Supply: Spring Supplementary Estimates (2000-01) and Vote on Account (2001-02)

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:45 am on 19th February 2001.

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Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker 10:45 am, 19th February 2001

I would like to explain how I propose to conduct the debate on the two motions on the Order Paper. I shall ask the Minister to move the first motion, after which we will debate both. In other words, there will be a single debate. It has been referred to by one Member as the "Dan to Beersheba" debate because of the range of matters that may be raised. At the end of the debate, the House will vote on the first motion. The Minister will then move the second motion formally, and the House will vote on it. Members will be aware that that business must be completed by five o’clock, when we will have the Adjournment debate.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move

That the Assembly approves that a further sum not exceeding £195,599,000 be granted out of the Consolidated Fund to complete or defray the charges which will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31 March 2001 for expenditure by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints and the Office for the Regulation of Electricity and Gas.

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That the Assembly approves that a sum not exceeding £3,806,414,000 be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints and the Office for the Regulation of Eectricity and Gas for the year ending 31 March 2002 and that resources not exceeding £4,305,870,000 be authorised, on account, for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints and the Office for the Regulation of Electricity and Gas for the year ending 31 March 2002. — [Mr Durkan]

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Before embarking on the main debate, I wish to acknowledge the Finance and Personnel Committee’s confirmation that it has been consulted on the spending plans reflected in these motions. The Committee has shown keen and proper interest in finance issues, and I look forward to its further constructive and incisive involvement.

The resolutions moved have two purposes. The first seeks the approval of the Assembly to the issue of a further sum of £196 million from the Consolidated Fund for the 2000-01 financial year — as detailed in the spring Supplementary Estimates booklet. The second seeks the approval of the Assembly to the issue of a cash sum of £3,806 million on account for the 2001-02 financial year. It also seeks the authority of the Assembly for the use of resources amounting to £4,306 million on account in the 2001-02 financial year.

I will remind the Assembly about the significance of the resolutions for which I am seeking its support. These resolutions are the basis upon which the legislature — in the form of this Assembly — authorises the spending of Departments, the Assembly itself, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and other bodies for the carrying out of their various functions. One of our fundamental responsibilities is to authorise expenditure and to hold Departments to account for how the money is used. This is one of the main means that we have to ensure that we deliver on our agreed plans and, in due course, deliver the Programme for Government when it has been approved.

The scope of the debate covers expenditure in both 2000-01 and 2001-02. The first of the two resolutions is the means by which Supplementary Estimates can be examined by the Assembly. This is the main means of implementing and confirming the decisions made by the Executive on the allocation of resources brought forward from 1999-2000 under the end-year flexibility arrangements, on the reallocation of resources through the in-year monitoring rounds in June, October and December, and on the Agenda for Government, as announced in the summer.

The second resolution is the usual means by which, at this point in the financial cycle, the ongoing commitments of Departments are authorised during the period between the beginning of the 2001-02 financial year and the presentation to the Assembly of the Main Estimates for that year. In general, the cash and resource amounts required on account have been calculated as 45% of the forecast 2001-02 Main Estimate requirement, based on the Budget that was agreed by the Executive and approved by the Assembly last December.

As its name suggests, the Vote on Account is not intended to seek the Assembly’s final approval of the allocations for 2001-02, since less than half the total proposed budget is being sought in the Budget Bill. It seeks sufficient resources and cash to allow services to proceed until the detailed work on the Main Estimates has been completed in the late spring. At that stage, there will be a full opportunity to deal with the details of the spending plans for 2001-02, and, given the switch to Resource Estimates, I propose that there should be prior discussion between my Department and the Finance and Personnel Committee on the Main Estimates over the next few months. Therefore for today’s purposes, I propose to focus on the issues relating to 2000-01, as this is the last major opportunity for discussion on this matter before the end of the financial year. It is important that I draw out for the Assembly some aspects of the Estimates that differ from the position on the Budget and the monitoring rounds.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)

First, the Estimates include all aspects of departmental expenditure that are subject to appropriation under the cash regime and which will be subject to the authorisation of resources in the resource accounting regime. That means that they include annually managed expenditure (AME), as well as expenditure that falls within the departmental expenditure limit (DEL). Because we receive automatic adjustment of estimated requirements for annually managed expenditure from the Treasury — and must return any unrequired resources to the Treasury — these items are not included in the scope of the public expenditure monitoring rounds that we conduct and which I have announced on several occasions to the Assembly.

The main items that fall into that category are social security benefits, some of which are subject to annual appropriation or authorisation. Others are charged under legislation to the National Insurance fund, and hence do not feature in the voting process. Expenditure under the Common Agricultural Policy falls into the same category because it is fully funded by the European Agriculture Guarantee and Guidance Fund.

As well as those AME items, there are some aspects of expenditure that are nominally attached to the departmental expenditure limit, but that are ring-fenced by the Treasury. As we have no discretion in the use of those resources, they have also not been included in the context of our monitoring rounds. They include expenditure under the Peace I programme, and the special addition that was provided some years ago to cover the cost of the Moyle electricity interconnector.

I have already mentioned that some social security expenditure is handled outside the voting system because there are standing authorisations, in the form of specific legislation, that allow money to be drawn from the Consolidated Fund, or another fund, to provide a service. A further example arises when a Department makes a loan under some statutory power. Very often, under the cash regime, the issue of the loan will count towards the DEL, but in some cases it will not need to come through the Estimates and voting system, because there is some standing authorisation for the making of loans outside the vote.

Some of the important sources of room to manoeuvre are outside the appropriation system. In particular, receipts from house sales are outside the Department for Social Development votes. The total that determines what we can do is the DEL, which is set by the Treasury. The house sales release some of that spending power, which makes it possible to afford an increase in the cash spending, and hence helps us to afford these Supplementary Estimates.

The convention is that the Estimates are not reduced as the year progresses, even if the Department concerned is clear that not all spending will be required. By their nature, the figures are estimates, and the sense of the resolution is that the Executive and the Departments are seeking spending authorisation up to the figure quoted in the Estimates.

Alongside the Estimates control regime, which operates on behalf of the Assembly, there are administrative controls. Decisions made by the Executive on the distribution of the Budget through monitoring rounds are reflected in clearly stated departmental expenditure limit figures for each Department. Those are issued following each monitoring round and become the cash ceiling that the Executive authorise. The system depends on those two controls working together, and it is a major function of my Department to ensure that those controls are brought together and that the detailed figure work is reconciled.

The final complication that I need to mention is that there can be agreed transfers of resources between Departments, or between Departments of the Executive and the Northern Ireland Office, or between Departments here and Departments in Whitehall. By convention, if responsibility for a function is transferred, the DEL spending provision transfers with it. In other areas, such as student support, there can be a need to allow resources to follow the pattern of demand on an agreed basis.

Those factors are important, because they affect how the figures that are discussed and set out in the Budget planning documents and in the monitoring rounds, are, in the end, reflected in the final amounts that need to be authorised for issue from the Consolidated Fund to cover the approved expenditure. That is undeniably complex, but essential to meet the twin requirements that we keep expenditure within the departmental expenditure limit, as set by the Treasury, and seek authorisation for no greater amount of cash expenditure than is set out in the Estimates.

This is the first time that the Assembly has dealt with Supplementary Estimates. This time last year, the entire process of approving the Appropriation Order was dealt with in three hours in a Standing Committee of the House of Commons. This is also the last occasion on which we will seek appropriation of cash as the sole manifestation of Assembly control of expenditure. We are planning a transition to resource accounting and budgeting, subject to final approval of the Government Resources and Accounts Bill.

The Main Estimates for 2000-01 were considered and approved by the Assembly last June. The Estimates provided the detailed basis for the allocation and use of resources for the purposes prescribed. The Estimates were followed by in-year monitoring rounds in June, October and December, as a result of which changes were made to the allocations. The changes were made possible by the distribution of additional money received from the Treasury; the revised treatment of rate rebates; and the redistribution of easements in the spending plans for certain areas, which included increased receipts.

The changes have been accompanied by detailed statements at each stage and form the basis of the details set out in the booklets that have been made available to Members. Although it was not possible to have prior consultation with the Finance and Personnel Committee before announcing the Executive’s decisions in the monitoring rounds, my officials and I have been available to explain the position. Apart from the late addition of £18 million to the budget for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, which was made last week, there has been scope for scrutiny following each monitoring round.

The total figure for the Supplementary Estimates is £195,599,000. That will be used to defray charges that fall due for payment during the year ending 31 March 2001. The detailed allocations contained in the booklet have been determined by Departments, following careful consideration and approval by the Department of Finance and Personnel. Departmental Ministers will be better placed than I to explain and justify the detail, but I will try to deal with the matters raised by Members. If I am unable to answer, I will refer the matter to the relevant Minister for more detailed consideration.

The decisions taken following the monitoring rounds provide a picture of how that figure of almost £196 million is made up. For the reasons that I have given, the reallocated amounts do not correspond exactly to the net surplus figures that followed the monitoring rounds, because a number of technical adjustments were made at those stages. However, during the monitoring rounds, Departments declared £148 million as easements, and that figure was weighed against bids for additional resources totalling £418 million. There is some double counting in the figures for bids; bids that are unsuccessful in one round are likely to be repeated later. However, the figures help to illustrate the process, and I will say more about how that relates to the allocations to individual Departments.

Some of the changes relate to departmental running costs. Restructuring costs of £9 million were met from resources carried forward from the previous financial year. That was necessary to ensure that the new Departments had sufficient administration resources to implement the Programme for Government.

As was the case with the approval of the Main Estimates last June and the agreement of the Budget for 2001-02 in December, decisions about the allocation of resources have been influenced by the equality requirements set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and the requirements of New TSN, the Programme for Government and the Executive programme funds. We must keep such considerations in mind, for they will shape spending strategy and will bring about the changes and improvements that we wish to see emerge from the significant resource commitments for which the Assembly is responsible.

I know from the interest demonstrated by Members and Committees, especially the Committee for Finance and Personnel, that this is not a responsibility that is assumed lightly. As an Executive and Assembly, we have a duty to ensure the highest standards of propriety with regard to public expenditure. That is an important aspect of the authorisation, management and control of expenditure by the Assembly and by individual Departments and the bodies funded by them. The efficient use of resources is no less important as that is the means by which the greatest amount of goods and services can be provided for the community that we serve with the resources available.

Those are, of course, matters in which the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have a particular interest. They are able to examine how public sector bodies perform in meeting their objectives, doing so with due regard to propriety and efficiency. As Minister of Finance and Personnel, I acknowledge the important function they perform. I also express my appreciation for the interest, proposals and work of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, which has been assiduous in considering financial and other issues, often at very short notice.

Turning to the allocations for individual Departments, I will begin with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. In Vote A, which provides for Northern Ireland expenditure on national agriculture support measures, a net £8·1 million is sought. That includes £7·1 million for the special aid package, payable under the less favoured area compensatory allowances, and £1 million to cover higher than anticipated demand for the environmentally sensitive areas scheme. In addition, £29 million is agrimonetary compensation for the arable and beef sectors. That is annually managed expenditure outside the scope of our monitoring rounds, and is offset by a reduction of £3 million for less favoured area compensatory allowances, which will be paid from guarantee funds, fully funded by the Intervention Board Executive Agency. Agrimonetary compensation is designed to offset the effects of currency appreciation on agricultural support prices and compensation payments, which are set in euros.

In Vote B, which provides for local agriculture support measures, a net increase of £24·8 million is sought. That includes £16·7 million for controlling outbreaks of animal diseases, including brucellosis and tuberculosis, which was announced in June and October monitoring, and £2·2 million for business and environmental training of farmers in less-favoured areas, most of which was allocated in the June round.

In the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, a net increase of £7·7 million is sought in Vote A. That includes £2·1 million to tackle health and safety issues at sports grounds, £0·9 million for the completion of capital works for the Odyssey Millennium Landmark project, announced in June monitoring, and £1 million for capital investment in public libraries, announced in the October monitoring round. Other additions include provision to meet pressures from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and for museums, the Northern Ireland Millennium Company, and to allow for essential research and consultancy costs.

