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In accordance with the Business Committee’s agreement to allocate additional time where two or more amendments have been selected, up to one hour and 45 minutes will be allocated for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. Two amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes in which to propose and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly reaffirms the priority given to the economy outlined in the Programme for Government; notes with concern the impact of the downturn on jobs, especially in the construction, manufacturing and service sectors; recognises the need to protect frontline services including health, education, skills and housing in the pursuit of efficiency savings; and resolves to establish an ad-hoc committee:
(i) to bring forward proposals to revise budget lines and spending profiles to ensure the best support for key economic sectors in the context of both current downturn and future recovery;
(ii) to explore innovative uses of public money to address the pressures caused by the global downturn and prospects for regional recovery; and
(iii) to consider proposals to ring-fence frontline public services and ensure more strategic targeting of efficiency savings.
We are in the grip of one of the worst economic recessions in living memory. Businesses are going belly-up, workers are being laid off, and families across Northern Ireland are struggling to make ends meet. This is a genuine motion that aims to open up an honest debate on the economy. We must find mechanisms through which we can talk to each other and share economic responsibilities. Rebuilding our economy will take a great deal of work. However, in the short term, we have just as much work to do to make best use of our existing resources.
Nobody will be surprised that I am slightly concerned about the response of the two main parties — the governing parties — to the crisis. They hold their hands up, claim powerlessness and do nothing of any substance. One should consider the relatively unhelpful amendments to today’s motion as examples of how devoid those parties are of creative or productive ideas and of how content they are to dawdle along, making no changes and no difference.
The DUP’s recent proposals are nothing more than a smoke-and-mirrors exercise. A set of old ideas has been dressed up in new clothes, and a few efficiency savings have been added around the edges. There is talk about reducing the number of Departments but not the number of civil servants. There is no mention of scrapping the large bonuses that are dished out to many civil servants. The DUP is fooling no one on the matter. People want genuine proposals, not a fog that hides the existing difficulties and failures. We do not need to create a fog to hide the deepening failure.
We are fully conscious that difficulties may exist among political parties, and we are conscious that the DUP and Sinn Féin may have difficulty renegotiating changes. However, those changes must be renegotiated. The Programme for Government and the Budget, which are almost two years old now, are not sufficient to meet the fierce challenges of today. From its inception, the Budget was seriously flawed, and the SDLP voted against it. In the light of the deepening crisis and the radical changes to the economy, that Budget is obviously flawed. Economic experts, financial experts, the business sector and the community and voluntary sector all agree that we must urgently revise our priorities. The two main parties in the Chamber are the only ones who oppose that concept.
Yet, all over the world, Governments are looking again at spending priorities, while many of us in this Chamber bury our head in the sand. The response to the growing criticism from across the community and from leading economists is to avoid the issue. We cannot succeed in rebuilding our prosperity by doing that. I think that that is a terrible message to send to the thousands of people who have lost their jobs and the tens of thousands who are struggling to make ends meet in the recession. That is not responsible or acceptable government, and I do not think that it is the type of government that any of us want. That is why my party make a new, carefully costed Budget paper and why we brought forward the proposals that are in the motion.
We are disappointed with the Executive’s response. We must ask what that response is, because clearly, they did not deem the economic downturn significant or important enough to respond. If they did, somebody would be here today to deal with the issue and to respond to the debate.
Any issues that I raise, I do so genuinely and honestly. I want an honest and positive solution. I have said time and again in the Chamber that the way in which we respond to the current crisis will be the greatest test of this Executive and this Assembly. The DUP and Sinn Féin are running away at a time of economic crisis. Someone should be here in the Chamber today to say why a Budget that has a shortfall of £100 million for building social houses, for instance, should last another day. Somebody should be here to say how they intend to find the £123 million of savings that were decreed by the Chancellor. Yet the main parties refuse, against all calls from economic experts, to revise the Budget at this time of emergency.
