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Final Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:45 am on 3rd March 2009.

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Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Without portfolio, Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Without Portfolio) 11:45 am, 3rd March 2009

I beg to move

That the Budget Bill [NIA 5/08] do now pass.

Here we go again. This is the third item on the agenda this morning. As we reach the Final Stage of the Budget Bill and on the heels of my statement to the House on the final monitoring round of the current financial year, I do not need to remind the House of the context of the global economic downturn in which the Bill has been presented. I do not want to take up much of the House’s time, because many of the issues have been rehearsed already as the Bill has gone through its various Stages.

The overall unemployment level in Northern Ireland remains low, relative to the other parts of the United Kingdom, but that is of little consequence to those who have lost their jobs or who face that prospect. Members’ contributions during the Supply resolution debate and the Second Stage of the Budget Bill served to illustrate the importance that the Assembly places on that vital strand of the devolved arrangements, particularly at this time.

I reiterate that the Executive had wisely placed growing a dynamic and innovative economy as their top priority in the Programme for Government. We have been able to make further announcements — particularly in relation to the December monitoring round — about delivery and about what we are already pledged to deliver. We have announced an extra £70 million of measures to assist low-income households and local industry. As we move forward into the next financial year, we will continue to build on the ongoing work to deliver practical support for the business community and for low-income households, including the most vulnerable people in society.

We have mentioned the net capital investment, with its consequential benefits for the local construction industry. It is set to reach an all-time high of almost £1·5 billion in the first year of the 10-year investment strategy for Northern Ireland. That is clear evidence of delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. Despite the difficulties of 2008-09, my earlier statement and the Budget Bill — which is technical in that it provides the legislative cover and authority to move the money on foot of the Budget — prove that the Budget has been managed prudently for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland and local businesses.

Of course, we would like to have additional money from the block grant and elsewhere to do more, but, as several Members have said, the important thing is to ensure that there is delivery. We must ensure that the allocation of resources is properly targeted at the most urgent and economically beneficial priorities for the local business sector and for families.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Aire agus a LeasCheann Comhairle. . The Budget Bill provides the statutory authority for expenditure in 2008-09. It takes account of the outcomes of the year’s monitoring rounds and includes the Vote on Account, which allows public expenditure to continue in the early part of the next financial year until the Assembly votes on the Main Estimates for 2009-2010 in early June 2009.

The House will also be aware that the Committee for Finance and Personnel recommended accelerated passage for the Budget Bill following evidence from the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) on 4 February 2009. That evidence session represented the culmination of a process of scrutiny by the Committee of in-year monitoring rounds in 2008-09, both in respect of the Department of Finance and Personnel as a Department and as regards public expenditure at strategic and cross-departmental level.

In October 2008, the Committee made a submission to the Executive’s review of the Budget; it will be briefed on the Executive’s response in early April 2009. The Committee is conducting an inquiry into scrutiny of the Executive’s Budget and expenditure, which will run in tandem with the Executive’s review. When the future Budget process is in place, the Committee plans to review the resources that are available to assist Statutory Committees — and Members in general — to undertake budgetary and financial scrutiny. That was mentioned earlier. The Committee will suggest practical arrangements or recommendations to enhance the Assembly’s capacity in that regard.

The Committee also intends to review the processes for in-year monitoring of departmental expenditure by the Assembly and its Statutory Committees with a view to making recommendations to improve further the operation of processes and to facilitate more effective scrutiny. DFP officials are conducting their own review of the in-year monitoring process, and the Committee will want to examine the outcomes of that review as part of its inquiry. DFP’s review is due to be completed by the end of March 2009; it would be useful if that were completed in time to enable the Committee to take forward its inquiry.

Those matters are for the future. On the Committee’s behalf, I support the motion.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party

As the Minister said, the Assembly has covered quite a number of issues already, and has covered the current one previously. I want to make some points by way of a summary of the Budget.

My party has argued the need for a revised Budget to counteract the economic downturn. It believes that it has gained support from DFP officials — who, I presume, reflect the Minister’s view to a certain degree — for the idea that some programmes may have run their course and that there is a need to reprioritise.

I was struck by the fact that when Wrightbus issued its unfortunate statement about 235 redundancies last week, it asked the Assembly to address certain issues; one was research and development and another was apprenticeship programmes. When such a request is made in the context of such a statement, the Assembly must take it seriously and recognise that the company speaks for the entire industrial sector.

The United States has responded to the economic crisis with a massive stimulus package. Several countries have created specific measures to upskill and train workers and to keep people in jobs so that they are ready when the upturn happens. Little of that has been seen in Northern Ireland. There has been no new Budget.

There is an ongoing review of economic policy in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), with specific reference to Invest Northern Ireland (INI). I have quoted John Simpson before, and shall do so again. During the week, he said that not enough ideas and new thinking are emanating from the board of Invest Northern Ireland and that the measures by which it measures itself are not impact-related.

It seems that the Finance Department has virtually abandoned the process of creating a regional economic strategy and says that it is now focused on dealing on the downturn; although it is not really. The Assembly will miss a significant opportunity to look to the longer term to provide for the upturn.

For the record, I will mention the significant pressures on the Budget, which include the loss of revenue from the decision to defer water charges, and the Civil Service equal-pay issue. There is also the £5 billion of efficiencies.

The Chancellor is threatening to make those real cuts. Given the level of Government receipts that were reported in January, we will be fortunate if there is no significant pressure to further increase that £5 billion. We know about the problem with capital assets realisation, and we know the consequence of the abandonment of Workplace 2010. The Civil Service estate is still not fit for purpose, and a significant amount of money needs to be spent on that.

I want to refer to an issue that has not been addressed. I have always thought that the Assembly faces two major challenges, the first of which is the economy, and the second is reform of the public sector. We are losing track of that matter, and the Assembly’s eye is not adequately focused on it. Much of the language that has been used on the efficiency savings is not the right language. The language of people in various agencies and Departments, and of the Ministers, suggests that they are being forced to make the savings. Implicit in that is the suggestion that if they were not forced to make those efficiency savings, they would not take that approach. Achieving public-sector reform is not merely about implementing those efficiency savings; much more fundamental reform is required.

I am disappointed in what we are getting — or not getting — from the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU), which was an interesting initiative. For example, PEDU has conducted a light-touch review of Land and Property Services (LPS), in which there are major issues on arrears and problems with the penny product. LPS is only now addressing the issue of vacant buildings, and revenue has been uncollected for many years, yet PEDU used only a light touch with not a great number of outcomes. Reform of the public sector has not been adequately addressed and remains one of our greatest challenges. Given that the Budget is as it is, I urge the Minister to use the opportunities that arise throughout the year during the implementation of the Budget to address economic challenges.