Moving to the Department of Education, an increase of some £7·8 million is sought. There is an increase of £20·1 million for capital works and repairs to schools, of which £6·2 million was provided under the Agenda for Government in June monitoring. One and a half million pounds is being provided for primary school reading schemes, as announced in October monitoring, and £0·6 million is allocated to provide gap funding for certain EU Peace I projects, pending the allocation of Peace II funds — both of those additions are under the Agenda for Government. There are also additions of: £3·3 million for school fuel costs, announced in October and December monitoring; £1 million for the purchase of school buses; £1 million for energy efficiency measures; £5 million for the EU Peace I projects; and £0·75 million for the Irish-medium trust fund, recently announced in December monitoring. Those increases are offset principally by reduced requirements of £25·5 million as a result of slippage into 2001-02 of expected spending on teachers’ pay and on information and communications technology provision for schools.

With respect to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, a token increase in vote A and a substantive increase in Vote B are being sought. In Vote A, a token £1,000 is being sought by the Industrial Development Board (IDB) to cover self-adjusting changes, where any increased requirements are offset by savings.

Thus, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is not seeking any extra spending power at this time. By including a token estimate of £1,000, we are able to bring to the Assembly’s attention the adjustments within the Department’s previous total allocations that have emerged as the year has progressed. Those include an addition of almost £1 million for the European peace and reconciliation programme.

In Vote B, which covers other economic support measures, such as administration, energy and miscellaneous services, a net increase of £12·1 million is required. That includes: £9·9 million carried forward from 1999-2000 under the end-year flexibility arrangements for the Moyle interconnector; £6·3 million for the European Peace and Reconciliation Programme; and £2·5 million for expenditure on the Information Age Initiative, which was announced last July, and the venture capital fund. Some offsetting savings have been declared elsewhere in the Vote.

With respect to the Department of the Environment, a net increase of £4 million is being sought. Of that amount, £1·7 million is for grants to maintain historic buildings, which was allocated in the October and December monitoring rounds, and £1·4 million is for increased grants in support of district councils, the bulk of which was allocated in the October monitoring round. The remainder is in respect of additional costs for more road safety education officers; planners to progress the area plans; the full resourcing of the planning appeals commission; and for providing additional resources for environmental services.

As regards the Department for Regional Development, a net increase of £7·7 million is being sought for Vote A, covering expenditure on roads, transport and other services. The main items are: £7·5 million for roads maintenance, most of which was announced in the December round; almost £2 million towards the capital cost of a replacement ferry for the Strangford ferry service; and an additional £2·6 million for running costs in the Roads Service, provided in the October monitoring round.

An extra £6 million is being sought in respect of the railways public service obligation grants, announced in June, and £2·7 million for railways capital provided in the December monitoring round. A further £2·1 million is needed for bus fare concessions, bus fuel duty rebates and rural transport. These increases are partially offset by a reduction of capital spending on roads, a decrease in public liability claims and by increased receipts.

In Vote B, which covers expenditure on the Water Service and related services, a net increase of £5·7 million is being sought. The main items are: £3·2 million allocated in the June monitoring round to meet the increased costs of sludge disposal; £1·7 million additional costs associated with flooding emergencies and the cryptosporidiosis outbreak during late summer 2000; and £1·6 million for running costs, which were provided in the October monitoring round. The increases are partially offset by an increase of £2·5 million in receipts.

As regards the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, a token vote of £1,000 is sought in Vote A, again so that the attention of the Assembly can be drawn to adjustments within the Department’s allocations. This mainly involves an increase of £3·9 million for mandatory student awards provided for in the October monitoring round, which is offset by reduced requirements on student loans and from slippage for capital works at the Springvale campus.

In Vote B, a net increase of £194,000 is sought. The main increase of £6·6 million is to provide gap funding to sustain projects under the old single programme, which need transitional support pending the allocation of funds under the Transitional Objective 1 programme.

That is offset by reduced requirements on Worktrack and other training related programmes and through efficiencies gained from the amalgamation of Government training centres with further education colleges.

For the Department of Health, Social Services, and Public Safety, an additional net provision of £43·4 million is sought in Vote A for expenditure on the health and personal social services programme. The increases consolidate the additional funds made available to the Health Service at each monitoring round. They include £19 million towards winter and other hospital pressures; £7 million for community health and personal social services; and £3 million to meet commitments carried forward from last year. A further £18 million is now included to help eliminate the deficits of the health and social services trusts, as announced last week.

With respect to the Department for Social Development, an additional net provision of £6·2 million is sought in Vote A to meet the Department’s administration and other miscellaneous costs. That includes £10·6 million to fund running costs, capital, and other administration pressures in the Department, £4·1 million of which is to assist with the implementation of the welfare reform and modernisation programme. Most of those funds were allocated in the December monitoring round. The increases are offset by an increase in receipts of £4·4 million, mainly from the Social Security Agency for administrating certain services on its behalf.

In Vote C, an additional net provision of £25·8 million is sought for expenditure on urban regeneration and community development, which includes £23·2 million for the EU peace and reconciliation programme and £2·2m for gap funding for the community and voluntary sector announced in the June monitoring round. Allocations for gap funding to other Departments are also included in the appropriate votes.

In Vote E for the Department for Social Development, which covers social security administered centrally by the Department, an additional net provision of £15·1 million is being sought. That is mainly to reimburse the social fund for expenditure on cold weather payments, and increased and retrospective awards of winter fuel payments, most of which scores as annually managed expenditure. The additional requirements also include increases in housing benefit and payments into the Northern Ireland National Insurance fund. These increased requirements are offset by reduced expenditure on the independent living funds and discretionary rent allowances.

The Department of Finance and Personnel seeks an additional £8·8 million in Vote A. That includes £5·2 million on capital expenditure for new works, resulting from the restructuring of Departments, which was mostly allocated in the June monitoring round. An additional £5·5 million is sought for running costs to reflect the carry-forward of end-year flexibility in connection with the provision of Government purchasing, research and statistical and legal services to other Departments. That increase is partly offset by increased receipts across the Department.

In Vote B, which covers superannuation and other allowances, an additional £15·3 million is sought to cover the cost of pensions, lump sums and gratuities to former civil servants. The main changes to the Vote are annually managed expenditure items and are, therefore, not a charge on the departmental expenditure limit.

Finally, an additional provision of £2·4 million is required in Vote A by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. That is mainly for disability rights, victims, additional allocations to the EU peace and reconciliation programme, and administration costs. That deals with the resolution for the spring Supplementary Estimates. As I stated, I will do my best to answer any questions that Members may have.

The second Supply resolution issues a cash sum of some £3,806 million to be granted on account towards the defraying of costs incurred by Departments and the use of resources totalling some £4,306 million for the same purposes in the year 2001-02. The cash sum and resource totals, for which approval are sought, represent a Vote on Account pending the bringing forward of the main Estimates to the Assembly in May or June. A Vote on Account at this point in the financial year, prior to the year in which the cash or resources will be used, has been a normal feature of Government financial management.

The need to proceed in this way arises from problems of timing given that, after the approval of the Budget in December by the Assembly, detailed work has to be undertaken by Departments and by the Department of Finance and Personnel to disaggregate and allocate resource requirements for individual purposes, often through very narrowly defined line entries. It is to be hoped that this helps Members to appreciate further why it was necessary to seek the completion of the Budget stage of the process before Christmas.

I draw the Assembly’s attention to an important innovation in the way in which the Vote on Account is presented. For the first time, it will reflect not only the allocation of cash to Departments but an allocation, up to a limit, for the use of resources. I drew the attention of the Assembly to this first allocation of resources based on resource budgeting in my statement on Budget proposals in October 2000.

The Vote on Account will see the first implementation of that approach, which will have important consequences in ensuring that assets are properly valued and that the full resource cost of expenditure can be brought into account. That in turn will involve much more attention being directed to the setting of targets, measurement of outputs and the attribution of resources to the achievement of the objectives for which they were originally intended.

The Government Resources and Accounts Bill, which is currently under consideration by the Assembly, provides for the necessary changes in financial measures to support the introduction of resource accounting and budgeting and to secure the authority and control of the Assembly in relation to the use of resources, in similar terms to those which exist for cash allocations. Those changes are important, though largely technical, and will also impact on the Budget Bill that I introduced earlier today.

The Vote on Account will fund Departments to implement the ongoing programmes and services for which they are responsible and which formed part of the Budget decisions taken in December 2000. There will be an opportunity for a full debate on the detail when the Main Estimates are finalised in June. This is the first Budget for which the Assembly has been solely responsible and, therefore, the first opportunity to begin to apply our collective judgement to the priorities and to the social and economic outcomes that we wish to achieve through public expenditure.

We have established several important cornerstones upon which we wish to build our policies and develop our thinking further. These include, of course, the equality considerations to which we must have regard, recognition of need through New TSN, the Programme for Government and the priority areas and initiatives that will attract additional funding through the Executive programme funds.

In commending these resolutions to the Assembly, it is right that we should pause to recognise the importance of being able to make these decisions in a devolved Assembly for the first time for a complete financial year. It is also appropriate, as I noted in the context of the Supplementary Estimates resolution, that we ensure appropriate levels of management and control over the use of these resources. We must be seen to use them with maximum effect to ensure the highest quality and greatest range of services possible for the citizens of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 11:15 am, 19th February 2001

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s detailed statement on the Budget and the Supplementary Estimates. It is important to note that we have £196 million made available to the Department in the current year, either through reallocation or as a result of additional funds provided by the Chancellor.

I welcome the allocations made to the various Departments. We have discussed those on previous occasions. In particular, I note the issue of funds to health, education and infrastructure, as well as the important role that we have in rebuilding the failures of the past. Several services have been underfunded to the extent that they have been deprived and, in some cases, are falling apart. It is important to note the change and restructuring taking place and that the money will be available for that.

I welcomed the Minister’s previous announcement about a reduction in the increase in regional rates. That will take some pressure off rural areas and small businesses. The Finance and Personnel Committee suggested a reduction in the increase in domestic rates and it’s members would have welcomed that. However, it is not possible at present. Will the Minister continue to re-examine the rates as a means of tax raising? Could we consider alternatives? The rating system is an unfair way of collecting tax and it has a detrimental effect on communities, especially the business community.

In the past, the Finance and Personnel Committee expressed concern about the absence of consultation with Committees prior to the allocation of funds through the monitoring rounds. At present, the reallocations are presented to the Assembly as a fait accompli, giving Committees no opportunity to influence the outcome. It is important that Committees have an opportunity to put forward suggestions, and they should have an opportunity to discuss with and present their views to Departments for future monitoring rounds.

There should be a revised arrangement in which the Department of Finance and Personnel anticipates the likelihood of additional money. That anticipation should be put to the Committees for discussion so that they can have an opportunity to influence Ministers before the Executive make the final decisions on the reallocation of money. In that way, there would be more collective responsibility in how money is reallocated. The Executive may not take the Committees’ opinions fully on board, but they must be involved in the discussions.

I welcome the introduction of the Vote on Account as a means of ensuring that the Departments’ work will continue while the main estimates for 2001-02 are being considered and adopted by the Assembly. It should be noted that the new practice has been adopted by the Department of Finance and Personnel exceptionally when the Vote on Account has been calculated at 45% of the incoming Main Estimate rather than being based on the previous year’s Estimate. That will provide a larger sum than normal for Departments. The change has been made necessary because of the complications arising from the introduction of resource accounting. Will the Department revert to the former practice or will it continue with the new practice?

When reporting on the Budget proposals in November, the Finance and Personnel Committee mentioned some measures that must be taken to reassess the application of the Barnett formula. The Barnett formula fails to address the issues relating to the present infrastructure deficit, the low population deficit, the population of regions — east and west — and the need to follow social deprivation to target that social depravation and need. The Barnett formula — for it is simply a population head count — does not have the ability to do that. Will the Minister involve the Committee in discussions to review the Barnett formula, and possibly look to a co-ordinated approach with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the British Parliament? A co-ordinated approach would be of benefit to everyone. Targeting need is an issue that must be examined.

The Executive Committee should press ahead with the structure of a staffing review of the Civil Service to obtain the maximum possible levels of efficiency and value for money in the future.

