stated that, in the past, European moneys to farmers have damaged the rural landscape — but I think they are referring to the London area. We need a higher budget in Northern Ireland to keep our environment intact and to allow people to remain in the countryside for the best reasons. We should work at this on an all-Ireland basis and not just as the afterthought that the North has always been in terms of British Government policy — and will continue to be as long as we are in that situation. Their failure to draw down European funding because they would have to provide match funding is directly related to that policy. Millions of pounds could have been used in our budget to deal with the things we have been asking for.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s administration budget has to be questioned. A sizeable amount of money is spent each year on disease compensation, but can one farmer receive as much as £1 million from that budget? We will have to investigate why large sums of money can go to individuals and we have to ensure that the best use is made of the budget. Rather than being in a position where a budget of £6 million to £8 million is having to be used each year to keep something there which should be changed or eradicated, the money should be used more efficiently for something else.
Planning has been mentioned quite widely. Mr Wells mentioned ASSIs, ESAs and AONBs and the fact that they have not been always designated, especially in Fermanagh which would gain from such designation. People were against designation because planning regulations have been used to stop them building in the countryside. It has not had a detrimental effect, but it has turned people against designating these areas for the wider benefit of everyone. No money has been directed towards carrying out surveys to help people gain an understanding of the issues.
I welcome some of the elements of the Budget that will create a more efficient food industry. We are a food producing country, and we should be going in that direction. If we compare the Government’s commitment to the needs of agriculture in the Budget compared with what has being given in the South this week, we will see that there is very little or no commitment towards farming and agriculture. We have to question the future commitment to this industry, which is still very important to many parts of the Six Counties.
I also welcome that aspect of the Budget which seems to be willing to spend money on placing IT facilities on farms. That is very welcome, in that it would encourage people to develop new skills and perhaps set up a new business or innovate an existing one that may, in turn, alleviate the pressure of low incomes among the farming population.
Although reputed to have a high cost, the North/South implementation bodies have a lot to offer, but the difficulty is that there is underresourcing in this area. There are tremendous benefits to be had, however, and anyone who does not look at the island of Ireland in an all-island context is looking in the wrong direction. In any sort of industry where, for example, there was a factory, you would control it as one unit; you would not have separate parts working to the detriment of each other. That is definitely the direction in which we need to be going.
The DUP has a narrow-mindedness in relation to that as well as a narrow and inward focus, which has always been costly. How much has this cost us, not just during the last 30 years but in the last 80 years, in tourism and agritourism? We have estimated that approximately 20,000 jobs could be created in tourism over the next few years, although that figure is just benchmarked against the number of tourism jobs that have been created in the Twenty-Six Counties and is not a real figure at all. Considering the cost of the situation at Drumcree each year, I do not see that there is any kind of future in tourism. The present budget for tourism is, indeed, probably being wasted.
I agree with most of what was said about rates. There is a difficulty in that money is needed from the regional rate, but people in various businesses are being taxed three times over. They have to pay the regional rate; they are taxed on their business, and they are taxed on their home. That is unfair, for not everybody is able to afford it.
The Housing Executive budget is one that affects my county in particular. We have a very high percentage of housing deprivation, although it is being dealt with. The drop in the budget will have a massive effect on housing deprivation, and one has to question how much longer the Housing Executive will be able to deal with these issues. It will have a long-term effect on the rural areas. People there do not have access to housing under the old regulations and will have to buy new houses, which they are, perhaps, unable to afford.
Some people have mentioned to me the fact that NIE charges for the likes of meter readings and ground rent; they should not be doing this. That is not an efficient way of running a Government business or one that is part-public. No other business would be allowed to charge money to provide a service and then charge again. NIE should look at that, for they may be taking money under false pretences. The Water Service operates in a similar way.
Fermanagh has a longer network of roads than any other county in Ireland, and it has one of the greatest expanses of small undermaintained roads. We have a small maintenance budget of £150,000 to £200,000, yet very little funding is to be allocated to larger projects for the foreseeable future. The amount of tax we pay is illustrated by individuals such as Sean Quinn, who has paid more money in tax on his lorries over the years than is channelled into even a quarter of our Budget in any year. The Department for Regional Development must examine this issue.
There has been a push for the provision of rail transport, and it is good that this has been budgeted for. However, this will not alleviate transport difficulties in rural areas, such as Fermanagh, where there are no railways. The aim of public transport is to carry large numbers to their centres of work, but not many people live in rural areas, and, in any case, a very small percentage of the population actually works in Belfast city centre. Rural areas are affected by the high cost of fuel which results in an increase in the cost of anything which is transported in or out of the area. Those who live in rural areas have no choice but to use a car. This issue must be taken into account, even if we have to stand up constantly and highlight it.
On the issue of expenditure on cross-border bodies, there is no reason for the Minister for Regional Development not telling his counterpart in the Twenty-Six Counties that people there use roads in parts of the North as much as, or more than, we use their roads. There is no reason for not co-financing some of the main corridors into areas in the North, and particularly Fermanagh. Their Government seem to have a lot of money to spend and, in looking to the future of all-Ireland unification, they should consider using their budget to fund the island’s infrastructure on an all-Ireland basis.
Collaboration on local road provision is taking place between councils like Fermanagh and Monaghan. I see no reason for not developing this on a larger scale or for not at least requesting the co-financing of budgets for major road developments. There is an excellent road in the Twenty-Six Counties, which runs the length of Aghalane, yet the route which runs on to Enniskillen has been described by local councillors as a goat track. We do not have budgetary provision to remedy this, or, at any rate, the budget has not been given to us by the Department. We have applied for funding to upgrade that road within the next 15 years. That is the situation with roads in Fermanagh.
Underinvestment and economic underperformance in the past have been due largely to total dependence on the British Government’s subvention for the security industry here. This supported the notion that it was not necessary to have an effective economy, operating on its own merits. That has contributed to the difficulties which we now face. Recent eye-openers, which have affected local ports, particularly Harland and Wolff, will perhaps illustrate how businesses must stand on their own feet.
In the past, people were able to survive on the security subvention budget and there was no need for businesses to operate efficiently. There are those who hark back to the old situation where remilitarisation was necessary as a way of keeping people in jobs, although that is a poor outlook to have.
I also want to mention hospitals, particularly in the context of the regions. The Regional Development and Health Departments have to take into account all that has been said about the underspending of this budget. It is probably the most important part of government, and you can not put it on the long finger. If you need money for this winter — if you need to provide services to people who are ill — you cannot put it off until next year or for five years; something has to be done about it now. There is not enough money available again this year, although that probably comes down to the fact that all moneys are coming from the block grant. I know that hospital provision is under review, so we must demand immediate access to services this winter.
Services in local hospitals have been cut back again, and we demand access to equal services; access is the key priority. When Belfast City Hospital stopped providing maternity services, people in Belfast complained about having to travel two miles to get to the nearest centre which provided those services, but there are women in Fermanagh who travel 60 miles to access the nearest maternity services. If a person who lives in the most remote part of my area were to suffer a heart attack he would have to travel 60 miles to get to a hospital — well outside the golden hour — and this would increase the threat to his life. It is a question of underfunding and the loss of skilled staff. We lost many staff last winter due to budget cuts, and we will have to try to replace them this year at great cost.
Fermanagh is suffering while this review is going on, and we will have to deal with the situation immediately. In view of the tight budget within which we have had to operate this year, where will the money come from to provide some of the services we have asked for in our local areas. Under policy appraisal and fair treatment (PAFT) or targeting social need (TSN) we expect no less parity in the budget as any other area in this Assembly. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I can assure you that I will not take as long to make my points as the last two Members. We must bear in mind that this is a take-note debate. However, I am concerned that the process of scrutinising the Budget and the Programme for Government leaves a great deal to be desired.
I do not think that we have done the people of Northern Ireland any great service this year, because of the process in which we have been engaged. I believe, however, that we must recognise the problems that the Executive and the Assembly have faced this year. It is clear that we have inherited major problems created and developed by our predecessors over the last 20 or 30 years. There has been a gross underfunding of the Health Service and education, and in recent weeks we have seen the difficulties experienced by the Water Service and the flooding that my constituents and those in other parts of Northern Ireland have experienced on a regular basis.
Then there is the whole question of the gross underfunding of the railways. My party and myself have been dealing with this issue for two or three years. We recognised the serious problems being created with regard to the rail network in Northern Ireland: trains were breaking down; there had been a number of serious near misses; and great lengths of railway track were being neglected. In my area the sea wall has fallen in between Carrickfergus and Whitehead. These things were allowed to happen and have now created problems for the Assembly and the Executive. We must approach this issue in as positive a manner as possible.
Reference has been made to the moneys set aside by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, to deal with the problems of railways in GB. I understand that at present there is no substantial amount of money coming to Northern Ireland from that particular kitty. I hope that I will be proved wrong in this case. However, if this is accurate the Assembly has a responsibility to approach the Government to ensure that the necessary funding is made available to provide a modern rail network in Northern Ireland. This is what is happening in the other parts of the United Kingdom.
If that is the case — and the Member may well be right — it is incumbent on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to tell us what he has done, or is doing, to redress that matter. Under the Barnett formula, are we not entitled to at least 2·5% of that funding package? His Department should be asking why we do not get our slice of that cake.
I was coming to the question of the Barnett Formula. Like many Members, I am seriously concerned as to whether Northern Ireland gets its fair share. It is not only incumbent upon the Minister to ensure that Northern Ireland gets its fair share; it is incumbent upon the Assembly as a whole.
There is another issue which lacks clarity in the Budget. I and others have been campaigning to ensure that the natural gas pipeline is extended to the north-west — the Minister’s own constituency. With regard to energy, there are major opportunities for us to develop an island energy infrastructure. This question of natural gas is important, as is the issue of the North/South gas pipeline. There is a need for some clarification.