Today, Minister Conor Murphy has agreed further Translink fare hikes of 13%. He is demanding that the public revise their budgets, but he refuses to allow the Assembly to revise its Budget. Minister Sammy Wilson has agreed rises in planning fees; he is demanding that the struggling construction industry revise its budget priorities; but he refuses to allow the Assembly to do the same. What kind of government is this? I think that those people owe more to themselves, if not to the rest of us.
Unlike any other party, the SDLP has nailed the notion that no new money could be found. We identified £400 million that could be vired to boost the local economy. As outlined in the motion, the Executive must revise their Budget lines and spending priorities to ensure the very best support for our key sectors, not just during the current downturn but when it comes to helping us prepare for a recovery.
An Ad Hoc Committee on the current economic crisis is perhaps the most effective and best value-for-money vehicle for achieving that. Such a Committee could be innovative and creative, and it could listen to and take on board any evidence that may be available, from whatever source. An Ad Hoc Committee would be the best vehicle for exploring all the options and for coming up with some original and resourceful recommendations.
Our front line services are vital in all this, and, in a time when stringent efficiency saving targets are being set, an Ad Hoc Committee is the most effective and efficient means of exploring all proposals to ring-fence front line public services and to ensure more strategic targeting of efficiency savings. However, it is crystal clear from the amendments that the DUP and its Sinn Féin puppets are not interested in making serious proposals to revise the Budget lines and review the spending profiles to ensure that the best support is delivered to our key economic sectors and drivers. At the same time, they are not interested in exploring innovative uses of public money to address and ease current pressures right across Northern Ireland. They clearly have no intention of or interest in considering proposals to protect our front line public services.
I am sure that people right across Northern Ireland are delighted to hear that message from those two parties. Rather than bring hope, that message can only induce despair in all those fathers and mothers who are joining the ever-lengthening dole queues and enduring sleepless nights worrying about how they will make ends meet and feed their families.
I want to assure people that the SDLP is interested. We want to make changes; we want to make a difference; and we want to do what we can to make people’s lives easier and better in these difficult times. MLAs are not helpless in the face of the economic downturn, despite what the two main parties want the public to believe. With leadership and imagination, we can protect existing jobs, get some more people working again, and then some more after that. It is unfortunate that such initiatives and such determination are in short supply among the parties that control the Executive. Nevertheless, I assure the public that the SDLP will continue to press the issue. We will not dodge our responsibility in the Assembly or outside it, and we will not allow other parties to dodge their responsibilities to the people.
It is my privilege to move the motion. I do so in a genuine way, and with a view to finding some answers to the various challenges that we face. Those challenges are bigger than any of us as individuals or as members of parties in the Assembly, but we owe it to the public, whatever our party allegiance, to do all that we can to alleviate the worst impact of the downturn and lay the foundations for a better future.
“; notes that budget lines are altered in-year via the Monitoring Round process and that since 2007 the Executive has reallocated £1 billion in resources, including £70 million in December 2008, aimed at addressing the downturn; acknowledges the need to pursue further efficiencies targeted at reducing the size of government; welcomes the proposal for an Efficiency Review Panel; and calls for the prompt production of recommendations to reduce the number of government Departments and to deliver efficient and effective public services.”
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. The mover of the motion told us several times of his party’s genuine motivation for tabling the motion; indeed, one became a bit suspicious of that because of the number of times he mentioned it. However, I admit that it is difficult to take exception to the first few lines of the motion: all Members share the desire to reaffirm the prioritisation of the economy, and there is concern about the impact of the global economic downturn and that efficiency savings should not mean cuts in front line services. I suspect that that message has not reached every official in every Department, because there is still a culture in some Departments that regards efficiency savings as cuts. From our perspective, that is as good as the SDLP motion gets.
One of the main reasons for tabling amendment No 1 is the proposal for an Ad Hoc Committee. The proposer was a little unclear about whether that Committee would be an Ad Hoc Committee of the Assembly or a forum involving outside economic help. We must ask whether we need an Ad Hoc Committee; and my answer is no, for two reasons. First, let us examine the potential role of such a Committee. Will it allow people from outside the Assembly to bring in their expertise? That has already been done. The Executive have set up a wide-ranging group that involves the trade unions, business and local government. Will its purpose be to assess the best way forward for the Assembly from an economic perspective? The people who should be taking those decisions and are already doing so are the Minister of Finance and Personnel and his Executive colleagues. Those decisions should not be shuffled off to a Back-Bench Committee of the Assembly.