The Minister should seek to impress upon his Colleagues in the Executive Committee that Assembly Committees ought to be engaged at the earliest stage of the preparation of the 2002-03 Estimates. The first consultation should take place before Departments submit their initial bids to the Department of Finance and Personnel for consideration in spring and early summer. That would enable Statutory Committees to respond quickly and effectively to the draft Budget proposal when it is presented to the Assembly. We suggested that the draft Budget proposal should be the first item of business for the new session in September. That would be the new means for working out the financial year. If Committees were consulted in advance we would have a free-flowing consultation, which would avoid people feeling that they do not have time to discuss these subjects fully. If all Committees and Ministers were involved, everyone would be better informed and consulted.

The Minister and his Colleagues in the Executive should continue to ensure that targeting social need and other work to address deprivation are given high priority. The Minister said that he would continue to ensure that that happens. All possible steps should be taken to maximise the benefits gained by European funding. The Minister referred to gap funding and the new round of European funding. The new round of European funding should be allocated as quickly as possible. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP 11:30 am, 19th February 2001

I congratulate the Minister on an intricate presentation in which he observed Charles Dickens’s advice, which he put in the mouth of Mr Micawber, about keeping his expenditure limits just within the size of his income. Overall, the Northern Ireland Budget will now do that for the remainder of the financial year.

On behalf of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee I will concentrate on the Supplementary Estimates and raise several points on the basis of some of the more significant changes in the pattern of expenditure in our Department.

First, an additional £0·5 million has been allocated in Vote A for increased administrative costs, and £100,000 of that are extra devolution-related costs. Also, £200,000 has been allocated for improved computer systems for student awards, and £161,000 has been allocated for the administration of New Deal. My point is not necessarily that such extra administration is wrong — it may well be needed — but that all additional administration costs must be carefully justified.

Secondly, a further £135,000 has been transferred to the Northern Ireland Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (NICATS), which recently gave evidence to my Committee. On the basis of what we heard of its work, we welcome the additional resources for NICATS. We note the progress that it has made on a vertically and horizontally progressive system of qualifications. It seems to be ahead of the game with respect to its counterparts in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Thirdly, the Committee recognises the increased provision of roughly £4 million for mandatory student awards, and the Minister hinted that that is a demand-led expenditure.

Moving to Vote B for the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, we see an increased provision of almost £1·5 million for administration costs associated with devolution and some information technology costs relating to private finance initiatives (PFI). There are obviously issues, in principle, relating to the pros and cons of PFI, which we may return to in a subsequent debate. We recognise that if there is to be PFI then the IT systems should be as good as possible — we trust that there will be sound purchasing of IT systems.

On Vote B for the Department, we note the reduced requirement of about one third of a million pounds because of a lower than expected uptake on the Department’s management development programme. As a Committee, especially given our priorities with respect to upgrading human capital in the Northern Ireland labour force, at face value we have concerns about that. It is obviously a case of demand-led expenditure — the Department can take horses to water, as it were, but it cannot force them to drink. Nevertheless, it should concern us all that in the Northern Ireland economy — despite the fact that there are some excellent and world-class management teams — there are cases of Northern Ireland firms, whether in the manufacturing or service sectors, in which management over the years has lacked imagination and sufficient international experience. That may explain some relatively recent job losses. I, therefore, put down a marker relating to the lower than expected uptake on that management development programme.

Finally, we note a reduced requirement of almost £4 million on the Worktrack programme because of a lower than expected uptake. We wonder what is going on there. The more optimistic scenario is that it reflects the reduction in long-term unemployment in the Province. However, we want to be realistic, and there may be more pessimistic interpretations on why the uptake of Worktrack has been lower than expected.

I support the motion on the Supplementary Estimates. We trust that the concerns that I have raised on behalf of the Committee will be dealt with appropriately by either the Finance Minister or his Colleague, the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the first native Budget that allows the Executive and the Assembly to work together on budget allocations. I appreciate the Minister’s handling of these affairs. He has shown that he has tried to be fair and equitable to everyone. We have seen, through the Executive programme funds, that Departments have the opportunity to discontinue their current patterns. It is not about the Departments extending them and rolling them over, but about standing at the crossroads and seeing how they can redirect or prioritise many aspects of their expenditure.

There is now the opportunity for new innovation and for Departments, in particular, to become more proactive, rather than reactive, with their budgets. That can be seen by the increases reflected in the new allocations to Departments relating to the December, and other recent, monitoring rounds.

The Children Fund, the consultation on a commissioner for children, the £2 million set aside for gap funding, and free transport for the elderly are just a few examples of the innovation that we hope to see more of in the future. We have seen an extra £273,000 allocated to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for disability rights, victims and research. That is a welcome move in creating a more fair and equitable society for everyone in Northern Ireland.

On departmental priorities, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has been given extra resources to tackle the deficits in the health trusts. It has been given gap funding for the community and voluntary sector. It is to be hoped that the £100,000 taken out of the mental health budget, especially in the Down Lisburn Trust area, can be returned to the mental health budget and services sooner rather than later. I hope that that will be seen as a priority. That is one area where we could see a real change in people’s quality of life and, considering the huge increase in the number of suicides among young men, in the long term, save many lives.

We must consider the £360,000 allocated to essential repairs to classrooms. How will that be allocated by the Department? Considering the current number of ancient mobile classrooms which must be repaired, how will that money be prioritised? Is that throwing good money after bad? Should we be attempting to repair them, or should we be replacing them so that we will be saving money in the long term? What effect do they have on our pupils, especially with regard to their performance and their health and safety?

What value for money will we get from the £465,000 allocated for post-primary consultation, known to many of us as the Burns review? What will the outcome of that review be? Will it simply tell us what Prof Gallagher has already told us — that the 11-plus and selection must be scrapped? Will it make a recommendation about what our post-primary education system should be? Should we be changing it completely or keeping our grammar and secondary education systems? Further down the line, after the Burns review, will we be told that we need another large amount of money to go into consultation with regard to secondary education?

Although I have had some reservations about the Departments’ expenditures, the main issue for me is that I, as an Assembly Member, have the opportunity in the House to approach a local Minister, who is available to listen and take on board my points of view on a local funding issue.

My final point is to do with the Government’s resource accounting budget, which gives the opportunity for transparency, accountability and, more importantly, feedback to the Assembly. That clearly illustrates the true cost of running Departments and has the effect of improving the financial management of the Exchequer.

I support these motions.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I congratulate the Minister on the delivery of his speech. He outlined how the money is to be spent, clearly and concisely, and I appreciate that.

Almost £8 million has been added to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s budget, of which more than £1 million is to be allocated to capital spending on libraries. That means that £2·5 million is to be spent on library provision. Once again I must mention library provision in Lisburn. For the past 25 years, there has been insufficient library provision there. Other towns, such as Portadown and Strabane, have jumped the list and moved ahead of Lisburn, and I challenge the Minister to look seriously at that issue again. We have heard a great deal of talk about private finance initiatives, but clearly those are not suitable for this project. Lagan Valley residents will not tolerate the Minister’s trying to fob us off with private finance initiatives in respect of that issue.

An extra £25 million has been allocated to the agriculture budget. That is a large additional amount of money, but it will make little difference to farmers. There has been a lack of innovation on the part of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development officials, and, to a greater extent, the Minister is singing from the same hymn sheet as the direct-rule Ministers were. There was an opportunity to introduce animal welfare and environmental grants schemes, which would have been similar to the old sub-programme for agriculture and rural development (SPARD) scheme. That would have helped farmers to afford improvements. Not only are farmers’ incomes decreasing each year, but farms are running down and deteriorating as the years go on. There has been an opportunity for the Minister to do something about this, but so far she has failed. We will continue to challenge the Minister on those issues in the coming year.

I am a member of the Environment Committee, and the Department of the Environment has received an extra £4 million. Steady progress has been made by the Environment Committee and the Minister of the Environment. I especially welcome the £1·7 million that has been allocated for historic buildings. That will release matching funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, thereby bringing money to the Province. Those who appreciate our built heritage will also appreciate the extra money.

The extra money for road safety officers and for the Planning Service is most welcome. However, the Committee is still concerned about the Environment and Heritage Service. There is not yet sufficient funding to carry through much of the work that is demanded of it by the European Union. Those issues must be addressed.

I am concerned that the Minister of Education continues to allocate money to pet projects such as his Irish-medium education fund. There is clearly not a large demand for it. There is a large demand for new schools and new classrooms for the children. There are children in mobile classrooms in conditions that they do not deserve to be in, and the Minister does not appear to prioritise his money to that end.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment does not seem to spread tourism funding evenly across the Province. The figures speak for themselves. Certain areas receive sufficient funding for tourism while other areas receive negligible funding. The moratorium on grants outside the Greater Belfast area goes against Lisburn, Newtownabbey, North Down, and other council areas. Those areas do not have decent hotels, because no one wants to put in the full funding while grants are available in Belfast city centre. The Minister must reconsider that..

The gas pipeline to the south-east of the Province is not getting much of a hearing. All efforts seem to be put into the gas pipeline to the north-west — and that is fair enough. However, a large amount of business is done in towns in the south-east of the Province, such as Dromore, Banbridge, Craigavon, Portadown and Newry, and a large number of people live in those areas. The gas pipeline to that area is equally as important as the pipeline to the north-west of the Province.

Turning to the Estimates for the Department for Regional Development, I would like to mention the Antrim-Knockmore railway line. An extra £20 million has been allocated to the railways. That £20 million, and a lot more, is needed to make the railways safe. Part of the initial AD Lyttle report suggested the closure of the Antrim-Knockmore railway line. It will cost £428,000 to buy replacement buses and to fence off the lineand an additional £246,000 per year will be needed to subsidise the bus routes on that line.

I ask the Ministers concerned to look at the value of the railways to Northern Ireland and the value of that line in the context of the regional strategic framework and find the resources to keep it open. Closing it would be a retrograde step. When railway lines are closed, they are closed for good, with the exception of Bleach Green, which is opening again after 20 years. In this day and age, we are meant to be seeking safer and more environmentally friendly methods of transporting people. The Assembly would be sending out the wrong message if it closed any further railway lines.

I welcome the additional funding for maintaining roads. A little in a large pot is required. When some representatives of the Department for Regional Development came before our district council they said that there is not enough funding in the maintenance budget to resurface some roads for at least 100 years. If we are going to have to wait 100 years for some roads to be resurfaced, they will be in a very poor state. We cannot continue to ignore the state of our roads — we all use them. Sufficient funding must be put into the roads budget, especially for roads in rural areas.

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety received £43·5 million. I would like to see a large amount of funding going to the Health Service if it resulted in more hip operations taking place, or in people not having to wait so long for open-heart surgery. I do not like to see the wastage that is in the Health Service, and I am concerned about it. I do not like to see the wastage that occurs in the preparation of documents in Irish, in prescription fraud and in theft from hospitals. I challenge the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to consider how it could save and reallocate money according to the real needs of the people and not just carry on as things are at the moment.

The Department for Social Development received an extra £6·2 million. Historically, much of its funding for urban regeneration has gone to Belfast and Londonderry, but there are many other important towns in the Province which would like to see a bit more of that funding coming their way. People in those towns feel that they have been hard done by over the years, and the Minister for Social Development has the opportunity to address that.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel discussed rates. We should be looking at a situation where the out-of-town shopping centres should be charged higher rates than those paid by shops in town centres. Businesses in town centres are not working on a level playing field, because out-of-town shopping centres have free car parking. The rateable valuation of out-of-town shopping centres should be increased to allow town centre businesses to compete. I am concerned that, while many of our towns and villages are boarding up their shops, large shopping centres are being constructed.

I am concerned at the increasing departmental running costs of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Ministers (OFMDFM) — now over £11 million, which is an increase of £239,000. That Department is top-heavy, with a lot of under-secretaries and high-grade civil servants.

While extra money was being allocated to OFMDFM, the funding for victims was not receiving its full allocation. Less than half of the amount sought was received, and only £500,000 was sought in the first instance. I quote from the draft Programme for Government:

"as an important part of addressing human rights, it is important that special attention is paid to the needs of those who have been most directly affected by the violence of the last 30 years. The needs of victims and survivors are complex, ranging from coping with serious injury through to physical and emotional trauma, along with dealing with often adverse economic circumstances."