I welcome his statement on the recent BBC ‘Spotlight’ programme about unemployment, when he said that the construction industry, which has particular problems, should receive significant priority when money becomes available — I think that he said that that industry should be the first priority. It is an Executive commitment to deliver on that, particularly in relation to housing. I welcome the Minister’s indications that he accepts that the matter is a shared Executive responsibility, and he has given a personal commitment to address it.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

The Alliance Party supports the Final Stage of the Budget Bill and welcomes its passage, for no other reason than it ratifies the changes to the monitoring rounds during the financial year and enables all Departments to spend money from 1 April, rather than face a situation without money, or a Newt Gingrich-type situation whereby Government have to shut down because of a lack of funds.

I am grateful to the Ulster Unionist Party — or the Conservatives — for abandoning their notion to oppose the Budget. That was not a responsible approach, even from my position as a member of the opposition. It is important that the Assembly does not take the Alliance Party’s support for the passage of the Budget as support for the wider financial decisions that underpin the Budget. Like Mr O’Loan, I have major concerns about how the Assembly and the Executive are responding to the economic downturn. We have not taken sufficiently robust decisions and could have done more.

In order to highlight that assertion, I will refer to a number of issues. I note and accept that the Assembly will spend a record and unprecedented sum — approximately £1·5 billion — on capital projects this year.

However, it is worth stressing that the Budget for this financial year referred to a net expenditure on capital of £1·4 billion, but in gross terms, the investment strategy referred to £1·8 billion. Therefore, there is, potentially, a £300 million shortfall in that respect.

I note that the Minister has said that the reason that we cannot do that is due to the capital receipts not coming through. Obviously, we understand why that has been the case because of the economic downturn. However, the disappointment that I have — and I know that it is shared by society overall, particularly by the business sector — is that the Executive do not have the flexibility and ability to respond by reallocating resources to close that shortfall in capital funds. We are not able to bring new resources to bear to deliver that £1·8 billion in capital investment.

If one looks at jurisdictions elsewhere in these islands and around the world, one can see an effort to accelerate capital spending in recognition of the fact that that we are in an economic downturn. In some respects, that is an easy way to get economic activity under way, but it also allows us to invest in a better infrastructure for society, which means that we are better placed to take advantage of a recovery when it comes.

Therefore, there is some sense of disappointment that we are not able to respond with greater flexibility to the situation in which we find ourselves. I say that while recognising on the one hand that we are talking about a record amount of money, but we have not delivered on the goals that were set out in those documents. I do wonder what the formal status of the investment strategy is, given that the numbers in that strategy are now significantly off course.

The £15 million set aside for winter fuel payments is an aspect of the spring Supplementary Estimates. I certainly support those payments being made — something had to be done for vulnerable pensioners during this winter. In a sense, the Executive found themselves in a situation whereby they could do little else, given that they had not undertaken other programmes with perhaps a slightly longer lead in. We are now in March, and moneys have not been paid. I am not sure why Ian Paisley Jnr was welcoming that money and how it has been making an impact on the pensioners in North Antrim. Perhaps something has happened there that has not happened elsewhere.

However, there is concern about why those payments have not yet been made. I appreciate that the Minister will say that it is the responsibility of the Minister for Social Development to deliver, but I think that that is a little bit silo-orientated. There is an overall responsibility on the Executive to address that. My wider concern is that the Executive have announced the extension of the winter fuel payments to cover additional categories, and the Minister has been taking credit and praise for that today. That will, I understand, potentially involve spending an extra £7·5 million.

My concern is that the headroom that has been built in by the Department covered only the £15 million. The Minister suggested this morning that the additional £7·5 million needs to be found by the Minister for Social Development. Presumably that means finding it from elsewhere in the budget, and potentially surrendering it. The Minister is shaking his head, but I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong, and to receive a full explanation of where that £7·5 million will be found from resources. As far as I am aware it has not been allocated with any of the financial commitments that have been made so far with regard to actual money as opposed to a declaration from the Executive. Potentially, that issue may not be addressed until the June monitoring round, and if we are talking about sorting it out in June, that makes a farce of winter fuel payments.

It is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that living in a divided society, we are skewing our resources to manage division. At most times, in a normal situation, that would bring major opportunity costs, which deny us the ability to invest in quality public services or elsewhere in the economy. In an economic downturn, when there is a need for enhanced flexibility to reallocate resources, that puts additional requirements on budgets.

The cost of managing a divided society is, therefore, brought into even clearer focus. My party is happy to share its ideas with the Minister, but it is worth noting that the Deloitte report that highlighted the cost of division in society — ‘Research into the financial cost of the Northern Ireland divide’ — has, effectively, been sidelined by the Executive. I encourage the Executive to return to that report, because we must consider all the available options for finding savings in society in order to reinvest money for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland.

Those remarks aside, I am happy to support the passing of the Final Stage of the Budget Bill. Many of the issues that Members have highlighted during this debate will form the basis of a much fuller debate on the Budget (No. 2) Bill, which should take place later in the spring.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

A LeasCheann Comhairle agus a chairde, ba mhaith liom labhairt ar son an rúin seo.

I support the passing of the Budget Bill. As I said during the Second Stage debate on 17 February, it is essential that the Assembly stand united in support of it. As we all know, these are very difficult times, not only in our society but throughout the island, and, indeed, all over the world. No one can argue against that. We can snipe at, and condemn elements of, the Bill, but in the absence of any new thinking or any new suggestions on how we might move forward, that becomes nothing more than empty rhetoric.

I have said that there are many things that I wanted to see included in the Budget, and I argued in the House that we had to ensure that everyone felt ownership of the Budget and the Programme for Government. Unless we include all sections of our communities, especially those in need, we will fail. Nevertheless, the Executive have had to make hard decisions in order to ensure that the available resources are spread across all Departments.

The Committee for Social Development supported the Minister’s call for additional funding for the housing budget, and I make that call again today. That call has been heard, given the Executive’s record over the past 18 months, with tens of millions of pounds in additional moneys being given over the monitoring rounds to increase the housing budget. However, I have serious difficulties with how much of that allocation was spent on building new social housing.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

No, thanks.

I also have difficulties with many of the Minister for Social Development’s decisions, not least her inability to deliver a housing programme without blaming someone else. Yesterday in the Chamber, we discussed the publication of the findings of the inquiry into the Department’s handling of the neighbourhood-renewal strategy, which is its main instrument for dealing with deprivation. However, the Minister has failed to address seriously the problems in delivering the strategy.