I am strongly in favour of targeting social need. However, I am unhappy that new TSN still adheres to the Robson index, although perhaps not as rigidly as the previous TSN did. My own area of Carrickfergus — which has the fifth-highest level of unemployment in Northern Ireland — is regarded, under the Robson index, as having zero deprivation. In developing policy, it is important to recognise the inadequacies of using such a formula.
One of the major principles that the Alliance Party adheres to is the principle of sharing over separation.
I would like to think that trying to bring about integration will be at the very core of all the policies of the Assembly — not talking about two Committees, or a number of Committees, but bringing about an integrated single community in Northern Ireland. That must form the basis of any policy expounded by the Government.
How do we overcome ghettoisation? Does the Member agree that that is our greatest difficulty with integration, particularly in urban areas where communities are polarised?
There is one way of getting away from it. To all intents and purposes, Mr Byrne’s party sides with one section of the community, and people on the other side of the House side largely with the other. We want to create an integrated society, and the sooner we get away from tribal politics in Northern Ireland, the sooner we can create that.
European funding is another important part of the overall Budget for Northern Ireland, and there is a need to finalise the programmes for peace and reconciliation and the structural funds, so that we can benefit fully from European funding in the transitional period from having Objective 1 status.
Earlier in the debate you warned against repetition, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I will simply say this: regional rate, regional rate, regional rate. Or perhaps even Executive rate, because the Executive has taken the decision to increase the regional rate by 8%. It is cheap — and it is rich — of Sinn Féin Members to complain about the major increase in the regional rate. The Sinn Féin Members are part of the Executive. Where is the collective responsibility? Surely that must be taken on board. The Assembly needs to look at that seriously. On the point about introducing this rate through the back door, why do Members not sit down with us and talk about tax-varying powers for the Northern Ireland Assembly, on the same lines as the tax-raising powers for the Scottish Parliament. People have to realise that if we are going to have a Government in Northern Ireland, we must be up front. Rather than bringing moneys in through the back door, let us be up front with those people.
Is the Member aware that the Scottish Parliament has made no use of its tax-raising powers? As far as I know, it has no plans to do so. It has discovered that there might not be quite the same enthusiasm for it in action as there was before the referendum. When does the Member expect the Scottish Parliament to make use of these powers?
I recognise that the Scottish Parliament has not so far used those powers, but the option is there. We do not have that option. I hasten to add that perhaps Scotland benefits more from the Barnett formula than does Northern Ireland. There is a cushion there which we do not have.
At the beginning I said that I was very concerned about the process this year. It is to be hoped that next year we will be able to exercise the real powers of scrutiny that the Assembly has. I have been out of the country for the last few days, but I hear that Mr John Taylor is suggesting that we collect our P45s at the end of January. We all know just how committed Mr Taylor is to the Assembly. I fervently suggest that next year when we are dealing with the Budget and with the Programme for Government we have a process that will be effective and efficient and will provide real scrutiny of those proposals.
In the Budget I welcome the increased expenditure on the railways and on the Water Service infrastructure. However, I would like to register my opposition to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive increases, which are above the rate of inflation. At least 20% of tenants will be caught in a poverty trap because of those increases. I would also express my support for a free transport service for all pensioners.
In the debate many Members have expressed similar views, but few have offered practical suggestions on how we can implement those proposals. One party has expressed opposition to the regional rate and indicated a wish to introduce tax-raising powers with some form of income tax in Northern Ireland. Get real. We have to determine the Budget by December. We do not have the authority to introduce tax-raising powers.
If we did have the authority it could not be done by December. If Members are going to be realistic and oppose the 8% regional rate increase, what are they offering to cut from the Budget? What are their proposals for achieving that saving? This is the only way to balance the books.
Members either go with the increase or offer proposals to cut the Budget. Please listen and learn. [Interruption]
I do not favour high taxes but acknowledge the fact that there is a need for improvement in our water and sewerage system to ensure the purity of our water supply and to protect the environment and avoid the pollution that is affecting our rivers and coastlines.
The Alliance Party has the privilege of being able to act in the Assembly without any responsibility. What cuts will they propose if they are going to oppose —
I thank the Member for giving way on this very important point. I am interested to note that the Member is prepared to privatise everything right, left and centre in order to escape his responsibilities. If the Member had been here this morning he would have heard me say quite clearly that if the Assembly and the statutory Committees had been given a proper scrutiny role, millions of pounds could have been saved and spent on delivering services rather than being wasted.
Like me, the Member serves on the Public Accounts Committee where in the past few months there has been a clear demonstration of the inaccuracies, the wastage and the inefficiency that we have in Northern Ireland. We want to correct that, and we can do that through proper scrutiny.
I fear that the Member has not been listening to my comments. Nowhere in my contribution did I indicate any desire to privatise the Water Service. I do not know why he is jumping to that conclusion; perhaps it is something he is thinking about.
I too am a member of the Public Accounts Committee. I acknowledge that several members of that Committee, many of them in the Chamber, do valuable work, and I hope that I do likewise.
However, are we really going to make a budget, based upon a hypothetical saving which might occur, given the fact that we do not even know what areas we are going to investigate over the next year? Have no doubt about it: there will be savings. However, should we commit expenditure now, when those savings have not occurred? I favour prudence in public expenditure. I favour pressing for those savings and — when they arrive — putting them to the best use. At that point, we should redistribute the savings to the most needy areas of our various Departments. It is imprudent to spend money you do not have.
I said that I would raise an area where I thought there was potential for saving in this Budget. I wonder how many Members, in their Committees, have carefully scrutinised the central administration costs of each Government Department proposed by the current Executive? The Department of Agriculture is spending £98·1 million on departmental running costs (a 6·4% increase); the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is spending £12·8 million (a 10·4% increase); the Department of Education is spending £18·7 million (an 11·9% increase); the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is spending £38·1 million (a 4·8% increase); the Department of the Environment is spending £35·8 million (a 13% increase); the Department of Finance and Personnel is spending £97·3 million (an increase of 5·1%); the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is spending £32·7 million (an increase of 5·2%).
It makes me wonder what central administration does in the Department of Health, given the number of boards, trusts and taskforces we have. What are they all doing? What are they doing at the centre?
The Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment is spending £31·4 million on departmental running costs (a 16% increase). That is a very excessive increase in departmental running costs. The Department for Regional Development has departmental expenditure limits increasing by 10·2%. It will be spending £137 million on departmental running costs, an increase of 3·5 %. The Department for Social Development is having an increase of 15·3% in central administration and miscellaneous services costs. It will be spending £156 million — an increase of 9·1% in departmental running costs. I would like each of those Ministers to come to this Assembly.
Does the Member agree that the most profligate Department is that run by his leader? Is he going to criticise him, or does he feel that he has already criticised the leader enough and does not want to be scolded once more?
If the Member had listened he would know that I have covered all the Government Departments. I was unable to find an accurate percentage increase in the Department that he is referring to, because I saw nothing in the Budget referring to this year’s account.
If the Member turns to page 26 — I would like to assist him in this — he will see that the percentage change is given as 20·6%. The figure is on exactly the same line, by the way, as that of all of the other Departments, the budgets of which he has quite rightly read out to this House.
I thank the Member for that information. I include that Department in my criticism.
Money spent in central departmental expenditure will not be spent in improving the services we deliver to the citizens of Northern Ireland. There is a need for Back-Bench pressure. We can all sit back merrily and do nothing about it. How many Members have raised these issues in their Committees? Everyone is on a Committee. I see that several have. I have too. We should all raise them in the Committees. How many have got their Committee to pass concerns on to the Finance and Personnel Committee? I have done that. I have also spoken to a number of members of the Finance and Personnel Committee and I hope that there will be careful scrutiny of all these central running costs. We can all sit here and do nothing about it, or as Back-Benchers, we can apply pressure to our various groups and parties and collectively do something to change this.
The Member seems keen to flaunt that fact. We can sit back, do nothing and accept it, or, within our groups or collectively within the Assembly, we can apply pressure to the Executive and the Minister of Finance and Personnel to achieve savings, so that we have money to spend on free transport for the elderly. Let us achieve some savings so that we can spend money where we want to spend it. Interestingly, while sitting through this debate I received a written answer to an oral point I made on 24 October. The reply is from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. It is rather interesting, and I will read a little from it:
"We share your concerns about the need to avoid excessive administration. We were elected to this Assembly to produce more accountable and more efficient Government, not to create unnecessary bureaucracy."
The Budget figures we have been discussing do not tally with the comments in this letter. We need to ensure that savings are made in central Departments. We must not create fiefdoms for our Ministers with lots of civil servants to answer all their wishes. It is important that Ministers go back to their Departments and scrutinise them carefully to achieve savings. We have new technology; e-commerce is being flaunted and we have e-government.
When a private sector company introduces new technology, it is to save money and improve its business performance. By introducing new technology, we have made savings in this Budget. How will that benefit our electorate? We are all answerable for this, and the Executive and every Minister are accountable.
I will now comment on something raised by another Member — criticism of some of the changes in the peace funds. Anyone interested in the expenditure of Peace I cannot fail to be confused and bewildered by the number of funding bodies and agencies that are distributing money. Administration is duplicated, and as we come to Peace II it is important that this is examined so that we eliminate wasteful administration in intermediate funding bodies and get clarity on which organisations to approach for money.
Does the Member agree with me that many of these bodies are made up of volunteers who do not receive any remuneration? Surely they have been one of the success stories in Northern Ireland, constituting a partnership that did not hitherto exist.
Perhaps what I said was not clear. I am not criticising the voluntary funding bodies. I am criticising the number of intermediate bodies with full-time staff who determine where the funding goes. Why are there so many such funding bodies, with expensive administration costs? These costs mean that less funding goes to the voluntary sector and the community groups to which the Member refers.