We must look seriously at finding a reasonable amount of money to try to meet the needs of victims.

The Community Relations Council receives almost £6 million. At some stage that funding must be looked at. There is less violence than previously in Northern Ireland, but we certainly do not have good community relations. Substantial funding has gone into community relations in the last 10 to 15 years. One must ask if community relations are better or if any significant difference has been made. It must be decided whether the money which is put to that purpose is well spent.

I also want to raise the issue of electronic government. No resources have been allocated to that, but a wish list has been set out. None of the desired achievements will be possible, however, without adequate resources.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 11:45 am, 19th February 2001

Go raibh maith agat, Mr Deputy Speaker. I want to be brief. I do not want to go into the Estimates Department by Department, for I want a time to come when each Committee can deal with those aspects of the Estimates that are relevant to its Department. That would be the best way to proceed in the future, and I know that the Minister has addressed that very issue himself. It would perhaps take away some of the need for people to itemise issues in the Chamber. I do not want to deal with any specific items myself.

I would like to deal with the overall question of public financing. There has been a learning curve in the Assembly and the Executive, and a lot of work has been required. There has been the negotiation of the Programme for Government, the Budget, and so on. That has been crucial work, and I commend the Minister, and the Executive, for having produced everything that has been done so far.

I would like to have a much more wide-ranging debate, though obviously not today. I want to flag up the need to have an overview. When I raised the question of the regional rate recently, I made the point that I wanted to reduce it to the level of inflation for one year to allow time for a much wider overview of it. We have looked at the Barnett formula. There is no doubt that this area has not been dealt with favourably under the Barnett formula, and there is a need to look at it. Mr Molloy and others have already raised that.

There is the question of the Executive programme funds. How do we allocate money for targeting social need? We are consistently told that that is a theme. It is Government policy and a requirement of the Good Friday Agreement, but we do not, in my view, appear to take it seriously enough. That is not a reflection on any of the Ministers, of course, but we are not getting proper details of the way in which we deal with targeting social need and how we deploy money. I know that it is not only money which has to be deployed to target social need, but there is obviously a significant consequence for the overall finances if we do deal with targeting social need in the way in which people expect us to.

There is of course the matter of European money. There are the vexed matters of private finance initiatives (PFI) and public-sector borrowing. I welcome the fact that the Finance and Personnel Committee has now launched a public inquiry into the use of PFI. It is clear that PFI appears to underpin a good deal of the work and aspirations of the Executive. There is a compelling and growing body of evidence that the PFI schemes of the past were not necessarily that successful. The key question — that of having important public services remaining in public ownership — must be addressed by the Assembly. I advocate that we try to map out some time for the Assembly to debate the overall question of public financing.

We also have to deal with the cross-border tax variations and, as I see it — as, indeed, do many economists who are not Nationalists or Republicans — the need for a single-island economy. I am drawing attention to the need for a full, public debate on public financing.

I welcome the public service agreements and the Minister’s Government Resources and Accounts Bill. Those are ways by which we can measure public spending better and more effectively. As I said to some officials recently, it is important that public service agreements are established. They detail and highlight what is being financed. The Department must bear in mind that the contrary is also true. They also identify what is not being financed. They therefore help to make all the parties, the Executive and the Assembly as a whole more accountable to the public.

I would like to echo one of the earlier comments. We need to take time to perform our duties in the Executive and the Assembly, but we also need to think in more imaginative terms as time goes on. We do not need the carry-on and carry-over policies that some Departments have unfortunately been carrying out. There is a need for innovation and imagination. There is a need — and I know that the Minister has addressed this in recent debates — for us to take stock and to have an overall view of public financing and the responsibilities that we all have.


Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance

I commend Mr Micawber, sorry: the Minister, for his detailed presentation. I am sure that I am not the only Member who recognises the many frailties of our understanding of the complexities of the cycle of public expenditure. Each opportunity presented to us should be used as a chance to learn, as we try to get to grips with what is perhaps the most important subject for debate in this Chamber. After all, this issue affects every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland.

Having expressed my compliments to the Minister, I will now take a more traditional route and express yet again my deep disappointment at the lack of time that has been made available to Members, Committees and those who are not on Committees to carry out a proper scrutiny of these spring Supplementary Estimates. Last year the Minister referred to the tight time schedule, and the record will show that he said that this restriction was unacceptable and that improvements were needed.

One year on, one must question how much has really changed. I concede that, over the last six to nine months, there has been an opportunity to see the figures produced in the monitoring rounds. But, as I pointed out to the House, that happened retrospectively. The Committees saw the figures after the job was done. We have been asked to accept a fait accompli. I question, as I have done in the past, whether that constitutes proper scrutiny. In my book it does not. The advice that each Committee member is required to give to the Minister on the financial exercise should be taken on board before the matter goes before the Executive. We have not yet got that right.

I echo the sentiments of Mr Maskey, who said that we need to sit down and find a set of procedures that suits what we want to do on behalf of the tax-payers, our electorate. Our focus should on be on trying to meet time barriers. We must reorganise ourselves in such a way as to give us the time we need to do the job for which we were elected. Scrutiny, as I have said before, means examining in minute detail. It is a totally different concept from consultation.

It strikes me that at the minute we are still operating on a consultative basis — "Let us have a wee word with the Committee; let us have a wee word with Members, see what they think, and then proceed to do what the Executive want." I am sorry, but that is not acceptable. That must change. I am not trying to be negative; I am trying to be positive. I am trying to bring about, with other Members, something that has never happened before, a situation in which we, as accountable representatives, have the necessary knowledge to enable us to explain things, as necessary, and to enable us to ensure that money is spent in the most efficient and transparent manner possible.

To highlight this, last year the spring Supplementary Estimates documents were available on approximately 17 February. Today is 19 February. Is that progress? What additional time and opportunities have been given to us? We need to look very seriously at this. If I were a suspicious person I would be concluding that the concept of scrutiny may be something that is slightly bothersome to some people. I would not like to leave the Chamber with that sentiment. Scrutiny is important; it is essential, and we must create the circumstances and allocate enough time for it. We must be about accountability and transparency. I live in hope that that will happen sooner rather than later.

I would like to make some general comments on the spring Supplementaries. I apologise in advance if some of my comments or questions appear silly to some people. I am trying to get to grips with the overall situation, and one must often ask silly questions to get the correct answers. I take comfort from the fact that even the Minister referred to the complexities of the subject. Therefore, I suppose, I can claim that ignorance is bliss.

Looking at the overall figure of the Supplementary Estimate provision, I note that an additional £195 million is being sought. That represents approximately 2.5% of the main Estimates. The figure sought last year was not a hound’s gowl from that in percentage terms.

Is 2·5% of the Main Estimate the size of provision normally sought through the spring Supplementaries? If that is the case and things are budgeted so that we get an additional 2·5% through the Supplementary Estimates, it begs certain questions about some of the votes. For example, 50% is being sought for national agricultural support. Why is that? Has there been particularly bad budgeting, or do we just stick a notional figure in the original Estimates? Bids have included a 10% increase for culture, arts and leisure; 40% for urban regeneration under the Department for Social Development; 8% for finance and personnel; and an additional 7% for the Office of the First and the Deputy First Minister. Interestingly, over 100% of an increase has been requested for superannuation and other allowances. The Main Estimates provision was over £14 million; now they are seeking £15·2 million to bring the total amount to £29·3 million.

We must study and query those bids. Do they follow some general policy? Comparison with last year’s supplementaries certainly gives credence to that view. For example, last year an additional £10 million was sought for national agricultural support; this year it is an additional £8 million. The IDB bid last year was for a token amount; ditto this year. The Finance and Personnel bid was for £8·7 last year and for £7·7 million this year. Last year, an additional £3·4 million was sought for the Northern Ireland Statistics Research Agency’s running costs; the figure for this year is £3·5 million.

Those similarities pose the question: is it anticipated that top-ups will always be available? Having pointed to the similarities, I must mention some exceptions, as it is often the exception that proves the rule. Last year OFREG was looking for an additional £355,000 for publicity and consultancy. This year the original provision was £527,000, but now it is seeking an additional £890,000. It strikes me that that requires an explanation.

It is also important to focus particular scrutiny on the figure for superannuation and other allowances. I have spoken on this area and asked questions about it before. Page 77 mentions:

"redundancy and early retirement costs to former civil servants", part of which is funded by Her Majesty’s Treasury. Last year there was an original provision of £5·5 million, which was increased in the Supplementaries by £7·8 million giving a total of £13·3 million. This year the original provision was £3·7 million, and now, in front of us, it is seeking an increase of £97·9 million, giving a total of £101·6 million. The type of escalation in those figures requires an explanation, particularly in view of the recent publicity over certain golden handshake or golden goodbye settlements that have been reached in some sectors of the public service.

The escalation in those figures requires an explanation, particularly given the amount of recent publicity over golden handshake or golden goodbye settlements that have been reached in some public-service sectors. Questions can justifiably be asked.

To create a situation in which we get things right and get our heads around the Supplementaries and the budgeting process, we need to look at the comments in the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report for 1999-2000 and read across from that report into the supplementaries. Changes in procedure and in Departments mean that that is not easy to do. However, some interesting facts emerge from an attempt.

A number of surpluses in the different Departments are obvious at the year-end of the auditor’s report. For example, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure had a £5·2 million surplus. Last year it spent £153 million and had a surplus of £5·2 million, yet this year there is an estimate of £175·5 million. Where is the read across between what is spent in a particular financial year and the estimate for provision for the subsequent year? There should be some connection, some reason, for deciding, on whatever basis, on a particular figure. The industrial support and regeneration account of the IDB had a surplus of £97·6 million. The board spent £144 million last year. Social security is an interesting one. It had a surplus of £97·5 million when the various heads are added together.

I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response. However, if year in, year out there can be surpluses, and if the figure spent in a particular financial year does not appear to have any real bearing on the figure provided for the subsequent year, the impression given is of a certain laxity in budgeting for any particular service. One can see under £7 million in loss statements last year, of which £5·2 million lay in the IDB’s Vote B. Analysing the reasons behind those losses poses questions on the proper financial controls applied throughout the Departments. If the respective Committees were able to perform their scrutiny roles properly, perhaps we would be in a better position to get to grips with the reasoning behind those losses. It would provide us all with a better opportunity for transparency in dealing with the issues.

In mentioning the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, I must draw attention to the fact that he found it necessary to qualify six accounts, some of them not for the first time. The common fault line that appears to run through the reasons for those qualifications was the lack of proper financial control. That resulted in payments being made without invoices or sufficient evidence to support them, clerical errors and weaknesses in tendering and purchasing procedures et cetera. Those are matters that we as an Assembly have to try to ensure are got right sooner rather than later. This apparent sloppiness with regard to accounting in certain areas cannot continue. It has to be right, and it has to be seen to be right.

This year the Water Service is seeking more money. Last year it was forced into the situation of having to make an ex gratia payment of £450,000 because it had not got basic facts right. It had not completed land acquisition but had employed contractors to start work. It had not obtained planning permission, yet had employed contractors. The sum of £450,000 may appear to be small fry in the overall Budget for Northern Ireland, but to the man, woman and child in the street it is not. To those waiting for hip replacements, or for a social care package, or whatever example one chooses, that is a large amount of money.

Through our constituency offices, we are all aware of individuals who feel they are being short-changed by Departments not giving them that to which they are entitled. Those individuals who are deprived in our society feel that it is important that this type of error or laxity cannot be seen to be happening again and again.

I mentioned social security. According to the last audit report, over-payments of £65 million were made. That has a dreadful impact on the socially deprived in our society. It makes them want to weep and question what is going on. We, as the custodians of the public purse, have got to be absolutely sure that what we are doing — and what the Departments are doing in our name — is seen to be above board, absolutely beyond reproach, transparent and accountable.

I do not highlight these issues to give the impression of being overly critical. I recognise that, by and large, there is absolute transparency and accountability in the vast bulk of the issues confronting departments. We should take great pride in the operation of our civil servants. I do not think that can be stressed heavily enough. However, I raise those points so that the Minister, in reflecting and dealing with the issues that confront him, can recognise something he said in an earlier debate — that the money is in the system to do various things that we need to do now. We need to do those things now because, in many respects, the Assembly and the Executive are seen to be on trial. People want to see fundamental change, and they want to see it now. In many respects, they cannot wait for an uncertain number of years. The money is in the system, and I believe that the Minister, his officials and the Executive should be doing their utmost to ensure that wastage and inefficiency are cut out now, so that the schemes that are necessary to go ahead can do so.