The economy is the number one priority; it was established as such in the Budget and in the Programme for Government. Consequently, there should be no need for an Ad Hoc Committee. Will such a Committee be tasked with producing greater efficiencies? Again, that has already been tackled by the Executive, which established the efficiency review panel. It seems strange to set up another Committee to examine greater efficiencies. Is it the SDLP’s solution to add more bureaucracy into the system and put one more Committee on top of the others?
The other reason given for needing an Ad Hoc Committee is to reprofile Budget lines. However, that is unnecessary, because there are already processes in place to take account of changing circumstances and revise Budget lines. As is noted in our amendment, since 2007 the Finance Minister has reallocated approximately £1 billion in resources, including £70 million in December 2008 directly addressed at the downturn. That £1 billion over a two-year period is two and a half times the amount that the SDLP is suggesting. The SDLP has come up with a £400 million package, and I will come to some of the detail of that later in my speech.
The SDLP has criticised the Budget, both at the time and today. It has said that the Budget was a flawed outcome. However, given a blank page to create its own proposals, the SDLP has produced a change in revenue spend of less than 1%. If capital is included, it is in the region of a little over 2% of the overall Budget. Therefore, the SDLP agrees with 98% or 99% of the Budget, yet there has to be reallocation. Furthermore, the amount being reallocated on an annual basis by the Finance Minister is already greater than that proposed. The issue of some sort of economic rejigging seems to be somewhat flawed in that regard.
Although we want to ensure that front-line services are protected, I sense within this motion a move away from the efficiency savings that need to be brought about. The purpose of having an efficiency review panel, which is welcomed in our amendment, and the efficiency targets that are set for each of the Departments is to ensure that money is brought forward to front-line services. I would be very loath to move away from anything on that line.
Let us take a look at the panacea that has been put forward to us today in the SDLP’s magnificent vision of reallocation. In the United States, a politician once criticised another for talking about “voodoo economics”. To describe the SDLP’s proposal as voodoo economics would be an insult to the witch doctors of the island of Haiti: it is utterly incoherent. Let us take a look at some of the spending proposals, for example. I am sure that we would all welcome £20 million being allocated to the hospital for women and children at the Royal Hospital. However, £20 million is not going to wash the face of that project, which is a £300 million project.
There are other proposals. Some of the loans that are proposed are already being pursued by the Executive with the banks. They could be delivered at no expense to the public purse and would see the banks fulfilling their criteria.
The real weakness with the SDLP budget comes when we look at where the supposed £400 million over a two-year period is to be saved. First, we are told that there can be reprofiling of the Housing Executive debt. At £100 million, that is, in fact, the biggest single item proposed out of the £400 million. In fact, it is greater than that, because for some reason the savings seem to be split on a capital and revenue basis. I am unsure how that amounts to £140 million, more than one third of the proposals. However, that debt is on the basis of agreement between us and the Treasury. We are not in a position to unilaterally reprofile that debt. If we are able to release some of that money through negotiations with the Treasury, the amount that would be saved as a result would be massively less than that. However, I reiterate that that is not something that we are in a position to do unilaterally.
A sum of £50 million has been allocated for the funding of a multi-sports stadium, yet the SDLP has tabled a motion urging the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to go ahead and spend that money on a multi-sports stadium. As Members who are involved with DCAL will know, even if it is not spent on a single sports stadium, that money will be reallocated towards spending on sports stadiums in general. Therefore, that money is not available.
We see, for example, the proposed sale and leaseback of the Housing Executive headquarters at £16 million. Even the Social Development Minister did not propose that in her part of the Budget.
When the business case for that redevelopment was looked at, it did not add up. It did not represent value for money to the Northern Ireland Executive.