Regarding the earlier contest for the biggest traffic jam, I will not be inviting the Minister to examine the bottlenecks in east Antrim. He is, however, welcome to come and visit the A2, but not in the middle of the day. Let him visit the main Carrickfergus to Belfast road during peak morning congestion, or perhaps come to the Mallusk junction of the M2, which ends up like a car park. I invite the Minister to come and view that morning congestion.
Constructing more roads cannot reduce congestion. An increase of vehicles in Northern Ireland has been predicted, and there has already been considerable growth. Continued construction of new roads will create our equivalent of the M25 car park. While public transport and public infrastructure will play an important role in the reduction of congestion, it would be difficult for anyone to promise to remove it. The public transport system, including railways, will be important for minimising congestion. I would not like Members simply to walk away from the Budget and do nothing. I would like Members to focus and to apply pressure both on Ministers and on the departmental Committees they serve. Let us make savings and have money redirected to the areas where we want to spend it.
Naturally he would.
I have listened to many speeches today. Some were exhaustive; others were simply exhausting. It has been a good, interesting debate. For most people in the Chamber, today has marked a transition from adversarial politics to the politics of administration and responsibility. Even the DUP, in its semi-detached form, has adopted that mode. The Alliance Party, and perhaps even the Women’s Coalition, have not shown the same transition. They are effectively in opposition and can continue to be adversarial in politics. Indulging in the populist stunts of the Alliance Party — attacking the regional rate and saying that Alliance would reduce it without saying where it would make the necessary cuts in the Budget — is utterly irresponsible and deceitful to the electorate. [Interruption].
I am speaking to the electorate from the Assembly. The voters need to know that the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Close) is misleading them by pretending that he can reduce the regional rate while maintaining this Budget, or indeed that he can increase this Budget and thus the level of public expenditure in Northern Ireland. That cannot be done. That is the reality.
No, the Member has had his say.
May I ask what his party’s solution is to the reduction in the regional rate and the consequent reduction in the rates for its big houses. What is its solution? Its solution is an increase in income tax. Let the Alliance Party go to the electorate and say that it will increase income tax, as that is the reality of its position. The electorate should take that party to task for its deception and dishonesty.
This Budget is a milestone in our politics — [Interruption]
There we have the childish antics of the Alliance Party — a millstone.
This is something to be proud of. This is a milestone in our politics; we have produced our first home-grown Budget in 30 years. We should be proud of that achievement. Each party should be proud of that achievement, even the "semi-detached" DUP, for it has unofficially, perhaps indirectly, contributed to this. I pay tribute to its Ministers for the work they have done, though I would love to see them in the Executive. Mr Wells says that they have done very well outside. How well could they have done had they been in the Executive — with their colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and Sinn Féin — fighting for their Departments? I stress that if they were in, they could do better.
My constituency, North Belfast, has the worst housing problem in Northern Ireland. We have 880 applicants on the urgent housing list and 1600 on the main list. The Housing Executive produced a strategy to deal with that problem, which it also saw as the worst in Northern Ireland, but the budget allocated — and I have checked this in detail with the Housing Executive — does not provide the additional marginal money necessary to implement the strategy. One must invest in land, for one cannot build houses without it. The Housing Executive needs that money to kick-start the vesting of land and initiate the strategy.
The money is not there, and I blame the Minister for Social Development, Mr Maurice Morrow, for not going to the Northern Ireland Executive and carefully pointing out the necessity of having that money to kick-start the Housing Executive’s strategy for dealing with the worst housing problem in Northern Ireland. Not going into the Executive to fight his corner for the additional money was a dereliction of duty. We are talking about £15 million over three years — £4·1 million this year. If the Housing Executive does not get that £4·1 million this year, the whole programme will be set back for another year. Next year we shall need more money, for the price of land will go up, putting the entire programme back. We are increasing rather than diminishing the problem in North Belfast.
I want to see the Minister for Social Development going to the Executive Committee to plead his case and get the extra money for the Housing Executive. If he does not do that, then I send a message in this Chamber today on behalf of the homeless people and those suffering poor housing conditions in North Belfast. Let Mr Durkan look at the Budget again and try to provide money to kick-start this vital strategy to ameliorate the terrible conditions in North Belfast — an area that has suffered more than any other part of Belfast from civil strife and distress. I ask the Minister to apply his mind and those of his officials to sorting out the situation caused by the dereliction of duty on the part of the Minister for Social Development, Mr Maurice Morrow.
The 10% increase in the overall regional development budget is a great achievement and represents a recognition by the Executive of the necessity of improving our infrastructure, which has been starved of investment over the past 30 years. We must improve our infrastructure if we are to develop a competitive economy. I welcome the 10·2% funding increase allocated to the Department.
I give credit to the Minister for Regional Development for his work with regard to that and also to the Regional Development Committee that I chair. It also lobbied hard to get that increase in funding. It is a measure of the importance that the Executive places on regional development that it has agreed to a 10% uplift.
The increase in funding for Northern Ireland Railways of £19·6 million next year is long overdue. We could not have avoided allocating that amount of money. Not to do so would have created an almost disastrous situation of paralysis for Northern Ireland Railways and the almost total closure of our railways. A number of Members have said that railways do not affect their constituencies, and I understand that. However, railways are an important aspect of the creation of a public transportation policy which will dynamically change our attitude towards transportation in the twenty-first century. We need to create a modern system in which public transport is in the lead, and the investment in railways is very important from that point of view.
Mr Wells referred to the £3 billion we require for the Water Service. I want to reiterate, as Chairman of the Regional Development Committee, that that money is necessary to bring our ageing water system up to European standards. We cannot neglect that. The real question, which has been posed by many Members, is this: where do we get that finance? We must be innovative in raising finance to carry out that type of development. It is unavoidable, and we must invest that money. If we do not, it will be disastrous for public health and, equally, for industrial and economic development.
I emphasise the point that we need £2 billion for the Roads Service to bring the road network up to a proper standard. That point has been well made, and I am not going to repeat it. The amount of money allocated to the Roads Service, an additional £3·8 million for roads structural maintenance, is inadequate. I have to say this openly and publicly. It represents a 9·5% increase when we needed 100%. I do not say this lightly. The reality is that if we do not invest money in roads structural maintenance our roads will simply decline further and further. That will affect not so much our urban areas, motorways and major roads but our minor roads, particularly in the rural areas. We must take account of that. We cannot deprive our rural population of proper access to road transportation. Many of those living in the countryside are entirely dependent on the motor car as a means of transportation.
There has been an allocation in this Budget to current concessionary fares. We know that the Minister and, indeed, the previous Minister, Mr P Robinson, proposed a new scheme to allow free travel for older people. This might interest you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
All Members, irrespective of age, will back such a scheme. However, given the absence of an allocation in the Budget, it will be impossible to implement it, unless the district councils — the alternative that has been proposed — are prepared to carry the burden. The money needed for the new scheme could be about £7 million, but it would provide a much needed service for older people.
I congratulate the Minister of Finance and Personnel on the innovative idea of creating the Executive Programme Funds. As Chairman of the Regional Development Committee, I am particularly pleased to note that there is an indicative figure of £146 million in the Executive Programme Fund for infrastructure. I hope that those indicative figures will materialise over the next three years. The Minister should make clear how those funds will be accessed and what criteria will be used to satisfy the fundholder — the Northern Ireland Executive — that the applicant Department is entitled to receive those funds. It is an interesting and valuable new way of distributing funding across the gamut of departmental responsibilities.
I congratulate the Minister on the Budget. It will be recognised as definitive and will bring a greater maturity to our politics.
Unlike my Colleague Mr Wells, I do not have to worry about making statements for local papers or comments for local constituents. I was not even going to speak in the debate, but I was provoked into doing so by some other speakers. We need to clear up some of the issues that were raised.
It is a pity that some of those who got so incensed about my party’s position are not still here. I congratulate Mr Close on staying through this marathon session, although he was one of the people who provoked me. Mr Cobain also provoked me, but he never stays any longer than his own speech, because he does not like it when the spotlight falls on what he says. That is a bit ironic, because it is only towards the end that this lengthy debate has sparked into life. I have never seen the Member for East Antrim (Mr Beggs) — who seems to have got a little tired — so animated. We can always rely on Cllr Maginness — I mean Mr Maginness: I thought I was somewhere else — to get animated when his argument is weak. He always uses bluster to cover the weakness of his argument.
I want to make the position clear from the start: the DUP is opposed to the Budget. We are opposed to it for a number of reasons, and I will go through them. The criticisms that have been made to date have fallen into two categories. They focus either on the way in which the money is to be raised to finance this programme, or on the ways in which the money is to be spent.
First, I will deal with the arguments which have been put forward about the way the money is to be raised. My Colleague Mr Dodds made a very clear point in his opening remarks for the party, and I want to reinforce it now at the very end of our submission. We do not believe that the proper way to raise money for this programme is to keep the 8% increase in the regional rate.
Incidentally, that increase was introduced under the direct rule Administration and we were told at the time that it was specifically ring-fenced for two years as the capital investment needed for the infrastructure for the Water Service. In spite of the fact that the two years have now passed, we are simply having it added on once again. I see that it has been described in many ways: the Durkan tax, the SDLP stealth tax, the sneaky tax. The whole point about it is that it has no transparency. I do not believe that that is the proper way to raise the money required for this programme.
Many suggestions have been made by Sinn Féin. We got the usual thing — the people who hate the Brits hold out their hands and tell us that the Brits should pay up. That is what we got from Gerry McHugh. I think he said it in Irish, I am not too sure. He said that the British Government must bear their responsibilities for what has happened over the last 30 years.