Other Members and myself have referred to the increase in the regional rate. Some said that the money was there and that the figure could be reduced. I found it sad that it had to be an exercise akin to pulling teeth to get the necessary movement and the necessary reductions in the rate increase. I regret that, due to illness, I was unable to be here to thank the Minister for the small mercy on 12 February. The sudden pain in my stomach reminded me of the practice of sticking pins into little puppets, and I wondered if somebody was doing that to lay me low so quickly, just when we were about to deal with the rates.

Interestingly, on the same day, a Standing Order was moved with great haste through the House, which now means that accelerated passage will be the rule — rather than the exception — for the most important issue we deal with. That was a fundamental error. We should have been concentrating on getting procedures right rather than changing the rules to have accelerated passage as the norm. With every matter other than finance, Ministers will have to explain to the House why they are deciding on accelerated passage. Unfortunately, I missed that debate and did not get the opportunity to make my point. I just mention it now en passant, as it were.

I want to make a bit of a party political plea on a constituency basis, as other Members have. The money is in the system for the railway that Mr Poots mentioned, namely, the Knockmore line. The consultation period on that is coming to a close. The big issue that has to be considered by the Executive and by the Minister for Regional Development and his colleagues is that of hardship. Is there hardship, or will there be hardship, if that line closes? Clearly, the answer to that question is "Yes". The people of Glenavy, Ballinderry, Lisburn and Crumlin will suffer hardship.

It is a totally backward step. It is reminiscent of the old Beeching plan, under which they were shutting every line that appeared. I do not accept this talk of mothballing. How many railway lines have been mothballed and then reopened? None. The money is available in the system to keep that line open, and that should be done. That message should come out from the consultation, and I hope — and I am not making a political point — that the Minister will go to the Executive, on this one issue, to argue the case with his Colleagues and ensure that that money is made available. It is in the system. He should ask for it, beg for it, and get it. That will be recognised by the people in the Lagan Valley constituency, and others, who will suffer hardship if that particular line is forced to close.

The question of out-of-town shopping developments has been raised. We in Lagan Valley are fortunate in many respects. We have a regional shopping centre, known as Sprucefield. However, things can be pushed a little too far. If development continues at Sprucefield at the rate that is currently proposed, it will be the death knell of a number of the shops and core businesses in the centre of our town. Is that progress? In my book, it is not. The character of our towns and villages needs to be retained, and therefore out-of-town shopping should be restricted. I ask the Minister to look at the type of proposals that Minister Dempsey in the South is currently considering, or may already have put in place, for restricting the size of such developments.

Reference has already been made to the rates. I will leave that to the rate revaluation that will be coming up. I hope that they get their sums right this time. Out-of-town shopping centres were not included in the last revaluation. I imagine that they have been riding rather easily until now, and I hope that that will be rectified. How are Thiepval Barracks, Maghaberry Prison and other Crown properties of that ilk dealt with in regard to rates, compared to the rate base in Lagan Valley or the borough of Lisburn? I understand that they may not be paying their full whack, yet I know for a fact that their bins have to be emptied. There is an issue here with regard to the rating system —

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:15 pm, 19th February 2001

Allow me to interrupt for a moment. There is no time limit on Members’ contributions. However, given the number of Members, especially from the smaller parties, who have indicated a desire to contribute, if each of them chooses to speak for 25 minutes there will be very serious difficulty in including them all.

Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance

I appreciate that point. If and when we reach the stage of having full and proper scrutiny opportunities through the Committees, and other opportunities to really get to grips with this, long speeches will not be necessary. Anyway, 25 minutes is not that long. I was unaware that so many people wanted to speak; a few names must have been added recently, so I shall conclude.

Are town plans likely to be superseded by the metropolitan plan? How much money will be wasted? The Knockmore-Sprucefield road link is needed to ease congestion in Lisburn. The building of the road has been put back again and again — sometimes, we are told that the work is on a 15-year plan, sometimes that it is on a 25-year plan. Could the Minister use his good offices, with the money that is available, to bring that plan to fruition sooner?

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC

I welcome the Estimates and the move to resource accounting. It will be easier for Committees and the Assembly to follow Budget lines.

As with other Estimates, I have studied the appropriations-in-aid. We should consider that carefully as we move towards private finance initiatives. Although I have gone through the Budget and the Estimates, I find it difficult to follow how much appropriation-in-aid comes to any Department through the sale of public land and buildings. That is an important issue. Constituency offices receive many telephone calls about what has happened to public land — whether it has been sold and, if so, how much money has gone to the public purse and how much to the developers. We need to ask such questions, so I welcome the move to a new way of budgeting.

I am concerned that much of the new money is available because of poor planning. Some of the circumstances were unforeseen and were beyond any Minister’s control. However, there were failures. I am concerned by the fact that £10 million of slippage money has appeared in the Department of Education’s budget as a result of the failure to provide schools with the information technology that they needed. Was that because of a failed public-private partnership? If so, how that will be addressed in the future? I would welcome a response now or in writing.

We should pay attention to the Estimates because they involve a huge sum of money — £196 million. I echo other Members’ concerns that they have not had enough opportunity to scrutinise the figure. However, it is good that we have the opportunity, unlike Westminster, to debate spring Estimates. The more that we debate the issue in this Assembly, the more the public will see that we are trying to be open and transparent and that we can be held accountable for where the money goes.

I am concerned that the Estimates for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety show that £5 million went to deal with clinical negligence. That could not have been foreseen. However, I understand that that is not the total. One figure mentioned to the Committee was close to £20 million. We will have to pay more attention to that; huge sums of money are being reallocated to cover costs that arise from negligence.

It is also interesting to note, as regards the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, that £2·5 million will not now be spent on the Springvale campus. Is it the case that this Department, like many other Departments in respect of capital investment, could not spend the money in time, or is it that the money was no longer required? The latter would be unusual. Given that it is such a substantial sum, the response will be interesting.

I echo Dr Birnie’s views on the moneys that have now been made available as a result of a reduction in unemployment or because of the inability to market some programmes well enough, particularly those concerning management development. As Dr Birnie said, Northern Ireland requires a great deal of training, if it requires anything. It is sad that the money could not be spent, given that a budget was set up for training. The funds will now have to go elsewhere, to be spent by others before the end of March.

The Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment requires an extra £1·5 million because of changes due to devolution. It would be interesting to know — as it would for other Departments also — what is meant by changes due to devolution. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has had a substantial amount of money given to it because it is a new Department, and because of changes due to devolution. The Supplementary Estimates indicate that the £1·5 million is also in respect of the private finance initiatives (PFIs). We need to be able to answer questions from the public about what that money is spent on in relation to PFI.

Finally — this is a repeated plea of mine — we need to change the headings used for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The largest sum of money is the £12 million under the heading "Community Relations, Equality and Victims – Current". We need to see that figure broken down further. We need to know how much is going to the Equality Commission, towards human rights, to community relations or to the Victims Unit itself.

That organisation must have been doing a very good job because it required very little money in this Estimate. It speaks volumes about excellent planning. However, every time I speak about this matter I say that the entire budget for those areas should not be on one line. A breakdown should be given as it is in other Departments.

Inasmuch as I welcome the Estimates, I remain concerned that much of the document refers to poor planning in Departments and substantial slippage as a result of some failed initiatives, particularly in PFIs.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:30 pm, 19th February 2001

I intend to review the debate situation at 1.30 pm. We may continue after that time because of the large number of Members wishing to speak.

Photo of Mr James Leslie Mr James Leslie UUP

In this debate, there is the risk of trotting the same horses around the paddock again. The same applies to tomorrow’s debate on the Budget. Technically, we are rounding off a Budget that we did not scrutinise. Next year, when we deal with the spring Estimates, we will be rounding off the Budget that will be laid before the House tomorrow. In that respect, we should remind ourselves that, at the behest of the Finance and Personnel Committee, we had a thorough debate on that Budget in November, with a view to making it possible to influence the setting of the final Budget.

It is the case that by the time you get to the Estimates the Budget has been set and you are simply putting the agreement made a few months earlier into prescriptive form. Overall, the structure we have devised during the course of the past six months is probably quite good. Next year, when we have a full run at it, including an opportunity for Committees to do their work, between Easter and the first round of Budget setting in the autumn, I hope that we will do a great deal to influence the shape of the Budget.

I wish that I could echo Assembly Member McWilliams’s confidence that moving to resource accounting will make it easier to understand the accounts. I suspect that it will make it much more difficult. Maybe after a couple of years the clouds will lift, but I am certainly not looking forward to wrestling with the first edition. I am glad that there is some parallel running of the old system to give us a clue in the first year of the new system.

What will be significant in those resource accounts will be the valuing of Government assets. I hope that the ability to readily see the extent of our assets may cause people to think creatively about those assets and whether we are making the best use of them and examine opportunities for looking at how we raise and spend our money in several different ways. That may in itself provide some of the answers as to how we manage to get a quart out of a pint pot. If we were to take all the demands for money made by Departments, Members and Committees seriously, we would be at least trying to fill a quart with a pint pot.

On the much discussed subject of the Barnett formula, I and other members of the Finance and Personnel Committee were in London last week. We had the opportunity to — very informally, I am glad to say — kick this around with one or two Members at Westminster.

We need to be cautious in addressing this issue. There are very real risks of stirring up a hornets’ nest. What one has to remember is that the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the English regions, the Mayor of London — every single one of them — have the same intention: they want more money in their pot.

Therefore, all things being equal, it will have to come out of somebody else’s pot, and not one of those entities will agree to any money being taken out of their pot. We have to approach this with some caution. The only other thing that can happen is that the overall size of the pot has to be increased, and there is only one way that that can happen — by increased taxation. I have said in the House before, and I will continue to say, that I am exceedingly averse to increased taxation. The way to stimulate the economy is by lowering taxation, not by raising it.

In the context of the debate about rates, I am relieved that it has not proved necessary to make the increases that were originally outlined to the rates. If there is a realistic opportunity of getting a better outcome on Barnett or some revised formula, we may have to do that. We should be aware that that would almost certainly be in the context of higher rates. However, we have to ask ourselves, if we are not likely to get the better outcome, whether it might be better to get by on less and not have what one might call the negative stimulus of ever-increasing rates. Those matters require serious consideration.

I also remind the House that when you increase tax, whether it is rates or anything else, you are making an assumption that the Government can spend the money for the better public good than people could if it were left in their pockets. That is an exceedingly doubtful contention, and there is only a tenuous link between cost and benefit. That became apparent on the mainland last year when we saw protests over the level of tax on fuel. Some 75% of the cost of fuel for motor cars is taxation.

Some Members regularly draw attention to issues in relation to targeting social needs and targeting particular areas of deprivation. I am aware of the problem. There are a quite a number of such places in my constituency. Unfortunately, Moyle District Council in North Antrim shares the highest unemployment rate in Northern Ireland with Strabane. I am conscious of the need to find some means to address that. However, it should be in the context of getting Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate down from its current level of about 5·5% — which is a big improvement in itself — to 3%. That figure is regarded as being fairly close to full employment in relation to those whom it is possible to employ. That is how we will be able to address most of these problems.

In addressing the issue, we must focus on our skills base and the provision of training in new skills. It is clear from the problems in agriculture and textiles that there are a number of skills for which there is less of a market — we cannot produce a product in Northern Ireland at a competitive price using those skills. We must therefore be proactive in finding ways to re-equip workers who have been adversely affected by those circumstances with other skills that can be applied to businesses that are in a growth phase. All Members will have noticed the situation that has arisen in Wales. A considerable number of steelworkers are being made redundant, and it looks as though there may be an opportunity to redeploy a significant number of them in part of the telecommunications industry.