The SDLP proposals also reference Invest NI surplus funds and Belfast Harbour Commissioners’ surplus funds. My colleague Ian Paisley Jnr brought to the Committee a letter from Belfast Harbour Commissioners stating that the cash reserves referenced in the SDLP’s proposals have been allocated elsewhere. Similarly, the Invest NI money has already been allocated to be spent elsewhere.
The much-vaunted Civil Service bonuses could be looked at, but, even taken at face value, that would represent less than 1% of the overall amount that the SDLP proposes to find. A range of asset sales has been suggested, such as selling car parks. In some cases, that has already been factored in. We are not in a position to get the best value from public money by selling off capital assets when the market is at its lowest point. An unrealistic freeze of Civil Service recruitment has also been proposed.
The party that is keen to boast of its green credentials proposes to sell around one eighth of Northern Ireland’s forests. We have recently had the somewhat token gesture of switching off lights for an hour, yet the SDLP proposes to reduce the carbon footprint by reducing our forests by one eighth.
Football managers were often accused of writing their team on the back of a fag packet. This is a fag-packet budget, which is utterly unrealisable. Around 80% or 90% of it does not add up. The SDLP can propose whatever it wants, but an Ad Hoc Committee will not add to the work of the Assembly.
“calls on the Executive to utilise fully the in-year Monitoring Round process:”
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I would like briefly to thank you for the generous use of your discretionary powers in allowing the leaders of all parties in the Assembly to make very kind remarks in relation to the attack on my family home. I am most grateful. It was of great solace to me and my family.
I thank the SDLP for securing the debate today. I support the comments made by the First Minister and deputy First Minister in the past couple of weeks. They recognise the value of discussions with leaders of every party to discuss the ongoing crisis in the economy. I hope that that open and inclusive approach will be applied to other emerging issues and pressures that will face the Assembly as we move forward.
I accept that the Executive ministerial team in the Assembly must be capable of demonstrating that they have responded and are responding to the changing economic conditions. However, I and my party cannot support the motion today. It is more concerned with pursuing the SDLP’s obsession with reopening the Budget process than with developing effective responses to economic decline within the context of the agreed Programme for Government priorities and a careful deployment of the available financial resources.
The motion continues to reflect the mistiming of the SDLP. When it brought forward its economic proposals, the SDLP was possibly the only party on this island oblivious to the fact that the British emergency Budget was about to be announced. Its proposals were redundant almost before the ink was dry. These issues have to inform people’s approach to the proposition before us today.
The SDLP has concluded that it did not contribute effectively to the original Budget consultation process. Its memorable indecision when it came to the Budget vote last spring and the clear division between the SDLP Assembly group and its Minister has characterised its feeble and, I believe, increasingly desperate attempts to renegotiate that Budget.
The recently established economic task force, the cross-sector advisory forum, will be reluctant to create even more Committees, as proposed by the SDLP. Again, this is a proposition from a party that proposed that we reduce the number of Committees and the amount of bureaucracy in this place when it launched its proposal document.
Equally, the Assembly will be very reluctant to agree to the duplication or replication of the work of its existing scrutiny Committees, which have statutory powers, can call for evidence and can meet the most senior departmental officials and Ministers, when appropriate. They can also, under the revised Standing Orders, meet in joint purpose to discuss and develop proposals.
Confused thinking is not the way to respond to the increasingly damaging and enormous economic challenges. Sinn Féin will not accept the DUP amendment, nor does it accept the DUP election manifesto wish list as an appropriate or adequate alternative option. The DUP proposals that were published yesterday and are reflected in its amendment must, as a minimum, be acceptable to my party before they can be presented to the Assembly with any possibility of endorsement. That is just a fact of the election results, and that will not change in this Assembly term.
At the end of the day, it is a matter of reflecting the electorate’s judgement and wisdom in the representation that they have elected to the Assembly and have thus mandated. The Assembly and the parties in it must operate within the agreed protocols, and those protocols require us to develop proposals that reflect cross-community interest, endorsement and support.