My recollection is that over the last 30 years billions of pounds have been spent in Northern Ireland that could have been spent on improving the infrastructure. Billions of pounds have been spent undoing the work of the bombers, compensating families who have had people killed and trying to increase investment in an economy that investors were scared of, or scared out of. All that was not because of the activities of the British Government but because of the activities of the very people who, begging bowl in hand, are now demanding that the British Government should live up to their responsibilities and give us the money for this programme.
I am not too sure where the Alliance Party wants the money to come from. I know where it does not want it to come from. It does not want it to come from the rates or from rent rises or from the tax powers which may come to the Assembly, because it has consistently refused to admit that the tax powers are actually tax raising powers — it calls them tax variation powers.
Mr Close said I was a slow learner, but I do know that you cannot have a spending programme financed by lowering taxes. That is one thing I do know — slow learner or not. What is worse, apparently this Programme for Government is not even sufficient for the Alliance Party.
Yesterday, in five minutes, I counted six new things that Mr McCarthy wanted, and because he did not get the rest of them in he mentioned a few more things today. Eileen Bell wanted more money for five different things which she said either were not covered in the Budget or were not covered sufficiently.
It does sound a bit like Santa Claus.
However, despite this, taxes are not to be raised. They are to be varied, the regional rate increase is to be stopped and somehow by magic it is all going to be financed.
Mr Close suggested that administration costs be reduced, but they will not be reduced in the Province overnight — and certainly not by the end of December. The First Minister, who also thinks that a magic wand can be waved to get things done, is talking about public administration being looked at in a year.
All attempts, to date, at changing the administration of Northern Ireland by the pro-agreement parties have not saved money — they have cost money. There have been extra Departments, North/South bodies, about 15 review bodies — I think that is what the First Minister told the House — and the Civic Forum, so the forays into administration have not led to any savings.
It is very courageous of Mr Close to suggest that looking at administration costs might save money. That is paramount to a redundancy programme for half the Alliance Party. The Alliance Party peoples the bodies that he is seeking to save money from. I hear that the Alliance Party has an alternative to ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ it is a game called ‘Who Wants a Quango Chair?’ I imagine that some of Mr Close’s party members might not be too pleased at his suggestion.
When Members vote on the Programme for Government they should look at the issues where there is no added value, or at those that will lead to discrimination in favour of some of the politically correct issues included in the Belfast Agreement. Look at those things and vote against them. That is the immediate way of dealing with the issue. Members can do that before the end of the financial year so that the Programme for Government can go ahead with those changes. It will be interesting to see if the Alliance Party will be prepared to go along with those immediate remedies.
It is a pity that the Chairman of the Social Development Committee is not in the Chamber. Mr Cobain told us how deeply he felt about the poor people living in Housing Executive houses who were going to be pushed to the poverty line and to starvation by a rent increase. He blamed the Minister for Social Development for something that has not even happened yet. He blamed him for intending to put these people on the breadline as a result of the impending rent increase.
Mr Cobain must have gone to the same mathematics class as Mr Close. He said that the Minister for Social Development intends to raise rents by 20%. He has not been able to explain where he heard that, but he said that publicly.
Mr Cobain is not here, but he did have some cheerleaders when he made his impassioned speech on behalf of the impoverished tenants in Housing Executive houses. Mr Davis, a Deputy Whip, was cheering him on. Since Mr Cobain is not here to reply, maybe one of his Colleagues will answer on his behalf.
We would have no problem obtaining the money to avoid the 2% above-inflation increase in Housing Executive rents by cutting the amount spent on North/South bodies by 50%. I invite Colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party who have a deep social conscience to tell me — as Mr Close said, in a simple "yes" or "no" answer — if they are prepared to vote for an amendment which cuts the North/South bodies budget by 50% in order to save livelihoods and put bread on the tables of Northern Ireland Housing Executive tenants?
Again, for the slow learners. When you are making amendments to a budget, you simply amend it. You do not spend money on one thing — you spend it on something else. It is as simple as that. When an amendment of that nature is put to the Assembly, will those who so vociferously spoke up on behalf of Housing Executive tenants be prepared to vote for it?
I suppose Red Sam is better than red-faced Cobain — if he had been here and had had to reply to that. There are people such as Mr McElduff who would say that to cut North/South bodies would be to reduce a service provided by a very important element. Mr McElduff, in his usual Republican rhetoric, went overboard and talked about the all-island economy, this new Canaan —a land flowing with milk and honey. Mind you, he is not too far removed from the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party who eulogised about North/South bodies and how important they were in developing an all-island economy when he was questioned by Mr Dodds, Mr Poots and myself on the Programme for Government. He also talked about sailing down the river during his holidays and how the tourist body would help to promote that.
Significant savings could be made if we cut out all the political trappings that were included in the Good Friday Agreement simply to please IRA/Sinn Féin. If they were removed it would make no difference to the ordinary people of Northern Ireland.
With regard to other areas of the budget, mention was made — as I pointed out to the Member for East Antrim and I am not going to point it out again — about administration costs in some of the Departments. Ironically, the First Minister’s Department is the one that has had the highest departmental expenses.
Does the Member also acknowledge that Departments, which Members from his party have responsibility for, have also had high administration costs and that a reduction in those high central funding increases is needed?
I know the Member had difficulty with reading the document, because he could not find the figures for the Office of the First Minister. I had to point them out to him, although it was on the same line as all the others being read. He will notice, however, that the lowest increase is in a Department run by a DUP Minister. The increase for the Department for Regional Development is 3·5%, and that is the lowest increase of all the Departments.
Is the Member talking about simple administration costs or the departmental running costs? If the Member examines the centre of the section on administration costs, he will find that he is incorrect.
The odd thing — and the record, which the Member can check tomorrow, will show this — is that the Member went through the catalogue of figures that he referred to. He went through the figures for administration and quoted the departmental running costs on every occasion. That is the figure on which he based his complaint about administrative costs. I have made it quite clear, and the Budget makes it quite clear, that the lowest increase in departmental running cost was for the Department for Regional Development.
I want to speak for a minute about education. I notice that the Minister of Education is not here today, in spite of the fact that yesterday a Sinn Féin spokesman, who was trying to play down the row about the flying of the flag over this Building today, stressed the importance of today’s Budget and said that the Sinn Féin Ministers would be playing a full role. It is a great pity that the Sinn Féin Minister of Education is not present to hear some of the views being expressed. If the flying of the flag above this Building keeps Martin McGuinness out of it, I would advocate that we fly it every day.
If we look at the figures for the Department of Education, we find that the departmental running costs have gone up by 11·9%. However, the Minister expects schools to exist on an increase of only 7·2%. He cannot live within certain figures, yet he expects schools to live within a far smaller increase. On top of that, he is squandering money on yet another body to oversee Irish-medium education. He wants to discriminate in favour of Irish-medium education and integrated education. I hope that we will see a less biased use of the Budget next time. In the past, the Minister of Education has also dealt with the money that he has been given stewardship of in a most cavalier manner, as can be seen in the way that he divided up the capital spending last year.
I just want to come to the last point, and I see that Mr Alban Maginness has gone. No, he has not. I thought his pseudo rage was spent earlier on. Comments were made about the performance of the Minister for Social Development and the effect that his poor performance and non-attendance at the Executive was having on the waiting lists in north Belfast.
I am the first to admit that there is great housing need in north Belfast. It is important that funding be made available to ensure that the housing programme for North Belfast is put through. Mr Maginness is known for the sharpness of his mind and the brilliance of his logic — and his French, of course — but they were not demonstrated today. He criticised the Minister for Social Development for not getting enough money for housing in North Belfast because he did not go to the Executive. He had hardly got the words out before he was praising the Minister for Regional Development, who also did not go to the Executive, for getting so much money for the railways.
Either you get the money because you go to the Executive, or you do not get the money because you do not go to the Executive, but you cannot have it both ways. At the end of the day the Budget and the way the money is divided out fall at the door of his Colleague. I am sure that he has spoken to Mr Durkan about housing need in north Belfast. It appears that his pleas have been ineffective, because the money has not been allocated. However, when it comes —
I wonder if the passionate plea has just been made now — whether this thought has just occurred to Mr Maginness, or whether he made his plea before the budget allocation was made. That is usually the best way of doing it — get the crumbs before the cake has been sliced up.
Is the Member saying that he has knowledge of the Minister going to the Executive and asking, specifically, for extra money in order to implement the north Belfast housing strategy? Is he saying that the Minister did that?
Three of the last four minutes have been taken up by the Member for North Belfast trying to justify himself. It has not been my responsibility that it has gone on for that length of time.
Thank you. I am going to finish now.
The Minister for Social Development made his point to the person who makes the final decision on the Budget. Many people would say that the drift in the amount of money available for the housing budget has actually stopped as a result of the representations made by the Minister for Social Development. In previous years there was a large fall in the housing budget, which has now stopped, and the Minister needs to be thanked for that.
At the end of the day Mr Maginness, and others who feel strongly about this, will have the opportunity to vote for money for housing when amendments come before the House. As he has quite rightly told us, there is a cake that needs to be sliced up, and we will be suggesting were the slices could be made smaller with the minimum of pain. I look forward to his support in times to come.
We have been entertained by a wide-ranging debate that has travelled the length and breadth of Northern Ireland and has gone through mountains, lowlands and all kinds of animals.
I rise with trepidation after your remarks to me earlier, Mr Deputy Speaker. However, it is interesting to note the areas that have been covered with the main argument being over how to raise money to fund the programme. I was outside a few minutes ago and picked up a letter in my pigeonhole from Mr Gibson, the DUP Member for West Tyrone. Mr Gibson has invited Members to a special meeting in the Long Gallery to discuss how to reward councillors adequately, how to acknowledge many years’ service for which they were paid. Perhaps the DUP, in its enthusiasm for saving money, could tell us how this will be funded and what policy of the rest of the House, unpopular to the DUP, it wants to remove. Whether it is a cross-border body or whatever, it is just a little hypocritical. However, Members will be relieved, having listened to all of the —
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Is the Member aware that the national association represents all political parties in this Chamber and that a united view has been put forward? The Member must answer himself the question that he poses to this side. The difference is that this side has an answer; we will put forward proposals on savings. I wonder what proposals the Member will bring forward.
Today I listened very carefully when Mr Robinson told us about his new colleague Rover, which is of as much political importance as the contribution he has just made.
I even heard a jocular suggestion from behind me that perhaps Rover is the new Minister-in-waiting. He could be a Minister for Regional Development who knows that sheep do not graze on the Mournes in winter. However, I have only two areas to comment on.
I have been asked to deliver the first comment on behalf of the Committee I chair — Culture, Arts and Leisure — and I want to raise a few points with the Minister for the record. The Committee wants to express its disappointment that many of the bids that the Committee made have not been granted. Historically, the Department’s existing activities have been underfunded and for this reason more money should be made available. Members might be interested to know that there has been no Budget increase in any of the major activities of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for almost 10 years. Consequently, there has been a reduction in available funding. There is a serious need to readjust that. The Department’s total bid was modest when compared to its assessment of need, and yet little more than 25% of it was agreed.
The Committee is particularly concerned that the £2 million bid to buy out commercial fishing nets around the Northern Ireland coastline was not successful. In the Committee’s inquiry into inland fisheries, commercial netting has been identified as a major contributor to the decline in the salmon population of Northern Ireland’s rivers. If there is one thing we can do to help stabilise salmon stocks, this is it.
The Committee’s inquiry into inland fisheries has underlined the importance of an attractive recreational tourist industry to the Northern Ireland economy.
The Committee believes that the Department must pursue other resources to get the buying of commercial fishing nets started as soon as possible.
The Committee was also concerned that the bid for arts funding has only been met in part. Inevitability, this will be detrimental to the Department’s plans to open up the arts to a greater proportion of the people in Northern Ireland and, by doing so, to improve the quality of life for all. I can announce that the Committee has decided to make accessibility to the arts the subject of its next inquiry. I can almost guarantee that this will draw attention to the lack of funding available.
It is also noted that the Department’s spending plans do not include any funding for safety improvements to existing motorcycle road-racing facilities. We are all aware of the major concerns that surround that sport. It has been the subject of much debate — by the Committee and in the Department and the various groups involved in the sport — and it is an area that requires urgent attention. It is vital that funding be made available for safety in this sport. Even small amounts of money would go a tremendously long way in trying to improve the situation.
The Department ought to pursue this underfunding situation rigorously by registering its disappointment at the shortfall in the meeting of the bids and by looking for additional funding in future years. The Committee pledges its support for the Department in that activity.
The second area that I will comment on relates to my membership of the Social Development Committee, and my interest in housing in particular. I express, as other Members have done, deep concern that the funding bid for north Belfast was not met. When bidding for funds, one expects not to get every bid that one puts in. That is understandable. However, it is a great pity that this bid failed, because, as almost everyone is aware, there is a great need for housing in the north Belfast area. People should also be aware that the strategic plan prepared by the Housing Executive is very imaginative, thorough, competent and realistic. It was a great disappointment that the money was not found to begin to implement it properly this year. My Colleague Alban Maginness has dealt extensively with the matter.
I believe — and I am not saying this to score a political point — that had the Minister for Social Development been in there fighting his corner, his arguments, backed up by such an imaginative plan, would have made a significant impact in favour of securing that additional funding. I do not think that any of his supporters here this evening would disagree with the fact that he could have made an impact. I believe that he would have liked to do so. I had hoped that a start could have been made. It is not necessarily the Minister that I criticise; it is the foolish policy of the DUP in not involving itself in the central and full Executive activity. That is a great pity.
I will not comment further. All other aspects have been adequately covered in this wide-ranging debate.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I was grateful too for the opportunity of listening to it, even though I felt at times that I was in detention. It has been a useful debate. I am sure that all Members of the Assembly will join with me in thanking the Finance and Personnel Committee for its work that has led to today’s debate. I look forward to the further results of its work that will flow from the debate.
At times this has been a constructive debate, and it has certainly been wide-ranging. The draft Budget is obviously an important document that requires careful study by the Assembly and by the respective departmental Committees. It has been guided by the Programme for Government, which was debated yesterday — albeit not in the most satisfactory circumstances, given time constraints. In time, through the allocation of resources, this Budget will clearly support the objectives of that Programme for Government.
I have listened carefully to the contributions made to the debate. Together with colleagues in the Executive, I will reflect on the concerns expressed by Members and on some of the suggestions made both here and at Committee level. I know that the Finance and Personnel Committee has further work to do to prepare conclusions, which I will find very helpful in understanding fully, and in reconciling, some of the diverse views on the draft Budget which have been expressed in the Assembly and its Committees. Those conclusions will need to be available in time for consideration of any revisions to the Budget for the next financial year. We need to complete those revisions early in December, so that a revised Budget can be introduced on 11 December, prior to the final vote, which, subject to the usual consideration of timetables by the Business Committee, is scheduled for 18 December. Obviously, the timetable is tight, and the cycle has been very demanding for all concerned. However, even with those difficulties, the fact that we are engaging in debates on a Programme for Government and a Budget manifests clearly the real politics that have been made possible by the Agreement and the new arrangements.
The revised Budget will include some clarification and some adjustment of the figure work. At a more significant level, the Executive will wish to consider whether changes could be made to improve the balance between spending areas. The views of the Assembly on this point will obviously be important. In principle, with a fixed departmental expenditure limit, any increase has to be offset by a corresponding decrease. We will, as ever, continue to look in the Departments’ planning figures for any savings which could be redeployed. It is clearly a very important principle that money not required for the purpose for which it was originally allocated should be reabsorbed for reallocation by the Executive and the Assembly.
There were several contributions during yesterday’s debate, and again today, on the difficulties arising from the Barnett formula. As I have made clear on many occasions, the Executive is determined to seek the best possible outcome for our spending processes, and we do not find the Barnett mechanism satisfactory or appropriate. While seeking additional resources from the Treasury however, it is important to bear in mind that we are likely to be regarded as well provided for, and it may be argued that we do reasonably well in terms of parity service. There is much to discuss. This is not a matter of simple tactics, or of walking into the Treasury and getting things changed overnight by Barnett-storming. Clearly, there are delicate and sensitive issues involved — not just for ourselves, but for others elsewhere as well.
We need to look very carefully at the regional rate which, as everyone is aware, forms an important part of the financing of our spending power. I have already indicated that we propose a substantial review of rating policy.
The fact that that review is pending does not mean, if we choose to forgo revenue in the meantime from the source that the rates offer, that it is not going to be very difficult to expect the Treasury to make up the resulting deficiency in our spending power. Any deficiency that we choose, by either abolishing or not increasing the regional rate, will have to be lived with or made good by ourselves. It is not a deficiency that the Treasury will pick up.
The reality is that there are limitations on our allocation, and that is unsatisfactory for all the reasons that Members have identified. I am glad that Members appreciate the significance of the Barnett formula and that they are becoming aware of its adverse effects, which will be compounded further over time. There would not have been that appreciation, nor would there have been that degree of political or public awareness, were it not for the fact that we now have the various institutions in place. That itself is a score for transparency in relation to our Budget-setting exercises.
The Executive is determined that the resources available are used in the best possible way and that action is taken to improve efficiency and effectiveness, and the targeting of actions on a priority basis. That is constantly emphasised in the Programme for Government and the Budget. We need to work together to maximise our advantage in relation to the Treasury. That is central and important.
I hope that Members appreciate that, within the available resources, more money can only be spent in one area if there are offsetting reductions elsewhere. The Executive will therefore need to be convinced that the benefits of any proposed changes will clearly outweigh the sacrifices that will have to be made in other service areas.
A number of points and questions have been raised during the debate, and I will cover as many of those as I can now.
Mr Molloy, as Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee, made a point that was taken up by others, including Mr Close, Mr Neeson and Mr Beggs. That question was in relation to the difficulty arising from the timetable and the process that we are dealing with this year. It has been constrained, and it does cause difficulties for all concerned. That includes the Executive as well as the Assembly and its Committees. The intention is that the cycle will be different next year and that the agreed Programme for Government should be the starting point to inform the process.
Members should appreciate that when we adopt the Programme for Government in the new year it will lay down a prospectus, including budgetary precepts, for future years. Those precepts will already be there. They will be information that the Assembly and the various Committees will already have.
When we present the revised Budget in December we will also present indicative figures for the Departments for years two and three. Mr Dodds raised the point that the draft Budget statement presented indicative figures for the Executive programme funds for years two and three, but not for the Departments. At the time of the Budget statement, given that people were criticising the fact that the draft annual Budget for next year was published before the Programme for Government, I made the point that it would have been ridiculous for us then to have issued full indicative allocations for all three years. We want to continue the work on those indicative allocations for years two and three.
Members and Committees should remember that they will have that work available to them as well. That is information that the Committees can use and work on from now on — they do not need to wait for a starting gun from me, the Executive or anyone else.
The Committees can carry on the important scrutiny work that many Members have emphasised, and they are free to pursue that on the basis of that information to see how good the plans are for that expenditure. When we bring forward the consolidated Programme for Government in January it will include detailed public service agreements for the Departments.
Those public service agreements must spell out the actions and targets. That will assist the Committees in monitoring and tracking the performance of Departments — or those who are using departmental money — and the effectiveness of spending. That is all information that will contribute to the Committees’ being able to get into their stride in their important role.
The fact that we are changing the nature of the information and management systems means that Committees can do much more, all year round, in advancing probing and developmental work in these areas. There is no question of Committees being denied opportunities. The arrangements that will be brought forward will equip and enable them to perform their role and their public duties in a way that satisfies them and is much more effective.
