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The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to four hours and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 15 minutes to propose and 20 minutes to make a winding-up speech. The Minister will have 45 minutes to respond, and all other Members who are called to speak will have 10 minutes.
I advise Members that although two amendments have been published on the Marshalled List, after taking advice, and taking account of practice elsewhere, and guidance in Erskine May, I have reconsidered and, at my request, the two amendments have been withdrawn under Standing Order 15(5). I am grateful to the Members concerned for their agreement to withdraw those amendments.
Moreover, my ruling is that, in future, I shall not select amendments to any take-note motion.
I welcome the debate because it provides Members with the opportunity — both as representatives of Statutory Committees, and individually — to set out what they perceive to be the significant budgetary issues that face each Department in relation to the maintenance, improvement and delivery of front line public services. The themes that emerge from the debate will be beneficial in informing the Committee’s forthcoming co-ordinated report on the draft Budget, which will, in turn, allow the Assembly to influence the Executive as they finalise the Budget.
On 25 October 2007, the Minister of Finance and Personnel presented the Executive’s first draft Budget. In his speech, the Finance Minister emphasised that the primary focus of the draft Budget is on economic growth, and that that clearly indicates the Executive’s long-term commitment to building a better future for the people of Northern Ireland. That focus aligns with the priorities that are identified in the Executive’s draft Programme for Government, which are to grow a dynamic, innovative economy; to promote tolerance, inclusion, health and well-being; to invest to build in infrastructure; to deliver modern, high-quality and efficient public services; and to protect and enhance our environment and natural resources.
In presenting the draft Budget, the Minister also highlighted increased public expectations of public services and the need not just to spend more, but to achieve value for money for every pound we spend. Therefore, the Budget period from 2008 to 2011 presents a challenge for the Executive — and, indeed, every Member of the Assembly — to prove that devolution can make a real difference to people’s lives.
We must recognise the context in which that challenge must be met. The outcome of the 2007 comprehensive spending review means that, in the UK, public expenditure is set to grow at the slowest rate since that mechanism was introduced in 1998. The Chancellor’s comprehensive spending review announcement indicated that the Northern Ireland departmental expenditure limit would increase, in real terms, by an average of 1·7% per annum over the next three years. However, in his statement on 25 October, the Minister explained that, following necessary adjustments, a more accurate figure for real-terms growth in Northern Ireland expenditure over the next three years would be an average of 1·2% per annum.
The reduced rate of growth in public expenditure across the UK means that there is a greater emphasis on efficiency and value for money. The Executive’s draft Budget contains a target for Departments to deliver cash-releasing efficiency savings of £793 million by 2010-11. The efficiency drive and future progress by Departments in achieving the targets will exercise the departmental scrutiny Committees and Assembly Members in general.
In commissioning the views of the other Statutory Committees, the Committee for Finance and Personnel has suggested themes and issues, which, though neither prescriptive nor exhaustive, aim to assist the Committees in gathering evidence from their respective Departments and in scrutinising their submissions. The responses will include each Committee’s views on its Department’s spending priorities in the context of the draft Budget allocation. Other suggested issues include any evidence-based arguments for additions to the allocations in the Department’s draft Budget; any risks from existing efficiency plans; and any scope for achieving additional cash-releasing efficiencies or future disposals of excess assets to support front line services and strategic spending priorities.
My Committee is due to receive the responses from the other Committees shortly, and they will be included in our report, which will inform the Executive’s deliberations on the draft Budget in preparation for a substantive Assembly debate on the revised Budget in January 2008.
In addition to setting out the positions of each Statutory Committee, the report will examine a range of strategic and cross-cutting issues. I have already mentioned efficiency savings, but other issues will require consideration and monitoring. Not least of those is the financial management agenda, which the Department of Finance and Personnel will pursue aggressively over the Budget period, including the related issues of overcommitment, underspend and financial forecasting and monitoring by Departments.
The approach of planned overcommitment — whereby more money is allocated to spending programmes before the start of the year than is actually available — helps to reduce underspend by anticipating average levels of reduced requirements and adjusting the total level of resources allocated to programmes accordingly. However, it has been recognised that that approach reduces in-year flexibility and the capacity to respond to in-year unforeseen pressures. Accordingly, the Minister announced the planned year-on-year reduction in overcommitment, from the present figure of £153 million to £100 million in 2008-09, £80 million in 2009-10 and £60 million in 2010-11.
The move to reduce overcommitment must, however, be accompanied by an improvement in the level of financial management in the Northern Ireland Civil Service to ensure that we eradicate the culture of underspend. The Committee has noted that, in the period from 2003-04 to 2005-06, approximately 1% to 2% of revenue budgets across the Northern Ireland block remained unused at the year end. That represented between £113 million and £150 million per annum. In the same period, between 15% and 20% of capital budgets remained unused, amounting to between £170 million and £230 million.
The Committee acknowledges that the Department is taking steps to develop financial-management skills and to improve financial processes across the Civil Service. As part of that initiative, the Department of Finance and Personnel commissioned an external review of forecasting and monitoring from PKF consultants, a report on which was published in June 2007. The overriding finding from the report was that insufficient priority was afforded to forecasting and monitoring. It also highlighted the fact that the average figures for underspend failed to reflect the variance across Departments.
The Committee for Finance and Personnel will monitor the implementation of the recommendations from that review. More generally, all the Statutory Committees will have an important role to play in scrutinising their Departments’ in-year spend by examining each quarterly monitoring round to minimise underspend.
A further cross-cutting theme in the draft Budget is the reform agenda, which DFP will have a key role in co-ordinating. The Civil Service reform projects and programmes are expected to realise a range of benefits and value-for-money savings across the 11 Departments. Those benefits will be measured using a series of key performance indicators, which will be integrated with departmental business planning. Again, there will be an important role for each Statutory Committee in monitoring the progress of the various reform projects in the respective Departments.
The Committee for Finance and Personnel has already produced a report on Workplace 2010, and will continue to scrutinise the future progress and direction of that major accommodation project, which will affect all Departments and is expected to generate approximately £175 million in capital receipts during the Budget period. Other key reform projects for which DFP has lead responsibility include NI Direct, which will ultimately provide a single telephone point of contact for public services, and the various shared service centres, including HR Connect, Account NI and Records NI.
Other cross-cutting developments that require consideration include the creation of a performance and efficiency delivery unit and a capital realisation task force. The performance and efficiency delivery unit will be tasked with identifying the scope for generating additional cash-releasing efficiencies and improving delivery and performance within Departments and across the wider public sector. The Committee for Finance and Personnel will be examining the role and functions of that unit, including the targets and reporting mechanisms that will be implemented to measure its performance.
The capital realisation task force is to make recommendations that remove barriers to a more efficient and economically effective use of the asset base, and realising additional resources through the disposal of surplus or underutilised assets. A report is due from the task force in early December, and will inform the final Budget and investment strategy. The Committee for Finance and Personnel will focus on the work of the task force as it affects the capital allocations in the three financial years covered in the Budget period.
A further strategic issue for consideration is the budgetary impact of the rating reforms, including the domestic rating reforms that were announced today by the Minister of Finance and Personnel, and the decision regarding industrial derating. Other cross-cutting issues include the role of PFI and borrowing during the budget period; anticipated savings on procurement spend by Departments; the potential costs and efficiencies from the review of public administration; and the strategic debate around the Barnett formula and needs assessment.
The Committee will also be interested in the outcome of the wider public consultation on the draft Budget. The Department has advised that four public meetings will be held — one each in Belfast, Enniskillen, Londonderry and Armagh. In addition, regarding the voluntary and community sector, the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action will be holding a separate event that DFP officials will attend to facilitate the debate.
The Department will also be holding a range of other meetings with social and economic partners, including the Confederation of British Industry and the Northern Ireland Committee, Irish Congress of Trade Unions. I expect that all Members will be keen for the Executive to take account of the views of key stakeholder groups and of the general public before finalising the Budget.
I shall now turn briefly to the Department of Finance and Personnel’s own draft budget allocations. Regarding current expenditure, the draft Budget 2008-11 prescribes a significant reduction in the share of departmental expenditure limit funds allocated to DFP. The Department has suffered a large cut — the current year’s allocation is 17·1% lower than that for 2006-07, and that trend will continue in subsequent years.
The Committee has focused in particular on the Department’s proposed capital expenditure in the draft Budget. DFP bid for approximately £94·2 million over the three financial years 2008-11 and was allocated £68·7 million. The Committee has queried the potential impact that that reduced allocation may have on delivery, and how DFP plans to manage with an allocation significantly below the amount sought.
In particular, the Committee is concerned about whether the capital allocations for Land and Property Services will be sufficient to allow the organisation to alleviate difficulties with its IT system, especially with regard to rate relief. In addition, the decision announced by the Minister earlier today to introduce rating on vacant domestic property will place a heavy burden on Land and Property Services, which will have to develop the necessary databases. The Committee will pursue the issue with the Department of Finance and Personnel to ensure that any future funding requirements arising from rating reform can be met in any revised allocations.
I now return to the wider, strategic context. The draft Budget is clearly connected to, and driven by, the priorities set out in the draft Programme for Government and the draft investment strategy, which the Assembly debated yesterday. In addition, however, there are a number of underlying themes and assumptions on which the Budget allocations are based. I have highlighted, in particular, the entire financial management agenda, together with a drive to reform the public sector in order to deliver the value-for-money and efficiency targets that will enable improvements to be made to front line services, which the people of Northern Ireland deserve.
Those areas will require ongoing monitoring and scrutiny by the Committee for Finance and Personnel, together with the other Statutory Committees and the Assembly, over the next three financial years of the Budget period.
I look forward to hearing Members’ contributions, and I welcome the opportunity for an extended debate on the draft Budget.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt le tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún. Yesterday, I congratulated the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister on the draft Programme for Government and spoke about how ISNI 2 had the potential to deliver on the programme’s priorities of addressing inequality through targeting marginalised sectors.
Today, the House considers the draft Budget, which constitutes the nuts and bolts of how those targets will be achieved. That task faces us all, and the challenge is huge. The facts speak for themselves. Tackling inequality and lifting the boat of the vulnerable means that at least some of the following facts must be addressed: 31% of 16- to 60-year-olds lack paid work; 22% of the workforce is low paid; nearly 25% of households are unable to afford adequate home heating; nearly 100,000 children and 50,000 pensioners are living in income poverty; and there are 3,000 premature deaths each year because of disadvantage and poverty. Those facts are shocking.
The solution is simple: reality — that is, current economic patterns — has to change. It is the task of all MLAs to ensure that that is done. Today, every Member should be asking how that will be achieved. This is, after all, a legacy Budget, and in that context we need to see ministerial leadership and initiative.
I will take the example of fuel poverty. The Assembly has had two debates on that subject and a guarantee that Government will work to eradicate fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010 and in households that are not considered vulnerable by 2016. Yesterday, however, we were faced with the headline that the Minister for Social Development intends to cut £10 million — 50% of the current allocation — from the warm homes schemes.
Within the confines of the block Budget from Westminster, the Minister for Social Development, like all Ministers, has to make choices. The question must be asked whether she has made the right choice. Has she the political will and skill to prevent that cut? For instance, has she considered the land banks in her Department’s estate? She has to pay for them annually, but if they were utilised more effectively, they could fund social and affordable housing and contribute to combating fuel poverty.
The Minster of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle Gildernew, was required to do that to deal with inescapable pressures. Stand Up for Derry is seeking more social and affordable housing to address the historical neglect of our city and, indeed, of the entire north-west region. Tá mé ag iarraidh tuilleadh infheistíochta i nDoire.
I want more housing and investment for Derry, and I acknowledge the political will and skill shown by the Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, in respect of the railway decision for Derry and the north west. I call on the Minster for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, to emulate that type of leadership. It is time for wider ministerial leadership, imagination and initiative.
In order to address fuel poverty, the workers at the coalface, all the relevant Departments, and community workers on the ground must be engaged and involved in tackling the issue. Places such as Derry, and elsewhere, have dedicated community workers who know that those who live in fuel poverty experience what that means in reality, and know how best to eliminate it.
Do Ministers engage with stakeholders and residents of local communities before deciding on the choices that they face? I wonder.
It is the job of local officials and administrators to contact people who are living in fuel poverty and ensure that they be helped to be taken out of it quickly. The market will not do that; it must be done by supporting groups that work in those areas. By drilling down and adopting a bottom-up approach, we can work at a community level, and the task will be manageable. The numbers to be dealt with are in the tens or hundreds, perhaps, but not 250,000. That is what is known as the principle of subsidiarity, in EU jargon. That is what good governance and monitoring is all about: bringing all the stakeholders and networks in the community together so that they can work to meet targets, and truly monitor achievements. They are the people at the coalface; they deal daily with those who are disadvantaged, and know exactly what it is like to suffer cold persistently without sufficient money to pay for heating.
Monitoring and measuring our performance is a key part of delivering our objectives, as is ensuring that equality impact assessments are fully complied with across the nine categories of the disabled, the elderly, etc. That is not only the correct thing to do, but represents an intelligent modernising agenda, which is necessary to show that the North has the political skill and will to tackle disadvantage and participate in the global economy. The fact that the Executive are beginning to equality-impact assess their spending, and how they are spending limited finances, is a good-news story to be welcomed at home and abroad.
Moreover, buying into social justice, through social requirements and tendering contracts, is a smart decision that the Executive have taken, as reflected in the Budget. Joined-up governance will be cemented as the Minister of Finance and Personnel applies tendering criteria to procurement agreements, resulting in contractors employing, training and teaching skills to people who have been registered as long-term unemployed. That represents the use of public money to buy social justice, which is brilliant.
Yesterday’s agenda, which left out huge parts of the North, and large groups of people, is not only out of date, but economically counterproductive and unstable, and I am sure that the Minister of Finance and Personnel would agree. It has been only six months since the transfer of powers, and it will take time to throw off the shackles direct rule. Of course, Sinn Féin wants to throw those shackles off entirely.
The world economic order is now discussing a sustainable model of economic development that integrates social, economic and environmental requirements, rather than regarding them as burdensome add-ons to a narrow, ineffective economic model that has produced stagnation and exclusion in our society.
The limitations of this draft Budget, restricted because we in the North are controlled by a British Administration that does not care about anyone here, regardless of one’s political opinion, or none, would be assisted greatly by advancing the intelligent processes that are inherent in the full equality impact assessment procedure.
The comprehensive spending review results in Ministers making difficult budgetary choices; they must stand over those choices. They must also use political tactics and skills — if they have them — to achieve deliverables and actually build prosperity and tackle disadvantage using the Government and governing opportunities that exist in the current political arrangements by linking up with our counterparts in the Twenty-six Counties. The economic and financial future of this part of the island will not be resolved in the context of the Six Counties.
The limitation of the draft Budget should not limit thinking. Joined-up Government should exist beyond the Assembly, especially, when it is economically and politically advantageous for all of the people who reside across the island to have decisions taken that benefit all of us. Go raibh maith agat.
Sadly, we are faced with difficult choices today, as we discuss the draft Budget and as we approach the final Budget Bill. Those choices would have been considerably easier to make if the £1 billion package, which was promised prior to devolution, had been delivered. However, it was not delivered. Shortly after that, media focus was switched from the £1 billion package to the Varney Review and the corporation tax benefits that could flow from that. We still await them. Where are they, and when will the review be published? The people of Northern Ireland are entitled to know the outcome. Will we receive financial benefits from the Varney Review? Having quashed hopes of a major economic package, with sleight of hand, the focus was switched elsewhere.
Time has moved on. Now, when we are discussing the draft Budget, problems arise again regarding difficult funding choices. I cannot help noticing that the lower rate of corporation tax has not been mentioned by the Minister of Finance and Personnel in recent months — I can only assume that good news is not expected on that subject. A lower rate of corporation tax would have had a major impact on improving our economic standing and in achieving the objectives set out in the draft Programme for Government.
As a member of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, I take an interest in financial matters, generally, and not just in those of the Department of Finance and Personnel. I would like to know where the departmental bids have gone. I have tried to get underneath the spin of the headline figures and the glossy draft Budget with which we were presented. I have raised the matter with departmental officials and have asked questions in the Assembly. However, I have not yet received a copy of the bids that were made by each Department and the outcome of those bids. I am slowly gathering them from the Committees. However, it is right and proper that Assembly Members should have that information.
Last week in Committee, I asked departmental officials, jokingly, whether I had to issue a request under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the information. Why is that information not available? Why is it not published and easily accessible for everyone to view? Surely, if the public is really being consulted about the draft Budget, it should be made aware of the bids. They should be put into the public domain, either through the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ or the Internet.
People should be made aware of what was contained in each of the bids and the difficult choices that have to be made. This is not just about saying that the winning projects are wonderful; it is about difficult choices; getting the best value for money, and benefiting our community. I have tabled an Assembly question on that matter, which is due to be answered today, and I look forward to receiving that answer. I hope that I do not have to resort to the Freedom of Information Act: that would be absolutely ridiculous.
We are discussing a draft Budget: is this a real consultation or not? If it is, let us have the information. That will motivate many people to respond, and the final version of the Budget will be better for it. I hope that that opportunity is taken. It is important that people respond to that consultation, but there must be transparency.
I have concerns about several issues in the draft Budget: first, I will touch briefly on housing. My constituency work has made me aware of the difficulties faced by those who, although they are accepted as being homeless, spend a great deal of time on the housing waiting list and are not afforded the opportunity to remove themselves from the list. Additional resources are required for housing; if the Programme for Government’s objectives are to be achieved, additional moneys will have to be found between now and the finalised Budget, particularly from the ongoing capital assets review. Therein lies the potential to release additional funds in the form of unused public assets to enable the building of more social housing. I hope that that will be progressed speedily.
Fuel poverty affects a wide range of people, social tenants and homeowners alike. I recently received correspondence from a natural gas provider, Firmus Energy, expressing concern about the possible reduction in funding for the heating replacement programme next year. A constituent contacted me some time ago about an open fire in his upstairs flat. That source of heating was operating at only 28% efficiency, aside from being a health and fire hazard. It is important that energy-efficiency projects such as the heating replacement programme and the warm homes scheme, which is also under threat, are allowed to continue. Fuel poverty must be addressed, and we must also reduce our carbon emissions.
I will turn briefly to the Northern Ireland Children’s Commissioner, whose office published a detailed report in July 2007 in conjunction with OFMDFM and the Department of Finance and Personnel called ‘An Analysis of Public Expenditure on Children in Northern Ireland’, in which it stated that children’s services in Northern Ireland were 30% underfunded compared to similar services in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Children’s Commissioner recently commented that the recommendations of the organisation’s report had not been reflected in the draft Budget; in other words, ensuring that that disparity in funding would continue.
Many other issues, such as speech and language therapy, statementing processes, after-schools clubs, early intervention, and the effects on young people at risk that were highlighted in the Bamford Review, are not being adequately addressed in the draft Budget.
I am very passionate about early-years funding. I recently attended a lecture in Belfast by Professor James Heckman, a Nobel laureate economist who works with early-years organisations. He had a simple message — we must invest in the young. That makes economic sense, but I am not sure that that is what we are doing. There is a larger emphasis on structures, but we must invest in people, especially the very young.
Through my involvement in the Assembly’s all-party children’s committee, I have been advised that long-term funding for the Home Start programme has yet to be secured. Home Start trains and co-ordinates volunteers and assists families who need help. Without Home Start, many children would have a poorer start in life, and some might even have ended up in care. Why can funding not be found for that programme? Mention was made earlier of the need to stand over choices. We must examine the draft Budget carefully to ensure that decisions can be justified, because many issues are not currently being addressed.
I will turn briefly to the draft Budget allocation for OFMDFM. I compared the figures for 2006-07 and 2010-11 and discovered some interesting statistics. Health receives an 18·8% increase over that period, and OFMDFM receives a 51·6% increase.
Why has the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister received an additional allocation of £28·7 million since 2006? Is that a good use of our money? In 2001-02, some £2,081,000 was allocated for central administration. However, in the draft Budget, its allocation amounts to £40 million a year. What is going on? Is that a good use of our money? There has also been a huge increase in capital investment. In 2006-07, some £1·5 million was allocated to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for the three-year period. That figure has now risen to £52·9 million.
That money could be better spent in my constituency on new health centres and health schemes that have been put on hold. Moyle Hospital closed in 1994 and Carrickfergus Hospital closed some decades earlier, yet there have been no replacement state-of-the-art facilities. There has been no significant capital infrastructure to put right those wrongs, yet funding is being directed to other areas that have lost acute services.
We need equality. We must ensure that facilities such as Carrickfergus day centre, which closed due to a leaking roof and electrical faults, are replaced. We must ensure that we provide good value for our money. Why is so much money being spent by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister?