In the December monitoring round, the Minister gave back £5 million that was to be used for neighbourhood renewal — so much for dealing with social deprivation. Yesterday at Question Time, I asked the Minister to tell the House how much of her overall budget had been spent on social newbuild, but she refused to answer the question. That is a clear mark of her time in ministerial office. She fails to face up to her responsibilities of office, in the hope that it will all go away, but it will not. In answer to every question that was put to her yesterday, someone else was to blame for her problems. [Interruption.]

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. The debate is on the Budget Bill. It is not to be a résumé of what the Member feels about the Minister for Social Development. Please return to the motion.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

My points, Mr Deputy Speaker, are directly related to the way in which the Department for Social Development has handled its budget, so they are relevant to the debate. Much of today’s debate, not to mention yesterday’s debate on neighbourhood renewal, concentrated on the Minister for Social Development’s arguing that everyone else was to blame for her budgetary problems. The point that I make is that if she handled her budget properly, not as many difficulties would materialise.

I am surprised, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you say that I cannot raise that issue. Many Members, on all sides of the House, have raised difficulties and problems. The points that I make are directly relevant to the Budget.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. I remind the Member to remain focused on the Budget Bill.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

I say again that the issues that I have raised are relevant to the Budget Bill. As other Members have said, one cannot argue in debate that there are difficulties with the Budget, and with the Ministers who handle those budgets, and then say that we cannot raise the difficulties that we see with the Budget.

The Minister for Social Development says constantly that social housing will cure the ills of the construction industry. However, between 93% and 95% of the homes built have been for the private market, and it is the collapse of that market that has had a serious impact on the construction industry.

The Executive did not ask the Minister to redirect £90 million from the Social Security Agency in the monitoring rounds — and just think about how many construction workers she could have put to work if she had gone ahead with the planned newbuild for the agency. The issues are all budget-related. She has yet to say how much money she has spent from last year’s budget on getting construction workers into jobs and on buying houses. Looking at this year’s programme, it seems that many houses will be bought rather than being newbuilds. Yesterday, the Minister spoke again about her mortgage relief scheme, and how she made a bid to the Executive to implement the scheme, which was refused.

The facts are that she announced that she was going to implement the scheme last February, and that she called for a consultation period in October 2008. However, she has yet to tell anyone what the scheme will consist of and how it will address the issue. Perhaps she will tell Members how many people have lost their homes during that period —

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Mr Deputy Speaker, I realise that you are well able to look after yourself in the Chair. However, you drew Members’ attention to concentrating on the Budget, and there is — regardless of the rights or wrongs of your decision — an indication that the Member should concentrate on the Budget and not on sustained attacks on the Minister. Although you may not want to deal with the issue at this stage, my question is not about the substance but the direction from you.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

That is not a point of order. I reminded the Member to focus on the Budget Bill, and I again remind him to do so.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

A LeasCheann Comhairle, I am coming to the end anyway. It is a bit rich of the Member to raise that point, because he goes off the subject constantly.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

No, because I am almost finished.

We need to get on with the business of providing leadership; we need to support the Budget and the Programme for Government and we need to ensure that we do so without any unnecessary delay. A LeasCheann Comhairle, I support the Bill.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I shall attempt to keep to the topic and to resist the temptation to spend 15 minutes discussing the Minister for Social Development. In all seriousness, I have made my personal position clear: the economic situation facing the people of Northern Ireland and the wider economic world is so serious that it requires people to start working together. I find it strange, therefore, that Members who normally lead-off with that statement, as the previous Member did, then decide, while they are on their feet, to have a go at another Member or Minister.

If we are serious about tackling issues, we must find a way forward. In a previous debate, I noticed that Members were discussing the big challenge that we face — namely that the block grant may be reduced; that we must ensure that Westminster does not decide to do that; and that all parties should join together to deal with that. Some Members also took the opportunity to take a sideswipe at the Ulster Unionists about their link with the Conservative Party. I speak as an elected member for the Ulster Unionist Party; however, the situation behoves all of us to use whatever —

A Member:


A Member:

Go ahead.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

The situation behoves all of us to use whatever influence we have to ensure that the finances are made available to the Assembly. In other debates, we have talked about the emergency powers that we need to tackle issues. I wonder whether the Minister will address the fact that as far as closures are concerned, shops in Lisburn, which is in my constituency, are dropping like flies. Although Lisburn offers the premier shopping experience in Northern Ireland by far, it certainly cannot —

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Ballymena may be a close second, but Lisburn is still number one.

I wonder whether the Minister has any way of helping to address the issue whereby rents have plummeted but rates have not. As I understand it, and unless the Minister can explain otherwise, we have no powers to help our retail friends.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Is the Member aware of the passage, yesterday, of the Rates (Regional Rates) Order (Northern Ireland) 2009, which froze the non-domestic regional rate this year, and proposes to do so again next year? That will benefit businesses in Northern Ireland, including some of the retailers that the Member is talking about, to the tune of £8 million.

Is he also aware of the imminent introduction of legislation for a small-business rates relief scheme, which could assist some businesses, including the retail businesses that he is talking about, to the tune of 25% off their rates bills? I am sure that the Member will join me in welcoming those innovations and initiatives from the Minister of Finance and Personnel, which aim specifically to help some of the businesses that he is talking about today.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I am always grateful to have the benefit of my friend’s experience on rates. I have spent some time discussing the cap on industrial derating and other issues related to rates — I know the matter very well. I am bringing to the Assembly’s attention the fact that although there are powers that we seek to take in the future — through the RPA and the small-business rates-relief scheme — the situation facing our economy is dire. There are businesses that will not qualify for the proposed rates-relief scheme because they are substantial retailers, and they are close to closing down.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Without portfolio, Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Without Portfolio)

It is precisely for that reason that in the December monitoring round, we decided to freeze all rates for non-domestic properties, big and small, from April this year — people will not even have to wait until 2010 for the benefit. Therefore, we have dealt with the Member’s points.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I accept that the Minister is looking at those issues. However, although I might sound like the proverbial broken record, I wonder whether we need to look at making cuts. When I was talking about industrial derating, I argued that companies would either fail or go elsewhere if rates bills were not reduced. That was the argument that I made on manufacturing, and it was eventually taken on board. I see with my own eyes that businesses are failing now.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Without portfolio, Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Without Portfolio)

That is a new proposal that has not been advanced until now. What services, which would otherwise be paid for through rates, is the Member proposing to cut?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Minister, I have heard that argument before.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Forgive me — I have heard that argument before; Minister Hanson put it to me when I argued for a cap on industrial rates. He said that the money from those rates had already been factored in, and he asked me where I would find the money to pay for a cap and what services I would cut. I answered that no rates whatsoever will be collected if there are no businesses.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Without portfolio, Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Without Portfolio)

That is a cop out, and the Member knows it. His proposal is interesting, because I have not heard it from any other member of his party — if he is proposing cuts, it is worth exploring his comments. What cuts does he propose to make and in which Departments? If he does not answer that question, his proposition is not serious.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Minister, I am prepared to answer that question, but —

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. Please make all remarks through the Chair. This sounds like a conversation between Mr Basil McCrea and the Minister — will the Member include all of us?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is my policy to try to take interventions, whenever possible, in order to argue a point. In that instance, I was responding to an intervention, but I will, of course, direct my attention to all other Members through you.

To save the Minister from having to get to his feet again, I will answer his question about where cuts in services can be made. The Assembly will have to consider making genuine efficiency savings, because the money that had been expected, whether from capital receipts or rates bills, is not forthcoming; companies are failing, and the retailers that have gone out of business no longer pay rates bills. The Assembly will have to make up the money that is now absent from the Budget from somewhere else. Where can the Assembly make cuts in order to find that money?

A large company in my constituency employs more than 500 people who are now on a four-day week and who have taken a 12·5% pay cut. When it comes to finding the extra money, the Assembly will have to examine seriously wage inflation in the public sector. We cannot expect simply to watch cuts being made in the voluntary sector and short-term working being introduced in the private sector without taking remedial action in the public sector. The Assembly must hold collective discussions on that issue.

I am not trying to put people on the dole — quite the opposite. However, we face a harsh financial reality, and having noted the considered manner in which the Minister dealt with matters in his statement, I am putting forward my view in a similarly considered manner. If Members are serious about tackling financial issues, they must resist the opportunity to take petty party-political potshots and find a way to work together. Quite simply, the money to do everything that Members would like to do is not available, and, therefore, the Assembly must prioritise. When the UUP argued the need for a review of the Budget, I took on board the argument presented by the Minister and others. Their response was that a review would be too difficult, other means could be found and that Ministers had to take responsibility for finding savings in their Departments.

The Department that I know most intimately is the Department of Education, in which I can see that cuts are being made; inflation in the price of fuel, and the rising cost of maintenance and job evaluations are not being funded. When the Department makes bids that are described as inescapable, they cannot be met because there is no money available in the monitoring round.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

No; I will give way in a minute.

That saving must come from somewhere. Cuts are being made, and it is mendacious for Members not to state openly where that is the case. We should be honest about that.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I am almost tempted to suggest a merger as a possible approach. I welcome the Member’s bravery in making certain points today.

The large school estate is inefficient, and many small schools with small catchment areas are under threat. A disproportionate amount of the education budget is spent on school buildings rather than on pupils’ needs. There is a requirement for a sustainable schools policy, whereby the number of shared and integrated schools can be increased. Does the Member consider that the Minister of Education should accelerate such programmes to realise resources that could be reinvested in education or elsewhere in the economy?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Part of what the Member said is lost on me; it is the same old, same old. He could not help starting off with a dig about mergers. When I was speaking, some Members remarked that I was being courageous. That reminds me of ‘Yes Minister’ and the courageous —

A Member:

The very courageous —

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

If Members who are speaking from a sedentary position wish to stand to make their points, I will give way.

Sometimes, Members must point out that the emperor has no clothes or highlight the challenges that we face. Anyone who walks around our towns and cities sees businesses that have closed down and must realise that that has a devastating effect not only on the owners of those retail concerns but on their employees. Those closures also reduce the rateable take and will subsequently affect every person in the community.

I am asking Members whether there is a way in which we can try to alleviate the immediate pressure that these folks are under — which is largely coming from rates — not at the end of the year, not when we get the small-business rates relief scheme, but now.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Does the Member accept that a freeze on the regional rate for non-domestic properties this year and the proposal to do the same next year is, effectively, taking into account inflation, a real-terms cut over both periods?

I am interested in the Member’s innovative proposal. I would support the notion of reducing rates both for domestic and non-domestic customers, but that is a decision and policy that would not come without consequence. I do not think that the Member has been as full and free in outlining those consequences as he should be.

Will the Member outline to the House why, in coming forward with this innovative and novel idea — and it is the first time that I have heard it being espoused by him or any member of his party — he has waited until today, until the Final Stage of the Budget Bill, and did not come forward with this innovative and novel idea yesterday when we were striking the non-domestic regional rate for the incoming year? I would have thought that that would have been a much more appropriate time to bring forward such a proposal.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

There are issues of merit in what the Member has said, but some parts of his speech were rather shallow. The reason that I am bringing forward these issues now is that when I met traders and commercial interests in Lisburn, as I did recently in relation to parking fees and such matters, it was explained to me that one particular person who had owned four shops in Lisburn, now owns two, and will shortly own one. Mr Hamilton will be aware of the travesty that that represents. In that one shop, five people were employed. Now, only one person is employed there.

As an elected representative, I listen to what people say and I look around and see that there is a very real problem. People have spoken to me about the level of rates that they are being asked to pay. People asked me whether there was something that they could do. I spoke to the rates office to ask when the latest revaluation was coming out, and asked whether that would give us any succour — would it help?

I am grateful for the Member’s support, which is what I think he was indicating, to this innovative idea. All that I did was to ask the Minister whether there was any provision for us to have the powers to secure targeted intervention. It comes down to this: some rates from some companies that stay open are better than no rates at all, which is where we are heading now. I see it with my own eyes, and I wonder whether there is anything that we can do about it. I will not detain —

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I was just about to finish, but, yes.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Maybe I should sit down, then, Mr Deputy Speaker.

In principle, I support the idea of keeping our rates as low as is possible, whether for domestic or non-domestic customers. I would support reductions if they were plausible. That would not come without consequence. The merit of the Member’s proposal can be judged only if he were to outline — in explicit terms — exactly what the consequences of the cut that he proposes might be. He cannot simply stand up here and say that the non-domestic regional rate should be cut. The Member should have risen yesterday and made such a proposal when we were striking the non-domestic regional rate for next year. Why has the Member waited until today to suggest the idea?

I accept that the Member has genuine, valid concerns, as do I and other Members, and that is why I support the measures that the Minister is bringing forward this year and has proposed for next year, but the Member’s proposal strikes me as a little bit desperate and last minute, and inappropriate in time. It should have been brought forward yesterday — that was exactly the appropriate moment in which to debate what the level of the non-domestic regional rate should have been.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I entered this debate by asking whether the Minister has any powers to intervene selectively. Are we able to target a developing problem? Part of that debate led us to other places.

Given that I am responding to a question asked by Mr Hamilton, it would be good if he were listening to me.

The point that I am making is a logical consequence of the debate. Decisions cannot be taken by one person, or one party, because doing so would result in exactly what is happening in the Chamber now: Members are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of the headlines tomorrow. My message for every Member in the Chamber is that the people of Northern Ireland look to all of us on this hill in the expectation that we will help them out. Being able to do that comes down to having honest and frank discussions.

Earlier, in the debate on the Financial Provisions Bill, concerning the Comptroller and Auditor General, we spoke about the necessity of allowing people to come to speak their minds. I assure Members that I am not attempting to advantage any particular person; I am attempting to find a resolution to a dire problem that is ruining commercial centres. Surely we must be able to do something about that situation.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you indicated that you wished to finish for lunch, and I have taken longer than expected. However, I must put my points firmly. Earlier, a Member, risibly, commended the Ulster Unionist Party for changing its mind about being in opposition. Party politics are not the issue for my party in this matter. We changed our position because having made our points about the Budget, we lost the argument and must, therefore, move on. If Members are serious about democracy and really want to work together on this matter, they must begin by confronting some of elephants in the Chamber — that is a metaphor, and not a reference to any Member. We must deal with these matters constructively. It may well be that as the smirks to my left confirm, I am in a minority of one, but, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi:

“Even though you be in a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.”

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I, therefore, propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm, when the next Member to speak will be Mr Attwood.

The sitting was suspended at 12.38 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00 pm, 3rd March 2009

This has been a somewhat curious morning in respect of the debates on the monitoring returns and the Budget, because one or two things have, it seems to me, begun to crystallise around the issue of our Budget and about where it may or may not be going over the next two years and beyond.

The first is that the Minister referred this morning to the fact that, and I use his words, there will be an increase in capital expenditure:

“increasing next year, increasing the year after”.

That is a brave presumption, because, as the Minister also conceded this morning, conversations commenced last week with the Prime Minister, and will continue, as he indicated, in coming days and weeks, about what can be presumed when it comes to the 2009-2011 Budget.

I am mindful that a DFP spokesperson briefed that the London Exchequer may be looking for upwards of £200 million in cuts — or efficiency savings, or whatever new title they might be given. In the context of DFP briefing that there may be an additional pressure on the Budget of up to £200 million, and when there are, clearly, issues being discussed between our Government and the London Government, it seems presumptuous and daring of the Minister to inform the House that there will be an increase in capital expenditure next year and in the year after.

The second curious point that I want to raise with regard to what I have heard in the past few hours are words that the Minister himself used in reply to a question that was clearly planted and pre-ordained between himself and Simon Hamilton. In the context of the Budget and the February monitoring returns, the Minister, in reply to that question, referred to — and I again quote his words exactly — that it may be the case that:

“there would be a reordering of Budget allocations”.

“Reordering of Budget allocations” were the words used by the Minister in the Chamber this morning. He went further and said that it may be the case that:

“there may be removing money from other budgets”

— in order to address identified needs. Among the issues to which the Minister referred this morning were the dioxin contamination incident, housing and maybe other issues

It is curious that at a time when the SDLP and many people involved in economics in Northern Ireland are saying that there is a need to look at our Budget and consider whether adjustments should be made, the Minister is using the language “reorder Budget allocations” and “remove money from other budgets” in order to address some specific need.

When responding to the debate, I hope that the Minister will take time to explain what those words mean, because one interpretation — which is the benign interpretation and to which I am not yet driven to conclude — is that the Minister is moving to the ground of the SDLP argument, which is that there needs to be a reconsideration or a review of Budget allocations and that there may be a need to reorder Budget allocations and to adjust its priorities.

If that is the ground that the Minister is now moving on to, I welcome him to SDLP ground, and I welcome his response to the argument that the SDLP has been outlining for a long period. Given that those are the Minister’s new words and that we have been hearing them over the past number of hours, it would be helpful if he were to now throw more light on what he means when he talks about reordering Budget allocations and removing money from other budgets. If he is prepared to say that that is what happened in the situation with dioxins, I invite him to indicate what other Budget priorities he thinks the same might happen with.

As I understand from the comments of Mr McCann from West Belfast, there was a curious exchange this morning. I apologise that I was not in the Chamber for all of the debate, due to —

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

There is good reason for that, as I am sure that you will accept, because as we speak, evidence is being taken in the Senate Chamber about the budgetary concerns and issues with the devolution of justice and policing. Given that you are currently negotiating — [Interruption.]

Given that the Minister is currently in negotiations with the Exchequer in London about what the Budget allocation will be in the event of the devolution of justice and policing, was it not curious that Mr Robinson made an intervention during Mr Dodds’s speech on the Floor of the House of Commons last Wednesday when the procedural motion about the legislation that will be discussed in the House of Commons over the next two days was being debated? I see that Mr Dodds is nodding approvingly. Mr Robinson made an intervention while the Member for North Belfast was making a speech, putting on record for all to hear — not least his senior partners in Government — that:

“no end date has been agreed for the devolution of policing and justice”.

Mr Robinson took time out on the Floor of the House of Commons, in public, to drive the point home and to put on the record that there is no end date for the devolution of justice and policing. If that is not sending a message to your partners in Government, I do not know what is.

However, let me come back to the debate —

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

There will be a lot more for the Minister to reply to before I am finished.

It was curious this morning that in another choreo­graphed move, Mr Simpson and the Whip for Sinn Féin — Carál “get used to it” Ní Chuilín — asked about the SDLP’s approach in Government to budgetary issues, including the budget for social housing. It was curious because what neither Mr Simpson, nor Ms Ní Chuilín nor the Minister said about the Minister for Social Development’s input into the Budget negotiations was that, in November, she — nearly alone among her ministerial colleagues — made proposals to the Executive as to how the Budget could be distributed in order to respond to the economic downturn. That was in response to a specific question that was asked by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). At that moment, the DUP and Sinn Féin in Government did not respond to the Department for Social Development (DSD) Minister’s proposal about how the Budget should be spent in order that the economic downturn could be addressed.

Were that not bad enough, when the Minister said in December that he was returning moneys to DFP and looking for approval to spend those moneys on budgetary matters to deal with the economic downturn, what did Sinn Féin and DUP in Government do? They dismissed the Minister for Social Development’s paper and ignored her advice about using the Budget in order to maximise return in an economic downturn by assisting our construction industry. I welcome the fact that although the Minister of Finance and Personnel did not agree to that approach in December, come January, his position had changed somewhat and, as he outlined this morning in his reply to Mr Simpson’s question, he agreed that money that was in the DSD budget could be reallocated for housing.