As I have already mentioned, I agree that next year we should introduce the Budget at an earlier stage. We will be able to do that, as we will be working in a more established context because we will have the Programme for Government and the indicative allocations for the next two years already established.
Dr Birnie raised a number of points, particularly in relation to the budget of the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. He touched on the issue of adult basic education, a subject that John Dallat also mentioned. I recognise, and the Executive recognises, that serious problems exist. The Department will be able to compete for Executive programme funds to supplement the amount that has been allocated. The provision made for the Department will allow for pilot projects to take place, and the Minister, Seán Farren, has made it clear that he will be using money from the Department’s budget to do that.
Dr Birnie, Mr McGrady, Mr Dodds and several others highlighted the limitations of the Barnett formula and asked what was being done about it. As I said in my opening remarks, Barnett is a flawed mechanism that does not directly address need. That said, it has the attraction of being reasonably simple to apply. Once we get the allocation, we have discretion in how we use it, rather than having to trace and clear everything through the Treasury. The Barnett formula, however, is a very serious problem for us in that it does not address need or allow us to get the increases in service spending that are going elsewhere as part of the headline announcements made during the summer. It raises issues of basic equity that we want to address properly and competently.
When we set out to do this at Executive level, not everyone counselled us that we should do so. Some counselled against raising the issue with the Treasury at all. It is interesting to note that more people are now of the view that we need to take up this issue robustly, with a planned approach. We must take a planned approach because the Treasury is not an easy touch on anything, and it is certainly not going to be an easy touch on this point. It will respond in ways that challenge aspects of our situation.
Representations were made in the context of the 2000 spending review. The scope of the Barnett formula was increased as a result of representations from the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and myself to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. That increase in the scope of the formula gave us more than £40 million more on our baselines over the next three years. That is welcome but not enough. I remind Members that when a lot of people raised concerns, they were about the £23 million that the Treasury had wrongly allocated to us, and then took back.
People are not so appreciative of the fact that we managed to increase the amount of money allocated to us under the formula — we secured a "Barnett" share of money, which had originally been allocated to London transport. There has also been some improvement in the way that abatement has been handled: this was achieved during the summer. We will be seeking to ensure that a more equitable means of funds allocation is adopted before the next spending review.
The allocations announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer are to last for the duration of spending review period. Therefore we need to mount the best possible case, with strong arguments, so that by the next spending review we have a strong basis, better than the Barnett formula, for winning our share of resources.
Mr Dodds suggested that there were discrepancies in figures for North/South bodies which were presented to the Finance and Personnel Committee. The figures refer to two different periods: the £8·2 million figure quoted referred to the 2000 calendar year, while the £8·9 million was quoted in relation to the 2000-01 financial year. That figure also included an allowance for the tourism company. The overall figure of £18 million which was referred to covers the financing of all bodies and their activities in the 2001-02 financial year.
Reference was made to the expenditure by bodies of £11 million on political initiatives. This money was not spent on political structures but on ongoing services, such as inland waterways and trade and business development. The funding allocation for the tourism company will pay for a major publicity drive to market the region as a tourist destination, something that is clearly needed, and from which there will be direct economic benefits.
Mr Dodds, and others, raised the issue of the regional rate. Income from the regional rate can fund any service, which gives the Executive maximum flexibility. I underline the point that it is the Executive Committee that agreed these budgetary provisions in their entirety, in case some Members do not fully understand that. These increases are needed to deliver the services set out in the Budget and without them we would have to adjust the Budget accordingly. Therefore, if a lower regional rate is to be fixed, where should expenditure be cut?
Mr Beggs sought a comparison between rates bills in Northern Ireland and those in England. An average rates bill here is significantly lower than an equivalent council tax bill in England, where households also pay a water charge something that must be considered. These are the arguments that the Treasury will raise when we begin negotiating the Barnett formula. When we state our particular need and argue that resources are not sufficient, others will wonder why we do not supplement our resources through the means available to us. They will also point out that households in Northern Ireland pay a significantly lower rates bill, compared to that paid by their English counterparts.
Some Members quoted sections on rolling forward from my budget statement. My Budget statement was transparent. It was clear and open. It is on the record, and it can be seen we will be rolling forward the 8% increase that was allocated in the comprehensive spending review. That has been said here in public, so this is not a stealth tax, it is not a back-door affair. It is in print and Members have been able to quote it here. We need to make a distinction between rolling forward the expenditure plans we inherited which we clearly are not. This would have been the third year of the comprehensive spending review, and spending patterns are different from those that were intended so there is a distinction to be made between not rolling forward the expenditure plans and rolling forward some of the funding, and that is what was done.
Some Members, Sammy Wilson in particular, raised the point that in the comprehensive spending review, increases of 8% in the regional rate were earmarked for two years. In fact, increases of 8% were earmarked for three years. Mr Wilson pointed out that when that was revealed, the Minister who had responsibility for finance and personnel at that time stated, in reference to the regional rate increase, that extra money needed to be invested in water. Members have been talking about various people’s having made impassioned pleas and bids. People have been making it clear to me that they wanted the indicative allocation for continued increased spending on water to be protected. They wanted the increased allocation in the comprehensive spending review to be protected and continued. Members should note that this budget sees it both protected and continued. People cannot have it both ways, which unfortunately they wish to.
The regional rate revenue is £318 million. That figure has been built into the budget plans for 2001-02. To generate that revenue, we estimate, a regional rate increase of 8% in the domestic regional rate is needed, with an increase of 6·6% in the non-domestic regional rate, and on that basis we have presented these figures. In February 2000 we were able to make the decision not to have to follow through on the full level of increase that we had indicated in the draft Budget statement for the non-domestic regional rate, because the figures available showed some buoyancy, indicating that we could reliably set a lower rate and still achieve that estimated amount. I would like to remind Members of that.
Some Members are saying that this is, in effect, a tax. Mr Dodds has said that it is not justified to say that we need this to cover spending. If these rates can raise more revenue than that estimated, time might allow us to do a revision similar to that which we did earlier this year. This rate increase is not being pursued blindly as some sort of must-have tax, because I have said it is needed to cover spending. It is not a must-do levy. It is related to the amount of money that Ministers and Departments have agreed, at Executive level, that they need if we are to produce a budget consistent with the priorities laid down in the Programme for Government.
In the terms of resources the best ready reckoner is that for each percentage point reduction in the regional rate uplift, our revenue would decrease by £2 million. This would be a direct reduction in resources available to the Executive for the provision of public services. I make the point in answer to the question asked. The average domestic rate bill in Northern Ireland next year will be almost half of what will be levied in England. There is also the water charge to consider.
The percentage increase in the regional rate proposed for Northern Ireland is similar to that proposed for council tax in England. Seamus Close, Sean Neeson and others raised once again the question of tax-varying powers. As Mr Leslie pointed out, the Scottish Parliament has those powers but is not using them. One should also remember that 3p in the pound — if that is the extent of the tax-varying power we seek — would raise significantly less than the regional rate does.
Some Members seemed to be suggesting that we abolish the regional rate, saying that it was fundamentally wrong and iniquitous and should not exist in any form. I took the logic of some Members to be that they were not so much against an 8% increase, but against the principle, and wanted a different form of taxation. Even if we were to apply the Scottish model, which is the only alternative that seems to have been suggested so far, it would not raise the money that the regional rate currently does. Something would have to give.
Seamus Close and Sean Neeson also seemed to be saying that we did not really need the regional rate in any case, since there were so many savings there for the taking if we only listened to the Northern Ireland Audit Office. We certainly want to achieve savings wherever possible, and the Department of Finance and Personnel is glad of any friends it can find in the Assembly when it comes to achieving savings and ensuring proper efficiency and soundness in spending. It seems strange for people to argue on the one hand that we do not need the resources the regional rate will give us, while also arguing that we need more than the Barnett formula provides and that we need some elaborate tax-raising powers. It simply does not add up.
Mr Close rather unfairly accused the Executive and myself of hypocrisy. I ask him to go and think through his own party’s position, for it cannot be the case that we simultaneously need and do not need the money, that we can raise it by different means, and that those means do not provide us with the requisite sum. I hope that there will be further thought on this matter.
I want to take up the positive suggestions such as making certain, through the various Committees, of much more efficiency in spending, and I look forward to that work succeeding. I remind Members that, when we bring forward matters like public service agreements in the context of the Programme for Government, it is precisely to insist that Committees and others perform that task better.
I would also like to deal with the point about the housing budget and the question of Housing Executive rent increases. There seems to be a similarity between the arguments about the rates, not least from Mr Close, and those from Mr Cobain on housing and rent increases. There was an allegation that the Executive had no interest in targeting social need. Mr Close said that when Ministers get a sniff of power they forget about people in need and lose their social conscience. I have not lost my social conscience and am in no particular need of lessons from anyone.
We are trying to discharge our responsibility to manage a Budget well and effectively, targeting it across many competing needs to meet a large number of serious pressures, in circumstances where we simply do not have enough resources to cover all those areas and do all that we would wish. People should recognise that, rather than take cheap shots about people losing their social conscience when they get a sniff of power. If we in this House can demonstrate that we have caught the whiff of responsibility, and show a degree of maturity and realism, we will be doing our work well.
The figures for the Housing Executive rent increase were based on national figures that put rent increases at GDP plus 2%. The Department for Social Development used the same guidelines. That is the assumption in those figures. If we do not hold to that, there will be a reduction of £7·8 million in the Housing Executive’s budget. Incidentally, that reduction figure is based on a revision of the previous figure of £5·4 million.
Mr Cobain alleged that we have continued to cut the housing budget. In contrast to what was planned for next year under the comprehensive spending review, the Housing Executive budget will go up slightly, by 1·5%. The budget for housing associations, which are doing the new building, will go up by 6·4%. Mr Wilson recognised that what he called the fall in the housing budget has stopped. People will not be able to say that if we do not follow through with the rent increase. The Minister and the Department will make the final decision, and I understand that the Minister is awaiting the views of the Social Development Committee before doing that.