We must be alert. We must be realistic about what is happening to our economy and to some of our traditional industries, and we must put measures in place to address those problems. It is not particularly helpful to the affected workers, or to anyone else, to start howling with anguish after the problem has manifested itself, when it is obvious that the problem is there right now. In that respect, I am particularly anxious about, and will continue to closely view, the allocation of moneys to the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment and to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

Rather than pre-empt tomorrow’s debate, or leave myself with nothing to say in it, I will conclude my remarks.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am pleased with the approach being taken by the DUP and the Alliance Party on out-of-town shopping centres. Mr Poots and Mr Close are to be congratulated for the concern that they expressed this morning about the uncontrolled development of such centres. They are, of course, representing the views of the 20,000 people employed in the independent retail sector. My only regret is that they failed to support the motion that I brought before the Assembly a few months ago on that very issue. Nevertheless, the views voiced today are important. It is to be hoped that a new motion, which will be guaranteed support from both the DUP and the Alliance Party, can soon be put before the Assembly. That would be a great source of comfort to the many small shops in towns and villages throughout Northern Ireland.

I now turn to the more important issues of services and how we spend our money. Tomorrow, there will be widespread support for increased powers for the public auditor. The Assembly can then have a handle on the millions of pounds expended by the bodies that draw on the public purse. The amount stated today, which the Comptroller and Auditor General requires, is £2,327,000. Will the Minister confirm that that amount includes the additional costs of carrying out the extra duties to which I referred and which I hope will be passed when the Assembly debates the Government Resources and Accounts Bill?

I impress upon the Minister the need for there to be no unnecessary delays on reports prepared by public auditor. I recognise that, as recently as last week’s Question Time, the Minister provided an undertaking that there would be no such hold-ups.

By way of example, I refer to a report on the Water Service that was published recently. The report took almost two years to agree. That is totally unacceptable and does not represent good value for money. Perhaps today would be a good time to send out a clear message to all Departments that when we allocate money to the Comptroller and Auditor General to ensure public money is well spent his reports should not be delayed. They must be made available at the earliest opportunity so that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) can scrutinise them with a view to improving value for money. The Minister gave us an assurance that that would happen, and I simply emphasise that again.

However, when reports come before the PAC there must be more than just a little smack on the knuckles. Where serious bad practices are uncovered, they must be addressed, because it is only then that the public will recognise that the Assembly is making a real impact on how public money is being spent.

I refer to a serious report last week on serious deficiencies in the tendering procedures of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB), which led to printing contracts being awarded involving millions of pounds. Not only did the contracts go to a company whose chief executive is also chief executive of the NITB, they did not go to the person making the lowest tender. Those disclosures have undermined confidence in the NITB’s procurement procedures and call for action beyond a ticking off from the PAC.

No one is claiming impropriety, but there is little dispute that the chief executive, Mr Roy Bailie, should not be holding a key position in NITB while at the same time, in another capacity, providing millions of pounds of goods and services to NITB.

The money we allocate today to the Northern Ireland Audit Office must bring about real change if we are to conduct the financial affairs of our publicly funded bodies, and that includes NITB. To date, there is not enough evidence that things are about to change dramatically. That worries me and will no doubt worry the Assembly.

The PAC, under the chairmanship of Mr Billy Bell, has done a good job. However, the enormous energy applied by that Committee must not be ignored or undermined by reluctance, or by the bad practices which crept into Departments over 30 years of direct rule when there was limited opportunity to scrutinise or criticise Government expenditure.

The money allocated to the Northern Ireland Audit Office today will assist the better use of public money, but it also requires a determination to stamp out bad practices when they occur. If we deal with that issue, many of the concerns expressed today can be addressed with a view to providing better value for money. The Assembly can make a real impact by taking the reins and insisting that the standard of services provided are improved, and it can really make the changes necessary to get better value for money.

Photo of William Hay William Hay DUP 12:45 pm, 19th February 2001

The lack of accountability has been highlighted in what has been announced this morning. The Committees have not had the opportunity to properly scrutinise what has been announced this morning. It is right that we, as public representatives, lay down a marker on that serious issue.

The Minister’s announcement last Monday concerned a reduction in the proposed 8% increase in the regional rate. The Minister fully explained how it was possible to reduce the regional rate. However, there was a head of steam building up in the public domain, especially in the small business community.

Reality struck when most councils worked out their rates estimates for the year. During our city council’s discussions on rates estimates and council expenditure, the Finance Minister’s announcement of 8% on the regional rate was uppermost in councillors’ minds. The council expressed concern about that announcement. The pressure from the small business community in Northern Ireland and local government agencies led to the Minister’s announcement last Monday. The announcement was welcomed by everyone — especially by those in local government and small business who are facing difficult decisions and challenges.

The Minister’s announcement on gap funding was also welcomed. This has been a problem for some time in Northern Ireland, especially since it became clear that Peace II was not going to hit the ground as quickly as was intended. There was panic when most people realised that. Most of those involved in projects, especially those in the voluntary sector, realised that by the end of March there would be serious difficulties for the work that they had been doing under difficult circumstances and for many of the projects that were funded under Peace I.

Will the Minister tell the House how much money is left for the various organisations under Peace I? I am open to correction, but I understand that that money must be spent by the end of June. The public is concerned that if the Peace I money is not spent — and we are talking about several millions of pounds — it will be taken from Northern Ireland.

Members and the Minister have been lobbied by various groups and organisations about the Peace I money. That money could provide funding for the voluntary and community sectors until Peace II hits the ground. It is difficult for organisations to understand why money cannot be made available when there is still a huge amount to be drawn down and spent under Peace I.

Will the Minister indicate how much money is still available, by what date it has to be spent and whether Northern Ireland will lose that money if it is not spent?

There are a number of district partnerships in the Province. Some have spent 60% of their allocation, and others have spent 70%, but there are partnerships that have spent as little as 50%. That is a worrying trend of which the Minister must be aware.

In the context of regional development, I welcome the additional resources announced for roads maintenance.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

However, the allocation falls short of what is needed. It does not go far enough. The Minister has inherited a 30-year underspend in Roads Service generally. The same applies to all other Departments. However, the problem of resources for road maintenance continually comes up in the Regional Development Committee, and it is causing deep concern.

The other worrying problem is the reduction in capital expenditure for Roads Service because of delays in the commencement of schemes. When those schemes eventually get the go-ahead, will money then be made available? We do not know which schemes have been delayed and why they have been delayed. There are capital schemes across the Province which need to be looked at seriously and which need expenditure. The Minister must address that.

The Regional Development Committee has discussed the Knockmore railway line. It is wrong for the hon Member Seamus Close to say that railway lines that have been mothballed stay mothballed. That is not the case. During direct rule, Ministers had a policy of closing railways across Northern Ireland. If they could get away with it, there is no doubt that they would still be doing it today. When the Regional Development Committee examined the matter, it was obvious that that was its clear policy.

The Minister for Regional Development and the Committee are conscious of the need for a good public service rail facility across Northern Ireland. Railways are uppermost in our minds. People need a reason for moving from the private car to public transport. The Minister and the Committee are committed to looking seriously at the whole railway network. Other Committee members have raised concerns about how the Knockmore railway line issue has been handled. The Committee is awaiting a number of reports, and we will be deliberating in the future. It is wrong to say that when lines close they are mothballed. Under direct rule that would have been the case, but under the Assembly and the Minister for Regional Development that will not be the case.

Generally we very much welcome the Minister’s announcement of extra expenditure. He will never please everybody, but if he pleases everybody sometimes it may be enough to get him elected.

Photo of Sir John Gorman Sir John Gorman UUP 1:00 pm, 19th February 2001

I have another 15 Members on my list. The debate must end at 2.30 pm, and the Minister is entitled to 40 minutes to sum up. I suggest that from now on we limit speeches to eight minutes.

Photo of Gerry McHugh Gerry McHugh Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It is ironic that I get up at the moment that the time is reduced to about 50% of what I need. I always like to touch on the different Departments, as it is often the only opportunity that we get while we have Committee struggles with which to deal.

Take the Department of Health, for instance. The trusts have got an extra £18 million, and they have to decide what they want to do with that. They have been struggling with their debts and have also been told by the boards that they have to keep within their limits. Take the western area, where there has been a continual loss of services in places such as Enniskillen and Omagh. Services are continually being drained away from us. Quite often you wonder whether the pressure is on all the time for people to actually pay for themselves, rather than letting the NHS do what it is supposed to do. There seems to be a drive towards that all the time.

We are talking about resources and the price of resources. Private operations are taking place in NHS theatres. These are all questions people will ask. At the end of the day, who is paying for what? It all comes out of the same budget. NHS patients have to wait and suffer. Some trusts, such as one in my area, are in the business of leasing land, while at the same time trying to acquire land in case we ever have to build a new hospital, which I think will be necessary in that part of the Six Counties. At a later date, the budget from here might have to be used in a much greater proportion than the amount that they are going to gain from the leasing to buy back land that might be needed. I want to flag that up because it is a very important issue regarding the budget for the Department and for the trust.

I always welcome any extra spending on education. However, central administration funding has been mentioned again, and boards have got considerably more. It is administration versus what goes into the school or learning. It looks as though we have 5% going to children or learning and 95% going to administration and pay. There is a certain difficulty in people’s minds about where administration is going and why there has to be so much emphasis on it.

Mr Poots described Irish-medium education as wasted funds. Irish-medium education is a growing area and Irish is an important language. Germany and other countries consider their local language to be number one, and they will not allow any movement on that. That is what we should be doing. Social inclusion is part of the Good Friday Agreement and part of the successful future that we need through all the negotiated points of the agreement.

I also welcome money going to the libraries. That is important. I often wonder whether there is as much going to libraries in rural areas as there is to libraries in urban areas. People in rural areas often have to rely on mobile libraries.

I am a member of the Agriculture Committee. Without going over everything that we talked about, I want to say that there is nothing extra for farmers now, just as there was nothing in the last funding round. It points out the commitment of Government to the future. There has to be a change in future Budgets. The Department has asked for more money for administration costs; that is where the difficulty lies. The Department is bound up in administration, and farmers find that taxing and expensive. It has to move away from red tape, as do all the others.

As was mentioned, there is a social services surplus — there has been year after year, even going back to the days of direct rule. However, in many instances people are failing to receive the money to which they are entitled, because they are in weak and vulnerable situations, and bureaucratic pressures target them in a drive to save money in relation to fraud. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will have to look at that.

Fermanagh lost another 90 jobs last week at the Aldervale textile factory, and there were further losses in Newry. I have asked the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, as well as other bodies, to look at the facts behind the job losses and to understand that that is not something that we are making up, it is a fact. I want to see action to help put that right, and there must be equality of spending in the region, and the wrongs in relation to job losses must be put right. There must be parity in respect of the money that is drawn down for us at a local level and on an east/west basis. The situation with regard to the Industrial Development Board (IDB) and the Local Enterprise Development Unit (LEDU) — which is not delivering for us in those areas — needs to be looked at. Obviously they are going through a phase of change, and we hope that that will help to deliver something different and more positive to us in the future.

As regards the Department for Regional Development, the roads maintenance budget in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone area is vastly underfunded. The area has a small percentage of class A roads that require gritting all the time, so we get much less from that budget than Belfast, for example. There has been talk about equality in road budgets, but there is an increasing failure and weakness in the road structure at all levels from here to Fermanagh. The number of pot holes is increasing, and many people are asking about compensation for damage to their vehicles. People are taxed for road maintenance, and they are also taxed when they have to fix their vehicles when they are damaged. That is happening more often, and more money must be allocated to rural areas in the roads budget. The Department needs to look again at how things are done in order to try to save money.

Rail transport is important. My constituency does not have rail links, but if it did we would be more positive about the budget for that.

Photo of Mr Eamonn ONeill Mr Eamonn ONeill Social Democratic and Labour Party

On behalf of my Committee, I welcome those alterations that have produced additional funding for the Department — especially increased provisions in research and consultation exercises and in capital spending for libraries.

In addition, I stress our gratitude to the Department, as well as the Minister of Finance and Personnel, for providing a considerable increase in funding to address urgent health and safety issues at sports grounds. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that is of major concern to many people.

Likewise, we should record our gratitude for the increased community involvement finance for millennium celebrations.

In line with the Committee’s report — the long-awaited inland fisheries report, which I hope to see finally published before the beginning of March — money has been made available for a scientific study of that matter. That is necessary to enable us to ascertain the impact of hydroelectric schemes on river fisheries. It is a major step forward in recognising our aspiration for clean energy sources, while ensuring that those do not disturb the quality of river life or any related environmental aspects.