At the outset, it may be necessary to claim the right to speak at all. Yesterday, during a point of order that was not actually a point of order, the Minister of Finance and Personnel talked of the need for a Programme for Government and Budget to be agreed by the Assembly. He seemed to think that any word of dissent at this stage was not appropriate.
Perhaps we should reduce the heat a little on this matter. This is a draft Budget — it is out for consultation to Committees of the Assembly and the public. Therefore, let all concerns that are real be expressed. I am sure that the Minister will assure us that it is a genuine consultation process and that he will be willing to make adjustments where the case is good. There are many variables still in the hands of the Minister, including the timing, and many uncertainties, including Workplace 2010, the Varney Review and asset sales. Therefore, there should be no suggestion that any adjustment to this Budget is like the removal of a keystone that will cause the whole edifice to collapse.
The context for this draft Budget is clear. Northern Ireland has an infrastructure, much of which is obsolete. It has a private sector economy that is relatively small and fairly weak. Our main source of income is the block grant from the Treasury. Northern Ireland does not pay its way. It needs a subvention of several billion pounds per annum, perhaps up to half of the £16 billion of public spending annually. The block grant is determined by the Barnett formula, and those who know tell us that we do not get a bad deal from that mechanism. There was a threat yesterday that we would hear a great deal more about the Barnett formula, so perhaps we should listen to that advice.
The dramatic increases in public spending over recent years are now over. Over the next three years of the comprehensive spending review, public spending here will rise in real terms by just 1·2% per annum. That is not a large increase, but we should not dismiss it as nothing.
Our other main source of income is the regional rate, which yields about £500 million per annum, or 6% of what we spend. The scope for deriving more income from the regional rate is constrained, as a result of the proposal to include a charge for water and sewerage alongside the rates bill, which most parties seem inclined to go along with as the least bad solution to a real problem.
The Minister has indicated his proposal to freeze the domestic regional rate in absolute terms and the business regional rate in real terms for three years. Given the pressure on households, in particular, to pay for water, there will not be much dissent from those proposals. Almost half of the block grant is already spoken for in the annually managed expenditure that is allocated for social security benefits and the like.
We are now debating how to carve up the remaining money among the Departments. The Minister told us in the speech that introduced the draft Budget that the annual amounts will run from £8·3 billion to £8·9 billion over the Budget period. There is also ISNI money — I must tell Nelson McCausland that that ISNI isnae Ulster Scots. [Laughter.]
That money ranges from £1·6 billion to £1·8 billion over the period for investment in basic infrastructure. Those are large sums, and they will enable substantial improvements to be made to the quality of life of all our people.
There are major pressures on the Budget. Every Department has a list of necessary projects, but not all of those demands can be satisfied. I must express concerns about particular spending programmes. The first relates to the provision for social and affordable housing. The draft Budget document states of DSD:
“The Department’s aims are to make a difference to the lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society through providing access to decent affordable and energy efficient housing.”
Those are exactly the right aims, and I am sure that every Member will support them. Other Members of my party will expand on those concerns about that aspect of the draft Budget.
Another matter that relates to housing is the funding for improving the energy efficiency and insulation standards of homes, which is to be drastically cut. It astonishes me that that programme is to be cut back, rather than increased. Again, other SDLP Members will say more on that matter, but I note Martina Anderson’s comments, and I welcome the indications that her party will support an increase to the DSD’s budget to allow it to address that matter.
Efficiency savings have been given a significant place in the Minister’s plans. The 3% and 5% cumulative year-on-year targets are central to his ability to deliver. Nearly half of the:
“increase in health departmental spending power” —
— will come from those savings in the third year. We must note the language that is used in some of the DFP information. There is much use of the interesting phrase, “spending power”, but it is not, to a significant degree, real money. Built into that spending power are savings that are yet to be realised. There has been very little scrutiny of efficiency targets, and I intend to ask the Committee for Finance and Personnel to examine those more closely. Are such savings in the health sector really available in the short term in a service that is so dependent on front line staff? There is no doubt that we need a better Health Service, and that that will mean great structural change, but it will not happen overnight.
Similarly, much has been made of the potential of the performance and efficiency delivery unit. I heard the Minister offering its services to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety recently, and that made me wonder how it would really work. Evidently, it has an opt-in or voluntary nature. Again, the Committee must examine that mechanism extremely closely and, indeed, all Committees should reflect on how it will affect them and their work.
I wish to raise a few issues that affect my own constituency of North Antrim, the first of which caused real alarm recently. The new health and care centre that was promised for Ballymena within two or three years, and which would have revolutionised healthcare in the community right up to the north coast, has been written out of the script. That is shocking and totally unexpected news. Representatives for North Antrim from all political parties in the House are aghast, and will be lobbying the Assembly to reinstate the centre. I cannot understand why that has happened, and I hope that I will have the support of all Members for North Antrim in addressing that matter — some of them are in rather influential positions and must have missed that part of the draft Budget.
I shall mention other North Antrim concerns only briefly. I welcome recent steps towards a development for Rathlin Island, and I want to see provisions for the outcomes of that in the Budget. The railway relay from Coleraine to Derry has been announced in the press. I assume that there is some substance behind that announcement, but it is missing from the draft Programme for Government and the draft Budget. Can we have clarification on when that will happen?
I hope that money has been put in reserve for a contribution to the proposal from the National Trust and Moyle District Council for a visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway. We may, at last, get a resolution to that situation, which has become an embarrassment for several Ministers.
I hope that our rural roads, which are a disgrace, will finally get some real money spent on them.
Finally, I want to mention one agricultural issue. The proposals for the reduction of brucellosis and TB in cattle will not work, and that money would be better spent on a full eradication programme, which will be cheaper in the long run.
I congratulate the Minister of Finance and Personnel on the presentation of his first draft Budget. Although my party does not agree with every aspect of it, I recognise that it is a substantial piece of work. It puts to rest the notion that six months is too short a time for the Executive to produce anything meaningful.
One matter requires clarification. At the outset of the debate, Martina Anderson referred to the draft Budget being a legacy. However, when the Minister of Finance and Personnel presented the draft Budget, he was keen to point out that it represents a major break from direct rule Ministers’ Budgets. The draft Budget cannot be both those things: it must be one or the other. There is an interesting split of opinion in the Executive.
I thank the Committee for Finance and Personnel for tabling the motion. Although the Alliance Party had tabled an amendment, it is content to accept the advice and guidance of the Speaker on the matter and withdraw the amendment accordingly. My party respects the Speaker’s rulings, unlike some Members that I could mention.
The fact that there is no amendment on which some notes of concern can coalesce should not, nevertheless, leave the Executive in any doubt that there are major concerns about the content of the draft Budget, not only from my party but from other quarters in the House. There will be many future opportunities to test those matters formally through Divisions. Like many other Members, Alliance Party Members welcome the draft Budget’s economic focus. However, it is important not to allow the economic delivery claims that have been made to go without challenge and proper scrutiny.
During the past decade, there has been a peace dividend. However, despite economic growth and investment during recent years, major structural problems remain. There must be an overarching imperative to rebalance the economy between the public and private sectors. Public finances are hugely dependent on financial subvention from the Treasury — some £7 billion each year — which funds almost half of the local services. That is clearly unsustainable. The Minister is on record as saying that the problem in Northern Ireland is not that the public sector is too large but that the private sector is too small. However, that stance seems to have changed somewhat, with an open challenge being posed to the public sector.
Unemployment now stands at under 4%. However, beneath that percentage lies the societal indictment that 27% of the working-age population are economically inactive. That is a huge wasted resource for the entire community and its shared prosperity.
Much of the recent investment and rapid employment growth has occurred in the relatively lower-added-value sectors of the economy. The overarching economic imperative must now be to close the productivity gap between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK average, which is measured by gross value added (GVA). In order to shift that, more high-value-added investment, promotion of exports and more high-paid jobs are required. The figure has been stuck at around 80% of UK average employment figures for quite some time, and the problem lies with UK regional policy. Despite the platitudes from successive Governments on the need to develop the regions, nothing is allowed to challenge the dominant position of London and the south-east of England as the main drivers of the UK economy. Financial dependency is tolerated rather than the regions being given the means to become more sustainable.
I note that the Executive have shifted the target for GVA to halving the gap with the UK average minus the greater south-east of England. Although, in one respect, it might be nice to remove the distorting influence of the south-east, moving the goalposts in that manner does not do Northern Ireland any favours. Overall consideration must be given to the balance in the UK economy as a whole. There is little point in comparing Northern Ireland with the other dependent regions and fighting over the scraps, and not effectively challenging the overall centralisation of the UK economy.
The draft Budget’s rhetoric and aspirations for the economy are lofty and ambitious. However, they pose two fundamental questions: first, does Northern Ireland have the necessary tools to make a step change to the economy? In the absence of tax-varying powers or other fiscal incentives, it is difficult to see how that step change can be realised. The one fiscal tool at the Executive’s disposal — industrial derating — is essentially anachronistic. If anything, it is geared to subsidising a low-value-added economy rather than attracting high-value-added jobs. It deals with the status quo rather than the type of economy that Members want for Northern Ireland. I appreciate the fact that there are few alternatives and that, therefore, we must support it regardless. However, it is important that the limitations of that approach are recognised.
The Varney Review’s indications are not encouraging. What is left is incremental change rather than a step change.
The jury is out on whether we are using to their full effect the existing tools and instruments that are at our disposal, and there are grounds to be sceptical.
The four remaining main economic drivers are skills, enterprise, innovation and infrastructure. Of those drivers, the most critical area of emphasis is skills. The targets for PhDs in the draft Budget and draft Programme for Government may prove to be too conservative, especially if the brain drain continues. Moreover, stronger incentives for students to study the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — are needed. By the same token, at the other end of the spectrum, the core issues of numeracy and literacy are being neglected. Without addressing numeracy and literacy, it is doubtful whether we will have a critical mass of workers who are able to play their role in the global economy.
I am concerned that more effort has not been put into improving the public-transport infrastructure. Figures in the draft investment strategy suggest that 60% of funds will be invested in roads in the first three years, and that that will rise to 80% over 10 years. That is almost a mirror image of the situation in the rest of the United Kingdom. Although we must catch up on the infrastructure backlog, there are environmental concerns to consider. If we are to have a modern, twenty-first century infrastructure, especially in Belfast, we must invest more heavily in public transport from the overall transport budget.
I am surprised that greater emphasis has not been placed on the potential of the green economy and, in particular, on the new economic opportunities that will arise from tackling climate change. Questions also arise about the resources earmarked to assist the economy, and about whether those resources are being used to full effect. More and more resources are to be poured into the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and Invest NI. However, whether there is to be any fundamental change in their approach is far from clear.
At the risk of angering farmers, I note that £45 million has been set aside for modernising the agriculture industry. That sector represents only 2% of the economy, and I cannot help wondering whether that money would be better used in another sector, in which there is higher growth potential. This morning we heard about the tourism industry, for example. It also represents approximately 2% of the economy, but it is an area in which there exists a great deal more room for expansion. Perhaps the resources set aside for agriculture could be better deployed in assisting with rural transition and more general development.
We must also be conscious of the impact on the economy, especially on small businesses, of the scaling-back of investment in public services. I include the building of social housing in that. Members must be aware that the deep divisions in Northern Ireland have an impact on the economy. Economic change and creating a shared future go hand in hand. Therefore, the scarcity of the resources that have been made available to invest in providing shared and mixed facilities and to promote good relations is a major flaw.
I intend to make a few overarching comments on the more general resource allocations rather than delve into too much detail. That said, I have major concerns over the health and housing budgets, and I am sure that other Members will address those concerns. A tight UK comprehensive spending review has been made even tighter by decisions to freeze the regional rate, to reintroduce water charges within the ambit of the regional rate and to reduce the level of planned overcommitment. Much now depends on the 3% efficiency savings to be found across Departments. All Whitehall Departments are attempting to achieve the same targets, so Northern Ireland is not unique in that respect. Those savings are achievable, and, in fact, annual cost savings in the private sector are routinely achieved at the beginning of a Budget process. However, our problem is that there is an almost singular focus on achieving savings from internal running costs and procedures rather than through taking a hard look at how public services are delivered.
The process of CSR bids by Departments here, and the subsequent questions about which of them have been addressed and which have not, means that the focus inevitably falls on the additional extra 2% or 3%. Little attention is paid beyond and below the baseline. At the other end of the debate, it is arguable that our Departments’ bids were overly conservative and that major investments have both been lost and not been offered. Even with that conservative mindset, only about half of the CSR bids are to be funded through the Budget. There is a transparency issue, and the Alliance Party has had to table several questions in order to get to the heart of some of the issues.
For some time, the Alliance Party has highlighted the vast amount of resources that are tied up in Northern Ireland to maintain a divided society. Huge opportunity costs are involved in investing in quality public services for the entire community. We have estimated them at around about £1 billion a year, but a report by Deloitte goes a step further and says that the figure is as high as £1·5 billion each year. Sadly, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has binned that report. Those costs are clearly embedded in the system through duplication in the provision of goods, facilities and services, and it will take many years to unlock them. However, we must start now by investing those additional resources. That could have been the subject of any peace dividend. There is a real economic and financial imperative to creating a shared future, and, although the Minister of Finance and Personnel alluded to the Deloitte report in his draft Budget statement, there is little evidence that he has considered its contents in his actual proposals, and in the details of the actual bids and efficiency savings. Education is one area in which a great deal more work must be done.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. Although you have ruled on and rejected the amendments, Mr Speaker, I note that those who tabled them still took the opportunity to level the criticisms that they contained. Some of the strange claims that have been made in the Chamber today reflect the contents of those amendments. The House was almost subjected, for a third time, to an Alliance Party amendment criticising the supposed lack of innovative thinking in the draft forms of the Programme for Government, the investment strategy and the Budget. The failure of Alliance Party Members to come up with anything new demonstrates that the real lack of innovative thinking lies with them.
The first claim that must be refuted is that the draft Budget is somehow unable to deliver economic growth in Northern Ireland. Given the comments made after the publication of the draft Budget — which has been branded the most economy-focused and business-friendly ever — that is a particularly peculiar claim. In some quarters, the draft Budget has even been branded Thatcherite and right wing.
It is worth recalling some comments that were made in the aftermath of the draft Budget’s publication, both in evidence to the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment and to the press. The Federation of Small Businesses offered an enthusiastic response to the proposals. The Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland said that it strongly supported the focus on productivity, strongly welcomed the increased commitment to Invest Northern Ireland and welcomed the increased resources being allocated to tourism. The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry welcomed the fact that the Executive regard the development of the economy as their top priority. Declan Billington of the Institute of Directors stated that the draft Budget would build confidence across the business community in Northern Ireland to join with Government in investing in our future. Finally, Michael Wightman of the Northern Ireland Manufacturing Focus Group said:
“The NIFMG is both relieved and delighted that … the Stormont Executive has listened to us … today’s draft Budget has given manufacturing a real boost.”
That view is consistent among Northern Ireland’s business leaders. I am sure that I will be forgiven for accepting the view of the local business community, as opposed to that of the Alliance Party, on the draft Budget’s ability to stimulate economic growth.
The second claim, which is trotted out ad infinitum by the Alliance Party, is that the draft Budget will not tackle the issue of resources being directed away from a divided society. I will not allow the hypocrisy of the Alliance Party to go unchallenged. Only a matter of weeks ago, on Tuesday 13 November, the Alliance Party voted for a club bank to assist the Irish-medium schools sector. That is a more divisive and costly example of a divided society. The Alliance Party cannot criticise the draft Budget and, at the same time, demand money to create more division. In yesterday’s debate, my colleague Peter Weir commented on how the Alliance Party’s cost-of-division dogma is becoming tiresome and compared its credibility to that of the promise of its sister party, the Liberal Democrats, to put 1p on income tax.
The draft Budget will be broadly welcomed across Northern Ireland. The cap on industrial rating at 30% demonstrates the Executive’s commitment to development and their consideration of the many costs that businesses face. People will be particularly pleased by the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s announcement of a three-year freeze in the regional rate. It is funny that, although some parties complain about the allocation to one Department or another, I hear few moaning about that freeze.
The Ulster Unionist Party claims that a financial package did not materialise, and it is worth elaborating on some of Mr Roy Beggs’s earlier comments. He talked about the lack of a “£1 billion financial package”. However, if the matter is to be discussed, it is worth basing it on fact. Ulster Unionist Party Members participated fully in negotiations when they trotted off to Downing Street with the rest of the political parties. Several core elements were negotiated, including guaranteed flat real growth, an additional £100 million each year over the CSR period, access to additional spending under end-year flexibility of £320 million and the retention of asset sales of £500 million.
In negotiations on the CSR, the Minister of Finance and Personnel achieved £443 million over and above the previous CSR guarantee, access to additional end-year funding of almost £300 million and access to over £100 million of borrowing on reinvestment and reform initiatives.
Perhaps my mathematics are better than those of the Member for East Antrim Roy Beggs, but I am sure that that adds up to well in excess of £1 billion.
Will the Member tell the House what is the amount of new money, instead of talking about recycled money from selling off our assets? It is normal practice that one can reinvest assets in other capital projects. Moreover, end-year flexibility is normally provided, once applied for. I accept that £100 million has been provided, but where is the £1 billion of new money, rather than recycled money?
The Member might be confusing the rules of assets sales with those that he has experienced at local council level, and perhaps he is not aware of the Treasury’s rules. Perhaps the Member does not want poorly utilised assets to be sold on, and the money to be reclaimed.
Does the Member agree with his leader, Ian Paisley, who, after the Chancellor’s announcement about the supposed extra £1 billion — over four years, mark you — said:
“Progress has been made in some areas, but I do not believe there is anything in the present proposals of the Chancellor which will lead to the step change in the economy that is needed”?
No package; no £1 billion — that is why we are scrabbling for money.
I wonder whether, as he looks at quotes from various people over the years, Basil McCrea is aware of the gestation period that applied to the financial package. Prior to devolution, a Programme for Government Committee met in the Assembly, of which the various parties were members. I asked the other parties to hold back from going into Government until we secured a satisfactory package, but none of them supported that. Indeed, Mr McNarry publicly attacked the DUP for its position of holding out to get more money from the Chancellor.
We all recall how the Ulster Unionist Party was itching to jump into Government at the last election, irrespective of a financial package or the actions of the republican movement. The Ulster Unionists were dying to get into Government, although now it seems that some of them are dying to get out. It is unreal that the Ulster Unionist Party levels any criticism at the DUP Benches, given its total failure to even raise the issue of a financial package —
No; I have given way enough.
The final — and outrageous — claim that must be tackled is that the health budget has been poorly funded. I am staggered and astonished that anyone could consider an allocation that represents 51·5% of all additional money, and 48% of Northern Ireland’s total Budget, as a bad deal. Expenditure on health and social care in Northern Ireland is over 10% higher than in England, which is a trend that the Budget will continue. Spending on health has more than doubled since 2001, yet no one would argue that the NHS is performing twice as well. That proves Appleby’s point that the key is not the amount of resources, but how they are utilised.
Instead of adopting Oliver Twist’s begging-bowl approach, the Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety should address the serious inefficiencies in the NHS in Northern Ireland: staff productivity; consultant productivity; hospital throughput; average length of stay in hospital; and prescription charges; are all worse than in England. I sense that the Minister has not got the stomach for the challenge, but in the spirit of generosity — and for the betterment of the people of Northern Ireland — I extend a helping hand to him. If the Minister has not got the bottle to do it, there are Members who will help. The Members who made those claims must state from which Departments they would take resources for jobs, schools or planning.
I hear OFMDFM being suggested as the place where the money should be taken from, as if taking money away from there would be a positive thing. I am sure that the Member will revisit his comments when he considers that responsibility for the innocent victims of terrorist violence is included within OFMDFM.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Just as I dared to doze, things started to liven up. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún. [Interruption.] Say nothing.
After yesterday’s debate on the draft Programme for Government it is clear that there are tensions and difficulties in trying to reconcile the vision that is set out in it with the investment strategy. There are clearly difficulties in trying to reconcile the differences between departmental bids and the aspirations set out in the departmental Budget statements.
There is also concern in the community about the impact of the draft Budget, particularly on funding for community projects, which will undoubtedly be covered in the consultations between now and the new year. I wish to mention some of the issues that have been brought to my attention, both as Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson and as one of the six MLAs for North Belfast.
We need to decide on an approach to healthy living, as opposed to solely tackling ill health. Our approach to health provision and social care is deficient, and the challenge for the Assembly is in how we tackle that. Members will expect me to say this, but I do want to see the implementation of Bairbre de Brún’s Investing for Health strategy.
Prevention should be at the heart of our approach to the inequalities in health and how they can be addressed. Forty-eight per cent of the overall Budget is dedicated to health and social care, yet there is still massive under-resourcing and difficulty in the Health Service. The public has huge interest in proper investment in the Health Service, particularly in mental health, and yet there is a shortfall in the bid for mental health and the implementation of the Bamford Review, which has caused a lot of concern. I appeal to the Department of Health and the Minister to find a resolution.
There must be a reconciliation of the 2013 Bamford target in the draft Programme for Government and the two Bamford bids. That is crucial to meeting the aspirations of those working in mental health and restoring public confidence. Anything less will ensure that the mental-health service will remain “the Cinderella service”.
Ill health reduces economic activity, and the evidence shows that mental illness reduces economic output, so greater investment in health is a strategic measure for improving economic performance. There are clearly gaps between the funds that are available for service development and the totals required.
The Department for Social Development also causes concern in the community. Although DSD received an additional £27 million a few weeks ago in the last monitoring round, there has been a proposal to cut the warm homes scheme by 50%, as well as an inability to deliver social and affordable homes in the new-build programme. DSD has more assets, land and properties than any other Department. The draft Programme for Government states that:
“Inequalities exist, and we must strive to eliminate all forms of inequality.”
However, in the area-at-risk programme, £3 million of funding was skewed towards loyalist areas. There is grave concern about that, about the blatant disregard for objective need as a criterion and about how equality for all plays out in communities.
The voluntary and community sectors, most of which provide excellent and invaluable support for all the people, require services that need to be supported on a long-term basis instead of the piecemeal approach that has drawn complaints recently. The overarching responsibility of the Executive is to proactively change the existing patterns of social disadvantage, not to replicate them.
The Department for Social Development’s Minister is a member of the Executive — sometimes — and has responsibility for that commitment. How will the circle be squared? How will we explain that to the people who are on the housing waiting list in north Belfast? Anything from 76% to 85% of nationalists are waiting for a home, and a right to a home is enshrined in human rights legislation.
Everyone agrees that there is not enough money in the draft Budget. We must examine the legacy of underfunding, and deprivation in infrastructure and social services. Every Department faces tough decisions. There is a need to show creativity and imagination — and no need for scaremongering. We need leadership, and not emotional blackmail. The unofficial opposition must tell us what they intend to do, instead of what they do not.
I support the take-note debate on the draft Budget.
The draft Budget and draft Programme for Government have been set against a backdrop of tight financial settlements. When we consider all that the documents contain, it is obvious that a mid- to long-term view has been taken in producing the draft. However, it is such a pity that some in the Assembly are so short-sighted that they cannot see that the aim is a sustainable development, growth and expansion of Northern Ireland’s economy. Perhaps after today’s debate they will clearly see the true scope and vision of the proposals.
Although it must be remembered that Northern Ireland’s public money does not come from a bottomless pit, the variety and scope of the draft programme is truly great. It includes the expansion of the infrastructure needed to satisfy modern investment; deferring water rates — indeed reducing them; increasing the educational attainment of our young people; reducing levels of poverty; increasing the levels of economic activity; protecting our environment; reducing the number of deaths on our roads; reducing treatment times and increasing the survival rate of bowel cancer and strokes. All that has come from an Assembly in which there are still critics.
If the draft Budget lacks vision, I fail to see how and where. Improvements are envisaged in every Department — something that cannot be said about direct-rule policies. Most of all, Northern Ireland’s own elected representatives have devised and agreed the draft Budget to fund the draft Programme for Government. That is an achievement that some Members fail to recognise. Perhaps they do not have seats at the Executive table and, therefore, have decided instead to be negative.
I am proud to be a Member of an Assembly that has such a vision for Northern Ireland. It has identified the very real needs that exist in the Province, has the courage to develop unique policies that can begin to address those needs and is delivering the government for which it was democratically elected by the people of Northern Ireland.
As the First Minister said on 8 May 2007, we are only at the beginning of the process of developing Northern Ireland to ensure a stable economy, respect and equality for all, increased opportunity, a rise in the level of economic activity, the provision of good healthcare and a pleasant environment to live in. That begins with this draft Budget.
I support the draft Budget and the motion.
The debate provides me with a further opportunity to highlight the real difficulties that the draft Budget creates for the Health Service. Furthermore, it allows me to respond to some of the naïve comments that were made in the Chamber yesterday. As the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, it is my duty to set out the perspective as I find it on the ground.
As an Executive, we have a shared objective to ensure that people have access to the best health and social care services possible within the resources available. We need an informed debate based on the real world. I do not ask for the sun, the moon and the seven stars. I have reduced my bids to levels that could be met without catastrophe either for the ratepayer or for any other area of public services. I am as committed as anyone to securing reform, efficiency and productivity.
I know that there are limits on what is possible, and that we all face difficult choices. Who knows what the position could have been if economic packages had been delivered as promised by some?
There is a cross-party consensus at Westminster, supported by independent experts, that the National Health Service model requires significant investment. Moreover, it is agreed that radical action is needed to promote prevention and reform to make the system better for patients. I am committed to doing just that.
The outcome of the comprehensive spending review has reflected that, with a 3·7% real-terms increase in England over the next three years. In Northern Ireland, where the need is greater, the increase is only 1%.
I believe passionately in the principles of the National Health Service: that it must be free at the point of use, and provide services from the cradle to the grave. If we fail to adequately fund the Health Service in Northern Ireland, those principles will be at risk, and we would be undermining the service for those who depend on it the most. Frankly, that is not acceptable.
Health is not about politics; it is about saving lives. That there has been so much debate about funding proves how important this issue is. I have no problem working with the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the Health Committee, and others, and, indeed, I welcome their assistance in attempting to reach a solution.
There have been comments to the effect that, despite high levels of funding, the Health Service has not improved. People have complained that the service is over-bureaucratic, inefficient and ineffective. Let us remember the dire situation that we faced five years ago: horrendous trolley waits, growing waiting lists, and a service that was not performing. Things have changed for the better, and the facts prove that. For example, in March 2006, there were 74,000 people waiting for more than six months for a first outpatient appointment. By March this year, that total had fallen to only 32. Trolley waits are being eradicated, there will be a maximum of a four-hour wait in accident and emergency by March 2008, and delayed discharges are being eliminated. Of course, I could go on, but the point is that this is not all about money.
Tackling inefficiencies is essential. About £115 million of savings have already been achieved. I am committed to delivering a further £343 million of savings over the next three years, including in administration costs. Approximately £500 million of savings will be found and pumped back into essential front line services. That will not be easy. Difficult decisions must be made. However, I will make them. If I am able to achieve more efficiencies, I will do so. However, my priority is to safeguard the quality of patient care — not simply to make cuts.
Much has also been said about needs, and there has been a dispute about the level of need. There should not be a dispute. Professor John Appleby’s report, ‘Independent Review of Health and Social Care Services in Northern Ireland’, highlighted a greater need in Northern Ireland. Officials in my Department and in the Department of Finance and Personnel considered the need identified by the Appleby steering group, and agreed that the best available estimate is of a 14% to 15% greater need in Northern Ireland.
Compared to England, no one can dispute the fact that our Health Service is underfunded by £300 million. Neither is there any disagreement that, in just three years time, the draft Budget will leave the Health Service with a massive £600 million funding gap. However, I do not wish to get sidetracked by numbers. This is not about figures, it is about need, and no one should be in any doubt about that. The growing gap between services here and in the rest of the UK is not acceptable. Our people deserve better. They pay taxes and National Insurance like everyone else in the UK — why should they be penalised?
Let us compare health services in Northern Ireland and England. It is simply unacceptable that, if we had the same rate of deaths from heart disease as the rest of the UK, 300 fewer people would die each year in Northern Ireland. If we had the same adoption rates as England, another 50 to 60 children in care would be adopted each year. It is not acceptable that waiting times for all services are much longer in Northern Ireland. Death rates from bowel cancer are 16% higher than the UK average. When adjusted for need, funding for mental-health and learning-disability services is approximately 34% lower than in England. The gap in children’s services is similar.
I intend to make the best use of all the resources at my disposal. Additional resources that have been added to my budget amount to £455 million by year 3. That is not even enough to meet the inescapable pressures of pay, price, demography and existing commitments. I must use the major part of my efficiency savings to cover inescapable costs, which leaves only £16 million in year 1 to introduce and improve services. The draft Programme for Government sets out the improvements that I wish to make to a range of services, such as mental health, learning disability, community, stroke and cancer services —
Let me finish.
Most of those improvements will not be in place until 2011. With only £16 million available next year, this is effectively a stand-still Budget for the next two years in respect of health.
Let me be clear also about some of the things that I cannot do. I will not be able to improve hospital waiting times.
Mr Speaker, I am not giving way.
People with mental-health and learning-disability problems will remain in hospitals. The introduction of free prescriptions, free eye examinations and free personal care are all unaffordable. Measures to reduce death rates from cancer and heart disease cannot be implemented. Additional, specialist, salaried foster-carers to support children on the edge of care will not be provided. The breast-cancer screening programme cannot be extended to include women aged between 65 and 70. Access to new, life-changing drugs will be deferred or delayed, and at least 3,000 people with chronic illnesses will have unnecessary hospital admissions.
That list is unacceptable to Members and to the public. This Budget is only a draft, and it is a basis for consultation with the Assembly and the general public. That fact was confirmed by the Executive at last Thursday’s meeting. Resources can be changed through consultation, not through scaremongering or through talk about tripling the rates, but by re-examining our priorities.
I will play my part in delivering exceptionally challenging efficiency savings and improving productivity in the National Health Service in Northern Ireland. However, if the draft Budget is approved as it stands, a conscious decision will have been taken to ignore the advice of independent and highly regarded experts, such as Wanless and Appleby. Those experts have told us consistently that higher levels of resources are needed to deal with demographic trends and the cost of new technologies.
I would be failing in my role as Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety if I did not continue to fight for a better Health Service. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better; they deserve a Health Service of which we can all be proud. If the draft Budget is approved as it stands, everyone will lose. Health is the one issue that touches everyone in society. My priorities are putting patients first and delivering a world-class Health Service.
Frankly, this draft Budget fails to deliver for the Health Service and for the people of Northern Ireland.
I wish to make some remarks as Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and I will make others as an SDLP Member for Foyle.
The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment has benefited from hearing the views of several stakeholders, and more briefing sessions have been promised. The Committee welcomes the fact that growing the economy is a top priority in the Programme for Government and that that is reflected in the Budget.
The draft Budget proposals for the Department provide resource and capital allocations that broadly align with what the Committee generally considers to be the Department’s key spending priorities in contributing to growing a dynamic, innovative economy. The Committee notes that the funding for INI is more securely based than it was under the previous concordat. However, we recognise that some of the spirit of the concordat remains in the industrial development guarantee, which provides that no worthwhile proposal for eligible support to investment in industry or tradable services will be lost, even if that means diverting other resources.
The Committee wants to ensure that, if the need to resort to that industrial development guarantee should arise — possibly as a result of great success following the US/NI investment conference — it would not be used at the expense of some of the other budget commitments relating to cross-cutting efforts on skills, wider economic development, research and development, training and innovation. Those matters are integral to growing the innovative economy.
The Committee has noted with some concern that no specific identifiable resources have been allocated so far to local enterprise and the social economy. We will be examining that area in the hope that that will be changed.
Yesterday, in the debate on the draft Programme for Government, I recorded concern about innovation funding. In a high-profile announcement, the former Chancellor allocated money for innovation, and further moneys were allocated in support of innovation from the Irish Government. Additional money has been provided for innovation, but there is no visible additional innovation funding in the Budget. The Committee wants to be assured that the new innovation funding is not being used to cover pre-existing innovation funds. The Committee hopes that work on that issue will be more visible and positive by the time of the revised Budget.
There are resource and capital allocations that will enable the Tourist Board to improve its role. The Committee is disappointed that so far there has been no indication of any bids that were made to support the regional tourism partnerships, and it is not clear what allocations they will receive. The Tourist Board has an important job, as does Tourism Ireland, but the regional tourism partnerships also have an important role to play, both locally and in making sure that there is good meshing between Tourism Ireland and the Tourist Board.
The Committee wants money to go specifically to tourism product development. I noted what the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment said about that this morning in his statement. Therefore, the Committee looks forward to positive engagement on that issue.
We recognise that moneys are being provided for the five signature projects. I champion the importance of the Walled City signature tourism project in my constituency, which has made good progress compared to other projects. However, that does not mean that it is not in need of more funding and more backing. Obviously, there are issues about the funding gap for the Titanic Quarter. We will also wait with interest to find out what is happening regarding the allocation that is provided for the Giant’s Causeway visitors’ centre. Money that we were told was earmarked for the public-sector project is still there, so Members will be interested to find out what happens to that.
The Committee welcomes the fact that Safe Start NI will receive funding in year 2 of the cycle; however, we would have preferred that that take place in the first year of this spending round.
The Committee is concerned about unmet bids from the Department regarding EU structural funds. The Department will have a managing and certifying role for the competitiveness programme, yet there are no new resources to meet that new role. Similarly, there was a high discretionary administration bid regarding obligations under the energy end-use efficiency and energy services directive, and that has not been met either. Those are both important areas.
Regarding EU funding, the Committee recognises that DETI is benefiting considerably from the Peace III programme. We also recognise that different parties and other sectors might have different views of that. Those views might be reflected by other Departments during the course of the draft Budget. If there is any revisiting of the share of the Peace III funding that has been envisaged for DETI, and if that is to go to some other Department’s budget lines, my Committee will want that transfer made good in the DETI budget lines so that the purposes and priorities of the Programme for Government are properly reflected.
Suggestions were made last night and elsewhere that Members are not allowed to have the view that there can be any improvement or any material revision of either the draft Budget or the draft Programme for Government. Clearly, improvement and revision are required. It is the Assembly’s job to contribute to such consultation and such reconsideration. Parties cannot say that it is their way and their say only, and that no other Members are allowed to have an alternative view.
When the draft Budget and the draft Programme for Government were being presented, the Ministers went out of their way to misrepresent the record of the previous Executive and, in particular, to attack other parties. They cannot then insist that those other parties do not have the right to outline their views of the draft Budget.
Mr Speaker, we recognise your ruling regarding amendments, and I fully understand and accept the reason for that ruling.
Some of us have been at pains to highlight the inadequacy, as we see it, of the allocations for health and housing. In this, the SDLP is consistent with the position it adopted and agreed with other parties in the Committee on the Preparation for Government and the Committee on the Programme for Government. In those Committees, we expressed our views on how negotiations with the Treasury might best be conducted and how input from the Irish Government should be maximised. Other parties disagreed. Perhaps, had our preferred tactics been adopted, there might have been a better outcome. Nevertheless, although different views on tactics were held, we did nothing to interfere with the negotiating stance taken by those who had to take the lead in the Northern Ireland interest.
We were not out to create problems or difficulties. The same is true of the submissions to the Varney Review. On the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, I ensured that nothing was done to queer the pitch for the Executive and their negotiating position on behalf of the broad regional interest.
It is with that record of responsibility on those issues that the SDLP insists that it has the absolute right to interrogate the details of the draft Budget. If we did not do so, we would not be doing our job. In looking at the draft Budget, we have the right to say that more money is needed up front for housing. I also ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether money emerging from the work of the capital realisation task force could go into the housing budget. Will he indicate whether there is a golden rule in relation to the capital realisation task force whereby moneys so realised should be spent only as capital and not on programmes?
Also, there is no mention in the Programme for Government or draft Budget about what will happen with respect to replacing the 11-plus — it is obvious that that will have consequences for the Budget. The draft Budget also includes allocations that presume significant efficiency savings in a number of Departments; however, we are not sure whether all those efficiency savings will be made. If they are not made, there will be a hole in the Budget. Therefore, at whose expense will that be? At one level, I hope that it will not be at the expense of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
In circumstances in which Committees have not been fully informed about the full implications of those efficiency savings, Members would be wrong to nod through this draft Budget, on the blind, without asking any further questions.
In this House, Members have the right to raise issues, not just to praise Ministers.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. To set the context, I must repeat some of the comments that I made yesterday during the debate on the draft Programme for Government.
The Committee is now well into the process of responding to the draft Budget; however, as I said yesterday, that work will not be complete until tomorrow when the Committee will have an opportunity to discuss final matters with the Minister.
Following on from what Mark Durkan has said; this is a take-note debate on a draft Budget that has been published for consultation. It is important that our concerns as individual Members, Committee members, or Chairpersons should be raised as part of the consultation process.
When the Committee for Employment and Learning took evidence from departmental representatives on the draft Budget, the representatives expressed the view that they had achieved a mid-ranking result as regards CSR bid outcomes. They believe that they won on a number of issues, but that there were others in which they could have achieved better outcomes. The Committee’s overarching sense is that the allocation, while strong in places, will not be sufficient to meet the goals and targets in the draft Programme for Government for economic development.
In particular, although the Committee welcomes the emphasis on an issue that was to be delivered by the Department, there is concern that the moneys allocated to delivering the skills requirement could fall short of achieving the synergy that is necessary between business growth and skills development.
The Committee is concerned that unless the skills base exists to pre-empt, or meet, opportunities, investors could be frustrated and opportunities could be missed. A number of specific issues illustrate that concern. Yesterday, during the debate on the draft Programme for Government, I mentioned the discrepancy between the programme’s goals relating to R&D and innovation, and the apparent lack of resources — or at least, the lack of clarity on resources. The moneys available for innovation appear to be inadequate to advance the cutting-edge research in universities and in the private sector that the Executive tell us is required to bring about the transformation of our traditional economy into a knowledge-based one.
The Committee is aware that there are opportunities available, for example, via the Science Foundation Ireland, but they are narrow. The Committee urges the Executive to be creative in ensuring that investment in research and development is prioritised in the short and medium term to secure longer-term economic gains.
The commitment to PhDs in the Programme for Government is an unfunded bid. The Committee has heard that a proportion of the funding for innovation will be utilised to meet that goal, but we are concerned that that would spread an already thin amount of money even more thinly. The Department said that there is a small amount of unallocated money from bids that could be used for PhDs, and the Committee would welcome any movement in that direction.
Since devolution, much has been made of the need to re-skill the workforce. The recent Leitch Review sets the context and establishes challenging targets. However, a comprehensive spending review bid from the Department for foreign direct investment for the employer support programme for further education has not been funded. The Committee is concerned that we could be facing a serious gap in adult training and apprenticeships generally.
In addition, the critical sector initiatives, which is a programme designed specifically to pre-empt and prepare for foreign direct investment, has received only £9 million over three years and nothing in the first year. The Department’s original bid was for £24 million over three years, so less than 40% of the bid has been achieved. [Interruption.]
That was Sir Reg Empey thanking me for fighting his corner.
A major part of the Leitch Review focuses on essential skills. As I said yesterday, the Committee has grave concerns on the Budget allocation to deliver on this vital component. The Department has said that, to an extent, it speculated and overbid — which the Finance Minister will appreciate — which, looking closely at the numbers, may be the case. Nevertheless, the Department said that it believes that it has sufficient funding for essential skills. I will ensure that the Committee keeps this issue live on our work programme to assess whether that is indeed the case.
The Committee fully supports the Department’s bid to include information and communications technologies as a third essential skill. However, only £5 million of an £11·4 million bid has been received, which is approximately 40% over the next three years. The most worrying aspect is that there is not even a baseline budget dedicated to that issue and nothing has been secured for the first year. The Committee is concerned that the Department will struggle to deliver on that important programme.
In addition to those broad economic and skills-related themes, there are other draft Budget issues that I would like to raise.
Issues arose at Committee meetings relating to further and higher education organisations that the Department says are autonomous. Although the Committee accepts that universities and colleges should be commercially autonomous, it is concerned that the Department could be losing control of significant social goals. That may be an issue for the further education sector rather than the universities. For example, concession rates offered by colleges are an important way of facilitating training for particular groups, such as people on benefits, yet there is no consistency in applying concession rates. The Committee has a general concern that budgetary autonomy may not always work to deliver important goals related to social cohesion. The Committee wishes to see clear incentives for further and higher education institutions to tackle social inequalities, and we would like to see those evidenced soon.
Turning to issues in higher education, the Committee has concerns that potential changes and the widening of the upper and lower income thresholds would require an additional £18 million over the next three years. The Committee has been informed that bids to meet this need are unfunded. The Committee does not wish to see any detriment to local students’ maintenance arrangements and would ask that this situation be urgently addressed.
At least today’s debate has been a bit more measured than yesterday’s debate on the draft Programme for Government. I do not doubt that that is partly due to the fact that some of those who thought, yesterday, that they could be in Government and in opposition at the same time, now begin to realise the consequences of that ludicrous and contradictory stance. Perhaps that will enable us to have a more measured debate on the draft Budget.
I agree with the leader of the SDLP that the Assembly’s job in when looking at the draft Budget is not simply to rubber-stamp it and to say, “Yes, that is great, everything is OK.” The job is to interrogate the draft Budget. It is a draft Budget. There are opportunities to see whether some priorities should be dropped and other measures brought forward as new priorities; to see whether there are ways in which money could be better allocated; and to ask some pertinent questions that, undoubtedly, will be answered later by the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
However, some of the Members who have spoken today are still living off the old, tired arguments. They really think that today’s debate is an opportunity to simply hold out their hands and say that they want more, because they are afraid to take any hard decisions. There are those who still hark back to something for which they have been programmed. When I talk about someone who has been programmed, the first person whom I think of is the Member for East Antrim Mr Beggs, who shares my constituency. He was programmed a long time ago when someone mentioned an “economic package” to him. Ever since then, he has had a fixation with that economic package. On each occasion when the Minister of Finance and Personnel has been present in the Chamber — whether he has been talking about the draft Budget or not — Mr Beggs has mentioned the economic package. I suspect that he may even talk about it in his sleep; I do not know. [Interruption.]
I can assure Members that I do not know whether he speaks about it in his sleep. [Laughter.] I am saying that just in case rumours start.
There are two ways of judging whether the current package is better, and is an advance on what we had previously. The first way is to compare it with that which was received by previous Administrations. A number of Ulster Unionist Party Assembly Members have talked about the importance of the economic package. Let us consider the economic package that they delivered to the people of Northern Ireland. [Interruption.]
I am going to talk about the other way in a moment.
In order to be able to use the assets that Mr Beggs and Mr Basil McCrea have said should be ours of right, they had to agree, under the reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI), to put up the rates at three times the rate of inflation. That is the type of economic package that the members of the Ulster Unionist Party negotiated at a time — [Interruption.]
Just let me finish this first. [Interruption.]
For goodness’ sake, let me finish. The Treasury was flush with money, and spending across all the regions of the United Kingdom was going up at twice or three times the rate of inflation. That was the time when one would have thought that they could have squeezed the most out of the Government at Westminster. Yet, that did not happen. Nevertheless, during that period, before devolution was set up — and it has already been set out and, therefore, I am not going to go through it again — the end-year flexibility; the £100 million addition to the CSR moneys coming through; the release of asset sales; the access to end-year flexibility; and, on top of that, in the current CSR negotiations, the additional moneys that came through —
I will give way in a minute, when I have finished this.
All those things have added to the package. Is it as much as we wanted? It would never be as much as we would want. Is it more than the Ulster Unionist Party got? Yes — of course it is more than the Ulster Unionist Party got. That is how it should be judged.
Does the Member accept that the borrowing that is proposed will avail of the same interest rates that were negotiated by the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP? Those were essentially Bank of England base rates, meaning that we would pay the same amount for the money that was borrowed from the Treasury.
Secondly, the other money that has been included in this Budget is the cashback from the sale of Civil Service properties under Workplace 2010. We do not yet know how much we will have to pay above the base rate for that money. Does the Member not accept that the people of Northern Ireland will pay more for that additional money than they would previously have paid?
Are we getting more money or are we not getting more money? The fact is that more resources are coming through. Furthermore, we will not have to impose additional taxation on people in Northern Ireland for the right to access that money.
Just in case anyone ever watches what goes on in the Assembly and, if they do, is so demented that they believe the Member for East Antrim Mr Beggs, let us make it clear that under Workplace 2010, the £200 million will come directly to us. It is not being borrowed. It is going directly into the accounts of Northern Ireland plc to be used by us. It is money in our pockets that does not have to be paid back.
I appreciate the Minister of Finance and Personnel keeping me right on the matter; I did not know that.
Secondly, we are hearing a refinement on the argument about the size of the public sector. Yesterday, the Member for East Belfast Ms Purvis made an economically illiterate speech in which she seemed to say that government in Northern Ireland is not big enough and that she wanted bigger government. She should join the Khmer Rouge — “Pol Pot Purvis” might be a more appropriate name for her.
Dr Farry spoke the same language today. He tells us that it is not that the public sector is too big, but that the private sector is too small. He does not realise that in all economics such choices must be made. He should have attended my economics classes when I was teaching production possibility curves. I could have explained it to him in diagrammatic form.
The truth of the matter is that in order to redirect resources from one activity to another, there are choices to make. Those choices have to be made in this Budget. That is where the Member for South Belfast, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, who intervened as a Back Bencher today, got it all wrong. He said that resources can be redirected, but he did not tell us how. He is right: we can move from one resource allocation to another, but he did not tell us who he wants to take the money from. He said only that the people of Northern Ireland deserve better.
The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than a Minister who is getting 51% of the increase of all the money coming into Northern Ireland over the next three years but who says that he cannot manage. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than a Minister who, having been presented with a report saying that £400 million in savings can be made in his Department immediately, will not look for those savings.
The people of Northern Ireland deserve far better than a Minister whose Department absorbs the biggest part of the Northern Ireland Budget, yet who still holds out the begging bowl. They deserve far better than a Minister who wants to pillage everyone else’s budgets without dealing with his own. Perhaps the best thing that he could do to give the people of Northern Ireland a better deal is to resign and let the Member for North Down who wanted the Department in the first place take over.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. People have placed enormous faith in Members. They have elected us to bring an end to the nightmare years of direct rule, when Ministers with no interest in this place flew in, made decisions that changed our lives and flew out again. Those decisions were usually bad ones that left a legacy of neglect and underinvestment. Those Ministers also showed arrogance when dealing with locally elected politicians.
To put right the legacy with which we have been left will require our adopting an imaginative approach. Although there are many issues that can be considered absolute priorities, we will inevitably have to take responsibility for dealing with the burden with which we have been left.
When we examine the Assembly’s list of priorities, we all shout for our own corner. We have our own priorities, and we hope that the Minister will look favourably on our particular issue.
I argued in the House yesterday that the promises contained in the draft Programme for Government and draft investment strategy did not contain the resources necessary to deal with the housing crisis in the immediate or long term. I said that, over the next 15 years, a well-funded, well-resourced and well-thought-out strategy was required to allow us to plan the type of communities in which we want to live. It is not simply about building houses in isolation but about building communities, including mixed-tenure housing, with the infrastructure to develop and prosper. That requires a commitment from the Executive to plan, finance and develop the communities of the future. From the draft Budget to the final Budget, we will sow the seeds of the future. There is an expectation that we will deliver what is necessary to help the hard-pressed first-time buyers on to the property ladder through creating an effective affordability sector.
We must fulfil our promises of delivering for the social-housing sector, which has been decimated over the years. Some parts of the North have had no new social housing in many years. It is essential that at least 2,500 new homes be built every year for the foreseeable future in order to deal with the legacy of neglect. In 1971, the Housing Executive built 9,500 houses, yet the Minister for Social Development told us that no new social housing may be built next year.
Rather than blame everyone else, the Minister for Social Development must trawl her own budget to ensure that she maximises her resources. She must ensure that there is no wastage in her Department. She is the Minister; she must show the leadership that comes with her title rather than place the blame elsewhere for the problems that fall within her remit. That is what leadership is about.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel mentioned yesterday that additional resources that the Minister for Social Development has at hand would allow her to deal with some of the issues facing her Department. Will Minister of Finance and Personnel comment further on that?
I deal with people who have been in hostels for years. They have little prospect of being housed, because they happen to live in areas of high demand. The housing selection scheme cannot help them, because they need 180 points or more to compete with another 10 people for the same two-bedroom house. Do we tell those people that we are sorry, but we do not have the money to build them a home? What about elderly people who live in a flat or house that is totally unsuited to their needs, or people with disabilities who need their homes specially adapted? The social-development budget has been slashed due to lack of funding. Do we tell those people that we are sorry, but we cannot help them? Real people are being affected by the decisions that we make. That is the harsh reality of setting budgets. The Housing Executive has told us —
Cash and land is being made available to the Minister for Social Development, but she has not even looked at the cash assets of many housing associations. She has given me 15 reasons why she cannot touch them but not one reason why she can. If she added all those sources of money together, the housing programme could be delivered.
That is one of the difficulties that we face. The Minister for Social Development has been blaming everyone else, instead of trying to deal with the situation.
Sammy, it is a fact of life that, as well as that money, at least another £300 million a year would be needed to start to deal with the severe housing crisis. A mixture of both is required. Obviously, assets exist, but a new injection of resources and finance is needed to deal with the situation.
We have been told by the Housing Executive and the Minister for Social Development that the adaptations programme is another programme that will be impacted on because there is no new money to support it. Could the Minister of Finance and Personnel please comment on that?
The community sector has always been the victim of cuts at Budget time. Given that that sector provides a much-needed service in the community and shows huge commitment and dedication to the most deprived areas of the North, it is shameful that, when money becomes scarce, the community sector is the first to suffer as a result of departmental cuts. Such cuts have a knock-on effect on the community that the sector serves. As ever, it is the weakest in the community who ultimately pay the price.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the community sector; it runs the youth clubs, the crèches, the community houses, the outreach programmes, services for the old and the young, to name but a few. We should ensure that funding for such projects continues rather than allow them to become the victims of cutbacks.
I am not sure whether Mr McGimpsey spoke as an ordinary MLA or as a Minister when he delivered his speech on health, but I regret that I missed it. I had a meeting with a group of women from the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre in Belfast. That group of ladies require immediate funding if their organisation is to survive; it is in crisis. It provides a unique service to all women, and, indeed men, across Northern Ireland who experience rape, abuse or sexual violence in their lifetime.
Each year, the centre deals with approximately 6,000 calls — to and from clients — about sexual violence and abuse. Some 55% of the centre’s clients have experienced child sexual abuse. Each year, nearly 2,000 new clients contact the centre, and nearly half of them will visit the centre at least once. The centre requires mainstream funding, and it is essential that the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre be allowed to continue its important work of providing care for those who are in deep crisis. That work cuts across many departments and areas, including health, education and social development, and I appeal for that money to be found in the various Departments, if at all possible.
As party spokesperson on health, the bulk of my remarks will refer to the health sector. Although I welcome the strong economic focus in the draft Programme for Government and draft Budget, I am also encouraged that health has obtained such a large slice of the overall resource cake. I am keen to see the maximum amount of resources directed towards health, and no doubt we could always make use of more. However, it is clear from the proportion of the Budget that has been allocated to health and social services — about half of the resources available — that a strong emphasis has been placed on health.
I hear the calls for greater allocations for social housing and other worthy causes. I recognise the merit of those calls, but I hope that that will not lead to the draft Budget’s percentage of spend on health being reduced in the final Budget.
I want to see a better Health Service, not an increasingly expensive one. Improving productivity is the key and will ensure that the public get the maximum out of the service for the money going into it.
I appreciate and understand everything that the Member has said. However, does she not also agree that housing is a cross-cutting issue? If people do not have a house, it impacts on their health, education and employment possibilities. A holistic approach is needed to deal with this matter.
I thank the Member for his intervention, and I could not agree more that health is not simply a stand-alone issue. It is a cross-sectoral issue, which involves other Departments and impacts on recreation and leisure, and so on. I will come to that point if I am allowed to move on.
Transformation, which would increase productivity, cannot be put off indefinitely. Radical reform is essential. There must be innovation and incentives. The resignation of David Sissling, chief executive designate of the new health authority, is exactly the sort of development of which I have been fearful. It was a coup for Northern Ireland to have attracted someone of David Sissling’s calibre to the local Health Service. However, it was inevitable that he would not hang around forever while the Minister delayed his getting on with his work. I fear that unless there is swift progress on health reform, others could follow Mr Sissling. General practitioners and other health professionals who are involved in local commissioning groups are also being denied the opportunity to get on with their work.
I have a strong interest in mental-health issues, as do other members of the Health Committee. The Committee is determined to see the recommendations of the Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability implemented quickly. The Committee was somewhat surprised to learn that the Minister made one upfront bid for mental health to DFP, for £12 million, and then mental health did not feature again until his seventeenth bid. Even more surprisingly, some of the plans contained in the two bids, referred to as “Bamford 1” and “Bamford 2”, appear to have little to do with the vision and thrust of the Bamford Review. The Bamford Review was about redirecting resources from the acute sector into the community. However, the bids included the building of new facilities and autism issues, despite the fact that the autism lobby has argued strongly that autism should be considered separate and distinct from mental health and learning disability.
Incidentally, it has proved difficult for Committee members to obtain information on figures. Details of the figures have been slow to come — emerging in just a trickle. In response to the gentleman from East Antrim, the Committee has not been able to obtain comparable figures or historic evidence of how bids have been pitched, or of the basis on which that was done. Perhaps he will take the time to seek that information from his colleague, who is the Minister at fault, instead of sniping at other Department’s Ministers.
No, I will not give way. The Member has spoken enough.
It is essential that mental health feature prominently in new service development. The many millions that have already been devoted to mental health in the draft Budget, when added to the extra funding, must be channelled towards the redirection of services.
Another concern is mental-health provision for the Province’s prisoners. The Assembly deserves answers on how that is to be funded, now that funding has been transferred from the Northern Ireland Office to the Health Department. There is already a huge need for mental-health resources without prison services having to be funded from the same pot.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Since the Chairman of the Health Committee got up to speak, the Member for Strangford Mr McNarry has been sitting having a conversation with his back to the Chamber. Clearly, he wants to show his disrespect for the Member who is speaking. That should not be allowed in the Chamber.
For the third time, Mr Speaker, I want to ascertain whether the Northern Ireland Office will be providing the Health Department with the additional money that is necessary for the well-being and mental health of prisoners as part of the holistic approach to mental health.
Mental health must be considered holistically, and responsibility for it lies with other Departments as well as the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The Department of Education can play a role, particularly in relation to the promotion of good mental health and the delivery of aspects of the Bamford Review recommendations on child and adolescent mental health. Many other sectors can play a role in improving the overall well-being of the community. I welcome the investment from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to promote leisure and exercise. That shows the potential that can be gained from having more co-ordinated government.
Over the weekend, I was surprised to hear the Health Minister seek to blame the draft Budget for the delay in building the new women’s and children’s hospital in Belfast. It was only last week at a draft Budget briefing that his departmental officials informed the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety that their Department had done well in respect of the capital allocations that it had received in the draft Budget. Who does one believe? With regard to the children’s and women’s hospital, it remains to be seen how far up the Minister’s priority list that is, and whether there are other projects that he would like to see completed first. Given that the Jubilee Maternity Hospital on the Belfast City Hospital site was forced to close, it is essential that the new regional centre be delivered promptly.
Mr Speaker, will I be allowed extra time because of the interference during my contribution?
The Health Committee was also interested to learn that the departmental officials were going to reassess some of the bids that were made to the Department of Finance and Personnel, which were originally referred to as inescapable or unavoidable. We have been informed by the Department of Health that some of their inescapables may not have been inescapable. Strange though that may appear, it will at least allow more funding to be made available for new service development than had been indicated, and that will be welcomed by everyone. It would be welcome if that funding could be utilised for mental health.
I shall speak in a personal capacity, before moving on to business relating to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. This is a debate; it is what Members do in the Chamber. Yesterday, we had a debate — opinions were offered, and most were respectfully listened to. The Assembly reached a decision by a democratic vote, but the Finance Minister then rode in with a spurious points of order, which was not a point of order. The Robinsons are not having much success with point of order lately. Last night’s point of order was used to issue a warning or a veiled threat. The timing and the intention of that have not been lost on the Ulster Unionist Party.
Yesterday, almost every Department was criticised over the draft Programme for Government — and if you think differently, read Hansard. However, following the debate, there was no recognition of what was said during it; instead, we received a Darth Vader impression, warning that the Executive will fall without a Programme for Government. Now try that on, and it would be a signal to the Committees and to the House to pack up and go back to our constituency offices because remote control has returned, and all decision making will begin and end with the Executive — even draft consultative issues are not to be discussed in case anyone responds with constructive opposition.
Last night’s intervention came from a Member who, only a while ago, was not even going to enter an Executive, let alone an Executive with terrorists. However, only a short time ago, after claiming the credit for first mooting the idea of the need for a financial package in Dublin, the Member said that an adequate financial package was a necessary precondition for any restoration of devolution. That view was backed to the hilt by the Chairman of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, Mr McLaughlin, who said that the Government should put their money where their mouth is and give us the chance to deliver a Programme for Government, and not destroy our work before we start.
In February of this year, the ‘News Letter’ quoted a DUP source as saying that the financial package was a “deal breaker”, and that if the money for devolution was not right, there would be no Government. The source also stated that there was no point in setting up a Government to fall, and that if problems with water rates, hospitals, education, and roads were to be truly addressed, that could only be done properly with the appropriate financial package.
I have a litany of DUP and Sinn Féin statements and promises, but I cannot find evidence that either party has lived up to any of them. Are Members here to consult, through positive debate, on the draft Budget, or is this a sitting that is likely to decide the future of the Executive?
Of course it is not, because it is a draft Budget, and control freakery and ministerial codes cannot be used to restrict any Member from voicing his or her opinion in the Assembly. Ulster Unionists are not in a coalition: we are in an Executive as of right. Yesterday —
Yesterday, the First Minster told the House that the draft Programme for Government will be subjected to lengthy and full consultation. In contrast to other members of his party, he did not address the debate — amid the voices of argued opposition — from a position that the draft Programme for Government was not a draft at all.
Is the Minister of Finance and Personnel now stating that the full import of opposing views will not be considered as part of the consultation process? The First Minister’s approach to the debate was fair and balanced. He told Members of his vision, and he performed with the dignity that one associates with his high office. I suspect that, in marked contrast, the Minister of Finance and Personnel may be unable to match yesterday’s performance by the First Minister, which would be regrettable.
However, no one who spoke in today’s debate wanted to end up on the receiving end of personal abuse. The point is that the Ulster Unionist Party wants to analyse the draft Budget. We are striving to help by improving the draft Budget and making it more acceptable. I understand and appreciate the attitude of the DUP/Sinn Féin coalition that Departments must make do with what they have been allocated. However, the DUP and Sinn Féin have ownership of that comment, not the UUP. It will be up to them to explain why they did not tell the electorate that they would have to make do with much less than the minimum that people would have expected or are likely to tolerate. Let us see how it all works out.
From this point on, I am speaking on behalf of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. The Committee carefully considered the allocations to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in the draft Budget, and it has several serious concerns, because it has received no information on how the allocations to arts, sports, and so forth, will be spent. It is particularly difficult for the Committee to comment constructively on the draft Budget when it does not know which projects will be funded and which will not.
Overall, the draft Budget’s allocation to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is small and inadequate. DCAL suffers from the legacy that Government have consistently undervalued the contribution that culture, arts and leisure makes to all sectors of society. [Interruption.]
The Committee calls for an increase across the board in the Department’s budget.
The Committee is disappointed that the draft Budget does not bridge the gap in arts funding with the rest of the United Kingdom. I reiterate that I am speaking on behalf of the Committee, whose report I have been asked to deliver to the House. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker, on one occasion when you sat down after asking for order, Sammy Wilson immediately uttered more comments in the direction of the Member who was speaking. Given the catalogue of outbursts, mutterings and various other comments, I suggest that some Members need to learn the standards of the House.
Order. I have continually said that debates will, on occasions, raise issues. That is understandable, as this is a debating Chamber. However, I remind Members to have respect for one another. That is vital.
The Committee is disappointed that the draft Budget does not bridge the gap in per capita funding for the arts with the rest of the United Kingdom — Northern Ireland receives substantially less, per head of the population, than other United Kingdom regions. The Committee believes that that will make life very difficult for the Arts Council in its distribution of limited funding. The Arts Council has raised a concern that the draft Budget settlement for the arts will put as many as 200 full-time and part-time jobs at risk. Over 25,000 participants from across Northern Ireland may be denied access to outreach activities and engagements with the arts. That must be looked at.
The Committee is also concerned about the effect that the loss of the children’s and young people’s fund will have on the creative learning centres in Londonderry and Belfast. The children’s fund currently provides those centres with 50% of their funding. The centres are involved in huge projects that make a difference in their communities. Are we going to tell those groups to forget about it, make all their staff redundant and start afresh? Surely we cannot allow that to happen.
The Committee is concerned that the Department will not be able to deliver on its targets for increasing the participation of young people in sport. Although it is at a local level that young people participate in sport, there is no provision for a capital spend on community-based infrastructure. Therefore, the Committee is more than disappointed that there has not been more emphasis put on community sport and assistance for local sports clubs in the ongoing work that they do with young people.
The Minister has allocated capital funding to elite facilities, such as the 50-metre swimming pool and the multi-sports stadium, with the intention that they will be used in connection with the 2012 Olympics. However, the Committee has deep concerns about the lasting legacy that the Olympic Games will give Northern Ireland. What does “a lasting legacy” mean? The Committee asks the Sports Minister and the Finance Minister whether Northern Ireland will have a multi-sports stadium by 2012.
Just over half of the DCAL budget will be spent on libraries and museums — almost twice the amount that will be spent on sport and the arts. The Minister has previously explained that arts and sports are lucky as they can rely on large numbers of volunteers, whereas libraries and museums require paid staff. The Committee does not accept that as an argument for underfunding in sport and the arts. Volunteers should not be treated as poor relations or taken for granted.
The Committee welcomes the £21 million that is to be allocated to the building of a new home for the Public Record Office (PRONI). Given its location in the Titanic Quarter, there is significant tourism potential from people who come to Northern Ireland to investigate their roots. That spend will contribute to the wider economy. However, the Committee recommends that there be additional funding to enhance the visitor experience at PRONI.
I have listened to what the Member has said, and I am encouraged. Given that one of his colleagues has asked for an extra £600 million, can the Member identify where we can get additional funds? I think that if money were taken from the Health budget and put towards recreation, for example, further savings could be made in health. Will the Member support that?
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am presenting the response of the Environment Committee to the draft Budget 2008-11. The Committee notes that the draft Budget sets out the proposed spending plans of the Executive for that period, and I will specifically refer to what the Budget addresses as the relevant key issues. In regard to road safety, these are road casualty reductions, road transport compliance and enforcement, and reduction of vehicle-related crime and carbon emissions.
Secondly, the key issues for the Environment and Heritage Service are: enhanced environmental protection and improvement through better regulation; the establishment of a dedicated environmental crime team to combat the illegal dumping of waste; the establishment of a new strategic development and delivery support team to co-ordinate cross-cutting regulation activities; and implementation of air-quality management.
Thirdly, the programme delivery support unit’s key area will be the support of district councils and the three waste-management groups in implementing major waste procurement plans.
Fourthly, the Department will be able to develop, in part, an agreed programme for the modernisation and structure reform of local government.
Finally, the proposed capital allocations will provide funding to district councils to cover a percentage of the overall costs associated with compliance with the EU landfill directive targets.
Under the reform programme, the draft Budget states that the Department intends to take forward further reform of the Planning Service and that the allocation will also enable the review of environmental governance to be progressed. That will address the structure, management and resourcing of the publicly funded elements of the environmental governance system in central Government and local government, and implement proposals for the future environmental governance arrangements in relation to environmental protection, and natural and built heritage.
I can confirm to the Member that that question was asked of officials during the Committee’s deliberations on the draft Budget, and they confirmed that there was no provision. That is a matter for concern to those of us who support that project and wish to see it implemented as soon as possible.
The Committee notes that the allocations received in the draft Budget largely meet the following spending proposals and bids: road safety services — £4·55 million required for other resources and £3·3 million for administration over the priorities and Budget period; enforcement and better regulation of EHS — £1·53 million required for other resources and £3·4 million for administration over the priorities and Budget period; programme delivery support unit (PDSU) — £2 million required over the priorities and Budget period.
The Committee notes, however, that the following spending proposals and bids were not met: planning reform — £0·55 million required for other resources and £2·5 million for administration over the priorities and Budget period; review of public administration covering the costs incurred by the Planning Service and the local government reform unit (LGRU) in taking forward the RPA agenda — £13·55 million required for other resources and £4·55 million for administration over the priorities and Budget period; LGRU — £13 million required for other resources and £1·7 million for administration over the priorities and Budget period; local government division —£2·4 million required for other resources over the priorities and Budget period; waste and contamination land — £3·7 million required for other resources and £0·83 million for administration over the priorities and Budget period. The Committee has particular concerns about the shortfalls in the spending proposals regarding the costs associated with implementing the RPA recommendations.
The Committee for the Environment welcomes the additional funding of £3·8 million over the three-year Budget period for enhanced roadside enforcement and of £4·1 million for enforcement and better regulation of environmental protection.
However, the Committee recommends that extra resources should be used to benefit one, or more, aspects of the ASSI programme. That could include an increase in the number of ASSI declarations made each year in order to complete the priority designations before 2016, and a quicker response rate on consent applications. That would lead, in turn, to greater progress in achieving favourable conditions for features in designated sites, and more robust protection and enforcement measures, particularly with regard to Natura 2000 sites.
In relation to the Budget efficiencies, the Committee is concerned that in order to deliver the administration savings in the final year, 2010-11, the Department of the Environment may have to suppress up to 300 posts, even after a board decision to reduce non-salary running costs by 15%.
In that regard, we are particularly concerned that there will be a detrimental impact on service delivery, particularly in certain low-priority areas of the Environment and Heritage Service. Committee members are concerned about the proposed cutbacks to the EHS budget, and the impact that those cuts will have on training, resources and investment, which, of themselves, are important in providing for enforcement and investigation in respect of illegal dumping.
Committee members expressed widespread concern at the proposed efficiency savings of £1·1 million in relation to the Planning Service, and how that could equate with — and be incorporated into — any meaningful reform of the service. Although the Committee is aware of the intention of the Minister to reform the planning process, it acknowledges that the Planning Service is facing very significant structural reform arising from the review of public administration. Concerns have already been expressed about those budgetary allocations.
The Department’s additional funding of £4·4 million in the 2008-09 financial year includes £2·2 million for the Planning Service, which, in the main, will go towards staff costs. However, the Committee recommends that similar amounts be allocated to the Department in the final two Budget years, 2009-10 and 2010-11. That is particularly relevant, given that that is the anticipated transition time for the review of public administration.
Mr Speaker, on behalf of the Committee for the Environment, I thank you for calling me and for giving me the opportunity to engage in the process and debate this matter with colleagues.
In respect of planning, does the Member agree that one of the most serious deficiencies is the forward planning of bypasses around towns? I refer particularly to Dungiven, which now has the distinction of being the most polluted town in these islands. Does the Member agree that waiting until 2015 for a bypass for Dungiven is unacceptable, and is only one year short of the predicted united Ireland that we have been told about?
That certainly represents the green agenda. [Laughter.]
I thank the Member for his intervention. Invariably, although that matter strays a wee bit into the remit of the Department for Regional Development — and the bypass is clearly an issue for that Minister — there may well be environmental concerns that relate to the remit of the Committee for the Environment. I will welcome any further comments and details from the Member in due course, and they will certainly be investigated.
After listening to Mr McNarry, I wonder what type of a debate I am taking part in. I know that he will not leave, now that I have mentioned him. I was interested in what he had to say, but I could not figure out whether he was talking about the Budget or something else.
Mr McNarry said that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety did not have enough money. It is interesting to note that one of those Departments is currently run by his party’s Minister, and the other Department was once run by the same individual. I do not know what that says about that individual, or what Mr McNarry is trying to tell us. However, if I heard the Minister of Finance and Personnel correctly yesterday, he said that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public has as much money as all the other Departments put together — but still we are told that there is not enough to do the job.
That begs the question: what would it take to satisfy the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety if he has as much as all the other 10 Departments put together and finds that that is still not enough? He has over 48% of the Budget, and he has been given an increase of over 51%. How much money will it take?
I listened to Mr McGimpsey earlier, and I thought that it was ironic that —
I will give way in a moment or two. I thought it ironic that the Minister looked like a man who was just about to throw in the towel and walk away, instead of saying that he wanted to do the job and wanted to get on with it. The Ulster Unionists must learn the lesson that when you are in something, you are in it — you cannot just be in it when there is good news. They tell us that this Government is a Sinn Féin/DUP carve up. However, they never seem to realise that their Ministers are also in the Government alongside one from the SDLP.
I think you are missing the point, Mr McCrea. The Health Minister’s budget is not being cut — he is getting more. I do not know if that fact has dawned on you. Perhaps you should take time to consider the figures to ascertain where you are coming from. Frankly, you have lost the rest of us. We do not know where you are, and I suspect that you have lost yourself. If you still wish to contribute to the debate, I suspect that it will be worth listening to — or, on second thoughts, maybe not.
Returning to what I wanted to say, the Minister of Finance and Personnel touched the right note in the foreword to the draft Budget:
“We need to use our public resources wisely to deliver to deliver high quality public services, especially to the young, the old and other vulnerable members of our community.”
I want to direct most of my comments towards two of those groups — the young and the elderly. I believe that a society that does not look after both of those categories of people will be found to have been neglectful and will be judged accordingly.
In our community, there individuals who, for one reason or another, are in a vulnerable position, which can be due to their being young, elderly, infirm, disabled or disadvantaged. Of those groups, I wish to focus specifically on two — the young who, as tomorrow’s adults, start their lives requiring nurturing, protection and guidance, and the elderly, who find that they are that bit weaker or infirm.
During their early, tender, formative years, children are entirely reliant upon adults. Parents or guardians provide them with a safe environment, and schools guide them in education and all-important life skills while they are growing.
A child develops its own mind and begins to formulate opinions — albeit in a fairly simplistic sense — during the years up to the age of six. That is when they take in information that will assist them in the future. Not surprisingly, that part of a child’s life is known as the formative years. Therefore, it is crucial that that relatively short time span is afforded the highest level of dedicated care and education in order to ensure that all potential is well on the way to being realised.
On Tuesday 26 June 2007, I tabled a motion to consider making available a transformation fund, similar to that which is available in England, Scotland and Wales, in order to support the professional development of the childcare and early education workforces in Northern Ireland. That would be of tremendous benefit to Northern Ireland’s future generation, and has the scope to improve children’s later-childhood outcomes and their adult lives.
Currently, in Northern Ireland, staff who work in community or voluntary pre-schools must pay for their ongoing training and professional development, and there is a significant disparity between their pay levels and those of people in the statutory sector.
I am deeply concerned that there is no training or development strategy whatsoever for people who work with young children. The Assembly must take cognisance of that issue.
It is essential that we appropriately equip the childcare and early-years education workforce for the delivery of positive children’s services to ensure better outcomes and reduce inequalities for children, young people, families and communities.
I turn to matters affecting elderly people in Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way, and for his interest in issues involving young people. However, does he agree that it is inconceivable that the children’s fund has been done away with? The result of that is that many of the Home Start schemes throughout the country, which are largely staffed by volunteers, will be under threat from 30 March 2008. Does the Member agree that the Executive should consider that matter and ensure that Home Start provision continues?
I listened carefully to what the Member said, but he will be aware that that decision was taken by direct rule Ministers. I have no doubt that that is the type of issue that the Executive and Assembly must give thought to and expend energy on. I could not agree more with the Member that we must deal with that type of issue, but Rome was not built in a day. Nonetheless, we will return to those issues.
Many factors can make senior citizens vulnerable: their health and general fitness can deteriorate; they do not have the energy that they once had; and they are susceptible to illness, as their immune systems weakens. Basically, they find themselves — as will we all, one day — not as robust as they were when they were younger.
Bad weather can make outdoor conditions treacherous, and some senior citizens prefer to remain at home in the colder months. The Assembly has a duty to ensure that our senior citizens, who are valuable members of the community, remain safe, secure and comfortable in their homes. Keeping those homes adequately warm and damp-free is a major step towards improving the quality of life of senior citizens. Those positive outcomes reflect well for the individual and for the wider community.
Eradicating cold and damp is of tremendous benefit in warding off illness, particularly for people who suffer from breathing complications caused by coughs, influenza and bronchitis. In the worst-case scenario, those conditions can develop into pneumonia, which is a drastic illness at any age.
I wish to bring to the Assembly’s attention an issue that is dear to my heart: the warm homes scheme. That scheme was introduced in 2001 by a Minister who shall remain nameless —
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I wish to concentrate on the education and further-education Budget allocations. However, first, I believe that a Member from the unofficial Opposition, the Alliance Party, referred earlier to Sinn Féin’s “legacy Budget”. Although there is a legacy of the decisions taken by direct rule Ministers, it is very much the Executive’s Budget. It sets strategic priorities that are clearly more challenging and far reaching than any that were set by the previous Executive under the tutelage of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party. Whatever else the Executive might be accused of, it cannot be accused of merely tinkering with the inherited, direct rule status quo.
The education and further-education budgets have been a key priority for the Executive. Investment in the education and development of our young people will make a major contribution to the economy, and economic growth will provide opportunities for all young people to prepare for life and work.
The education sector — including the Department of Education, and the Department for Employment and Learning — faces significant challenges in the years ahead. All sectors are undergoing radical reforms and changes to meet the needs of the twenty-first century. Improving educational standards in all of those sectors is a key priority for the Executive. We want our education system to deliver equal opportunities for every young person and adult to learn and succeed. The best opportunities for everyone, from the very young to those who return to further education in later years, needs to be the hallmark of our education system.
Many changes are currently under way, particularly in the primary and post-primary sectors. The revised curriculum gives young people an improved start in life, with a greater emphasis on developing their skills and the need for life and work experiences. The entitlement framework provides post-primary pupils with greater access to a range of academic, vocational and technical subjects. I have no doubt that the Minister of Education will soon announce proposals regarding transfer arrangements from primary to post-primary schools.
I am glad that the Member has some insight on the issue of the Education Minister’s bringing forward proposals for a replacement of the transfer system. It is regrettable that the Minister is not as forthcoming on the issue.
Does the Member agree that, if, as he has said, the priority for education is to deliver, it is incumbent on the Minister of Education to prove that she is capable of making decisions that can deliver? The Member is aware that in recent correspondence with the Committee for Education, the Minister was unable to outline her priorities because she had not made any decisions. Obviously, there is an issue in respect of learning on the behalf of the Minister of Education.
I thank the Member for that. The Minister of Education will bring proposals to this Chamber and to the Executive in the not-too-distant future. It will then be a matter for the Assembly and for the Committee for Education — which Mervyn Storey sits on — to debate those proposals.
There are other issues regarding education, including the primary and post-primary sector, that the Minister and the Committee for Education have referred to over the past number of months. The disparity between primary and post-primary schools was raised by the Minister during a recent meeting.
Early-years provision is a key priority for both the Committee and the Minister. Early-years provision in education is how we can address issues so that they do not come home to roost in later years. The literacy and numeracy strategy crosses the Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning, and that has been recognised by the respective Committees as a key priority. If people are to be equipped to go into the world of work, literacy and numeracy are key skills that they must have.
I also welcome the fact that the Irish-medium sector is being improved, particularly through the club-bank scheme, which was recently debated. Funding for the teaching of principals, particularly in primary schools, has been a big issue over the years, and reference has been made to that in the draft Budget.
Kieran McCarthy raised concerns about funding for children and young people. The Minister of Education has recognised that issue. If that funding is to continue, it would have to come out of the Education budget; therefore that has to be a key priority for the Executive. That is linked to early-years provision, and if that funding does not continue, it will undermine all the good work that has been done.
Youth-services funding also needs to be considered. Many people who work in youth services — which come within the remit of the Department of Education — have concerns about funding.
There are a number of concerns in relation to further and higher education. I am disappointed that tuition fees are still in place. The Minister referred to a review of tuition fees early in the new year. However, evidence is emerging that tuition fees discourage people from taking up further and higher education. They are linked to maintenance grants, and there is a disparity between the maintenance grants to students here and those to students in Britain. We are losing out. The Assembly has yet to debate tuition fees. When that issue came to the Committee, a vote was taken not to allow fees to increase in line with inflation.
Moreover, I am disappointed that the further education lecturers’ dispute continues. The Minister for Employment and Learning appointed someone to look into that; nevertheless, serious concerns remain. It is particularly unfortunate that this occurs at a time when colleges are merging. We look to higher and further education to bring about a high-quality training and learning environment to provide skills and people for the workforces of business, industrial and commercial sectors.
We see significant and far-reaching changes in further and higher education. The Executive recognise that investment in those sectors is crucial to the delivery of their vision of a thriving and buoyant economy. Increasing skill levels and improving participation in education and training are vital elements in a strong economy, and will play an important role in economic success. Further and higher education is at the heart of life-long learning and is one of the key priorities of the Executive.
The loss of jobs at Seagate illustrates the importance of further and higher education. Low-skilled jobs are vulnerable to overseas competition. The message to the Executive is clear: we need highly-skilled jobs which are protected, and therefore not as vulnerable.
In the draft Budget, more remains to be done for education and further education. There is concern over tuition fees. I am disappointed that the Minister did not take a more robust attitude to the recent inquiry into the failure of the Springvale campus. Given the high levels of deprivation in the area, he should have taken a more hands-on approach to the achievement of an educational campus on a site that straddles west and north Belfast. However, there is much in the draft Budget that is positive for the primary and post-primary sectors.
All in all, provision in the draft Budget for both education and further and higher education allows us an opportunity to deliver one of the key objectives of the Executive — a strong, vibrant economy. Go raibh maith agat.
My first reaction to the draft Budget was extremely positive. The presentation highlighted the economy, emphasised the need for innovation, the encouragement of enterprise and the creation of 6,000 highly paid jobs. In social terms, it rejected water charges, proposed free transport for the over-60s, and it emphasised the Executive’s green credentials with the proposed introduction of a rapid–transit system for Belfast.
However, as the details emerged, the initial presentation seemed rather disingenuous. The draft Budget was rather like an Easter egg — attractive on the outside, but with little substance and with a great hole in the middle.
The draft Budget raises serious questions. It is based on unrealistic assumptions and party-political considerations and does little to tackle the real problems facing our economy. That is particularly true in respect of the environment. Recently the Assembly expressed concern about climate change and agreed to show leadership in putting sustainable development at the centre of policy making. There is absolutely no evidence of that in the draft Budget. The commitment to rapid transit is welcome; however, it has been under consideration for a least a decade, and the fact that work will not start until 2011 is disappointing.
The draft Programme for Government proposes reducing the carbon footprint by 25% by 2025. That is hopeful, but no interim targets are stated and there is no evidence of any change in policy to meet that target. Such long-term targets are ineffective and will achieve nothing unless they are accompanied by changes in policy, which this is not. To achieve the target, we must get commuters out of their cars and onto public transport, but an examination of the Department of Rural Development capital investment programme for the next 10 years shows a ratio of four to one in favour of roads, and that differential is increasing. If we wish to reduce carbon emissions, we must take positive action to encourage greater use of public transport. Although such measures will have little impact on the fight against climate change, they are better than the contribution from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which is to end the reconnect grants and to stop funding the Renewable Energy Installer Academy. Peter Hain set up reconnect grants to encourage more householders to install renewable energy systems, making renewable energy cheaper, easier, and more environmentally friendly, and reducing the use of fossil fuels.
Not only will that decision increase carbon emissions, but it is also short-sighted as we have a growing local renewables industry that will be strangled at birth if the grants are removed. If the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is serious about encouraging the development of new technology, that scheme should be expanded. As a result of the decision, jobs and skills in new technology will be lost. Similarly, the decision to reduce funding for home insulation under the warm homes scheme will greatly increase carbon emissions.
Overall, the draft Budget seems to be a case of smoke and mirrors. Any increase in expenditure can be met only by making efficiencies — the proposal to make efficiencies of 5% in administration in each of the next five years is extremely optimistic. If those efficiencies are not achieved, the draft Budget commitments cannot be met; if they are met, thousands of jobs will be lost, as the public sector is labour-intensive. That is not mentioned in the draft Budget, nor is there any indication whether it will mean compulsory redundancies.
The public welcome for the proposals on water charges may be premature. Overall, there appears to be no savings, with the costs transferred from one budget to another. The taxpayer will have to meet the same costs. The main recommendation of the Hillyard Report is that £109 million should be paid to Northern Ireland Water from the regional rate and that the Roads Service should pay £25 million for road drainage costs that are met by Northern Ireland Water at present. I ask the Minister for an assurance that the £25 million will not come from the existing roads budget, as it is already under great pressure, and the roads maintenance budget has been severely cut in recent years.
That will reduce the amount that Northern Ireland Water has to raise, but it also means that there will be £134 million less to spend on other services; that is largely ignored in the draft Budget, and it could explain why the Budget increase for the National Health Service is only 2·6%. As a former member of the Eastern Health and Social Services Board and one who was involved in health for more than 20 years, I am extremely concerned by the draft Budget allocation to the National Health Service. An increase of 2·6% is the lowest that I can recall; it compares with an average of about 8% over the past five years.
Had a direct rule Minister presented such an allocation, the Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, along with many others, would have protested vigorously, as she did in response to previous direct rule allocations. In fact,a 2·6% increase is equivalent to freezing the budget, when one considers that, due to demographic pressure, Health Service inflation is higher than normal inflation.
A freeze, compared to a 4% increase in real terms in England, is totally unacceptable, particularly since our waiting and trolley lists and other problems are significantly greater than those in England. The differential in health expenditure between Northern Ireland and England has reduced significantly in recent years. A recent study has shown that, taking account of age profile and deprivation levels, the Health Service in Northern Ireland requires 10% more resources per head than England due to greater need.
The present differential is approximately 4%. The proposals for 2008-09 would erode that differential completely.
The Department proposes new programmes to reduce the present suicide rate, promote healthier ways of living, halt the rise in obesity, implement the long-delayed Bamford Review findings and reduce MRSA infections. However, the draft Budget does not provide the new resources that are required for any of those programmes. It is suggested that their funding will be met from 3% efficiency savings in each of the next three years.
I was just coming to that. I recall, for example, that when I was a member of the Eastern Health and Social Services Board, we had great difficulty in achieving efficiency savings of even 1%. As has been pointed out, there are efficiencies to be made in the NHS. However, those efficiency savings cannot be made overnight. The NHS is a massive organisation, so, like an oil tanker that is changing course, it will take time to make those savings. Restructuring of the organisation could require the introduction of legislation, and that could take some years. Given the labour-intensive nature of the NHS, 1,000 job losses will be required to achieve the 3% efficiency savings. It seems rather strange to hear of job cuts in the NHS, when we regularly hear about the problems associated with the scarcity of doctors, nurses and midwives, and so on.
Although the rates freeze is politically attractive, if healthcare services for the sick and the elderly are reduced in order to pay for it, that is unacceptable. Is it really a freeze at all when the rates bill will include a separate charge, of more than 20%, to pay for water?
The draft Budget lacks substance and is based on unrealistic assumptions. It will lead to an increase in environmental damage, no significant improvement in the Health Service, especially for the mentally ill, and increased hardship for many of the poorest. Therefore, we should look again at its allocations.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to address the House on the financial package that has been outlined in the draft Budget. I speak today as the Chairman of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. There are many other things that I would like say, outside of that role, but I am unable to do so because Members are limited to 10 minutes in which to speak. As Members are dealing with issues that are complex for the agriculture industry, I feel that it is my duty to that industry to stick to my brief.
It is inevitable that some Members will not be happy with the draft Budget’s allocations. We, in the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, are no different. However, many of our disagreements and concerns centre not necessarily on the allocation but on the inescapable bids that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development formulated. Therefore, I wish to express my Committee’s concerns and lay them before the House.
At the beginning of October, the Department was presented with a report from the red meat task force, which painted a most worrying and depressing picture of that important agricultural sector. The report recommends that suckler-cow farmers leave the industry altogether; that they diversify into some, as yet unknown, new business; and that they should use their single farm payment — for which they work extremely hard — to aid that transition. Many Committee members cannot accept that position as the way forward for the red-meat sector. As yet, the Department’s response has been to do nothing.
The Department has indicated that a sum of £100 million is available under the rural development programme for diversification schemes. The Committee welcomes that significant investment.However, this investment was budgeted for, and approved by the EU, long before the report on the red-meat sector even began, and did not take account of the serious picture that was painted by that report.
The investment is not just specifically for the suckler-cow farmer, but is available to anyone in a rural area who presents the Department with a viable diversification project. The Committee believes that the findings of the red meat task force provide sufficient evidence to merit an additional and substantial tranche of moneys. Furthermore, the Committee contends that a broader and more strategic approach is required in respect of the current state of the red-meat sector to ensure that the industry thrives in the long term. Action arising out of that strategic approach could include direct support to suckler-herd farmers in a scheme similar to that which operates in the Irish Republic, and a combined producer-processor retail-departmental approach to the Northern Ireland agriculture sector.
I turn to the Department’s administration and resource budgets. The Committee is content with the level of those budgets and the level of efficiency savings that are being sought within them. Those budgets deliver front line services to farming and rural communities that must be maintained in these times of severe pressure on the agriculture industry. It is hoped that those efficiencies will not result in any reduced delivery efficiency, although I am not confident that that will be the case.
The Committee is aware that the Department intends to remove staff from markets and abattoirs as part of the wider efficiency savings. We call on the Department to rethink that intention until such times as new technologies and processes are given the opportunity to bed in.
The Committee has grave reservations about the sale of the entire Crossnacreevy site to fund the farm-nutrient management scheme. The Committee emphasises that it is pleased to see the funding provided for the scheme, although it is of the opinion that, unless derogation from the EU to extend the deadline for the scheme beyond December 2008 is achieved, the budget of £50 million, with access to an additional £29 million, is too high. That is due to the inability to gain planning permission for in excess of 2,500 applications, and to find competent builders to undertake the works within that deadline.
The Committee believes that it is unnecessary to sell the entire Crossnacreevy site, which is still essential to the agriculture industry, particularly in the absence of any business case. The Department has agreed to a sale without presenting a business case either to the Committee or the Executive.
I am sorry; I only have 10 minutes. I am sure that the Member would like to make his own contribution, which, no doubt, will be valuable. I shall continue on behalf of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development.
The Committee has been advised that the sale of the entire Crossnacreevy site would result in the potential receipt of £200 million, although, again, the Committee has not been provided with supporting evidence. The Committee is aware, however, that receipt of that sum is dependent on the site’s being included in the Belfast metropolitan area plan as a development plan. That has not been promised in any shape or form either.
The Committee further believes that the Department has not considered alternative options, including the sale of part of the site, that would be sufficient to provide cover for the requirements of the farm-nutrient management scheme. The Committee acknowledges and appreciates that the Minister of Finance and Personnel has promised the funds to aid that scheme, which is essential to the farming community. Nevertheless, we cannot understand why the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development went to the Minister of Finance and Personnel to ask for £79 million, only to give £200 million back in its place.
I am sure that the Minister of Finance and Personnel, who is very prudent in such matters, clapped his hands and thought that Christmas had come early. It would mean a potential loss of £121 million for the agriculture sector, but a gain of £121 million for the Department of Finance and Personnel. Who would not want such a gift to be handed out to all the other Departments?
Nevertheless, that money is coming out of the agriculture industry at a time when it is absolutely crippled and on its knees. Given the Department’s intention to sell the entire site, the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development has suggested that some or all of the additional receipts could have been used to fund additional programmes to support the agriculture industry in relation to the findings of the red meat task force report, which I mentioned previously. In summary, the Committee does not support that sale on the current basis, because no business plan or case has been presented to it for examination.
During yesterday’s debate, I called on the Executive and the Department to reprioritise the targets for TB and brucellosis, which are currently to reduce incidence levels to 27% and 20% respectively. The Committee believes that the Department should aim to eradicate those diseases, rather than reduce their incidence levels. In the financial year 2006-07, the Department spent £22·7million on TB and approximately £13·5million on brucellosis. The Department has indicated to the Committee that it has successfully reduced disease levels over the past few years. However, the Department must consider whether spending almost £36 million a year represents value for money, instead of solving the problem by eradicating the disease and taking that money out of the pot. Prudence dictates that it is better to eradicate the disease.
My Committee took up many other issues, including animal health, cost sharing, the wildlife intervention programme and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute. Those issues must be looked at carefully, bearing in mind that the agriculture industry has faced foot-and-mouth disease, bluetongue, avian flu, brown rot in potatoes and other major diseases that threaten the future of the industry in Northern Ireland.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I wish to deal specifically with key issues for the Department for Social Development, such as the provision of warmer homes for the most vulnerable in our society. There is no reason why the Minister for Social Development cannot reprioritise her budget to meet stated objectives, such as the eradication of fuel poverty by 2010, which is an unrealistic target that will do nothing but provide false hope to those most in need.
There is special focus on the issue, as it is warm homes week. I urge the Minister to re-examine her strategies for dealing with the matter to ensure that the targets can be met within the timeframe that the Department for Social Development has set.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel addressed the issue of warm homes more positively than the Minister for Social Development, with the consideration of rate relief for homes with cavity wall and loft insulation. The Minister for Social Development will operate within a budget containing the efficiency savings within which all Ministers operate. She is operating within constraints that she agreed could meet that priority requirement.
All Ministers must prioritise within their own budgets, taking the kudos when a project is delivered upon. However, it is not acceptable to blame everyone else, including the Executive, of which she is a member, when natural budgetary constraints come into play.
It is time that the Minister realised that she is part of the Executive. Holding such a position means that she should have the courage to make key decisions and the initiative to provide leadership, not only to her Department, but to the wider community. Go raibh maith agat.
At the outset, I apologise that the Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development, Mr Cobain, has been called away on an urgent matter.
I have been asked to deputise on his behalf, so I will therefore speak on behalf of the Committee for Regional Development. Mr Speaker, I thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak today. I also thank the Committee for Finance and Personnel for co-ordinating the Assembly’s response to the draft Budget.
Like other Committees, the Committee for Regional Development has scrutinised the draft Programme for Government over the past few weeks. During that time, it has taken evidence, both oral and written, from a wide range of stakeholders, including the Quarry Products Association; the Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee; Help the Aged; Age Concern; the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action; the Federation of Small Businesses; and the CBI. On behalf of the Committee, I want to thank all those organisations and individuals who generously placed their time and expertise at the disposal of the Committee.
Traditionally, Committees have complained that the Budget allocations for their Departments are too low. Our Committee does not intend to break with that tradition. We intend to support the Departments’ calls for additional resources. In the case of the Department for Regional Development, the Committee is of the view that, objectively, the allocations for the Department in the Budget are insufficient to meet the infrastructure, economic, social and environmental needs of Northern Ireland. For example, spending on transport in Northern Ireland is £65 a head below spending in England, as measured in the year 2005-06. That is against a backdrop of a much more dispersed pattern of rural settlement.
Funding for road structural maintenance must be adequate, transparent and secure. That is perhaps the major point that the Committee wants to make. The allocations of £56 million, £72 million and £70 million for the next three years are £125 million short of the £110 million per annum identified in the structural maintenance funding plan as being necessary to maintain our roads to an acceptable standard. The Committee is also concerned about the road safety consequences of continued underfunding in that area. Those risks have been highlighted in the most recent Roads Service annual report and accounts.
I realise that the inadequate allocations for structural maintenance are often supplemented with bids in the in-year monitoring rounds. Of course, Roads Service has been successful in many of those monitoring rounds. However, the Committee believes that that is not a viable long-term strategy for funding structural maintenance programmes. The Department is too dependent on being successful in the in-year monitoring round process. The Committee calls on the Minister and the Executive to recognise the value for money represented by planned maintenance and the public-safety risks associated with continued underfunding of the work in that area.
The Committee further calls for structural maintenance funding to be ring-fenced and clearly identified for the period of the Budget. That will allow the industry to make forward plans with confidence and to invest in developing the capacity required to meet Northern Ireland’s structural maintenance needs on time and within budget.
Does my honourable friend agree that when the Department for Regional Development is given such a substantial budget, it is vital that it is spent wisely? There was a plan for a bypass for Magherafelt. For 30 years, the people of Magherafelt town have been waiting for that bypass to be built, and we still do not have it. We thought that we might be in the running to get some movement on that matter.
However, a new plan has now been devised by some civil servant. Instead of giving us that bypass, the Department for Regional Development now wants to put that plan on the long finger and build a road that stretches from the Moneymore road right down to the Castledawson roundabout. If that is the kind of brains that are in the Department, it is about time that there was a rethink; the Department is getting too much money instead of too little. [Interruption.]
I am sure that the Committee would wish to support the honourable Member for South Antrim’s call for that bypass after the completion of the Ballynahinch bypass. [Laughter.]
The Committee is also concerned about investment in road infrastructure, which is essential to the social and economic well-being of Northern Ireland. A good-quality road network is crucial to improving journey times in Northern Ireland and to connectivity to and from our ports, airports and tourism facilities. In addition, a substantial amount of public transport is road-based. Access to health and social services, employment, education and cultural and sporting activities depends on an adequate, sustainable, safe and effective road network.
The Committee is concerned about the allocation to the roads capital budget, which, at £572 million, is significantly lower than the low scenario bid in the draft investment strategy. The current allocation will allow for the opening of the M1, Westlink and M2 upgrades in 2009. That project is safe, as is the dualling of the A4 from Dungannon to Ballygawley and the completion of the dualling of the main Belfast to Dublin road — the section from Beech Hill to Cloghogue, a scheme that is close to my heart. However, it is likely that the roads allocation will necessitate the deferral of some schemes; dare I say that two of those are the A6 dual carriageway from Castledawson to Toome and the A2 from Maydown to the airport at Londonderry.
Spending on local transport and safety measures, bridge strengthening, carriageway widening and major works on local roads will need to be less than was envisaged during the three years to 2010-11. The Committee calls on the Executive to review the roads allocation in the light of the importance of a free-flowing road system to the continued economic development of Northern Ireland.
The Committee also examined in detail the issue of investment in public transport, particularly buses and railways. We believe that that is important to the social and economic well-being of Northern Ireland. Like roads infrastructure, a good-quality integrated network of bus and rail transport is key to the underpinning of economic development, as well as access to education, employment, leisure and social services. Investment in public transport also brings enormous environmental benefits in the form of reduced carbon emissions and air and noise pollution.
In the past, there has been persistent underinvestment in public transport infrastructure. The Committee discovered that, in addition to the £426 million capital bid, only £196 million has been allocated in the draft Budget, including £137 million for rail, £47 million for buses, and £1·2 million for improved ferry services to Rathlin Island, which will certainly keep at least one Member happy.
The Committee calls on the Executive to deal with the failures of the past and to invest in public transport. Failure to adequately resource public transport will have an adverse effect on the environment and exacerbate social exclusion, and might jeopardise the recent and much-welcomed positive economic growth.
The Committee has met both Into the West and the Northern Corridor Railways Group and has heard evidence of public safety issues and speed restrictions, which are as low as 10 mph on stretches of track between Belfast and Londonderry. It is absolutely appalling that, after a huge amount of money has been spent on new trains for that line, their speed must be reduced to 10, 15 or 20 mph on various parts of the track. That is totally unacceptable.
Having championed the cause of women’s access to concessionary fares, the Committee welcomes the proposal in the draft Budget for the extension of those fares. It is extremely good news for all concerned.
Age Concern and Help the Aged provided evidence to the Committee on the differential patterns of urban and rural use of the senior Smartpass and the bias against disabled people that is posed by the limitation of the concession to single-journey tickets.
Mr Speaker, time is running out fast. Therefore, I will turn quickly to the issue of environmental sustainability. The draft Programme for Government includes a priority to protect and enhance Northern Ireland’s environment and natural resources. However, there is little evidence of the radical thinking and policies that are needed to deliver a 60% to 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, which was identified by the Prime Minister in a speech as recently as 19 November. The DRD allocations do not appear to reflect the need to deal with the issue with any immediacy.
The investment strategy’s major proposals make substantial reference to the environmental impact of differing forms of infrastructure investment, but it is not clear to the Committee that that has been followed through in the draft Budget and the ISNI 2 allocation stage. Indeed, a quick glance at the draft Programme for Government indicates that it has not taken full cognisance of the hugely demanding targets for carbon reductions that are faced during the next 50 years.
Mr Speaker, can I say at the outset that I am genuinely grateful to all Members? I believe that, in my efforts to get up and say a few words, I have actually lost pounds.
I will start off in a mode of generosity. I listened genuinely and with good intent yesterday to the First Minister’s speech on the draft Programme for Government and the draft investment strategy. I assure the House that we all want to do what is best for the people of Northern Ireland, and we got involved in the process to see if we could work something out. We have some concerns, especially about the lack of a financial package. In fact, Sinn Féin’s Chief Whip, Carál Ní Chuilín, mentioned at the start of the debate that everybody agrees that there is not enough money in the draft Budget to go around, and I did not hear anybody demurring. Peter Robinson, Peter Weir and Nigel Dodds — everybody — have said that we need a financial package. The truth is that we did not get enough.
I also want to deal with the comments that have been made about whether or not the Ulster Unionist Party is in Government. We will not agree with every decision that is made by the Executive just because we have two Ministers in it. We reserve the right, as Members of the Assembly, to scrutinise the draft Budget and everything else that is going on.
I thank the Member for his intervention. We are represented on the Executive as of right. With regard to whether it is right to oppose or to criticise a Budget, I quote from Ian Paisley Jnr:
“I found the Committee Chairpersons’ comments in the report of the draft Budget very interesting — so much for a united approach. The Chairpersons of various Committees — and not just DUP Chairpersons, but Ulster Unionist, SDLP and Sinn Féin Chairpersons — all criticised the Budget proposals.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 8, p131, col 2].
Also, Sammy Wilson — I was rather hoping that Sammy would be here, but unfortunately he has left — declared:
“I want to make the position clear from the start: the DUP is opposed to the Budget.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 7, p185, col 1].
It is entirely legitimate for the Ulster Unionist Party to say that there are better ways to do things. We agree that there are limited budgets, and we will have to find a way of dealing with those.
When we were talking about the draft Programme for Government yesterday, I promised to talk about the Barnett formula. I do not propose to bore Members at this stage, except to say, following on from Mr Wells — [Interruption.]
I could not do that to you. [Interruption.]
I am depending on the indulgence of the Speaker to get through this speech.
The issue is per capita expenditure. Mr Wells talked about roads. Why do we have a higher per capita expenditure on roads? Because we have a large rural area, and we need more roads to go around. Furthermore, we need to have a headquarters. Northern Ireland is a small country compared to England or Scotland, for instance, and therefore we have higher overheads. The Barnett formula recognises that some areas in any union are less economically viable than others, but that does not mean that they are any less valuable. That is why the Barnett formula is important to us, and it applies as much to health issues as it does to anything else.
I listened to the Chairperson of the Committee for Education, Sammy Wilson, talking about the education budget — I presume that he was reading from the same file that I have. Education had a baseline of £1,720 million last year, and this year it has a baseline of £1,626 million, so we have lost about £100 million before we start. Furthermore, in the rest of the United Kingdom, education budgets received an increase of 5·3%. I realise that the increases are unhypothecated, but we only got a 4·3% increase.
That unhelpful differential means that the Committee’s analysis to date demonstrates that the Department will face particular difficulties in obtaining funding to maintain projects for children and young people and for the development of integrated education. I agree with Maurice Morrow that those issues and others, such as early-years education, must be tackled.
However, the Committee has stated that the Department will not have any money in years 1 and 2 and will not, therefore, be able to tackle disadvantaged areas or to commit funds to community renewal. That is a problem: the money must be found for those people. The Committee notes its concerns that insufficient Budget resources could delay indefinitely any attempt to tackle the issues of special education needs or to develop the early-years strategy.
The Assembly has said that it will tackle early-years education: it is the right thing to do, but there is no budget. Efforts to improve levels of literacy and numeracy may have to be scaled back significantly. The Committee notes that not receiving the funding for the bid runs counter to PSAs 10 and 19 in the draft Programme for Government and is at odds with the commitments given after the report by the Public Accounts Committee at Westminster. The Assembly simply must deal with literacy and numeracy issues.
Perhaps the Department for Employment and Learning’s budget could be used to tackle the issue. However, the Department of Education’s bid for the improvement in literacy and numeracy was for £23 million next year, £32 million the following year and £32 million for 2011, but it received nothing. How can problems with literacy and numeracy be tackled if budgets are being cut and no new money is being brought in?
What is being done about adult apprenticeships or making ICT the third essential skill? The draft Budget states that DEL has apparently been granted an extra bid of £36·8 million. However, when inescapable costs are removed, that leaves only £7 million. Alex Attwood pointed out that the departmental budget increases from £731·5 million in 2007-08 to £734·4 million in 2008-09, a rise of only £2·9 million. How can the Assembly tackle all the problems on which it made promises?
As Members have mentioned, resources must be targeted to areas of most need, such as north Belfast. I was quite taken by the fact there have been efficiency savings of £66 million in north and west Belfast over the past three years, and that some 400 teachers have been made redundant. If those redundancies had been in line with the decline in pupil numbers, only 140 teachers would have gone. Therefore, north and west Belfast are losing teachers.
How much money does it take to tackle that? Members have been asked to come up with constructive ideas, and I have done so: £3 million would pay for between two and five additional teaching assistants per school to concentrate on literacy and numeracy and to help children and their parents in north and west Belfast. An extra 100 teaching assistants could be divided between 40 schools in areas that Members know have the greatest social need. Furthermore, that money would pay for six specialist teachers to give instruction on best practice.
London Challenge’s report will show that it was able to make huge differences in the levels of literacy and numeracy with a budget of only £4 million. I ask all Departments to work with the Department of Education to amass that money. I agree that cross-cutting issues such as health, parenting skills, early learning and antisocial behaviour must be tackled. The Assembly would have community support in addressing those issues.
I promised the Speaker that I would try to be brief. To conclude, therefore, the Ulster Unionist Party is willing to work with Members in a reasonable, frank and positive manner, but we must work together: the Assembly is not a diktat.
I am slightly confused. Yesterday, and for part of today, some Members wanted to turn the Assembly into the Supreme Soviet in order to rubber-stamp a draft Budget. The Chamber is intended for parliamentary debate, and it is the duty of all Members to scrutinise and criticise where necessary.
The SDLP will do that, as will our colleagues in other parties. To characterise us as being against the Executive or the spirit of the Executive is completely and utterly wrong. It is our duty to criticise. Members who are outside the Executive, specifically from the Alliance Party, should not be criticised for criticising the draft Budget; they have acted honourably in doing so.
Yes. In fact, yesterday, the First Minister invited criticism, unlike some DUP and Sinn Féin Back Benchers. The Sinn Féin Whip, Carál Ní Chuilín, said that there is not enough money for everyone and that we should not use emotional blackmail. I represent North Belfast and I have no hesitation in criticising the draft Budget for falling short of the social-housing target for the next five years — 2,000 houses. That target will not be reached under the allocation that the Minister of Finance and Personnel has made in the draft Budget.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel told the Minister for Social Development to sell land and finance housing through private means. Only minutes ago, William McCrea was criticising the Minister of Agriculture for selling land — he pointed out the dangers of doing that. There are dangers in selling assets to provide capital for housing development in Northern Ireland, which all Members agree is absolutely necessary. ‘Building a Better Future — Draft Investment Strategy 2008-2018’ states that that is one of the Executive’s top priorities. How can houses be built without money? Does land have to be sold? How much will a Department raise if it sells all its land? How long will that take? If that is a solution — which I doubt — it is a long-term one.
Is Carál Ní Chuilín telling the 2,300 people on the social-housing waiting list in North Belfast not to worry because land will be sold so that in five or 10 years’ time homelessness in North Belfast will be solved? That is ridiculous, yet it is what Fra McCann suggested to the House. He said that the Minister for Social Development blames everyone but herself, and he criticised her severely on all areas of her brief. Yet what does Fra McCann do? He backs the Budget that prevents the Minister for Social Development from achieving the housing allocations that will meet the needs of the homeless in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] He supports —
He supports the Budget that will stop fuel poverty being alleviated in Northern Ireland. That is the right-wing agenda that the Minister of Finance and Personnel is putting before Sinn Féin Members and other Members. Members have a duty to reject that right-wing Thatcherite agenda. If Sinn Féin Members do not recognise that the draft Budget pushes a Thatcherite approach to social development, they must be politically blind and illiterate.
A Sinn Féin Member said that the Minister for Social Development should ask the housing associations for their assets. How can she do that? How can she tell a private body that she needs its money for the Government’s housing policy?
It would be impossible for the Minister to do that. The Minister for Social Development and her Department have a duty to make efficiencies; the draft Budget states that that Department will make efficiency savings of £113 million over the next four years, which is an important contribution. All Departments have a duty to look at efficiencies, and to use them to make funds available for other Departments.
No, I will not, because I have only a few minutes left.
The Minister of Finance has suggested that there are additional sources of private finance — I would love to know where they are, and whether they are readily available.
DSD requested £992 million in its capital bids for housing and urban regeneration, and £373 million over the first three years of the investment strategy. The draft Budget allocations are short by £775 million and £139 million respectively, in terms of urban regeneration. These allocations are completely inadequate, and the Minister has said so to the Committee. The House should note that she had all-party support at the Committee in her quest to gain sufficient allocations for housing, urban regeneration and fuel poverty. No one dissented, so I am surprised that some members of that Committee who are here today are now retrospectively attacking the Minister.
The allocations are completely inadequate. They cannot provide 10,000 new homes over the next five years; that will be unrealistic if the allocations made by the Minister of Finance and Personnel remain. I hope that he listens to the comments made in the House today and amends those allocations, so that we can provide people in Northern Ireland with decent homes and eliminate fuel poverty at last. That is the duty of the Executive.
I note that the First Minister is here. One of my first memories of the First Minister is from the Bannside by-election, which he won. On that occasion he dedicated himself to improving the living standards of ordinary people and to eliminating poverty and the worst housing conditions that he had ever witnessed. I hope that he remembers that, because there is a duty incumbent upon him, and the Executive, to fulfil those promises.
I wish that I had some of Mr Maginness’s tablets, to allow me to reach the ceiling in the way that he has. I will deal with the points that he raised, as well as the comments made by the Member for Lagan Valley Mr Basil McCrea, who, when he talked about economics and statistics, made a very good case for more money being spent on numeracy. [Laughter.]
I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate on the four-party mandatory-coalition Executive’s draft Budget proposals. I do that following yesterday’s debate on the draft Programme for Government and draft investment strategy for Northern Ireland. It is essential, as part of the wider consultation, to hear the issues that concern Members.
The Assembly and its Committees have an important role — now and over the next three years — to ensure that the funds allocated in the Budget are translated into the maximum possible improvements in local public services. In that context, I record my gratitude to the Committee for Finance and Personnel for the efforts it has made, and will continue to make, in drawing the issues together in this important process.
I have listened carefully to Members’ comments on the draft Budget flowing from yesterday’s debate, and I will attempt to respond to as many of the themes as possible. However, before I do that, I will highlight in broad terms what the four-party mandatory-coalition Executive are seeking to achieve with their public expenditure proposals. I will focus on three main issues: first, our key priority of growing the economy; secondly, core public services; and thirdly, the local contribution to funding public services through the regional rate.
As Members will be aware, the four-party mandatory-coalition Executive have agreed that the key priority should be to secure growth in the economy. That is not only because it is one of the aspects of our society where we are furthest behind the rest of the UK, but also because of its importance in so much of our everyday lives. It is not simply a matter of the amount of money at our disposal, but also of the wider benefits of having a job — not only for one’s self-worth, but also for our families and the wider society.
Although progress has been made in some aspects of the economy — there has been an increase of more than 100,000 jobs since 1998 — significant underlying deficiencies remain in the economy that will need to be addressed if we are to sustain that growth in future.
In relation to competitiveness indicators such as business start-up rates and investment in innovation and workforce skills, Northern Ireland performs well below the UK average, and local productivity is about one fifth lower than the UK average. The highly regrettable recent job losses, including those at Seagate Technology in Limavady, Regency Spinning Ltd in Newtownards and Reid Transport at Cloughmills, have highlighted that we cannot compete solely on cost in the longer term. That point is highlighted in the draft regional economic strategy, which reached the stark conclusion that there will be little or no improvement in Northern Ireland’s position relative to the rest of the UK if there is not a radical rethink of the approach to economic development and support to local business.
The clear focus on the economy in the draft Budget, with its increased allocations for DETI, DEL and DRD, reflects an initial step by the Executive in addressing the issue. That move has received a broad welcome from key stakeholders. However, as with all public spending, it is not sufficient simply to increase funding. It is essential that the programmes of support for economic development are continually reviewed and updated to ensure that there is delivery on the key goals of halving the private-sector productivity gap with the UK average — excluding the greater south-east — by 2015, and of increasing the employment rate from 70% to 75% by 2020.
In taking forward plans to provide new and enhanced services for the people of Northern Ireland — for example, the extension of free public transport to everyone of 65 years of age and over — it is also important to strike a balance to ensure that core public services have sufficient funding, and also to provide the incentive to deliver existing services more effectively.
Although all Ministers made the case to me about the need for additional resources for their respective Departments, the main issues since the publication of the draft Budget have been the proposed resource allocation for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the capital allocation for the Department for Social Development. Some people have suggested that the position in some way undermines the Health Service, while the allocation for housing will lead to a crisis — indeed, according to the previous Member, the crisis of homelessness has already happened.
The four-party mandatory-coalition Executive would have liked to allocate more public-services funding. However, financial realities mean that that was not possible. In addition, concerns about impacts on services have been exaggerated to an extent that the facts show is not credible.
The draft Budget sets out plans for health and social care to receive an additional £450 million by 2010-11. That is equivalent to 51% of the total additional resources that will be available to the Northern Ireland Departments. There will be a further £340 million increase in spending power from efficiencies that the Minister has agreed to make.
Amid the doom and gloom that some have declared, it is important to recognise that the draft Budget allocation for DHSSPS will allow a number of service developments to be progressed over the three-year period, including improved services for children and meeting the revenue costs for capital investment in new and improved facilities. Additionally, the further funding for pay reform that has already been made should result in improved public services. Those are some examples of what can be achieved from the £700 million of inescapable pressures, as defined by the Health Minister. It is up to him to decide which additional discretionary service developments are to be progressed over the Budget period.
I appreciate that Members wish that more money was made available. However, it is important that the context of the Health Department’s proposed allocation be understood. In particular, I reiterate the points that I have made in recent weeks: expenditure on health and social care in Northern Ireland is 10% higher than in England; over the next three years, the draft Budget proposes that the Health Department will receive more than half of the additional resources that are available to all Departments; and, by 2010-11, health will account for almost 48% of the total spend.
The Health Minister will have more — and a larger proportion of — money at his disposal than any of his predecessors. To achieve higher levels of health spending growth would require substantial reductions to other Department’s allocations, or a massive hike in rates. That cannot be justified.
Funding levels are only part of the solution. There is no point in pumping money into an inefficient system. It is noticeable that most of the people who opposed the level of the Health budget were silent when it was half of what is being proposed now.
Nothing that I have said suggests that some additional resources for the health and social care sector would not bring further benefits to the people of Northern Ireland. I fully recognise and support that, and I am open to suggestions as to where such funds would yield the most benefit. However, I am also open to suggestions about where those resources might be found. Mr Speaker, you are a patient man and, thus far, you have sat through the whole four-hour debate. When you are driving home to Londonderry, away from the Members who made bids for more money during the debate this afternoon and evening, I challenge you to think of even one who put forward a single suggestion as to how additional resources might be found to fund those bids.
The most obvious example of need in the Health Service is in the mental-health sector — and Members have referred to the Bamford Review. In Northern Ireland, that need is almost 50% higher than in England, and that is one of the main reasons why the overall local need for health and social-care services is higher. However, mental-health service funding is higher per capita than for England, which suggests that, in the past, either sufficient funds were not allocated or funds were diverted to other sectors, such as acute services.
The Health Minister identified mental-health services as a priority for his Department — albeit that that was his seventeenth priority. In that context, the draft Budget identifies just less than £50 million to implement the Bamford Review proposals by 2011.
I thank my Rt Hon friend for giving way. That issue is so high a priority for the Minister for Health that when the Assembly debated the Bamford Review on 18 December 2006, autism issues on 9 January 2007, and the future of Muckamore Abbey Hospital on 29 January 2007, he made no contribution whatsoever.
I shall divert slightly from my speech to deal with that point, because there is an issue of which the Assembly must be mindful. The four main parties in the Assembly have Ministers in the Executive who are responsible for Departments. Mr Speaker, you decided, quite rightly, that the amendment tabled by the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP could not be moved today, but I noted that the only Departments about which those parties were concerned were the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and the Department for Social Development.
Mr Speaker, the Member is right about one point — he cannot defend it; it is indefensible. [Laughter.]
Some parties have decided, somewhat like football supporters, to cheer for the Departments of their respective Ministers. I can understand parties wanting to support their Ministers vocally or in any other way that they can. However, some of us have responsibilities that go beyond departmental vested interests. We must look at the overall position of Northern Ireland. We must balance the issues of all Departments — not fight for only one or two.
Members must be careful when they are putting forward a case for one Department, for which their Minister happens to be responsible, that they do not forget the real need that exists in other areas.
I return to the issue of mental health. The allocation of £4·5 billion for the health budget, with an additional £8 million being made available, means that the figure that I have indicated was discussed by the Department of Health and my officials, as being required to implement the Bamford Review recommendations, would represent only 6% of the additional allocation, or just over 1% of the total allocation to the Health Department.
I am sure that Members will agree that, if the Minister wants to deal with that serious issue, he can ring-fence funding for some of the most vulnerable people in society, given that the required funding amounts to such a small proportion of the additional resources that are at his disposal.
I have been asked, outside the House, whether I could ensure that funds are allocated specifically for mental-health services, given the history of such service provision in Northern Ireland. Having considered that matter, I would be very reluctant to even think about micromanaging any Minister’s Department. I am sure that, when the Minister gets down to the serious business of setting out his actual spending plans when the allocation is agreed, he will deal with that issue.
However, it must be said that the four-party mandatory-coalition Executive could allocate funds to the Health Service, with a ring-fenced portion for mental-health services, if it chose to do so.
Returning to the overall funding for health, a key point is that the figures quoted for additional requirements are simply unrealistic. The focus must be on using existing resources better, rather than asking for more funding. As I have said before, we need a better Health Service, not a more expensive one.
The concerns that have been raised about resource expenditure for health have been repeated about the capital expenditure for social housing. Social housing is an important priority for everyone in Northern Ireland, and it should be available for those who need it most. The Department for Social Development will have almost £720 million to invest in housing over the next three years. The investment strategy proposes further investment of over £1·2 billion over the following seven years, which brings the total funding to almost £2 billion over the next decade.
Members have been fond of quoting comparisons with England; let me join in. The number of social houses per head of population in Northern Ireland is already 30% higher than in England, and levels of housing unfitness here are the lowest in the United Kingdom. In addition, the number of social housing completions over the past five years was 60% higher here than in England.
Therefore, although I fully support the Social Development Minister’s call for more investment in social housing — as reflected in the additional £20·4 million that I announced recently — the Department for Social Development will also need to actively consider how the proposed allocations from the draft Budget can be supplemented by additional income. That could come, for example, from private-developer contributions. I know that the Minister of the Environment has already had talks with the Minister for Social Development regarding issues that relate to planning. Indeed, the Minister for Social Development should also be considering issues such as land sales.
I noted in a press statement issued yesterday by Mr Alban Maginness that he indicated that the allocation for housing was so bad that there was real doubt as to whether the Department for Social Development can build even one social house. Members discredit any cause that they have when they go off the scale in that way. Given the millions of pounds that will be available for housing in the Department for Social Development’s budget, to make that kind of claim is petty and ridiculous.
As I have indicated to the Minister for Social Development regarding the scope for additional funding, additional resources are available for capital investment in 2010-11 from the draft Budget. Those resources will be supplemented by the ongoing work of the capital realisation task force. However, it is important to recognise that there will be a number of competing priorities for the additional resources that become available. The four-party mandatory coalition Executive will need to decide what should be delivered in social housing as opposed to other capital projects.
Incidentally, there is one contribution that Members can make — I have asked my colleagues on the Business Committee to press for a debate on the issue of rationalising our political bureaucracy, reducing the number of Departments in Northern Ireland, and reconsidering the number of Assembly Members for this small region of the United Kingdom.
That will be a way of freeing up resources for use in front line public services. I hope that when the Business Committee considers the matter, there will be enthusiasm on the part of its members to bring that motion to the Assembly. Furthermore, I hope that when it does come before the Assembly, it will receive support across the Chamber.
I will now talk about the regional rate and the local contribution to public services. Despite the promise of a new four-party mandatory-coalition Executive, this remains a time of significant concern for many hard-pressed householders in Northern Ireland. Oil prices continue to rise, and the Bank of England base lending rate is 5·75%, which is almost 65% higher than its low point of 3·5% in July 2003. In addition, the price of household staples such as milk and vegetables are rising at a faster rate than incomes. At this time, a key duty of the four-party mandatory coalition Executive must be to ensure that it does not add to the already heavy burden on households. In that context, Members will hardly need to be reminded that over the past five years, regional domestic rates have increased by 62%, with a 19% increase in one year alone.
Looking forward, the four-party mandatory coalition Executive has unanimously accepted the key recommendations of the Independent Water Review Panel’s strand-one report, which will lead to additional, but necessary, household contributions to those services from 2009-10.
While we will mitigate that expense, by recognising that the existing regional rate contains a contribution to those services estimated at an average of £160 per household, it is essential that we also recognise the historical and future pressures on household bills. Accordingly, the draft Budget proposes that there will be no increase in the regional domestic rate in each of the next three years. That is equivalent to a reduction of over 8% in real terms over that period.
Direct rule Ministers intended to introduce water and sewerage charges from 2007-08 without taking account of rate bills. Increases in the regional rate under direct rule were, on average, 9.8% per annum. Our proposals will mean that each household in Northern Ireland will save, on average, over £1,000 over the period 2007-08 to 2010-11 compared to the direct rule proposals.
Turning to the non-domestic sector, since 2001-02, the increase in the non-domestic regional rate has been 3·3% per annum. Recognising the need to limit the cost pressures on local businesses, the draft Budget proposes that the increase be held at the level of inflation in each of the Budget years. That will mean that there will be no increase in real terms in the burden to business from the regional rate in the planning period.
In recognition of the particular pressures facing the manufacturing sector, I propose to freeze industrial rates liability at 30% across the Budget period, which, again, represents a significant saving against the previous direct rule proposals.
Yesterday, I was astounded to hear one Member say that she opposed my proposals to freeze industrial rates at 30%. She said:
“However, all I see is subsidy to businesses and snubs to those who work for a living in our forgotten communities.” — [Official Report, Vol 25, No 7 Part 1, p338]
She went on to say:
“Chancellor Robinson has made the ludicrous decision to maintain the blanket subsidy to manufacturing companies by continuing rates relief.” — [Official Report, Vol 25, No 7, Part 1, p338] and continued with:
“fat cats get benefits. Corporate welfare seems to be alive and well in “Robinsonland”. — [Official Report, Vol 25, No 7 Part 1, p338]
That same Member was at a breakfast this morning, which I also attended. There, it was pointed out that 48% of the manufacturing industry in Belfast is in her constituency — and mine — East Belfast. I can tell her, having been around those businesses in East Belfast that, had we not taken that step, one company alone would have had to lay off 100 workers, and it would have been stopped from moving ahead with a proposal that would have meant 1,400 jobs in East Belfast.
Another company that I visited with the Department, only 10 days ago, indicated that the decision that had been taken gave them the confidence to go ahead and make the decisions to expand and therefore bring new jobs to that constituency.
“on public-private partnerships, less Government and equality issues.” — [Official Report, Vol 25, No 7, Part 1, p339].
I take from that, that she actually believes that there should be more government. We were talking about the politburo a short time ago. I can remember watching a film about an invasion of the United States by Communist forces drawn from Russia and Cuba. It was the well-named ‘Red Dawn’. [Laughter.]
I believe that the decision taken to freeze industrial rates is a sensible one that will lead to more jobs, and importantly — as everyone will have seen over past weeks — it will do a great deal to safeguard the jobs we already have.
I am appalled by the blinkered and twisted thinking that assumes that a business-friendly Budget is good for business leaders and therefore it must be bad for the workforce. It is that kind of crazy logic that has led to the draft Budget being characterised as neo-Thatcherite and right-wing. That is nonsense.
This is a Budget for everyone. It is a Budget for business, but also one for the working man and woman. It is a Budget to get the economy moving — it is not right wing, simply right. Dawn Purvis chides Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party. She should speak to the workers in East Belfast whose jobs have been saved, and who will gain jobs as a result of the decision that we have taken.
No. The Member managed to wangle the opportunity to make a speech in this debate, and that has left us tight for time.
The approach that I have taken to rates reflects the four-party mandatory coalition Executive’s desire to redress the balance from previous direct rule Budgets, in which the local ratepayer was expected to shoulder too great a share of the burden for the delivery of public services.
The 2004 spending review staff-reduction targets are an indicator of the departmental performance that we can expect. The fit-for-purpose target, which was established in December 2004, required that the number of Civil Service-funded posts in April 2004 be reduced by 2,300 by March 2008. In overview, progress to date is a clear indication that we are well on track to meeting that target. Indeed, the latest information shows that we are ahead of the planned trajectory.
Many commentators, including some present in the House, expressed concern that the target could be achieved only through a form of redundancy scheme; however, the Civil Service labour pool has proved to more dynamic than those commentators thought possible. Our latest figures show that natural turnover in the Civil Service is 5·4%. On that basis, we can be confident that Departments are, and will continue to be, able to adjust numbers without recourse to any form of redundancy scheme. Looking ahead, we can be confident that that dynamism will be maintained, and possibly enhanced, as our plans to develop and grow the economy and a vibrant private sector begin to yield dividends.
The Alliance Party expressed concern at the inability of the draft Budget to address economic growth. The broader question is the extent to which a devolved Executive, with limited fiscal powers and budget, can address economic growth in a global marketplace that is worth many trillions of pounds. The approach adopted represents full use of the powers that we have, with a focus on putting in place the conditions for growth, through working alongside local business and employee representatives. Therefore, I fully believe that the four-party mandatory coalition Executive’s draft Budget proposals to reverse the downward trend and funding for economic development and to minimise the rates burden on business, together with plans to improve our economic infrastructure, are a significant improvement on the plans of each of our previous Administrations. I am under no illusion that even more could have been done, but I was determined to protect our public services, such as health and education, which also required additional funding, so my Budget has sought to strike a balance.
I share the view of many that savings could have been made from various sources, including the cost of division, which it is perhaps necessary for me to spell out. I dealt in some detail during Question Time with some of the Alliance Party’s unrealistic expectations about what savings may come from that source. However, I share the view that savings could be made from that source, albeit on a more limited scale than the Alliance Party suggests. I have asked my officials to examine the findings of the Deloitte report, with a view to identifying those elements in it that can be addressed in the short term. Similarly, I encourage all Ministers to make as many savings as possible from that area, particularly as they have made it clear to me that the efficiency savings already expected over the next three years will represent a significant challenge to them.
Therefore, all scope for savings needs to be vigorously pursued. In taking forward its work, I will also ask the performance and efficiency delivery unit to consider the potential savings to be gained from reducing the cost of division.
There are two issues that I must address, the first of which is the role of the Executive. In any Government, the intention is that people who intend to seek a mandate should put their proposals before the electorate and seek an endorsement of those proposals. If it is a one-party Government, the process is simple: they use their manifesto as their Programme for Government, and they proceed. However, in the case of a voluntary or mandatory coalition, there is a requirement for them to agree on a Programme for Government. If there is no agreed Programme for Government, there is no coalition.
One cannot adopt a position whereby some people decide to be in Government, but do not want to agree with the Government’s programme. That is an untenable position. That is not to say that Members of Government parties — in the Executive or in the Assembly — cannot choose to make comments, criticise — or suggest changes to — the Programme for Government, the investment strategy or the Budget. Last night, there was not one squeak from any of the Ministers who were prepared to allow their parties to vote against the draft Programme for Government. Not one of them suggested any change to that programme. Therefore, we need to have some sincerity in an Executive.
If there are going to be changes, and if there is a feeling that changes are needed, some Ministers have let down their Assembly colleagues by not suggesting those changes within the Executive. I am quite content for Members to express concerns, and for the Executive to consider those concerns when making final decisions about the draft Programme for Government and the draft Budget.
The second issue that I must address is the fact that some parties in the Chamber appear to be in denial. It is clear that an attempt is being made to suggest that there is an Executive in Northern Ireland that consists only of two parties. That is, quite transparently, not the case. I hope that, in the references that I have made tonight, that it is abundantly clear that we have a four-party mandatory-coalition Executive, of which the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP are part. [Interruption.]
I am quite happy if Members wish to say that their party is withdrawing from the Executive. The Executive is built on a system that was negotiated by the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. They are the parties — [Interruption.]
Order. I call for order on all sides of the House. I have continually said that almost all Members from all sides of the House have contributed to the debate, as far as possible. The Minister is responding. I realise that, in the heat of debate, it is not easy for some Members to sit and listen. Nevertheless, the Minister is now responding. Allow the Minister to respond.
Again, I make it clear that the four parties who are in the Executive need to have an agreed Programme for Government and need to agree a Budget. In neither case, was an amendment suggested that would reduce the Budget in one area so that additional funding could be provided in another. No such proposal was put by any party in the Executive, including the two parties that are complaining.
No change was recommended to the draft Programme for Government by either of the parties who have now decided that they want to decry it. They are in denial and attempting to pretend that they are, somehow, out of Government, but at the same time taking the benefits of being in Government. That type of hokey-cokey party politics simply will not wash with the people of Northern Ireland. They know that the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party are a part of the Government and are responsible, as is every party in the Government, for the decisions that are taken. In particular, the Ulster Unionist Party was gagging to get into Government.
It was gagging to get into Government so much that it put out statements telling the electorate of Northern Ireland that it would be in Government. Come what may, the Ulster Unionist Party would be in the Executive and would take its seats. I could spend time reciting its quotations, but the Ulster Unionist Party is on the record as saying that it would take its seats in the Executive and be accountable. I am quite content that the Ulster Unionist Party has signed up to the four-party mandatory coalition Executive. However, if it decides that it does not want to proceed on that basis, we can go back and negotiate a new and different process from the one that currently exists.
This is the system that the Ulster Unionists negotiated. It was the DUP that said it was not satisfied with that system. It was our party that insisted on a requirement in the St Andrews Agreement legislation to examine the methodology and structures of Government in Northern Ireland, because we did not like the system that the Ulster Unionist Party had negotiated. We made significant changes to the accountability within that system, as many members of that party have already found out.
Indeed, it has to be said that the Ulster Unionists found out about the accountability functions so acutely that instead of coming into this Chamber to join their colleagues in the vote, their Ministers were skulking outside and were not prepared to come in. They knew that if they did they would be in breach of the ministerial code and would jeopardise their positions in the Executive.
I will deal with one further issue that has arisen in the debate. There has been a great deal of talk about the financial package. Let me give the full history of that package. Leaving aside the fact that the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP negotiated nothing positive in financial terms when they were in the lead position, they ended up with a reinvestment and reform initiative that forced rates in Northern Ireland up by 62% over five years. That is the legacy of the Ulster Unionist Party’s negotiations. On the other hand, the Democratic Unionist Party renegotiated — [Interruption.]
We successfully renegotiated the reinvestment and reform initiative so that I am now able to freeze the regional rate, which I could not have done under the agreement that was reached by the Ulster Unionist Party. We have managed to increase the Budget for Northern Ireland. Let us remember that the £1 billion peace package that was mentioned was based on capital, not resource: that had always been the case. The increase amounts to significantly more than £1 billion of capital. There is no automatic end-year flexibility (EYF) for Northern Ireland. There is no automatic right to the asset sales. Those were delivered during the course of the negotiations with the Chancellor. The Ulster Unionists should know that, because their representatives were there too. [Interruption.]
The Member should speak to Sir Reg Empey, because Sir Reg was at Number 11 Downing Street with the rest of us. If the Member is suggesting that there is failure, then there is failure on the part of his party. [Interruption.]
The denial seems to go well beyond whether the Ulster Unionists are in Government or not, but the facts are established historically and are on the record. I remember going to Number 11 Downing Street with Sir Reg and others as part of the negotiations for this package. If the Member is saying that his party stopped negotiations because it was no longer interested and gave up on a financial package, he can go and be answerable to the people of Northern Ireland. We managed to get the increase in EYF, and the asset sales, from which we will receive £1·1 billion over this period.
I would love to give way, but as the Member can see, I am literally about halfway through what I want and need to say.
If we had taken the advice of the Member for Strangford Mr McNarry regarding the financial package, we would never have set about the business of trying to get it.
Mr McNarry’s statement, which is still on the Ulster Unionist Party’s website, makes it clear that he criticised and attacked the Democratic Unionist Party for getting involved — and he is still wrong.
He believed that by asking for a financial package we were handing a veto over to others.
The Member for East Antrim Mr Beggs referred to fuel poverty, as did the Member for Foyle. Since 2001, fuel poverty has been reduced in 50,000 Northern Ireland homes. Over the past five years, the warm homes scheme provided energy-efficiency measures to over 11,000 households, with approximately 4,000 households receiving new or upgraded heating systems.
That is an important initiative, and the allocation of funding will need to be balanced with the range of initiatives in the wider housing budget, including new build, co-ownership, decent homes and private-sector grants. I agree that it is important that the Minister for Social Development should consult with stakeholders in taking those decisions.
The Member for North Antrim Mr O’Loan mentioned social housing. The fact that there is a draft Programme for Government with targets is a matter of security to the Minister for Social Development. As the targets are there, the responsibility lies with the Executive collectively to ensure that she has the resources to meet those targets. Do not decry the targets: it is right that they are there, and it is the responsibility of the Executive to ensure that they are met.
The Member for East Antrim Mr Beggs seemed to think that the budget for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister was open to criticism. It is interesting that he criticised an increase of £15·1 million over the three years in OFMDFM’s budget, yet he did not criticise an increase of £688·8 million in the health budget. Considering that some of the increase in OFMDFM’s budget will go to victims and their dependants, I would have thought that he may not have wanted to raise that issue.
The Minister of Health, Social Service and Public Safety, Mr McGimpsey, made an intervention during the debate. There was one notable factor in that. Although he indicated that he needed more money, not once did he suggest where it would come from. However, we have a clue where he thinks it would come from. I am saddened that, behind the scenes, Minister McGimpsey’s Department has been arguing that additional water charging and higher rates bills could have been used to fund Health Service bids. I resisted such a course. The logic of the Department of Health argument would require ratepayers to pay more than three times what they are paying today. That is totally unacceptable.
I will give the same advice to the Minister of Health that his Department received from the expert who examined thoroughly the workings of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland — Professor John Appleby. The Department of Health had some communication with Professor Appleby to try to convince him of a particular issue, and that has been brought to my attention. In Professor Appleby’s reply, he states:
“My impression is that a lot of work has gone into disputing the findings of the original report, in particular as I note to boost the need for more funding and to underplay the need for tackling poor productivity. Maybe this was only to be expected, but is disappointing nonetheless.”
He goes on to say:
“It is surely hard to believe that the Northern Ireland health and social care system has or is operating at the very edge of its production possibility frontier.”
Subsequently, he states:
“Surely the appropriate response now is to focus exclusively on how Northern Ireland can start to demonstrably and radically improve its productivity both in cost and quality terms. During the time that I spent on the original review, I was told by a number of people that the problem with waiting times was either intractable or only solvable with large amounts of extra funding. Neither has turned out to be true, and what appeared to be inevitable long-term trends have been dramatically reversed.”
The lesson to be learned from Professor Appleby is to properly use the funds that are already available, rather than crying out for more funds.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Members and the Minister for their contributions to what has proved to be a healthy and generally constructive debate on the departmental allocations, and other issues, contained in the Executive’s draft Budget.
In particular, I wish to thank Mervyn Storey, the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, for the expert manner in which he set out the issues that have thus far been considered by the Committee. Of course, the Committee will continue that work in the weeks ahead.
Obviously, it is difficult to do full justice to the many contributions that were made in today’s wide-ranging debate. With the Assembly’s indulgence, I will start by commenting on the various policy headings, and I will reflect some of Members’ comments on those matters. If I do not recognise some individual contributions, I hope that there will be no misunderstanding — there is certainly no intention on my part to ignore those comments.
In her comments, Martina Anderson set out the stark realities of a pattern of social and economic disadvantage. That is another legacy issue, so to speak, and one of the many that we must all continue to address. Mr Roy Beggs questioned the achievement of the economic package from the Chancellor. The Minister has pointed out that the four parties to the Executive — I will not attempt to repeat the tongue-twister that the Minister seems to have very expertly got his tongue around — were part of the negotiations. If we did not succeed in achieving all our objectives, it is clear that that consensus approach resulted in some achievements. In his typically sober and understated fashion, Sammy Wilson pointed out some examples of that consensus. In particular, he mentioned the punitive levy that was attached to the RRI, and, of course, the increased access to end-year flexibility.
Declan O’Loan called for flexibility when considering revisions to the draft Budget, particularly given that several issues, including further efficiencies and asset sales, are ongoing. That is fair enough — the purpose of the negotiation and the period of consultation is to allow an opportunity for evidence-based arguments to be advanced. Mr O’Loan also called for a critical examination of the efficiency targets and the role of the performance and efficiency delivery unit. He will be aware that the Committee is just about to receive a detailed briefing on that unit, including its remit and terms of reference.
Dr Stephen Farry welcomed the economic focus of the Budget, as did many other Members. However, he raised underlying concerns, including the high cost of economic inactivity and the large productivity gap with Britain. That is yet another legacy, but this time a legacy of failure of the Westminster policy that direct rule Ministers administered for many years. I believe that the Executive have begun the task of correcting that long period of failure. Furthermore, Dr Farry called for the Treasury’s one-size-fits-all approach to be challenged effectively, and he questioned whether the existing resources and economic tools, including the four economic drivers, are being used to maximum effect.
Predictably, I suppose, he addressed the cost to the economy of division. Again, the Minister acknowledged that there are some issues that could be considered. Everyone must be sensible and recognise that, although we have made significant progress, particularly in moving out of conflict, the work to heal divisions will take time as those divisions have emerged over many generations. Confidence-building in our community will also take time, especially as regards guarantees. Debates such as this could be informed by an awareness that there is an audience. We must inform people that we have re-established the primacy of politics.
To turn again to the financial and economic issues, Simon Hamilton highlighted the positive responses to the draft Budget from the Federation of Small Businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, the Institute of Directors, and other key stakeholders.
It also pointed to the continued cap on industrial rates and the freeze on regional domestic rates as positive outcomes for the economy. Again, the Minister has responded to that directly. The Committee for Finance and Personnel have acknowledged and welcomed those measures unanimously. Mr Hamilton’s point was supported by Mr McQuillan, who also welcomed the economic emphasis of October’s draft Budget statement.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Mr Durkan addressed the finance issue and highlighted the need to include visible funding and focus on the social economy and on innovation. His Committee looks forward to engagement with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment on tourism development. Mr Durkan also informed the Assembly that his Committee would have preferred Safe Start’s allocation to be brought forward within the first year of the Budget period. Those are helpful and constructive suggestions.
Basil McCrea, among many contributors, discussed the lack of a sufficient financial package and raised the issue of the Barnett formula and the needs that remain unaddressed by the draft Budget allocations. All parties would acknowledge that the Assembly is, inevitably, in the era of deficit Budget projections because there is simply not enough money. The financial cake must be divided in such a way that as many as possible of the parties’ priorities can be dealt with. The judgement is not — as is the argument from some parties — as to whether there are sufficient resources, but whether there has been equitable and fair distribution of available resources. The defenders of the draft Budget, of which I am one, would argue that a good beginning has been made.
Ms Anderson highlighted fuel poverty and social housing, as, indeed, did several others Members. She called on the Minister for Social Development to prioritise those issues in the context of tackling disadvantage and achieving equality. Mr Beggs also picked up on the issue of housing and fuel poverty, as did Mr O’Loan, who also focused on energy efficiency. Although Ms Ní Chuilín supported those arguments, she also called upon the Department for Social Development to examine its unused asset base with a view to freeing up resources.
Mr McCann reiterated the call to progress the social housing programme and called on the Minister for Social Development to reprioritise in that regard, while not conceding on the case for additional funding. Mr Brady mentioned the issue of warm homes and drew attention to a ministerial statement on the matter. He also discussed fuel poverty and echoed the call for reprioritisation of departmental spending plans. In a passionate address, Alban Maginness warned that the budget for social housing would not be met under the existing allocation.
Simon Hamilton pointed out the comparison between health costs here and elsewhere and highlighted the Appleby Report’s conclusions, to which the Minister responded that health provision is about improved performance rather than increased spend. Ms Ní Chuilín highlighted investment in health as a strategic measure that would boost economic development. In particular, she, and several other Members, highlighted the need to deal with the priorities that are identified in the Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability.
The Minister, Mr McGimpsey, set out his case for additional funding for health. He referred to increasing pressures while also reconfirming his commitment to tackle efficiencies. He also argued that the Health Service is underfunded compared to that in other regions and highlighted the greater need that exists here. The Assembly can anticipate that that debate will continue until the settlement of the Budget allocations.
The Chairperson of the Health Committee, Mrs Robinson, called for money to be found to meet the needs of the Rape Crisis Centre. Although she supported the case for social housing, she cautioned against any funding transfer away from health in that regard and warned against any further delay in the implementation of the reform of health and personal social services.
She emphasised — as she has previously in the House — that mental health is a priority for her Committee, echoing the comments of Carál Ní Chuilín. Brian Wilson expressed his dissatisfaction at the allocations for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and his concerns at the reliance on efficiency savings.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, Patsy McGlone, called for additional provision to benefit a range of projects, and he is concerned that the efficiency drive will impact on some lower-priority services. I guess that that is a common cause of concern across the board. In response to an intervention from Declan O’Loan, Mr McGlone also called for financial resources to enable the establishment of an environmental protection agency. Brian Wilson also addressed that matter, and he said that the targets for reducing carbon emissions were inadequate, and that there was insufficient allocation to promote sustainable development.
Mr Roy Beggs mentioned funding for children, which is cross-cutting issue. He also mentioned the recent report on the work of the Commissioner for Children and Young People, and said that the outcome of that report should be reflected in the draft Budget. Maurice Morrow placed focus on investing in provision for childcare in the early education of young children and emphasised the priority objective of improving the quality of life for our senior citizens.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning, Sue Ramsey, informed the Assembly that the Committee considers that the overall allocation will not be sufficient to meet the goals and targets of the draft Programme for Government. She made a range of suggestions about the Department’s allocation and said that a higher priority should be given to research and development, funding for PhDs and to the promotion of ICT as an essential skill. She also called for a range of measures in the areas of further and higher education. Paul Butler also underlined the need to give high priority to the education and further-education and higher-education sectors, as did other Members. Paul Butler also placed great emphasis on the linkage between education and economic development.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, David McNarry, emphasised the need for further and timely information on draft Budget issues from DCAL. He also called for a complete uplift for that Department’s budget, and highlighted a range of specific proposals.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development, Jim Wells, spoke on behalf of that Committee. He supported his Department’s call for additional resources, and he highlighted the shortfall in roads spending compared to other regions. On behalf of his Committee, he also supported further investment in public transport.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, the Rev McCrea, set out his concerns arising from the report of the red meat task force. He stated that his Committee was content with the level of administration and resource allocation in the draft Budget for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, but he emphasised his concerns about the sale of the entire Crossmacreevy site.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel reminded Members of the benefits that will accrue for wider society from the focus on economic development, and he pointed to the importance of striking a balance between ensuring that core public services have sufficient funding, and taking steps to maximise the performance and value for money of those services. He also robustly challenged those who are advocating additional funding requirements to state how they believe those issues can be funded out of finite financial resources that are presently available to the Executive.
He defended the overall allocation for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and called on the Department for Social Development to consider how the social-housing allocation can be supplemented by greater revenue, effort and other measures within the Department. The Minister pointed to the savings that householders will make from the freeze on the domestic regional rate, and urged them to compare that to the position under direct rule. He also highlighted the continued cap on industrial rating, and highlighted the favourable position now, compared to the direct rule system.
The Minister informed Members that the Civil Service headcount-reduction target will be achieved without any compulsory redundancies. The Minister, as I said earlier, defended the financial package and pointed to the renegotiation of the reinvestment and reform initiative as enabling the freeze on the domestic regional rate. He also highlighted gains in respect of the end-year conditions and sale of assets. Go raibh míle maith agat.
The need to maximise cash-releasing efficiency savings is a core theme throughout the draft Budget. A total of £793 million is targeted for efficiency savings by 2010-11, which is equivalent to 3% annually over the CSR period. That target will be achieved, in part, by specific, targeted reductions in the administration costs of Departments.
In addition, the proposed performance and efficiency delivery unit will, with agreed and appropriate terms of reference, examine the scope for Departments to deliver even greater cash-releasing efficiencies. In the drive for greater efficiency, it is crucial to redirect the resulting savings to front-line services, and I doubt that anyone would object to that being the overriding aim.
However, I sound a note of caution at this point. The Committee is aware that the targeted savings of £793 million have already been removed from departmental baseline budgets. Therefore any slippage in achieving the planned efficiencies could result in a cut in spending on front-line services. Nothing better underlines the requirement for all Members — members of Committees and Ministers — to work together to ensure that we meet the targets that we have set ourselves, while maintaining, sustaining and developing the delivery of front-line services.
The Committee plans to publish final departmental efficiency delivery plans alongside the final Budget. The departmental Committees will, therefore, have vital roles to play in monitoring and scrutinising the progress of their respective Departments in achieving those planned efficiencies. That is a practical example of sharing power and responsibility.
The draft Budget includes other strategic and cross-cutting issues, not least of which is the planned reduction in over-commitment and the need to bear down on underspend. Again, the Assembly Committees will have an important role in monitoring and scrutinising departmental progress.
The Committee for Finance and Personnel looks forward to receiving formal feedback from the other Statutory Committees on the draft Budget’s allocations to their respective Departments. Those will be included in the Committee’s report on the draft Budget that will be submitted to the Department of Finance and Personnel before Christmas and published shortly thereafter. The report will also reflect the themes that emerge from this debate and will consider the main strategic and cross-cutting issues.
The Committee looks forward to examining the final Budget and to debating it in the Chamber next January. Go raibh maith agat.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly takes note of the draft Budget, announced on 25 October 2007 by the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
Adjourned at 7.23 pm.