We strongly welcome the submission of ideas from the DUP. We even welcome SDLP ideas. Such ideas will be the subject of discussion, negotiation and agreement before they can translate into the policy position of the Assembly. Those ideas — that is really the best description of them at this point — are at a embryonic stage. I welcome and look forward to the opportunity to discuss the various suggestions. We will see whether they can emerge in the form of proposals that have a realistic possibility of endorsement and acceptance by the Assembly. It is only in those circumstances that they can be enacted.
The Sinn Féin amendment has the —
Ten minutes really is enough for anybody who has anything to say.
The Sinn Féin amendment, I repeat, has the advantage and strength of being an agreed position. Just as Sinn Féin did, the DUP identified the in-year monitoring process as one of the procedures that we have agreed. That process is effective and has identified quite significant sums of money, which have been reallocated. It has identified how efficiency savings can be redeployed on front line services. It has identified where underspend patterns were developing and how that money could be surrendered by the respective Departments and redeployed according to agreed priorities in the Programme for Government. That is a democratic position that the Assembly has agreed and endorsed.
The Assembly cannot print new money in the light of emerging pressures. It cannot set new fiscal parameters. We can, we must and we will operate according to the reality of the available finances. We will do that in the most effective way possible, and we will do it on a non-partisan basis. If we look at who won the most significant amounts of money in the in-year monitoring process, we see that it was the SDLP Minister. That is because every party has stepped up to the plate to deal with the priority issue of social housing and has allocated very significant additional sums to it. In return for that, we want to see the social housing deficit and the pressures that it creates being addressed effectively. That is what we will judge our spending on. [Interruption.]
The money has been given to the Minister, and we expect her to deliver. Although we are prepared to be critical, we are also prepared to be very supportive of the Minister if it is necessary to examine whether additional money can be identified and applied in future monitoring rounds.
I urge everyone, particularly the party opposite, to operate on the basis of existing agreements. As the DUP highlights correctly in its amendment, we have a mechanism to free up money and to apply it to emerging pressures, and we can, therefore, hold the feet of Ministers to the fire with regard to surrendering unspent moneys and identifying efficiencies. In such circumstances, we can continue to address, protect and ring-fence those priorities that were identified in the Programme for Government, the delivery of which the Assembly is tasked with.
We do not support the SDLP motion, or the DUP amendment, which contains elements that have not been discussed or agreed with any other party, and certainly not with Sinn Féin.
My party is pleased to see Mr McLaughlin in his place of work, despite the despicable events at his home.
The mechanism already exists to do everything outlined in the motion; it is called the Executive. However, in practice, we know it as the cosy Sinn Féin/DUP coalition, which is part of the problem. Like others, I am frustrated at the persistent and consistent refusal of the Finance Minister and the First Ministers, in particular, to positively address the recession.
Today, the economist Richard Ramsey said that Northern Ireland’s economy “needs to reinvent itself”, and he is absolutely right. The four-party Executive is the place to reprioritise public-spending profiles. Therefore, any Committee that we establish will, by its nature, lack the full Executive power for action.
However, we need to do something to force the cosy coalition into doing its job and to stop cowering behind the control-freaking and complacency of Ministers who use their majority to impose their will and to whom there appears to be no economic recession. Of course the economy is the priority, but the attitude of some people needs to change as do some of the lesser priorities of which people just will not let go.
Perhaps, the double-jobbers in this place find other distractions that prevent them from concentrating on the job at hand: we all suffer from that behaviour. Let the nouveau riche political millionaires who sit on the DUP Front Bench and who are absent from the Chamber connect with the people who are struggling with unemployment or the threat thereof. Let them connect with those who are making the family budget stretch and with those who are struggling with rent or mortgage payments, even for one home. Let them tell the people what difference £1 billion in reallocated resources has meant for them; show them, pinpoint it and tell them what difference it makes to them. Let them tell us that they do not need recommendations from others; after all, the DUP is a party of action and has the majority to act alone. Tell the people now: no more big talk and no more dodging the issue. Go for it. Tell the people that you will recommend to the Assembly authorities your own number-specific Departments. Tell people the truth: that you will cut jobs in the public sector and that those cuts are your solution.
Last week, the “Artful Doddser” said that we should consider immediately cutting the number of Departments, which would release £50 million annually. He added that we should consider:
“what could be done with less bureaucracy, less government and fewer Departments”. — [Official Report, Vol 40, No 5, p227, col 2].
Such a statement sums up the shambles that the DUP is in.
There is merit in the SDLP motion, because voting for it will be a clear signal that the Sinn Féin/DUP axis has failed and is out of touch with public opinion. Is it not surprising that the DUP/Sinn Féin co-operative is not grabbing at the idea of an Ad Hoc Committee?
I would have thought that, as the penny dropped, they would be bursting to find cover and to suck us all into a weeping confession that they have messed up. On the other hand, perhaps the control freaks want a subservient group. Perhaps they will move on the matter themselves by creating an informal group that will help them to cover up their mistakes. If that is to be the case, let us wait and see what develops. That said, we should all support the motion.
I, too, welcome Mitchel McLaughlin back to the Chamber after the despicable attack on his house and family.
The Alliance Party supports the original motion. We see merit in the specific focus of a Committee that cuts across departmental lines. However, any Committee would be a poor substitute for firm Executive action. The Alliance Party has always recognised and welcomed the emphasis on the economy in the Programme for Government and the Budget. However, although it is fine, on the one hand, to prioritise the economy, on the other hand, one has to recognise that there are different ways to do that. Frankly, that is what a number of Members, and many economists on the outside, are talking about.
A revised Budget would be a means to two ends. The first would be protecting public services; the second would be investing in economic recovery and modernisation. The approach of using monitoring rounds, which is reflected in the DUP and Sinn Féin amendments, is, in itself, a very limited way of addressing the flaws in the Budget. The potential range of what can be done is determined by two factors: first, what, if anything, Departments are prepared to surrender, and, secondly, whatever Barnett consequentials come one’s way. There can be no fundamental reconsideration of underlying baselines and existing policies and priorities in reconsidering whether they are still relevant in the current economic situation. That, frankly, is what a revised Budget would achieve. Therefore, it is important that the Assembly is clear about that.
It is welcome that Members are talking about what economists on the outside are saying, and it is important that we listen to the full gamut of what they are saying. Economists do not live in ivory towers. They are saying that we need a revised Budget. They are also saying that the Assembly will have to face up to taking tough decisions about the populism that has underlined many of the Executive’s decisions. The SDLP, which tabled the motion, also needs to address that issue, given that one almost senses that that party is waiting for the Executive to make their first move on water charges so that it can pounce on them. We need a bit more maturity than that.
The Alliance Party was critical of the Budget at the outset. We felt that it did not address the cost of a divided society, properly address modernising the economy, or protect public services. Since the Budget was passed, we have had the economic downturn and the situation has changed fundamentally.
Frankly, the Executive’s response to the recession has been extremely muted. Around the world, national Governments, and regional Governments such as our own, have had their own fiscal stimuli to address the situation in their own jurisdictions. We have not gone down that route, and it has not been for lack of opportunities. In November 2008, the UK Government introduced their £20 billion stimulus. Quite a lot of that applied automatically to Northern Ireland. However, we had our own share of new money from Barnett consequentials. Did we make the best use of that money? I do not think so.
As a result of the April Budget, which was not an emergency Budget, as was said earlier, but just the regular spring Budget, we will receive another £116 million in Barnett consequentials — £50 million this year and £66 million next year. Over that period, Northern Ireland will be asked to make another £123 million in efficiency savings. It may be rather neat and convenient for the Executive to set one figure off against the other, leaving a deficit of only £7 million. However, two factors must be borne in mind. First, the phasing might not facilitate that off-setting, and, secondly, and more importantly, that increased windfall for Northern Ireland reflects increased spending elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
The UK Government might not call it a fiscal stimulus, and it is certainly not on the same scale as that announced in November. However, it is a significant countercyclical element that they are trying to address. Under devolution, of course, we can do things differently, and I defend that. However, the source of those Barnett consequentials should be a clear indication to us in Northern Ireland about what we should be doing. We should be investing in recovery in areas such as social housing, training and employment, energy efficiency, and renewable energy.
The real focus now shifts to the June monitoring round, which comes two months after the Budget. A good place to start would be to invest all the £116 million in economic recovery and to try to address the £123 million in savings elsewhere from public expenditure. That may not be a full rewrite of the Budget, but it would be a good place to start. My party believes that, in the first instance, the Executive should use that £123 million to start to address the cost of division. We will table our own paper on that shortly.
The DUP’s amendment in respect of efficiencies from Government —
It is not often that one gets the opportunity to follow such absolute and total drivel from other Members. We have heard absolute drivel from the SDLP Benches, and particularly expert drivel from the Ulster Unionist Benches. This House, and, more importantly, our people, deserve better. The people of Northern Ireland are entitled to be given a little bit of hope from their political and public representatives — regardless of where they sit in the House — during this time of economic turmoil, rather than the hell that some Members wish to serve up to them.
If an Ad Hoc Committee were established, we can clearly see the sort of talk that would be served up to us on a ritualistic, daily basis. That would consist of nothing but putting people through sheer wallowing in the mire in respect of how awful Northern Ireland is. We need to stand up to that and say that Northern Ireland has turned a corner and that it has opportunities. It is up to us, as public representatives, to point to that opportunity, to lead, and to bring our people out of the economic turmoil, which exists through no fault of our own, but is a consequence of the turmoil that the rest of the world is experiencing.
If any Member were to study the global economic climate, they would see that things are slowly changing. In today’s edition of the ‘Financial Times’, it is clear that all the economies of the world have turned a corner, with growth up in China, France, the United Kingdom and Germany. However, some Members are talking about how awful the situation is; they are saying, “woe is me”, and that the economy is at an end. Those parties have decided that they would like an Ad Hoc Committee to be established to allow them to continue to wallow in the past, but we owe our people more than that.
I looked to the SDLP’s ‘New Priorities in Difficult Times’ document for some stimulus, but it is not about priorities in difficult times; it is about the SDLP avoiding taking tough decisions now. Instead, the party wants to set up a Committee.
The SDLP states that it has shown that plenty can be done, but during Alasdair McDonnell’s 10-minute speech, he did not tell us about one thing that can be done. He also stated that we must revise the “flawed” Budget and the Programme for Government. Let me be absolutely clear: the Budget was supported by the SDLP’s Executive Minister. Indeed, in her guise as the “Iron Lady”, the Margaret of the SDLP said that it was a Thatcherite Budget, but then she melted and supported it, and gave it her full endorsement at the Executive. Although her party may cling to the pretence that it voted against the Budget, the truth of the matter is that it supported it where it counted — at the Executive — and it supports it every day by implementing the policies of that Executive.
As someone who has planted quite a lot of trees over the years, I wonder whether the Member shares my concerns that the SDLP wants to institute a chainsaw massacre on one eighth of our forests across Northern Ireland.
The “innovative uses of public money”, as the SDLP likes to call it, means that, armed with a ballot box in one hand and a chainsaw in the other, that party would cut down our forests. I do not think that that is the answer to the economic plight of our country.
My colleague Peter Weir talked about the SDLP’s proposal to sell off the Housing Executive’s headquarters and then lease it back. Not even Margaret Ritchie would propose that project, which demonstrably represents no value for money.
Another proposal was to sell off parts of the Harbour Commission. Although that involves issues worthy of consideration, the Harbour Commission wrote to every Member saying that the SDLP policies, which the commission took time to study in detail, were completely unfeasible. In the parlance of the people, the SDLP is talking rubbish, and I think that we should accept that.
We measure the SDLP not by the words of its Members in the debate, but by its actions. Why does the SDLP not support us?