On the Vote on Account, some £71·4 million has been indicated for the forthcoming year. We welcome the increases for areas such as libraries, health and safety in sports grounds, the languages body and the attempts to provide access to and participation in the arts by young people, especially those from the more disadvantaged sections of the community.

With regard to the Department’s total bid, I must emphasise that, although it is a small Department, it considers the bid to be modest in comparison with it’s assessment of need. We therefore argue for as much sympathy as possible from the Department of Finance and Personnel. It got little more than 25% of what it asked for, and for a small Department that is something that merits attention.

There is a great need for funding to buy out the commercial fish nets from around the Northern Ireland coastline. Unfortunately, we were unable sufficiently to impress that need to secure the necessary funds. There are many things that could impact on the dreadful condition of our wild salmon stocks and other fish species, such as sea trout. The most important thing that we could do to change that downward trend in the population graphs is remove coastal netting licences. Our inquiry — and we are awaiting the publication of the report on that — has underlined the importance of fishing as part of a recreational tourist industry. That is important to the economy of Northern Ireland and to the anglers. We are coming from a low base, although the potential for economic development is great and meaningful, as indeed is the revenue return to the Department of Finance and Personnel.

On behalf of the Committee, I emphasise that we are concerned that the spending plans do not include any funding for safety improvements to existing motorcycle road racing facilities. This matter has taken up a lot of time in the Committee and has become one of great public concern over the past 12 months or more, which saw many tragic deaths that spurred the Minister and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to set up a special team to look into it. The Department has made a number of recommendations, which cannot be implemented without a considerable degree of financial support. This issue requires urgent attention, and I hope that by my re-emphasising its importance, it will not get lost. The Committee generally respects the difficulties that the Department of Finance and Personnel faces. However, the bids that we have made have not succeeded to the extent that we would like.

I listened to the debate with interest. There was much comment on the control, monitoring and scrutiny of budgetary activity. Quite justifiably, great emphasis was placed on the elimination of waste and poor accounting procedures.

I was particularly interested in the Public Accounts Committee and its recent work concerning the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Its report drew particular attention to the Department’s accounting procedures, and it was quite right to do that. However, many Committee members, in their subsequent comments, put an unfortunate spin on the activities of some of the community groups involved. On behalf of those hardworking voluntary groups, I must say that a poor impression was left.

I have not been the first today to introduce Dickensian references. In criticising a particular scheme in Ardglass, the comments of Seamus "Uriah Heep" Close about delivering money around each individual member made for a damaging statement. We are all anxious to ensure the best in public accountability, that everything is open to scrutiny, and that better value for money is achieved. I hope, however, that when something deserves attention we will be more careful about how our findings are presented.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance 1:15 pm, 19th February 2001

Most of the important points have been covered. My deputy leader, Mr Seamus Close, spoke eloquently for almost half an hour. However, I have a couple of points to make.

Mr McHugh, Mr Hay and Mr Poots spoke about the underfunding of the roads system. Although I welcome the Minister’s speech, in which he said that funding has been provided for a new vessel to operate between Portaferry and Strangford, some of my constituents are still disappointed at the Assembly’s reluctance to even consider the possibility of a bridge across Strangford Lough.

I am particularly concerned about the apparent inequality in the Department for Regional Development’s distribution of funds to different areas of Northern Ireland. My constituency of Strangford would appeal to the Minister for Regional Development to allocate more funding for road maintenance in rural areas. Modern, large vehicles, tractors and milk tankers have destroyed rural roads, and will continue to do so.

I do not know whether the Minister for Regional Development knows that some milk distributors are considering introducing even broader tankers. Someone mentioned the gritting of roads. If broader tankers are introduced, there will be no need for gritting, because rural roads will be so badly cut up. Such vehicles destroy rural roads.

The Roads Service division in my constituency does not seem to have the funding to repair roads or for simple minor road-widening schemes. Thus, we have an outcry from constituents whose cars are wrecked when they use those roads. As has been said, compensation is hard to come by. I ask Mr Durkan to ensure that Mr Campbell distributes funding on a fair and equitable basis.

Secondly, I would like to mention health issues. Again, I welcome the new investment, which is going into the provision of a decent Health Service, but much more needs to be done. We need more funding for cancer research, for example. We need more ambulances. Many other facilities in the Health Service need much more funding.

I conclude by putting down a marker. I must impress on the Minister that we look forward to the implementation of the report of the Royal Commission so that in due course we will provide free residential and nursing care for our elderly. That is a major problem which needs to be acted upon, and I hope that it will come before the Assembly soon.

I finish by welcoming the Minister’s statement. I hope that he will take what I have said into consideration.

Photo of Sir John Gorman Sir John Gorman UUP

I congratulate you on finishing in less than half your time. It is a good example.

Photo of Mr Gardiner Kane Mr Gardiner Kane DUP

Although I readily accept the complexity and scale of the task of compiling budgetary proposals, I assume that areas in the scope of the Budget have been less than provided for and that that will serve as a lesson for the Minister and his Department of Finance and Personnel in the future. These areas where lessons may be learnt are no doubt numerous and should be given consideration. No one will draw comfort from bogus percentage increases, which, when considered carefully, produce only minimal changes in funding levels.

I fail to see how the vision steering group will be able to provide the long-term and medium-term strategies that it is hoped will put the agriculture industry back on any kind of firm footing. That message is interpreted in the industry to mean that low priority is being given to the industry and its problems. Frankly, I fail to see how the allocation of £10 million will be enough to enable us to implement the recommendations of the vision group that we must implement if we are to tackle problems of this magnitude. Furthermore, the figure fails to account for the percentage of the sum that will be swallowed by administration.

I risk being repetitive when I mention how vital farm capital investment grants are. Let me just qualify the term "farm capital investment" by saying that this is not an attempt to provide every farm in the Province with state-of-the-art farmyards and livestock accommodation. It is a call for assistance to reverse the decline that has occurred on farms during the past five years. For example, on a local farm, when an official from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development arrived to inspect animals for the first stage beef special premium scheme, he was accompanied by a health and safety inspector. Why? If the facilities were substandard on that farm, how do you blame the farmer, and who is listening to the calls for assistance anyway?

Finally, despite announcements about research on the eradication of tuberculosis and brucellosis in cattle, the inadequacy of funding has been demonstrated over the past week. I say this with reference to Greenmount Agricultural College, where over 200 breeding animals have been slaughtered because of an outbreak of brucellosis. Farming could do without that level of uncertainty about those diseases. It says something about the Department of Finance and Personnel’s allocation for research when the diseases continue to be unchecked. It also says something about the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s housekeeping when an outbreak occurs in one of our agricultural colleges.

I conclude by thanking the Minister for his presentation.

Photo of Sir John Gorman Sir John Gorman UUP

Thank you, Mr Kane. That was creditably brief.

Photo of George Savage George Savage UUP

I welcome the Minister’s comments. However, the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee did not get the opportunity to discuss the papers in question, so I cannot respond on its behalf. The Supplementary Estimates are a housekeeping exercise that are designed to obtain formal approval of decisions on the reallocation of funds following the various monitoring rounds. From that perspective, the additional funds announced for agriculture, following the monitoring reviews, will be contained in the supplementary figures sought.

As Deputy Chairman of the Agriculture Committee, I must comment on the notice given with the papers. Members of other Committees will agree that there has been no time for informed debate at Committee level. Our Committee was given little opportunity to participate in the Budget process, including the monitoring rounds, so we will be pushing for greater involvement in the 2001-02 financial year. We will also be seeking, at an appropriate stage, information on expenditure from the Department for Regional Development’s budget. The true value will then be seen of the additional allocations which we are being asked to support today.

We hear of the huge amount of money to be channelled into agriculture, but the entire farming industry in Northern Ireland needs to be given an injection. The industry requires environmental schemes as well as restructuring to streamline services. I also ask the Minister to consider seriously the proposal for a long-term, low-interest loan scheme, which would give the entire industry a whole new lease of life. Such a scheme could stand alone as it would structure itself.

Another emerging issue, which has been touched upon by many Members, is the state of the Province’s roads. My own constituency of Upper Bann is one of the fastest growing areas outside Belfast. The increase in traffic and industry in that area is placing a good deal more pressure on our roads. An in-depth review of our infrastructure is needed, and I hope that our roads will benefit from such a review. The Roads Service’s regional offices inform us that they are prepared to carry out developments, but that they are prohibited by a lack of finance.

The lack of Water Service schemes is also a major problem. Since Christmas and "the big frost", a mile-long stretch of road in my area has become covered in patches where pipes have burst, which can be seen approximately every three metres. An unbelievable amount of money has been spent on the maintenance of local water supplies. I presume that money has been made available for that purpose, because every other day there is a burst pipe in the area.

Many Members have highlighted work that needs to be done in different areas.

I welcome the news that money is going to be spent on a rail service. Over the past two days the rail service has been in the headlines because people have misused it in an attempt to make it difficult for others to use. I hope that a measure can be introduced so that those people who are making life miserable for our commuters can be taken to task for it. The system is being abused, and it could do without that abuse. I hope that all those issues will be taken on board.

Many matters have been discussed this morning, and I am not going to repeat them because I have seen Mr Durkan writing all morning. I do not want to add to his summing-up list, as long as he keeps Upper Bann to the forefront. Many things in my constituency need attention. However, there are level-headed people in various sectors in Upper Bann, and all they need is an injection of money. It does not take much to make a big difference. If that can be taken on board, the results that will flow will be unbelievable.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:30 pm, 19th February 2001

Mr Savage implored the Minister to be mindful of Upper Bann. I would like him to keep North Belfast in his thoughts also.

I welcome the Minister’s speech today. It was delivered with characteristic skill and effectiveness. We are used to his skilful presentation and analysis — it is of great benefit to all who are trying to follow the detail of the figures presented today. Several of the announcements about additional expenditure are particularly welcome to the Regional Development Committee.

Resources are scarce and money is clearly in short supply. Nevertheless, resources have been used imaginatively, and the Minister and Departments have effectively maximised the use of those resources for the people of Northern Ireland. That is not to say that all is perfect and rosy in the garden — far from it. However, we welcome the additional funding to allow for free travel for the elderly from October 2001. We also welcome the £5·3 million for the road infrastructure, in particular for structural maintenance. The allocation of an additional £3·1 million for a modern integrated ticketing system for bus and rail is important if we are to have an effective co-ordination of rail and bus services and for the development of a realistic and effective public transportation policy. I greet the additional grant of £19·6 million for the rail infrastructure as a timely intervention by the Executive and the Minister of Finance and Personnel to support our under-resourced railway system. It will add significantly to the development of a public transportation strategy for Northern Ireland. The extra £14·5 million for water and sewerage capital investment is heartening, as that area that has been starved of funding for many years.

Although that will not cure what is an immensely difficult problem, it is a welcome start. The £41·9 million from the Chancellor’s initiative for capital road projects is necessary to relieve the road infrastructure problems in Northern Ireland. I welcome the additional £7 million from the Executive programme funds’ infrastructure/ capital renewal fund to deal with these problems. That represents an overall increase of about 10% on expenditure over previous years, which the Regional Development Committee welcomes.

However, I wish to highlight remaining areas of underfunding. Most notably, if bus and rail services are to provide an effective, reliable and affordable public transportation system, major investment is required. The first stage of public consultation over the regional transportation strategy is due to be completed shortly. It is likely that a central theme — and I hope it will be a central theme — will be a public transportation system that supports a socially inclusive and vibrant economy. That cannot be realised without the required financial investment. Therefore, I ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel to give it his immediate attention. The draft Programme for Government recognises the importance of an effective road infrastructure to support a modern and vibrant economy. Consequently, it is important that funding is targeted at existing bottlenecks along key transport corridors such as Toome, which the Minister for Regional Development knows is a top priority, as does the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

The draft programme of work also states that we will undertake a programme of road maintenance, based on good practice treatments. What additional funding will be made available for that programme of work? Water and sewerage have consistently been underfunded, and it is estimated that an additional £3 billion will be required over the next 10 years. The extreme weather conditions that we suffered recently have shown that the water and sewerage infrastructures are not capable of coping with the problems that have arisen. They require immediate attention and major investment, and I urge the Minister to look at those favourably.