We should remember that there have been high levels of investment in public housing over the past 20 years — rightly so. We have inherited an infrastructure, even with all its problems, that is much better than that in England and Wales, and shows lower levels of unfitness. Also, under the house sales programme, the number of houses that the Housing Executive maintains continues to fall — it is down by over 15% in the past five years. People need to bear such points in mind as we deal with some of these questions. Predictably, I will make the point that 75% of Housing Executive tenants receive help with their rent through housing benefit. That goes some way to minimising the impact of the increase, although I recognise the effect of any rent increase on households on marginal income, particularly those that do not qualify for the relevant benefits.
Mr Poots raised the question of funding for buses. An additional £1·7 million has been allocated to bus purchases in the Budget. The Department for Regional Development already gives Translink a grant equivalent to 50% of the cost of replacement vehicles. He also raised some questions about the budget of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Expenditure on running costs for that Department in turn provides direct benefits to agriculture, such as the veterinary and scientific services. It is wrong for people to treat running costs as though they were just funding for idle bureaucracy — they support necessary services. If we were not proposing those increases, we would soon hear about how important some of those services are to farmers.
With regard to the division of responsibilities that Ms McWilliams mentioned, the NIO took the decision to set up the Victims Liaison Unit, and people know the basis on which that was set up. We sensibly decided that that did not preclude us, equally having a responsibility in relation to the scope of interest and responsibility that we have as a devolved institution, from showing proper consideration for victims in the work and service programmes undertaken by our Departments. That is our responsibility.
There is no pretence that the Victims Unit that is now being established in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will replace or displace any of the work that is being done by the Victims Liaison Unit in the NIO. It is to ensure that we show consideration for victims within our devolved responsibilities. If we had taken the other course, saying that there was already a Victims Liaison Unit in the NIO, people would really have had a case against us, that we were showing absolutely no consideration or regard to victims.
When the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister brought forward the departmental designations that listed victims as one of the responsibilities for their Department, they explained that point well. They were not going to use the excuse that there was already such a unit in the NIO.
Mr Poots and others raised the issue of e-government. Obviously, we attach a high priority to the effective use of technology in Government. The establishment of the Executive programme funds to cover service modernisation, with £3 million, £10 million and £20 million across the years, reflects that. As with the other funds, precise details of how it will operate are the subject of discussion and development.
Patricia Lewsley mentioned the budget of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, with particular regard to equality. The sum of £1 million has been allocated to enable the Equality Commission to carry out its new statutory obligations under the Equality (Disability, etc) (Northern Ireland) Order 2000. That funding will enable the commission to provide services to people in the community with disabilities, employers and service providers, and to work towards the elimination of discrimination.
Ms Lewsley also questioned the adequacy of the Department of Education’s budget. I believe that the proposed allocation strikes a fair balance between the needs of education and the very pressing needs of other services. Planned expenditure on the Department’s services will rise by 7·1%, bringing it to a total of £1·332 billion.
The planned provision will enable existing levels of service to be maintained across the schools sector, youth service and community relations. School budgets will benefit directly from the extra £20 million in the Budget statement, continuing what was originally a one-off allocation of £14·7 million. The plan also provides for £3·5 million for the curriculum review, and £9·5 million to make good deficiencies in the school estate.
Even with all the difficulties we have under the Barnett formula, even if we are not able to match the rates of increase in spending in education and health that have taken place across the water, the Department of Education is getting more than its Barnett formula share, as is the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Even with the difficulties that we have, several Departments are giving increases over and above what their strict share would be under the Barnett formula.
Peter Weir emphasised the need to get better performance from additional money in education and health. Again, I remind people about the importance of public service agreements, and refer them to paragraph 1.3 of the actual Budget statement, which made it clear that any allocations are conditional on clearly identified actions and targets. I hope that people are not going to ask me to say that, and then forget about it when they get to work on the departmental Committees. I hope that all Members will bear that in mind.
Jim Shannon raised the question of railways. Obviously, the Budget proposes an additional £19·6 million for investment in railways to implement the consolidation option. That is a significant increase on the £22 million baseline that was previously planned for Northern Ireland’s railways.
I hope that the people who are welcoming these things in the Budget will vote accordingly. It seems strange that Members say that there are all sorts of things that they welcome, but because of some relatively smaller aspects of the Budget they want to vote against the whole thing.
Monica McWilliams raised several points on foundation degrees. Pilot schemes to test the suitability of introducing foundation degrees in areas of high skill demand will commence next year. The costs are minimal in the first year and will be met from the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment baseline budget.
Many people have said that Departments have missed out various parts in their bids and asked what we are doing in order to make this good and restore it. Twice in the course of my reply so far I have mentioned points that were not covered in the Budget statement for the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, but that the Minister has subsequently said that he will now cover within his baseline. As I said on the day of the Budget statement, all Departments, on the basis of the allocations offered, can re-prioritise some of their expenditure.
A case has been made, for instance, that the chronic housing problem in North Belfast is an absolute priority. I imagine that the Department and the Housing Executive, as the agency responsible for housing, will want to make sure that they do something about such a serious and pressing housing problem, rather than leaving it untouched just because it was not covered in the Budget. The departmental Committees have a particular contribution to make to ensure that they reflect the interests and insights that can help to inform any further re-prioritisation that Departments seek to apply to their budgets.
Monica McWilliams also asked what happened to Welfare to Work. Welfare to Work has, until now, been managed as a separate budget outside the Northern Ireland departmental expenditure limit. As I said in the Budget statement, on the basis of changes that have come through with and since the Chancellor’s summer announcement on the spending review, Welfare to Work moneys allocated to us will now come within the departmental expenditure limit and therefore will be at our discretion.
In the December statement, that money will be apparent in departmental budget lines. It is not apparent in the current budget lines, but it certainly will be when we bring forward the revised figures in December. The amount of money that we are getting for this initiative is going down because of falls in unemployment, et cetera.
Monica McWilliams also asked who has control over the Executive programme funds. The Executive Committee will shortly be considering options for the management of those funds. The expenditure will ultimately be accounted for, in the first instance, by any Departments that are given allocations from the funds. The funds themselves will be clearly monitored and managed by and on behalf of the Executive Committee, and there will be full reporting and transparency.
Both Monica McWilliams and Roy Beggs asked why departmental running costs are going up so much. Clearly, we have now 11 Departments, and nobody ever denied that there would be some rise in central departmental costs. Departments are also carrying out an expanded work programme due to devolution in order to meet the needs of the Assembly and its Committees, and obviously to deal with some of the various other duties that the agreement imposes on Departments. All of that requires resources.
Also, many people are arguing for, and stressing the importance of, much better work going on between Departments, stronger interdepartmental work, more joined-up approaches, far more subcommittees and other communication between Departments. That all adds to departmental running costs. People cannot ask for all these improvements in how Government is run and then at the same time complain when some of the costs start to show in budget terms.
Several Departments have been under pressure with regard to departmental running costs. The Department of Finance and Personnel has had problems with departmental running costs due to the reallocation of responsibilities that came with the reorganisation of Departments. Several responsibilities came to the Department of Finance and Personnel, but the resources that previously covered those responsibilities stayed at other Departments.
When Sammy Wilson says that the Department for Regional Development received only a relatively low increase on departmental running costs, he must remember that the Department for Regional Development kept some of the money that formerly covered the functions that went to the Department of Finance and Personnel.
We need to take account of the circumstances and needs of the Departments. Different Departments run programmes that have different cost profiles and different levels of policy and management input. It is unfair to compare one Department with another, particularly where new Departments’ initial budgetary allocations did not properly reflect the cost base attached to their functions. That should be borne in mind by people asking those questions.
It is similar to the experience of the Assembly last year. Many Members were criticised for the significant increase sought by the Assembly Commission, and members of the Assembly Commission — including people from parties that are now criticising departmental running costs — were saying that the increases were needed because the previous assumptions were not soundly based.
Monica McWilliams asked about the Chancellor’s initiative and where it could be found. The Chancellor’s initiative money, where applicable, is clearly shown on the departmental tables. I will use the Department for Regional Development as an example. When I delivered the budget I talked about the increase for the Department for Regional Development as being 10·2%. People will see that figure in bold in the middle of the table. I could have gone for the figure of 15·2% at the bottom of the table to make the expenditure level sound greater. However, below the total departmental expenditure limit line, we have shown those moneys that would have been deemed to have been previously announced. Those include the Chancellor’s initiative, Peace I and Peace II moneys. That was precisely to ensure that there was no double counting. So the Chancellor’s initiative money is shown for each Department for this year — and last year where that is relevant — so that should be traceable.
There is no Chancellor’s initiative money in the Executive programme funds, and I thought that that was clear from the previous statements. If it was not, then I apologise.
Jim Wells welcomed the budget increase for the Planning Service. I welcome the fact that he welcomed that. Clearly, my Department tried to assist the very serious pressures that the Department of the Environment has been experiencing in the Planning Service and in the Environment and Heritage Service both in this budget and through some previous measures. Again, I hope that people who welcome these things will vote for the budget accordingly.
Mr Wells and Mr McHugh raised particular points in relation to the difficulties of getting designations for AONBs and ASSIs. We hope that the Planning Service’s sounder spending position will provide for some improvement in that area.
Mr Wells said that he believed the Planning Service should be made a Department in its own right. Here we have a party saying, on one hand, that we have too many Departments, that we should go back to the six, and, on the other hand, advocating the setting up of another Department.
Mr Wells and Sean Neeson also raised the question of the Prescott money. As I have indicated, the allocation to Northern Ireland announced by the Chancellor in July included an amount determined by the Barnett formula in respect of transport. That ensured Northern Ireland received its share of the funding package subsequently announced by the Deputy Prime Minister. That was about £37 million. If the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and myself had not made representations to the Chief Secretary, we would not have received that money because London Transport money was discounted. However, we did not get an allocation of any Barnett formula comparison money in respect of the metropolitan railways. Our bid to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was not successful on that front, but we were successful on the London Transport argument. That type of work has made it possible for us to provide the funding for railways that people have welcomed in the Budget.
If we are to propose higher increases in transport spending, we must remember that these will be greater than the strict Barnett formula share of what the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions would allow. That puts our increased spending on transport in the same bracket as that on health and education. Even with all of our difficulties, we have managed to give it more than our Barnett formula share of the increase. I hope that people will recognise that given all the constraints that everyone has talked about, it has not been an easy task for the Executive. People need to be careful about thinking that things can be easily changed.
Mr McHugh and Mr Wells mentioned the roads budget. The Department for Regional Development announced details of its major roadworks preparation pool in July. That will improve the strategic road network, and we want those schemes started, or completed, in the next five years. That pool includes a variety of road schemes together with those announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in May 1998. In the Department for Regional Development table in the Budget, people should be aware that the moneys for the Chancellor’s Initiative are all going into roads. When people look at the total spend on roads they should take that money into account as well.
Mr McHugh raised some questions about agriculture. A range of measures is being supported to fight animal disease, notably TB and brucellosis testing and scrapie eradication. The total provision for compensation payments in the plan, not counting £2 million on scrapie, would amount to £9·9 million. That provision is clearly intended to provide compensation to farmers for cattle that have tested positive for TB and brucellosis, as well as for the additional costs incurred by private veterinary practitioners carrying out those tests.
If there were evidence that the Budget was being abused, which seems to be the implication, I would be very concerned about that and would be most interested in making sure that such evidence was brought to the attention of the relevant people. I hope that any such evidence would be forthcoming.
The spending plans contain the figure of £3·9 million as the match funding contribution from the Exchequer. Modulation will apply across the United Kingdom at the same rates starting at 2·5% in 2001, rising to 4·5% in 2005-06, with 100% match funding from the Treasury. If this money were not made available, the Department’s budget for rural development regulation measures would be significantly lower. That is another area in which the Executive has made some successful representations following the spending review announcements in July.
Among other things, Mr Neeson raised the question of the gas pipelines. I recognise the Assembly’s interest in that issue; it dates back to when we were in shadow mode. The Minister, Sir Reg Empey, is working on that matter, and Members will also be aware of the work of the regulator. There is private sector interest, and decisions will have to be made on a number of proposals. The section of the Budget that deals with the Executive programme fund for infrastructure and capital renewal makes specific reference to energy, and the fund can be used for that purpose. Obviously, however, the Minister of Enter- prise,Trade and Investment needs to assess the proposals coming from the private sector before any other decisions are made.
Mr Neeson and other Members, including Ms McWilliams, raised the question of Peace II funding, and the transitional Objective 1 funds. The negotiations on the new community support framework (CSF) have now concluded. Negotiations on the two programmes began early in October, and it is hoped that the negotiations with the Commission will conclude by the end of this year. I have already written to those who are to be appointed to the three monitoring committees — the community support framework monitoring committee, the transitional Objective 1 monitoring committee and the Peace II monitoring committee. Those structures are new and differ from the previous monitoring committee structures, as a result of the consideration given to the matter by the interim CSF monitoring committee and the working group that it established. Obviously, we want those monitoring committees to make a contribution to the further development of our plans and proposals.
The question of gap funding was raised. We made an allocation for that in the context of the Agenda for Government initiative. I said then and in the Budget statement that we would keep that area under review. People have raised particular difficulties with us, some of which are not necessarily as straightforward as they might seem, so we are trying to find the best way to deal with particular situations. Obviously, we are trying to move urgently to bring forward the new programmes, because the most important thing is to get them running. We want to make sure that people will still be in a position to take up the new programme money and make the most of it, building on previous important and positive experiences.
Mr Neeson also raised a question about the new TSN measures. We are consulting on the equality implications of the Budget and have been in touch with the Equality Commission. We are also going through a wider consultation exercise that will include some public conferences. Mr Neeson referred to the Robson indicators. A review of the indicators of social deprivation and social need is under way. There has been public consultation and the relevant academics have been appointed. We are trying to come up with something that is much better than the Robson indicators; they served a purpose but are of only limited use now and do not reflect multiple deprivation in the way that they might. The Robson indicators miss out pockets of multiple deprivation, because they are based on wards. We will use new information systems, based on postcodes, for example.
I hope I have covered most of the main points raised. Many Members put forward particular suggestions and concerns, and we have a record of those. I have certainly taken extensive notes during this debate, and we in the Executive will reflect on what has been said today and whatever comes through from the departmental Committees, in particular from the Committee for Finance and Personnel, with a view to bringing forward a revised budget in December.
We want to ensure that we have good planning so that those who need to know what their allocations are, such as the trust and the schools, will know in time. If we do not do this in December, key services will be in a situation of uncertainty and in the position of having to start giving protective notice. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of reaching the budget decisions in December.
Confirmation of the Budget in December will help to confirm for Departments the allocations they will be working with and on which they should base their final work on the public service agreements. Those will detail the sort of actions and targets that everybody here is saying they want to see so that the Committees can perform their scrutinising role better and the public know what they are getting for this money.
Minister, we have heard about precedents being set. The precedent you set today is a tour de force. I congratulate you.
The Deputy Chairman of the Committee for Finance and Personnel has taken on the responsibility for winding up. I am sure he will be well aware that it is not early. I call Mr James Leslie.
I do not propose to wind up for as long as the Minister.
I hope everybody will agree that this has been a useful debate. I thank all those who contributed to it. I also endorse the comment made earlier in the day by Mr Wells that it has been a proper debate. It is one of the few we have had in this Assembly that has taken place in a proper debating manner with the time for interventions, which was freely given and taken by Members. That is to be welcomed.
I will set out the steps that will be taken by the Committee to ensure that the views of the Assembly Members on the draft Budget, and particularly the views of the Committees, are brought to the attention of the Minister. Each departmental Committee was invited to provide the Department of Finance and Personnel Committee with its views on the Budget bids and on the proposed allocations for its Department. The Department of Finance and Personnel Committee asked for an indication of particular priorities to be attached to each of the budget headings and bids as well as any related factors that each Committee wished to be taken into account.
I am pleased to say that, despite the short timescale, most of the Committees have already provided a response, and we are grateful to them. Following this debate the Finance and Personnel Committee will prepare a report summarising the responses from the Committees, together with issues that arose during this debate. The report will incorporate the Committee’s submissions. While it will be addressed primarily to the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the report will be published for circulation to Members in the normal way.
My understanding is that the Minister will take full account of the written comments from the Statutory Committees, together with the issues raised during this debate, when he and his Colleagues in the Executive make their final adjustments and refinements to the budget. Needless to say, in the course of debate a number of Members battled either on behalf of Departments which their parties represent or on behalf of Committees on which they sit. None laboured longer on this matter than the Democratic Unionist Party, as well it might. It was not there to labour long on these matters in the Executive so it had to make up for it on the Floor of the Chamber.
When we have a debate like today’s, with all the parties represented — Sinn Féin here throughout today and members of the DUP referring by name to Members of Sinn Féin and the remarks they made in their debate — I have to ask what on earth is the difference between that and attending meetings of the Executive Committee? The only thing I would say in favour of their Ministers’ non-attendance is that a Committee of 10 is probably rather easier to work with than a Committee of 12.
We have had quite a lot of discussion today about the rights and wrongs of the regional rate. If one decodes all the bluster, the core of the DUP position is that it wants to be seen to oppose the regional rate but it would quite like the proceeds to be hypothecated to those departments which it represents. And, of course, it wants someone else, mainly the Minister for Finance and Personnel, to take responsibility for raising the money which it would then spend if it could get its hands on it.
On the subject of rates, the only way you have less tax is if you have less government. I am very much in favour of less government and thereby less tax. Sadly, we have had a regime in Westminster over the past three years that has increased the amount of government and the amount of tax. I hope our administration can, over time, address this situation because we do have to justify a better output for the money we spend. I am grateful to those Members who drew attention to the need to scrutinise the way in which money is spent and particularly that being spent on administration. I think the Assembly, in future years, should be working hard to try and reduce expenditure in those areas.
I have never heard of a tax rise that stimulated an economy, but certainly tax cuts can do that. One only has to look south of the border to see the value of cutting taxes if you want to stimulate the economy. Therefore it would be a worthy objective to seek to reduce the burden of regional rates in the future.
I do feel that the Executive is sensible to take an incremental approach to any changes it may make. As we are a new and inexperienced Assembly and Administration, it would have been unwise to make radical changes in the first years. The approach that has been adopted by this Executive is entirely sensible.
We had some touching entreaties from certain Members of Nationalist and Republican disposition for more money that can only come from one quarter — the English taxpayer. It should be borne in mind that we spend £10 billion a year on administration in Northern Ireland. While no official figure is available, it is estimated, and not disputed, that the tax base in Northern Ireland is probably in the order of £5 billion. The question would therefore arise: if we have to pay our own bills, who would provide the other £5 billion given, as I have just said, that we are unlikely to stimulate the economy by doubling the rate of tax?
Finally, these matters will be revisited in Plenary session when we deal with the final budget just before the December recess. While I am unable to assure the Assembly that the Finance and Personnel Committee will agree a report, I can assure the House that it will produce a report. That report will be given to the Minister of Finance and Personnel before that debate, and it will be published and available for use by Members in the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Assembly takes note of the draft Budget proposal announced on 17 October 2000 by the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
Adjourned at 7.19 pm.