An argument that the Minister would not accept in December because of the weight of evidence and public disquiet, he agreed to in January. I welcome that, and I trust that that will now work itself through in the terms in which the Minister spoke this morning. If there is going to be a reordering of Budget allocations, the principles that the Minister established in January, in agreeing that the reallocation of money should go back to DSD for housing, and in the letter that he sent to the Minister for Social Development, in which he said that he accepted that there was a materially disproportionate impact on the construction industry through housing stress and unmet housing need, should be put into practice. I welcome the fact that the Minister also said those things publicly on the Floor of the House. I hope that the Minister, if he fulfils the words that he used this morning in respect of reordering budget allocations, will ensure that that works itself through in respect of the housing budget, the other priorities of Government expenditure, and need in our society.

It seems that the sands are shifting, and that the sands may even be shifting in DFP when it comes to how the Budget should be spent — and I am sure that the Minister will want to deal with that in his reply. However, it is not just the SDLP that is saying that; it may not just be the Minister who is hinting at that; it is also the view of the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Sir Reg Empey. Last week, he came before the Committee for Employment and Learning and made the following observation — this is the note of the recording taken by Committee staff:

“The question is, to what extent do you revisit targets that you set yourself? Now, just because they are hard to achieve doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a hard to achieve target, but I think we have reached the point where hard to achieve is one thing, impossible to achieve is another. And, in some of the targets we are moving strongly into that territory. I think one would need to do that exercise first and I think there is a case for revisiting some of our targets so that we can see what is achievable and maybe we will have to revise some of them down in the short term and if there is a budgetary consequence to that then obviously we will have to address that because it could still take more money to achieve a lower target.”

Those are the indications from the Minister for Employment and Learning, which are contrary to what he may have said publicly two or three weeks ago.

When it comes to the budgetary situation, and the consequences of what we are discussing and voting on today, the sands are beginning to shift. In my view, the sands have shifted quite remarkably, even in the past two or three weeks since the last occasion when we were on the Floor of the Assembly discussing the issue of how we spend our Budget and what the priorities in the Budget should be.

Look at the evidence of the past two weeks, which is available for all to see, and which Mr Basil McCrea said that he picked up from constituents and businesses in his part of the world. Let us rehearse and remind ourselves of what the evidence has been in the past 14 days in respect of how the economic situation in the North has developed and why we should now be seen to respond to those developments in a way that does what the Minister said, which is to revisit some of the Budget priorities. In January, the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits went up 2,200 to 38,400, which is a bad figure. However, behind that there is even worse news. The annual increase in unemployment in Northern Ireland over the past year is the highest in nearly 40 years. If one looks behind that, the number of jobs lost in Northern Ireland in the year up to January was 14,700 — the largest recorded rise in the history of Northern Ireland.

Furthermore, 80% of that occurred in the last six months of 2008 alone. Therefore, the figures, evidence and information that have come into the public domain over the past two weeks show that the situation is becoming more acute and that it requires a more interventionist and acute response from Government.

Considering how that is reflected in Northern Ireland’s constituencies and wards gives one a sense of why Government must urgently revisit the Budget: on 18 February, we had the loss of 21 jobs at Zavvi in Belfast city centre; on 13 February, Stream indicated that it might seek redundancies; on 28 February, we heard from Wrightbus that 235 jobs could go to the wall; and as I speak, Translink is in conversation with its employees about potential redundancies. The service sector — in past years a key reason for unemployment falling to an historic low — is now experiencing its fastest rate of unemployment growth in a decade.

That is what is on public record in the past two weeks alone; the next two weeks may be no better. In those circumstances, I hope that the Minister will look again and reconsider what he said this morning — the re-ordering of Budget allocations.

In an effort to be constructive, I say to the Minister that, at this time, there are reasons why re-ordering Budget allocations and making appropriate interventions have particular added value. I will not rehearse the SDLP’s argument — investment in social housing is the best delivery mechanism by which to achieve the biggest impact in the shortest time across a range of indicators. That argument is self-evident and compelling; I do not intend to repeat it.

However, there are other sectors in which appropriate intervention now can make a difference. Given comments made by the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s colleague Mr Sammy Wilson some of what I will say may be particularly timely and appropriate.

However, there have been some opportunities for our manufacturing and wider industry base in the North in the past two weeks. Willis, a company that makes water-heating systems, secured a major contract in North America to supply its energy-saving solar devices. At the same time, jobs were created in Newry by GEM and in other IT back-office support work. A huge investment is being made on the headland between Whitehead and Larne, not far from the Environment Minister’s constituency, to store wind power in caverns to create green, clean and cheap energy.

Bearing in mind the general economic performance of the North over the past two weeks, those are clear examples of where to target and to direct economic interventions. In the past fortnight, the Manufacturing Forum said that in its view INI was not fit for purpose in trying to sustain the North’s manufacturing base beyond the IT and the financial sectors. That should prompt the Government, the Finance Minister and his colleague in DETI to consider what interventions are needed to maximise those industries and manufacturers that — even in the present difficult environment — are demonstrably fit for purpose, fit for competition and fit for business.

I will make two final comments. In many ways, they are small and symbolic matters because the SDLP has indicated that it will publish a wide range of proposals on the readjustment of the Budget in an effort to ensure that the Executive and the Assembly are fit for the challenges that Northern Ireland people expect them to address.

These two issues were mentioned by one or two other Members earlier in the debate. The first is the issue of the Civil Service bonuses for which the Budget makes provision. As Members are aware, evidence given to the Committee for Finance and Personnel indicated that all permanent secretaries received maximum bonuses in the past year.

In a reply to a question for oral answer in the House on 23 February 2009, the Minister said that he had received a report on Civil Service pay and bonuses. I look forward to what the Minister does in due course about that report. I do not understand how bonuses are being paid at such a level when there may be issues about the conduct and management of Government. That suggests that there should be a question mark over whether those maximum bonuses should be paid.

I could give many examples, but I will give only two because I want to be cautious. The Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Education have now spent almost six years undertaking a review of teacher training in the North. The Minister for Employment and Learning said that the review had not been his Department’s “finest hour”. Although a review of a critical issue such as the delivery of teacher-training provision in Northern Ireland has been ongoing for six years, a report has not yet been issued.

The officials who occupy senior positions in Government — some of whom may receive maximum bonuses — should be asked questions about why a situation that the Minister described as not being the Department’s finest hour does not have consequences regarding accountability, including personal financial accountability.