I welcome the additional funding available in the Executive programme funds’ infrastructure/capital renewal fund — a total of £7 million this year, £40 million next year and £100 million the following year. How will that funding support the Department for Regional Development’s priorities, which are largely infrastructural? Secondly, how will it support the findings of both the regional development strategy and the regional transportation strategy? Finally, how will the Department for Regional Development and other Departments have access to the fund? The Minister must give clear advice on the criteria that will be used for that.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this important debate. It is clear that many Members are interested in having a say on where money ought to be spent and how it should be made available. We welcome the opportunity this presents to us, in that spending priorities can now be made by a locally elected Assembly. There are a range of issues that Members have already mentioned, such as education, health and transport. Of particular concern to me, however, is that Mr Durkan should make money available to his ministerial colleagues — Sir Reg Empey in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and Dr Farren for his responsibilities in training and employment, given the sad news of the job losses at the Adria textile plant in Newry last Friday. A total of 165 jobs will be lost. Announcements of that nature are to be regretted, and it is important that the Ministers with responsibility for enterprise, trade and training should be given an opportunity to prove to the workforce — and to the people of Newry and the surrounding region — that the Assembly is interested, is concerned and will rightly allocate moneys towards redeployment and training and trying to attract inward investment to the Newry area.

Although the announcement was not completely unexpected, the manner in which it came was a shock — especially to the employees. I have some criticisms to make of Adria in that respect. It is regrettable that they kept their employees in the dark before the announcement was made, and they have a duty, therefore, to put proper procedures in place to allow for the retraining and alternative opportunities that we spoke of earlier.

I join my Colleague Mr George Savage in condemnation of the continuing rail disruption in my constituency of Newry and Armagh. The railway line is continually dogged by hoax bombs or by real bombs. Those present a real danger to local people, as well as a great deal of inconvenience to rail and road users, local inhabitants and the industrial sector. It is important to continue to highlight that behaviour of that kind is completely unacceptable. It is an indication that security levels should remain high in the south Armagh area, and therefore the Government ought not to be taking any pre-emptive strikes to remove any of the security installations. I wish to place that on the record, although I do so in the context of welcoming the indication from the Minister that there will be increased moneys made available to upgrade the rail network.

The people of Northern Ireland will want to see the Assembly work in practical ways. They will want us to prove that the substantial investment in public funds, which went into creating and sustaining the Assembly, was worthwhile and can be seen to have tangible results. Changes in the road infrastructure, health and education and all other aspects should be made as quickly as possible. I commend the Minister, wish him well and hope that he will remember the constituency of Newry and Armagh in any considerations of the allocation of finance.

Photo of Sir John Gorman Sir John Gorman UUP

In the Chamber at the moment we have only one other Member to speak after Mr Clyde, and that is Ms Gildernew. Some of you have been saying nice things about the Finance Minister, but he has been sitting here taking notes since 10.30 am, and I am sure he would like some lunch. I would not be averse to the two Members finishing shortly, and then we will have a short suspension. The sacrosanct 2.30 pm start for Question Time is almost upon us.

Photo of Wilson Clyde Wilson Clyde DUP 1:45 pm, 19th February 2001

I welcome the opportunity to add to this debate and to call for financial support to facilitate the provision of slip roads from Antrim Hospital onto the M2. For too long, the people of South Antrim have been forced to endure long and unnecessary detours from the hospital, across the town, before joining the motorway that runs adjacent to the hospital. I understand that the Department for Regional Development would look favourably on the construction of slip roads. That would significantly shorten journeys and provide easy access for ambulance journeys to specialist services in Belfast hospitals.

Not only would that provide a more rapid response for the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service attending emergency situations, but it could well mean that a life could be saved. I call on the Assembly to give serious consideration to road provisions that would have the support of not only the local community and patients using Antrim Hospital, but the United Hospital Trust. The availability of funding would allow proposals to move ahead immediately. It would not only improve the quality of health services, but allow for optimum performance at all times.

I also appeal to the Assembly to make money available for more orthopaedic beds in the Royal Victoria Hospital. Currently, elderly people with broken limbs have to wait in Antrim Hospital for up to six days before admittance for surgery in Belfast. Also, patients attending the fracture clinic in Antrim Hospital were sent home on Wednesday 7 February because there was no doctor available to supervise the removal of the plaster casts. For people in their 70s and 80s, that is far from acceptable.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Far be it from me to keep the Minister from his lunch. I welcome the Minister’s statement. It has been a valuable exercise. That we now have locally elected Ministers making the decisions about where money is spent has been of benefit to everybody.

One of my major concerns is the gap funding in the voluntary and community sectors. Although I welcome the £2·2 million that has been made available, there is still a serious shortfall in those sectors. Many groups have been doing invaluable work in the community and voluntary sectors, and those jobs are now on the critical list. Training, skills and experience could be wasted. Thousands of jobs are in danger, and people who have, for many years, carried out work that, by its nature, is difficult to quantify are in danger of losing their jobs. I want to see funding put on a secure footing. People do not know how long they will have jobs. The uncertainty in the sector is damaging.

Some people have to spend a great deal of time administering a system that is complicated, and working to as many as eight or 10 different sets of criteria for different funders. We must simplify it.

I would like the Minister to clarify a few points that arise from his comments last Monday. In relation to gap funding and room to manoeuvre, he mentioned projects that were not based on criteria that were as close as possible to those adopted in the new programmes, and where they do not succeed under the new peace programme. Are the criteria based on the old figures or the new figures? He mentioned a safety net that would be available if Departments needed additional spending power. Can he comment on that and on the cases in which an exit strategy for funding will be necessary? Some projects are not likely to come under the Peace II programme. I ask him to go into more detail on that. There has been a good deal of confusion over whether gap funding is based on the old criteria or the new and on how it is going to work. When will the new criteria be in place to allow the sector to evaluate and make bids?

Among the issues that concern the Social Development Committee is that of urban regeneration. Over the last few years, Belfast has benefited from most of the money spent in that context. I do not often find myself in agreement with the DUP, but Mr Poots was right when he said that a lot of that money is spent in Belfast and, to a lesser extent, in Derry. Meanwhile, towns and villages across the North are not benefiting from these resources.

Towns are struggling to encourage people to spend their money locally rather than drive to out-of-town shopping centres. I must declare an interest in town centre regeneration schemes because I am involved with one in Dungannon. If we fund these schemes, we may create a level playing field.

Housing does not feature in the Supplementary Estimates either, and that concerns me. There are still huge waiting lists, and 17% of social housing in Fermanagh is deemed unfit. Increases in homelessness are also continuing, and we are trying to introduce an updated system to eradicate fuel poverty. However, the pilot schemes have proved that, in this initiative, the rural community will be at a disadvantage. If we bring in half-measures, we cannot expect to end fuel poverty, and that will have a knock-on effect on education and health.

Poverty and social exclusion are among the worst indictments of our society, and unless real resources are channelled into the Department of Social Development the problems that have plagued the vulnerable in communities — the elderly, children, single parents — will continue.

Targeting social need objectives will not be met unless Departments take seriously their obligations. Our Budgets should reflect the needs of the marginalised and vulnerable in society.

Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Mr Mervyn Carrick Mr Mervyn Carrick DUP

I draw attention to the reduction in budgetary provision for watercourse management and flooding. Although there has been a £1·76 million reduction in the running costs of the Rivers Agency, capital provision has been increased by £1·56 million.

What provision has been made for the recommendations that will stem from the Lough Neagh management strategy? I refer particularly to the urgent need for flood control measures along the River Bann basin. It is vital that the plight of farmers and landowners be given the same weighting and consideration in respect of their production land as will be given to commercial fishing, tourism, recreation and conservation.

It is time that the Assembly showed some teeth in dealing with cross-cutting issues. Resources must be made available to address the raft of issues associated with the management and exploitation of our natural assets, especially Lough Neagh, which has been neglected over the past 50 years. An example of such neglect is the discharge of Lurgan sewage and effluent into Kinnego Bay via the Woodvale River over the past 60 years. There is evidence that the water quality in the harbour is poor and that there has been a build-up of silt on the bed of the harbour.

Resources are required for the removal of the contaminated layer on the lough bed. It must be removed if water quality is to recover. The relevant Department has been reluctant to clean up the harbour bed. If we hold to the view that the polluter pays, we must find the resources to enable that Department to carry out the work — if we wish to promote the lough for recreational and tourist purposes.

In addition to improving the water quality in the lough, there is the need to address the whole system of feeder rivers and watercourses in a strategic manner and examine new engineering solutions to alleviate flooding of agricultural land. A comprehensive study should encompass the economic cost benefits of releasing potential development land, especially around Portadown, which hitherto has blighted and stunted the natural growth of the town. I call on the relevant Department and on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to find the vital resources to enable that work to be carried out. We need to promote our greatest natural asset — Lough Neagh — as an attraction that will bring tourists and allow people to enjoy the recreational facilities and at the same time allow the farming community to enjoy the full use of their production land. We are not talking about taking additional wetlands into production; we are talking about preserving the traditional production land.

I will just touch on the issue of fraud and the haemorrhage from the public purse to which my colleague Seamus Close referred this morning. His comments have my full support. If additional administrative costs identified in the Minister’s statement are being directed to reduce fraud and block that haemorrhage, the Assembly will be doing the citizens of Northern Ireland a good turn.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Alliance

I congratulate the Minister on the Budget statement and the wide ranging issues dealt with in it. Members have already covered the points I wished to make, so I will simply outline my comments, which, I hope, will be linked to the others.

With regard to education, I ask again where the moneys will be allocated for the implementation of the Burns review. I support the idea that resources will be given to all young people, through participation at school, so that they can reach the highest possible standards of educational achievements. I ask the Minister to encourage the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Minister of Education to ring-fence resources for the provision of non-teaching staff for special schools. We have been campaigning for that for some time, and no definite action has been taken so far. Children are suffering on a daily basis. I did compliment the action programme for education in the Programme for Government, and I hope the moneys are found to implement those proposals fully.

On the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, as a Committee of the Centre member I have to say that I would like an outline of specific resources. The many different remits — from human rights to victims, including the whole process of equality legislation — must have moneys available. Will there, for example, be adequate money available to implement the Bloomfield Report? Will the Equality Commission have enough money to enable it to carry out its important remit?

I have to support Mr Poots, who commented this morning on libraries provision. Of course, in my case, I would put forward Bangor library as an urgent priority because of the state of the building. I am aware that the Minister has promised action, but I want to use this opportunity to highlight again the conditions and the use of the library.

I welcome the funding allocated to the Department for Social Development for voluntary bodies and community groups. However, I again urge the Ministers in the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to expedite the core funding under Peace II with our European partners.

My Colleague has spoken about the roads situation. I want to touch on the railways situation. That is one issue where there is all-party consensus. I ask again that we let people — especially those who travel on the railways — know exactly how the Department for Regional Development’s money will be allocated and spent.

I also express my disgust at the destructive actions on Saturday on the Belfast to Dublin railway line. If the people who disrupted the services felt they would destroy the feeling of camaraderie and friendship on both sides of the border, they were wrong. The team — thank goodness — and the thousands of supporters won through. I hope that the Minister will show strong support to Translink for its handling of the situation.

I finish by stating my support for my Colleague’s remarks on the timetabling of the exercise and the need for more consultation. Notwithstanding that, however, I congratulate the Minister and his Department on their work on the Budget process. It is a complicated process, and, as time goes on, we will, I hope, get it right.

We may still have concerns about the process, but the Estimates and Vote on Account show clearly the advantage of a devolved Assembly. We, as Assembly Members, can see the ways in which the money is being spent and how we can be answerable and accountable to our voters.

I support the two motions.

Photo of Sir John Gorman Sir John Gorman UUP 2:00 pm, 19th February 2001

We will suspend proceedings until Question Time at 2.30 pm. This debate will resume at 4.00 pm. Judging by the voluminous notes that the Minister has taken, I guess that the remaining 55 minutes will be taken up mostly — if not wholly — by him.

The debate stood adjourned.

The sitting was suspended at 2.02 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —