September Monitoring Round

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 12th November 2001.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland 12:15 pm, 12th November 2001

Mr Speaker, with permission I will make a statement on behalf of the Executive about public spending allocations in 2001-02 following the September monitoring round.

In this monitoring round there are some resources to distribute as a result of savings emerging in a number of spending programmes. As I have said in previous monitoring round statements, the main purpose of these exercises is to adjust the allocation of resources to meet cost pressures in priority services. As an Executive, our aim is to ensure that our financial plans are adjusted to take account of changes in the delivery of public services. In doing so, we are, of course, guided by the strategic objectives in the Programme for Government. Fortunately we are not bound by the priorities of our predecessors. I say that on behalf of the Executive, and not in any party capacity.

Around £66·2 million was available to the Executive for reallocation in the September monitoring round. That had arisen from a number of sources. The Executive agreed in July that the balance of unallocated room to manoeuvre from the June monitoring round should be held over until September to facilitate the best possible interaction with the Budget process. Some £21·7 million has been withheld for that purpose.

Added to that, some £44·2 million of savings were declared by Departments as a routine part of this monitoring round. The Department for Employment and Learning surrendered significant sums from its employment programmes and as a result of a reduction in student loan subsidies. The Department for Social Development advised that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is expecting increased receipts from house sales this year amounting to some £8 million and is also expecting an easement on Laganside expenditure plans that will release £5·2 million.

I have frequently drawn attention to the constraints that we face in planning spending. The availability of resources through savings of this nature should not deceive us into believing that our spending programmes are not under considerable pressure. As I was reminded in the Chamber last Monday, there are significant demands for spending on services that are badly needed and that would be of clear benefit to the public.

In this monitoring round, as in most others, the bids exceed the resources available. Bids on this occasion amount to £128 million. Nevertheless, given the pressure on services and the wide range of aspirations that many people have, the Executive have looked strategically and pragmatically at how best we should use those resources.

We face major problems today and tomorrow in schools, hospitals and many other important public services. There is also a long way to go in tackling the equality agenda, reducing levels of deprivation throughout the community and making a difference to the quality of life of all our people. That will be the true test of devolution. However, with the limited resources available we have sought to relieve the most immediate of those pressures, while at the same time tackling the longer-term weaknesses in infrastructure and the shortfalls in major spending programmes.

In considering those issues, we came to the view that health, education and roads were among the services facing the most acute difficulties and that they would have to be given some priority. However, the key difficulty in meeting that challenge was to find ways of addressing those priorities without simply shifting the burden to another sector.

I have said before that the Executive want to adopt a more forward-looking approach to our financial management and give spending authorities greater stability for planning purposes. We also want to get better use out of the spending power available and to take account of the Assembly’s views on how we might achieve that.

In drawing up the draft Budget for 2002-03 which I presented to the Assembly on 25 September, careful heed was taken of Members’ points about the levels of reallocation in all monitoring rounds so far and the high levels of underspending at the end of a year.

We agree that we need to make better use of our resources and improve financial planning and estimating. In the draft Budget we looked at how the pattern of underspending in monitoring rounds could be used to advantage and concluded that some £48 million of spending power could be allocated for planned carrying over into 2002-03 without undue risk and based on anticipated underspending this year. We are confident that it will be possible to manage resources in the next few monitoring rounds and through 2002-03, and to make good that requirement.

With that aim in mind, the Executive’s approach to this monitoring round has been based on the assumption that it would be prudent to set aside approximately £21 million now, leaving a balance of £27 million to be found in the December and February monitoring rounds. Based on analysis of foreseeable underspending patterns, I am confident that we can proceed.

One consequence of this approach is that the scope for meeting additional bids is less, but I am sure that we will find it preferable to use resources more effectively at the planning stage than always to face late reallocations in monitoring rounds. I am, however, especially conscious of the needs expressed by the Ministers from the Departments of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Regional Development, Social Development and the Environment. I assure Members that the issues highlighted by those Departments and others will be considered further in the December monitoring round.

Of the remaining £44·9 million available, the Executive have decided to allocate £33 million now and to earmark a further £11·9 million to meet pressures in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure on which we cannot currently take a final decision. I will return to that point later.

Details of the additional allocations are set out in the table attached to my statement. While I do not propose to explain every allocation in detail, I will indicate some of the more substantial or significant items.

For the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of the Environment we will meet more of the costs associated with foot-and-mouth disease. We will also help the former to provide disabled access to Forestry Service premises.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will also receive support to provide disabled access to premises, to meet urgent health and safety requirements in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and to meet costs associated with the Golden Jubilee celebrations. That Department also faces some fundamental funding problems, which I will too.

In the Department of Education, provision has been made for special schools and to help ensure that meeting the commitment to deliver Classroom 2000 does not impede the drive to improve standards and raise attainment levels.

Additional allocations have been agreed for the Department for Employment and Learning to meet pay increases which were higher than planned and to support those with disabilities on Disability Advisory Service programmes.

Substantial provision is also being made to meet contractual commitments for Worktrack and to respond to the unexpected demand for individual learning accounts (ILAs). The suspension of ILAs was announced by Dr Farren on 26 October because of concerns about aggressive mis-selling by providers, and new accounts cannot therefore be opened. However, the Department for Employment and Learning still requires additional money to meet existing commitments.

For the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment we have agreed that a substantial part of the inescapable costs so far incurred in the creation of Invest Northern Ireland should be met from easements identified in other areas in the Department.

In the Department of Finance and Personnel additional funding has been provided to cover the costs of completing the census.

Health Service costs are again a major feature of the monitoring round. Some £8 million was allocated to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to address some new costs that are associated with further pay pressures that arose from contractual, legal and regrading issues and increases in the drugs bill. The Department of Finance and Personnel is providing funding to address the immediate and increasing demands for dialysis and to reduce the waiting lists for cardiac surgery.

Funding is also being provided to replace medical equipment in the Royal Group of Hospitals’ cardiac surgery unit and to provide two linear accelerators for Belvoir Park Hospital. That will replace equipment that is past its normal life expectancy and reduce waiting lists and waiting time for people who require cancer treatment.

As I indicated earlier, additional capital receipts from the Housing Executive from favourable conditions for house sales were a major source of the savings that have been redistributed in the monitoring round. That has led to reduced rental income for the Housing Executive, and the Department of Finance and Personnel is providing the Department for Social Development with funds to make up for that. It is also meeting the costs of some public liability claims.

The Department of Finance and Personnel is allocating funds to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to cover the cost of foot-and-mouth-disease advertising and to meet the commitments of the North/ South Ministerial Council.

As I indicated earlier, there are two further bids from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to cover the costs of library services. They must be given serious consideration in the coming months. In agreeing the draft Budget for 2002-03, the Executive recognised the serious consequences that would arise if the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure had to absorb the pressure from an ongoing job evaluation of library staff along with other pressures. The Executive agreed that it would be untenable to expect the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to meet the cost of implementing the results of the evaluation exercise. A consultancy study on the job evaluation was carried out to ensure that the proposed allocation of such a large sum was fully justifiable. However, it is likely that the bid will have to be met, and the final position will be clarified as soon as possible.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure also faces growing difficulty as a result of inherited deficits in museums. The sum of £1 million was included in the draft Budget proposals to address that problem in 2002-03. However, the Executive understand that further resources are required to make good the deficit up to 31 March 2002. Therefore they have agreed that resources should be set aside to cover that pressure, subject to further analysis by the Department.

The Executive have concluded that while some important issues of principle must be addressed, it is likely that we will have to meet pay arrears of £10 million for librarians and a £1·9 million deficit in the main museums. Thus, the Executive have agreed that it would be prudent to set aside £11·9 million now so that if we are satisfied on the outstanding issues, the allocations can be confirmed quickly. The outworkings of the outstanding matters will be confirmed in the December monitoring round statement, if not before.

In a similar vein, the Department for Regional Development has highlighted several difficult pressures, particularly with public transport. However, the Executive concluded that consideration of those pressures should be deferred until the December monitoring round.

It is important to reflect on the approach that we should take in future monitoring rounds. In recent times we have been extremely fortunate because considerable sums were available for reallocation through monitoring.

Indeed, this has been unprecedented when viewed against historical patterns, though we should not underestimate the effect of not having to cover security costs, which consumed substantial amounts of in-year room to manoeuvre in the years before devolution. We have, perhaps unknowingly, been enjoying the benefits of a significant peace dividend since the introduction of devolved government. The room to manoeuvre has been welcome, but the pattern cannot be expected to continue. The situation has created the expectation that we will always be able to meet a substantial amount of any emerging pressures. There is evidence that, as a result, there is a growing dependency on monitoring that we will not be able to sustain. The Executive have acted to promote more strategic forward planning by taking some in-year room to manoeuvre into the Budget planning. This means that we can use the spending power in that context when the full range of planning issues is being addressed together. This should produce a better outcome than could be achieved in the more limited context of monitoring. We will continue to apply this approach with prudence.

In addition, we have agreed that we must concentrate on addressing pressures through effective management and reprioritisation of our activities. In future Budgets and monitoring rounds, we may have to deal with unexpected increases in costs by reducing previously announced allocations. That means retaining real flexibility for the Executive and focusing more on delivering the outputs and outcomes that are being sought from public services, from existing allocations.

Inevitably, we must face up to the hard choices that lie ahead and take the tough and unavoidable decisions that confront us — that is the very essence of government. The Executive will not shirk this responsibility, and, by taking the necessary decisions, we remain determined to make a difference to the way our public services perform. As Minister of Finance and Personnel, I am for public services and wish to see improvement and development for the good of all those who need and depend on these services. I commend the reallocations to the Assembly.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP 12:30 pm, 12th November 2001

The Department for Employment and Learning was a substantial net contributor to this monitoring round to the tune of £12 million, and that was recognised in the Minister’s statement. This does not concern me per se, but the Committee is concerned by some of the reasons that have come to light for easements in the area of the Department for Employment and Learning, particularly the New Deal easement. Some of that was engendered by the decline in unemployment, which is welcome. However, does the Minister agree that £4 million of the reduction in spending on New Deal arose from a bottleneck in the delivery system in the relevant Departments, particularly with staff vacancies in jobcentres and weaknesses in the Social Security Agency system for identifying New Deal clients?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning is right to identify the Department as a significant yielder of easements in this monitoring round. There will not be the spend on some programmes that was anticipated. In the case of the Jobskills programme, that is due to reduced training costs, and the situation with New Deal is due to the later implementation of some programmes and the bottleneck issues the Member referred to. The Department is working on all of those issues, and the Executive recognise the importance of these programmes, not least because of the more questionable economic climate that we now face.

Photo of Mrs Annie Courtney Mrs Annie Courtney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister’s statement and congratulate him on his final monitoring round as Minister of Finance and Personnel. Does he agree that given the needs of our society as evidenced by the list of unmet bids, and the demands of health and education, we must find innovative ways to finance our public services? That is not only desirable, but essential.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

I agree with the Member that there is pressure on our resources from commendable and attractive bids that we simply cannot meet. That shows that we need more money. We must try to obtain more money from the Treasury or else we must use available means to raise resources ourselves. We must also get more out of the money that we have. That means that we must have more effective procurement, not to save money, but to release to services money that would otherwise be spent on transactions.

We want to target our spending better to ensure that that money goes further to meet real need and to deliver bigger and better outcomes. We must also see what more can be done to supplement the public expenditure spending capacity with the spending capacity that the private sector can bring through public-private partnerships. Again, we do not wish to substitute public expenditure, but to supplement it and add to the investment that we undertake and sponsor in the public interest.

Photo of Mr John Kelly Mr John Kelly Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

I welcome the Minister’s allocation of £14·3 million to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. A figure of £2·5 million has been allocated for the bill for drugs; £5·5 million for junior doctors, midwives and the Working Time Directive; and £1 million for the Fire Service. That leaves £5·3 million to address the serious shortcomings in the Health Service. Given the winter pressures that the Health Service faces, the existing waiting lists for beds and the room to manoeuvre within the Budget, can the Minister re-address the shortfall in the Health Service?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

I accept the Member’s observations about the distribution of the £14·3 million allocated to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. We must meet those real issues and pressures. The allocations for the drugs bill, junior doctors, midwives and the Working Time Directive are important in their own right. I accept that that money will not go directly to new services or to meet many of the service pressures that directly affect people. However, it will help meet some of the Department’s important cost pressures. If we did not make those allocations other services would suffer; therefore those pressures must be met. Nonetheless, we have been able to put some money into service improvements. I accept that the Member would like the amount to be greater.

Our approach has been to re-allocate moneys from this year’s Budget to next year’s Budget. However, we must remember that we are attempting to secure a £48 million carry-over in order to improve the Executive’s scope in next year’s Budget. The Executive’s tight position was reflected in the Executive position report. Our adoption of that approach has enabled us to increase the money for health and social services next year by £30 million, which is over and above the original indicative allocation for next year. The room to manoeuvre that allows us to carry over money into next year has enabled us to give further priority to the Health Service in next year’s Budget.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I welcome the additional £13·3 million allocation to the Health Service. However, does the Minister recognise the community’s concern that, despite the extra money that has been pumped into the Health Service, waiting lists are still growing? Has he asked the Health Service why those lists continue to grow, despite its additional income?

I listened to the Minister’s comments on victims’ issues, and I do not doubt his sincerity in that regard. Why was the bid by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for funding for victims’ issues unsuccessful? If the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minster was given the same criteria as other Departments, why was its bid not made on time?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

The Executive are aware of the huge pressures faced by the Health Service and the difficulties in translating the investment and priority that we offer it into performance of a standard that the public has a right to expect. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has worked very hard to resolve that problem. The Executive are carrying out a needs and effectiveness evaluation, involving the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Economic Policy Unit to examine issues such as those mentioned by the Member.

In the September monitoring round there was no bid in respect of victims’ issues, and that was indicated at last week’s debate on the draft Budget. Perhaps the Member is confusing the allocations under the September monitoring round with the Executive programme funds, from which a bid for victims’ funding was made.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

I welcome the extra funding for the Health Service, but it is not nearly enough. The average person would not understand why the Minister is holding back, in other words why he is not spending £11·9 million of taxpayers’ money. Why is he not spending that now, when we all know that the Health Service is in dire straits and is getting worse?

I welcome the Minister’s acknowledgement that priorities exist, and health is a top priority. However, is it not time to put that extra funding into health, when the public is crying out for reduced waiting times, cancer care, nurses, community care and many other services.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

The £11·9 million is not simply being held over without good intentions for its use. In my statement I explained the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s serious historical underfunding. The Executive have agreed to meet that deficit so that the Department’s work can progress. Therefore in all likelihood that money will be allocated to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

In the draft Budget statement I explained the attempts to carry forward money from this year’s monitoring rounds and incorporate it into next year’s Budget. That approach has enabled us to further prioritise health in next year’s Budget.

Members may recall the indicative allocations for next year that the Assembly published last year. We have now been able to add an additional £30 million to those allocations in next year’s Budget. That increase surpasses what was already planned. The practice of carrying forward money is allowing us to invest more money in health.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC 12:45 pm, 12th November 2001

I too am concerned about holding back almost one third of the current allocation — over £11 million — first, for deficits in museums and, secondly, for something that we should have known about. It is a massive sum of money, and numerous questions will undoubtedly be asked about that.

Can the Minister clarify that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s budget was to meet in total the £3·8 million for replacement equipment at the Royal Victoria Hospital and Belvoir Park Hospital? It is unfortunate that the cardiac surgery unit’s equipment was tied in with the cancer equipment at Belvoir Park Hospital. Having taken related evidence just last week, I am aware of the enormous anxiety of patients currently waiting to enter Belvoir Park Hospital. It is totally unacceptable. Will this bid now meet that cost in total? We must have answers to that. It is not good enough for us to ask those people to wait longer and longer for important information that could save their lives.

I am pleased to hear the Minister say that previously announced allocations may have to be seriously addressed. However, I am more concerned about the type of planning that is being undertaken. Will Committee members be in a position to prepare themselves for those announcements? If there are now to be cost reductions, is the Minister in any position to say where those might be?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

How, precisely, the money will be used for Belvoir Park Hospital and the cardiac facilities at the Royal Victoria Hospital will be for the Minister and the Department to detail and proceed with, working closely with the Committee. I take fully the point that Monica McWilliams has made. I recently visited some friends in Belvoir Park Hospital, and I am aware of the issues there.

Many questions will be asked about some of the wider points. Many questions have already been asked about the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s allocation-in-waiting — the term "in-waiting" has been well used recently. If we do not meet this obligation it will have severe implications for that Department and many of its programmes. We must ask if it is absolutely inescapable, and all indications now seem to point to the fact that it is. While all the questions that have been implied will be valid, and, it is to be hoped, the answers to them will also be valid, the underlying question is do we need — and it is right — to allocate money in this area? That is the question that the Executive had to answer.

In respect of the wider issue, we cannot assume that monitoring somehow makes this a "Good Ship Lollipop" — that a few extra sweeties will always turn up. There is a danger of that; people are starting to assume that there will always be some "give" in monitoring. As some Departments and Members have reflected this morning, we must recognise that we need to look not only at the easements that are coming from elsewhere to meet the pressures we face, but that we will reach a point where we must curb back. We will have to restrain spending in other areas if we are to ease those pressures. We must reach a point where our work in monitoring rounds is more pressure-led than easement-led. As a result of these pressures and priorities we will determine what happens. I am not in a position to anticipate or speculate as to what programme areas that will apply to.

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP

I congratulate the Minister on his elevation to higher office over the weekend. If he is trying to wear too many hats, and needs some more, this side of the House could help him out. We might have one or two lying about that he could wear. I could supply one or two myself, because I am not wearing them at the moment.

My question has been touched upon already. It is proper to repeat it. Above all other matters that are referred to me, there is the matter of the Health Service. There is the question of the long waiting lists for pain clinics. There is the issue of psychiatric care and the issue of waiting lists in general — the list goes on and on. Another important issue — again it arises in my constituency — is the provision of clean water. I am concerned about the treatment of foul and polluted water that daily enters our freshwater systems. Is the Minister conscious of the need for increased investment in those two areas?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

The Executive are aware of the compelling case that exists for expenditure in various areas. Mr Wilson has reflected the importance of Health Service issues to him and to his constituents. Other Members have also reflected that. Our approach aims to create more space for addressing those issues. That means, however, that we are unable to fully meet the attractive and worthy bids in other areas of expenditure.

I thank the Member for his kind remarks and compliments. The number of hats I am wearing will be reduced — I will be decommissioning at least one hat in the near future. I will do so on the basis of very profound advice that was given many years ago by a character in Derry called "Wabbits". He had a fondness for removing metal that did not belong to him — metal that was doing a perfectly good job where it was — and furnishing it to scrap merchants. One apocryphal story about "Wabbits" was that he was accused of breaking into a bank and sawing off the cashier security grills and metal plates. After having spent so much time in the bank doing that, he was asked why he did not take the money that was in the drawers. "Wabbits" in reply gave the very good advice: "One man; one job".

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Today is a very poignant occasion for many in the House, because it will probably be the last time that Mark Durkan will make a statement on monitoring rounds as Minister of Finance and Personnel. I thank him for his efforts as Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Today’s statement has been a very strong wake-up call for many people in relation to society’s needs. The bids have again outstripped the resources. Clearly there is a need — as the Minister outlined in his statement and in a reply to a Member — to ensure that all Departments scrutinise their expenditure plans to make sure that that money is going to direct core funding. Departments should not be depending on monitoring rounds to deliver on the real needs that exist.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

I agree with Ms Lewsley’s point about the need to fundamentally re-examine departmental expenditure on an ongoing basis, rather than in a reactive way through emerging pressures in monitoring rounds. That is part of the thinking behind the needs and effectiveness evaluations that the Executive have commissioned and which will be considered early next year. The Member referred to an observation made by Monica McWilliams, and that is also valid.

Not only will the Departments have to re-examine their plans; this is an area in which the departmental Committees can make a significant contribution as well. In the past I have made the point that, when considering financial statements, a great deal of attention has been paid to bids and, in particular, to bids that have not been met. The more that Departments and Committees can focus on the quality, reality and priority of the plans for the expenditure as allocated, the better for us all.

Photo of William Hay William Hay DUP

I welcome the Minister’s statement. I suppose that the allocation of extra money to any Department has to be welcomed. I am, however, disappointed that there is no allocation to the Department for Regional Development in this monitoring round. In his speech, the Minister made roads and the public transport system a priority; but he has told the House that the Department for Regional Development will have to wait until December for extra money. I encourage the Minister to put the Department for Regional Development at the top of his financial agenda when December comes.

I see that further money has been allocated for the completion of the census. Will the Minister tell us the cost of carrying out the census for Northern Ireland?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

As I indicated in my statement, some of the bids by the Department for Regional Development for public transport will probably be more sensibly taken in December when a fuller picture will be available, rather than doing a bit now and a bit later. The House does not appreciate recurring bids of that nature.

In respect of roads, part of what we are doing in this monitoring round, in carrying money forward to next year, is helping to support the very significant priority allocation to roads in next year’s Budget. We are talking about a year-on-year overall increase of around 15% for the Department for Regional Development. Just as for health, the carry-over strategy that we are working on is helping to fund that priority.

Further work was required to complete the census. There were problems given the outbreak of foot-and- mouth disease that meant that there had to be tracking back to ensure coverage. That is why additional money was required.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement. However, I have a number of concerns. The Department for Social Development has surrendered more than £13 million in this round and has had less than £3 million returned to it. That is a grave matter, given that this Department is specifically responsible for dealing with the most marginalised and vulnerable members of society. I refer to those people who have to rely on benefits, who cannot avail of affordable social housing and who live in communities that have suffered 30 years of discrimination. Will the Minister explain to the House — [Interruption].

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. I am having difficulty hearing the Member.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister of Finance and Personnel explain to the House, given the continued absence of the Minister for Social Development from meetings of the Executive, how the Executive decide which bids to support? How do they reach their judgements on bids submitted for social development, given the huge disparity between revenue in and revenue out? Will the Minister of Finance and Personnel explain how the Executive can decide that it is more important to provide £800,000 to the Department to cover unexpected losses in rental income than to provide money for warm homes, for kitchen and bathroom replacements and for tackling the increase in homelessness and the lack of community infrastructure? Even with 17·5% of homes in Fermanagh still unfit, nothing extra has been given to meet these sorts of needs. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland 1:00 pm, 12th November 2001

The Member has made a number of points. There were too many points for me to cover in one answer, particularly if I am going to be fair to other Members who wish to ask questions.

The Department for Social Development has important responsibilities for a range of services which, as Ms Gildernew said, relate to the needs and circumstances of people in need in this community and more widely. Most social need is dealt with by the benefits system, which, while it falls within the remit of that Department, is not covered in the Executive’s discretionary spend through the departmental expenditure limit but instead through the social security budget, which is part of annually managed expenditure.

Additional money above the amount expected came through from house sales. It is not that money has come in through house sales, but that it is more money than was anticipated. It is right that such receipts, wherever they emerge, should come to the Executive for consideration and not fall to the Department where they arise. Not all Departments are in a position to generate or receive such receipts, not least the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Members ask us to show due priority and not adopt an approach that allows Departments — as Seamus Close said — to receive money which is then locked up in that Department, rather than made available for wider priorities. That is exactly why the Executive are adopting this approach. The Executive take decisions on the bids and pressures set against the priorities that they have agreed for themselves and that have been endorsed by the Assembly through the Programme for Government. The Department of Finance and Personnel and the Economic Policy Unit, based on work with Departments, prepare recommendations on the bids that the Executive should do most to meet. The Executive then take decisions based on those recommendations and other reflections.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I welcome the additional money allocated to the Department of Education to assist the two inescapable bids concerning special needs and Classroom 2000. However, while I note the Minister’s recognition that Northern Ireland’s schools face major problems, the Department’s initial bid for £9·3 million to help to redress those difficulties in school budgets has not been met in whole or in part. That bid reflected the need to match the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s allocations for schools in England. Will the Minister assure the House that schools in Northern Ireland will not be treated less favourably than those in England and Wales and that this matter will be rectified in the next monitoring round?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

I accept the Member’s welcome for the allocation, and I also accept that the Education Committee feels that more could be done in relation to school budget pressures. Members must remember the overall context. I remind Mr Kennedy that the Executive are not in a position to meet all the bids that they would like to meet, and certainly not on the scale that they would like. The bid in question centres on helping schools to meet the pressures on their budgets that arise due to increases in non-teaching costs. I recognise the difficult budgeting situation of schools, but I equally recognise that there is a difficult budgeting situation for a number of other services, not least those that have been emphasised by other Members. However, at this point I cannot anticipate, or speculate on, what areas are likely to emerge in the December monitoring round, beyond those that the Executive have already agreed as areas for consideration.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister’s decision to adopt a more strategic approach and to prioritise spending in Departments. Does he agree that that approach is also a necessary prerequisite to ensuring that our representations to the Treasury on the Barnett formula are more credible and more likely to attract additional funds?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

I accept Mr Dallat’s point. Unless we can show that we manage our expenditure strategically and that more of our spending is planning-led, we will not be able to put together the sort of case that people want us to put to the Treasury. Our case for more money — or our case for more scope in the use of money — will not make much of an impression on the Treasury if we are not seen to adopt a hard-headed and wholehearted approach to ensuring that our Budget plans meet the needs of the community.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his competent stewardship of his finance portfolio to date. I welcome his statement and commend him on his election as party leader at the weekend.

As an Irish Nationalist Member, I am concerned by paragraph 20 of the Minister’s statement, which states that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is receiving extra money to meet the costs associated with the Golden Jubilee celebrations. That is happening when money would be better spent on the Health Service.

How much money is being set aside for local celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the British Queen’s coronation? The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is becoming very partisan. Public money has been spent on marking the bicentenary of the Act of Union. I want to give the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Minister of Finance and Personnel early notice that 2003 will mark the bicentenary of the execution of Robert Emmet.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

I thank the Member for his compliments. I knew that there was a "but" coming; there had to be. That must be the longest time that Barry McElduff has gone without making a dig.

I want to put the matter into perspective. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure covers a range of activities, including events and programmes to mark various anniversaries. The Department supports numerous commemorative events, in different ways, and it is not the case that it has assisted only the Act of Union commemorations. The exact balance and spread of such programmes are for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to decide.

Northern Ireland will be expected to participate in events and programmes that are being planned elsewhere — not just here — and various agencies and entities will want to participate in those events. There is pressure on the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to meet that demand, and the Executive have now done so.

Photo of Mr James Leslie Mr James Leslie UUP

The Minister’s statement was full of gloomy tidings that the largesse — the largesse of the Durkan years — may be ending. What does he know that we do not?

The Minister stressed that we should expect the unexpected with regard to increases in costs and that we might have to reduce allocations, despite the fact that, hitherto, bids have tended to exceed the ability to spend the money allocated. That reflects overbidding or inaccurate budgeting — or a bit of both.

Mr Durkan makes trenchant remarks about the need for hard choices and tough and unavoidable decisions but then reminds us that someone else will have to make them. With that job description, I hope he will indeed be able to find a successor before too long.

Following Mr Durkan’s elevation to the post of Deputy First Minister, does he expect that the Executive, in not shirking their responsibilities, will be able to reach consensual decisions on these tough and unavoidable hard choices that he assures us are coming up in the future?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

The Executive can have a consensual approach in ensuring that our priorities are translated more firmly into Budget plans. It will not be easy if people approach budget-setting on the basis of assuming automatically that Departments will receive incremental increases on all existing budget lines. We will be entering a spending review next year and will have to examine not only our case to the Treasury but our own plans and patterns. The needs and effectiveness evaluation work is part of that review, which has been commissioned on behalf of the Executive. I hope that the Executive will be able to look at future plans in the light of the outcome of that evaluation work.

I hope that the Assembly and its departmental Committees will help the Executive and will also challenge and press not only Departments but the Executive.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister’s statement and recognise the merit of having better matching of Budget spending plans against Departments’ actual spending, so that fewer funds are being recycled out of monitoring rounds. However, money available for redistribution is always welcome, even though difficult choices have to be made about which bids should be considered.

Given that spending bids are always in excess of the public funds available, will the Minister advise what actions, if any, each Department is taking to generate extra resources? Finally, given that an extra £200,000 was allocated to the 2001 census exercise, and in view of the importance of the results in forward planning of public services — health, education and social housing in particular — when will they be published?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

The indications always were that it would be 2003 before we would have the full range of information from the census. Partial information will be available before that.

As far as strategic priorities are concerned, we need to work together to make sure that they translate cogently into our budgetary arrangements. In the debate last week, I was encouraged by the focus on priorities. I hope that we are moving away from the bid-chasing approach to these issues. There is a growing recognition that we face hard choices and that an automatic assumption that all expenditure goes up should not be made. We need to have a more mature approach than the "Does my budget look big in this?" mentality that all Departments must receive increases just because another Department receives increases.

The needs and effectiveness evaluation follows through on the Programme for Government. Committees should be locked into work on public service agreements and service delivery agreements in relation to departmental operations and plans. That will help us to achieve what Joe Byrne has suggested. Similarly, when dealing with Executive programme funds, the Executive must ensure that decisions are less incidental and that they are compatible with the wholesale priorities that have been proclaimed in the Programme for Government.

Photo of Mary Nelis Mary Nelis Sinn Féin 1:15 pm, 12th November 2001

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I congratulate the Minister on his appointment as Deputy First Minister of the Assembly and leader of his party.

First, regarding the job evaluation of library staff, I believe that it is untenable that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure should have to meet the costs of the evaluation exercise. The Department should not have to pick up the tab for something that occurred before devolution, which should have been paid for by the British Exchequer. Direct rule debt should not be a matter for the Assembly. It is a disgrace that the Assembly should have to pick up that tab when money is being siphoned off from an already declining pot. The Assembly is being held responsible for pre-devolution debt. What is its legal position in that respect? Members were informed that the Assembly would not address pre-devolution matters.

Secondly, given the surrender of significant sums from the Department for Employment and Learning — and the consequent reduction in student loan subsidies — to ease pressure on the Health Service, does the Minister agree that additional money should be directed towards alleviating student debt?

Finally, as one of the unknowing on the "Good Ship Lollipop", may I ask the Minister to give details of the significance of the peace dividend since devolution?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

I thank Mary Nelis for her compliments, though she moved more quickly into the "buts" than did Mr McElduff.

First, I want to address her question about the peace dividend. In monitoring rounds, the Executive deal with those services that fall to the devolved Departments. The Executive have a fixed block, so in monitoring rounds the exigencies of security costs and similar pressures do not eat into the money that allows us room to manoeuvre.

Under direct rule, incidental security costs arising from difficult circumstances had to be met from the monitoring rounds. Security matters are now in a separate block, and the Executive are able to make choices without feeling the draught of extra security costs. That is what is meant by the relative peace dividend.

Secondly, regarding the question asked about the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the £10 million, those decisions and issues were dealt with by the Departments that are now devolved, albeit larger. It is not a decision that was imposed by the British Treasury or the Exchequer. Those were issues regarding services in Northern Ireland that had implications for future spending. It is as unrealistic to say that that is a liability stemming from a decision that was made before devolution as it is to say that we are not obliged to meet public spending commitments that were made before devolution.

That is a serious issue for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. If the obligation is not met, some people may take the view that when the Department was set up, it was "set up". The bid must be met or it will have an adverse effect on the Department’s work. The Executive are determined to ensure that the priorities that have been reflected and stated in the House are carried through.

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

I welcome the Minister’s statement and congratulate him on another job well done. I am particularly pleased that £11·9 million has been earmarked to ease pressures within the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Despite what we might hear from some Committee members, we welcome that. Does the Minister agree that the reduction of that money from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s budget would have such an impact that it would impinge directly on areas such as leisure and sport? My understanding of medicine and health, little as it is, is that prevention is better than cure and that every pound spent on activities such as sport benefits the health budget.

Although I appreciate that work must be done with that money, will the Minister assure us that he will provide as much assistance as possible to enable the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to resolve those issues quickly?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

The Member has welcomed the pending allocation of money for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure that I announced this morning. That allocation is beneficial because it not only offers that Department the basis from which to meet an outstanding liability but it protects the scope of the rest of the Department’s budget. I hope that the Committee will be able to work with the Department to ensure that its plans, and the work that it undertakes in a variety of fields, will fulfil the ambitions of the Committee’s Chairperson.

Photo of Carmel Hanna Carmel Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

Although I appreciate that there are diverse demands on the Budget, will the Minister assure us that resources for health are a priority? The Health Service is in crisis. I acknowledge that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety must make her case to the Executive, but does the Minister of Finance and Personnel agree that the case might be strengthened by an audit of health services? An audit would indicate more clearly what the needs are and where there is duplication and poor management. I am acutely aware of the many health needs, but without an audit it is difficult to get a clear picture of the whole service. After an audit, the Minister would have a very clear case, which would have to be addressed.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

The current work on evaluating health needs is aimed at ensuring that we see all the issues to do with need, management, efficiency and effectiveness being dealt with together — as they must be. The Executive, the House and the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee need to know more fully what should be done on a range of difficult and complicated issues that affect the Health Service in many ways. That is the approach we are taking. The Executive are undertaking these evaluations precisely because we attach such importance to health services and because the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is as determined as anyone on this issue. We hope to proceed early next year with the benefit of those evaluations.

Photo of Dr Joe Hendron Dr Joe Hendron Social Democratic and Labour Party

I appreciate that the Minister is aware of the state of the Health Service in Northern Ireland, and other Members have spoken about it. Certain aspects of the Health Service are slowly disintegrating. However, I welcome the Minister’s announcement of an extra £14·3 million for the service and in particular the £3·8 million to replace cardiac surgery equipment at the Royal Group of Hospitals and the two linear accelerators at Belvoir Park Hospital. We all understand the major problems there.

Many people in Northern Ireland have relatives waiting for the development of, or an announcement about, the proposed new cancer centre at Belfast City Hospital. Are there any plans to include initial funding for the regional cancer centre in future monitoring rounds?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

Getting cancer services up to standard is a top priority for the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. It is also a top priority for the Health Committee. That has been reflected in some of its recent deliberations. Work is urgently continuing to ensure that plans for the regional cancer centre are taken forward as quickly and competently as possible. The costs are not yet totally clear, but it will receive attention as soon as possible.

The issues involved are both immense and immensely important. In committing resources for future developments, the Executive must examine issues other than the monitoring rounds. Given everything that I have said about monitoring rounds and the health warning that I gave about them, I would not imply, for the sake of giving a positive response to Dr Hendron, that the question of cancer services will be answered through future monitoring rounds alone. The issue must be given a more strategic consideration. The Committee has put forward some ideas.

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