Yesterday, we heard that costs that were paid to a member of the legal profession would not have any consequences for the staff in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety who may have had some responsibility for, or involvement in, the management of the Brangam Bagnall and Co contract. It was hoped that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development would raise £200 million from the sale of the Crossnacreevy site, but the Minister now knows that that was a grossly inaccurate assessment of that land’s value. Some people now value that land as low as £5 million or £6 million.

Clearly, people gave that advice to the Department, but what are the consequences? Where does the buck stop when it comes to the management of Government in respect of officials who receive state salaries and who may also receive substantial bonuses of up to and including £10,000, which some permanent secretaries received last year?

My only experience of a bonus system is that of the Policing Board. Each year, the Chief Constable comes to the Policing Board and makes recommendations about the senior management team of the PSNI. I assure the House that not every senior police officer in the PSNI receives the maximum bonus every year. There are differentials among the senior officers, which are based on their performance over one year. That is my only experience of the management of a bonus scheme.

I find it difficult to reconcile some of the evidence that I have outlined — and there is much else besides — with the fact that all our permanent secretaries each receive a £10,000 bonus. I ask the Minister to consider those issues when the time comes to deal with next year’s Budget and the payment of those bonuses.

The measures that I have outlined are small and symbolic but, over the course of two years, can have a significant impact on the Budget. When the SDLP publishes its wider proposals, they will have a more significant impact on the Budget than those I have mentioned. The proposals will mention the number of senior civil servants at grade 5 and above in each Department — the staff who receive the types of bonuses that I am talking about.

From my experience of Government, I know that there are many good officials across all Civil Service ranks, including the senior ranks. I acknowledge their work and compliment them on it. However, as the Minister might be aware, the SDLP has tabled a question to all Departments in the past three weeks. The question asked about the total number of staff in each Department, and, in particular, the number of staff in senior grades — that is grade 5 and above.

To date, virtually every Department has responded, including the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department for Social Development, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning. The only Department that has not yet responded is the Department of Finance and Personnel. The Minister has written to me to say that he intends to reply as soon as he can, and I look forward to receiving that response.

However, the question is a serious one, and it may be particularly serious for DFP, which some say has a much greater number of senior civil servants than other Departments. Not only must we view those matters in the light of efficiency and performance, but we must consider other questions, too: what is the right profile of senior civil servants at grade 5 or above across the range of Departments, and what opportunities may exist, over two years of spending rounds, to reconfigure that number and make some savings?

Those are only a flavour of the issues that the SDLP and I believe need to be addressed. I ask the Minister to reply to some of those questions today, if he cannot reply to all of them. In particular, will he enlighten us further as to what he meant this morning in his reply to Simon Hamilton’s question about dioxins and the housing budget? The Minister said that there could be, subject to Executive review, a reordering of Budget allocations.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Without portfolio, Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Without Portfolio) 2:15 pm, 3rd March 2009

The Member was not in the Chamber to listen to most of the debate — he was obviously tied up elsewhere — but he made the longest contribution to it at the very end.

I will try to reply to most of the points that relate to the debate. Obviously, today’s debate is on the Budget Bill, which is necessary to ensure that there is the legal authority to pay money to the various Departments. Many of the issues that were raised, particularly those that were raised in the last speech, have nothing whatsoever to do with the Budget Bill. However, I will answer some of those questions in due course.

I want to record my thanks to the Committee for Finance and Personnel for its assistance in the accelerated passage of the Bill through the Assembly, a process with which the House is, by now, well acquainted. The Committee’s assistance will enable the Bill to receive Royal Assent by 31 March and will thus facilitate a smooth continuation of public services into the new financial year. I join Members in welcoming the fact that the Bill has been unanimously supported —despite initial indications from certain quarters that they would oppose the Bill and table amendments to it, nothing transpired in the end. I very much welcome that, as, I am sure, will the people of Northern Ireland, given that, as a result of the Bill, money will continue to be paid to Departments after 31 March.

I will try to deal with some of the issues that were raised. It will not be possible to deal with all of them, given the amount of time that has already been expended and the fact that the debate ranged far and wide, over a large number of areas.

I will pick up on a number of themes. An issue was raised in relation to what more the Assembly and the Executive could be doing, and reference was made to the Obama package. That is a staggering contrast when one considers the powers and the remit of the Assembly in comparison with the situation in the US. It is an interesting comparison. Nevertheless, with regard to borrowing —

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Without portfolio, Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Without Portfolio)

No, I will carry on and try to get through as many points as I can. Reference was made to borrowing and to capital investment. I remind Members who talked about borrowing that Northern Ireland has borrowing powers that Scotland, for instance, does not have. Indeed, Scotland and Whitehall are debating that issue. Some Members said that Northern Ireland should be doing what other places are doing with regard to borrowing. However, we are borrowing hundreds of millions of pounds under much more favourable terms than those negotiated under the previous Assembly. The previous terms lumbered us with a tie-in to council tax increases in England as regards the rate of interest.

The terms were renegotiated by our party, and they represent a better deal for the people of Northern Ireland. This is no thanks to the SDLP, whose Members give us plenty of advice, but who got that matter spectacularly wrong even though they had responsibility for the finance portfolio at the time. They were obviously asleep at the wheel. The fact is that we have borrowing powers and we are utilising them. To put the record straight, Scotland would like to have such powers.

As I said in my statement on the February monitoring round this morning, there is a net capital investment of £1·5 billion, which is a vast increase compared to what was happening under direct rule, and it is an increase of between 30% and 40% on what was being spent last year. That money is going into schools, hospitals, roads and housing, and so on.

In December, I announced in the Assembly that a number of projects and programmes were being held up as a result of legal challenges to the frameworks. Without having to get advice from anyone, we took action to accelerate that expenditure to ensure that those projects would go to market and would not get caught up in those frameworks. As a result, £115 million of work is coming to market. Those are important issues to remember.

In December, the Chancellor said in his pre-Budget report that Northern Ireland had the capacity to bring forward money from 2009-2010 into this financial year and from 2010-11 into the next financial year. We have already done that in respect of this financial year, and we will look at what we can do for next year: we will take that decision in due course. Therefore, we are delivering the investment strategy, we are accelerating expenditure, where possible, and we are taking action with respect to procurement to ensure that money is not held up.

A number of comparisons were made between expenditure in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. We are taking whatever measures we can to bring forward expenditure in line with the Chancellor’s announce­ment in the pre-Budget report.

During the debate, Basil McCrea — who has now gone to another event but was present for most of the debate — mentioned a number of matters in which further action might be taken. He suggested that, in the current climate, we should cut rates further. As I said earlier, we are introducing a small business rates relief scheme, and we are taking measures to ensure that from April 2009 further help will come to businesses through freezing the regional rate in real terms.

Of course, rates are made up of two elements — the regional rate and the district rate. One can continue to take measures as far as the regional rate is concerned, and we have done so.

Mr McCrea is a member of Lisburn City Council, which, along with many other councils, decided to increase the district rate. He asks what more can be done about rates: I respectfully suggest that, as a member of that council, he might want to consider what he can do. The Assembly has frozen the regional rate, and if he feels so strongly about the matter, he may want to do something about the district rate. That is a logical suggestion.

Mr McCrea mentioned that one way in which to pay for that is through an examination of public-sector pay. He was frank and open enough to admit that that is a brave thing to say, and he conceded that he might be a lone voice. When Members speak of teachers’ and nurses’ pay, they should be aware of the legal liabilities contracted as a result of national agreements. Public-sector wages are of significant benefit to local businesses. However, I heard what Mr McCrea said from the Benches, and his suggestion was also mooted in the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland (ERINI) report, which was described by Mr McNarry as a “worthy” report. Mr McCrea’s proposal — or suggestion — that public-sector pay should be examined would not be widely welcomed across Northern Ireland in the current economic climate, particularly among those in the public sector. It will be interesting to see what emerges in policy development on that subject. Mr McCrea made the proposal, and I am sure that people will want to explore it in further detail. It is not on my agenda or on that of my party, but it will be interesting to see whether it gains currency in other quarters.

A number of other matters were raised. Mr Farry mentioned several issues. Mr O’Loan referred to a discrepancy between what officials in DFP have said and what I have said. He said that, in some Committee or other, DFP officials seemed to have supported a proposition that he had put forward about programmes that had run their course. I reject that interpretation entirely and so would the officials concerned. It is invidious to quote officials in a debate when they have no right to respond. If he wants to bait the Minister, he should do that, but he should not bait officials.

The Programme for Government put in place the primacy of growing a dynamic and innovative economy. As a result of that, the Budget is aligned to take account of that strategic priority over three years, and measures have been taken to implement it. During the year, through the in-year monitoring process, money has been redistributed where reduced requirements have been declared. That has boosted expenditure in a number of areas, particularly agriculture, roads, education and, in the Department for Social Development, the housing budget.

Reduced requirements are surrendered by Departments that are no longer in a position to spend the money on the purposes for which it was allocated. Therefore, it must be returned to the centre for reallo­cation by the Executive. The decision to reallocate the moneys in-year was taken unanimously in December. There is, however, a difference between that and the decision taken by DSD in January to manage its own budget proactively and to reallocate money from urban regeneration to the social housing budget. I welcome that: I had urged that decision and was happy to accommodate it.

As I said earlier in my statement on the February monitoring round, it shows that, when it comes to helping the construction industry or other priorities, in many cases, there is often greater flexibility and room for manoeuvre for Ministers in their own Departments. They have vastly more resources at their disposal in their budgets than the Executive have in an in-year monitoring process. Often, a large degree of those budgets will have been allocated; however, if Ministers so wish, there may be room to reprioritise. That money often dwarfs the amount of money that is available in-year for reallocation.

Mr Attwood referred to comments that were made earlier in the debate. I will clarify the situation for his benefit, because he was not here for the entire debate, so I do not know what he heard or picked up. When Mr Attwood, anyone other Member or anybody outside the House talks about reprioritising or reordering the Budget, what must happen is that money must come out of other Departments’ budgets in order to pay for that. In response to his question on the dioxins incident, that is what happened there. Departments had to give up money, and surrender it in a certain way, so that it could be redistributed. The Executive made the decision that that was a priority that they wanted to meet. There is no option that allows us have more money for X that does not entail taking money out of Y.

That may be a difficult concept to understand, or, indeed, that may be what Mr Attwood and others intend to propose. We will all be interested to hear which budgets will be affected. I have no doubt that any proposal will be framed in the context of red tape and bureaucracy, and all that. However, if money is to be taken out of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department for Regional Development or any other Department, Mr Attwood must be clear on that.

I am the one who has been pointing out to Members — whether they be Mr McNarry of the Ulster Unionists, Mr O’Loan, or others who are coming forward to say that we must revisit the Budget — that it is open to Ministers, within their remit, to reprioritise funds or to spend money differently. However, if those Members are saying that they want to reorder the Budget’s priorities — in other words, re-examine departmental baselines — they must be open and honest, and say that that means taking money out of other Departments, because it is not me who is suggesting that.

The Minster of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is in the Chamber, and he has not come to me to say that that is what he wants to happen, nor has any other Minister. I think that all Ministers would indicate that they are spending their budgets in accordance with the Programme for Government. Much of the money that is being spent on capital investment is not only delivering better services and infrastructure for the people of Northern Ireland but is helping the construction industry at this time. Roads, hospitals, schools, education colleges, water plants, sewerage plants and other infrastructure cannot be built without such projects helping the construction industry. Of course, housing is included in that, and we have already indicated our position on that. There should be no lack of clarity on that matter.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Without portfolio, Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Without Portfolio)

No. We listened to Mr Attwood for half an hour, which really did stretch the limits. Instead of his trying to put words into my mouth, I have stated my position and pointed out the consequences of what people are suggesting.

At the end of the day, I am only one Minister, and if the Executive make a decision that they wish to take money out of one budget and put it into another, that is a matter for the Executive to agree on. I dare say, however, that there will not be much suggestion for that money to come out of one budget in particular. That is fair enough, but each party, and each relevant and responsible Minister, will make the case for the Departments for which they hold the ministerial portfolio. I am simply pointing out a fact of life.

If I had more money, or if the Executive or the Assembly had more money coming from outside sources, such as Westminster — highly unlikely in the current circumstances — we would be in a different position, and, as such, we could have a debate on to where those extra resources should go.

In order to help our economy, we must ensure that we have proper delivery of the Programme for Government and the Budget; that all the money that is being spent is being properly and fully spent; that we do not end up in a situation in which money is handed back to the Treasury; and that we do not end up in a situation in which Ministers do not deliver on their investment strategies.

At the moment, Departments are telling the Department of Finance and Personnel that they are on track to deliver on their capital expenditure budgets, and that is to be welcomed. The out-turn of that will be seen in June, but it is important to stress that the Budget Bill seeks the authority and the legal cover to ensure that the changes that have taken place in-year are able to be carried through and that there is cover for expenditure for the first few months of the next financial year. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45 pm, 3rd March 2009

Before I put the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That the Budget Bill [NIA 5/08] do now pass.