Why does the SDLP not support us in reducing the number of Departments and Members, in dispensing with designations, in supporting a voluntary coalition and in improving and reforming the North/South bodies through an efficiency review panel?
I support my party’s amendment and will speak largely from the perspective of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. In doing so, I regret that Dr McDonnell is not in the House, because his opening remarks highlighted the absolute unreality of the composite SDLP motion.
Dr McDonnell said that we must find mechanisms by which to talk to one another. I do not believe that the Northern Ireland public want us to find more mechanisms for talking to one another; in fact, they are asking us to do less talking and to take more action. However, they expect us to address the economic downturn. It may be a matter of attitude, but I prefer to take a positive rather than a negative view: how can we build the economy rather than dwell on the economic slide?
We must adopt a positive approach to the economy and to economic prosperity. Rather than spend time dealing with global economic difficulties about which we can do very little, we must address areas that we can do something about in Northern Ireland. Our amendment outlines how the Executive have reallocated £1 billion in resources to tackle the downturn. The amendment also points out that there are other areas in which public expenditure could be reduced at a vast saving to the public purse.
What Peter Robinson announced yesterday was referred to by Members on the other side of the Chamber as an election manifesto, but it was driven by a DUP ethos that has underpinned everything that we have done since taking our places in the Chamber. We would like a reduction in the number of Departments and Members. I can assure Northern Ireland that, with a population of little more than 1·5 million, it does not need 11 Departments.
Nowhere else in the world would set up such a system of government, although I realise that it was created here because of our unique background and for economic reasons. Getting rid of the Parades Commission and the Civic Forum is essential and will set a benchmark against which other quangos will be measured.
Mr Kennedy knows that there is always a need to set the pace and to be out in front so that others can follow and catch up. There is a need to act quickly and to show the public that we understand the situation that many of them face. Decisions should be made quickly and efficiently in response to evolving circumstances. Members know the old adage: when one does not want something to go forward, form a Committee to delay its progress.
I spent Monday talking to members of the business community. One of their major complaints is about red tape and bureaucracy. The business community — the people who create the wealth for this economy — will laugh with derision if the Assembly forms another layer of bureaucracy to address issues that are already the responsibilities of existing Departments. The business sector wants action and decisions. It wants to be free from red tape. It expects this Assembly and its Ministers to make decisions, rather than fobbing them off to another Ad Hoc Committee that will study arrangements.
The Assembly must address areas that will enable growth and prosperity. Those areas are quite easy to find, and they have been mentioned by various delegations to the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. We need to facilitate the growth of the private sector and the jobs in it. We need to create conditions that will stimulate investment. We need to give confidence to the business community and increase its innovation and enterprise. We need to reform the public sector, as Peter Weir outlined, and we need to improve infrastructure. There is no need to create another pointless Assembly subcommittee to do the work with which the Assembly has already been tasked.
In the present circumstances, the SDLP motion is exactly right and the amendments are profoundly wrong. There is common ground at the outset: we all agree that the Programme for Government contains a necessary priority for the economy. We agree that there is a need to prepare for the upturn while protecting those who are affected by the downturn. However, we differ greatly about how that should be done and the degree to which it needs to be done.
The SDLP believes that this period could be an opportunity. We could do useful and necessary things that would put us in a better place for the upturn. I repeat the essence of our position: the Programme for Government and the Budget were created in a different time. We need to revise our priorities. The SDLP has proposed a mechanism to do that — an Ad Hoc Committee. That would mean that the Assembly would be taking control of the political agenda, which is the right place for it to be.
I will critique the amendments because I find them inadequate. It is remarkable that the Democratic Unionist Party removed the three objectives in our motion. It wants to use the monitoring rounds; but to do what? That is not terribly clear. Monitoring rounds are not strategic in nature. The December 2008 monitoring round to which the DUP amendment specifically refers yielded only £70 million after a considerable exercise was undertaken to find issues that would focus on the economy directly.
Once again, that party repeats the diversion of cutting Departments. That discussion has its place, but it does not start to be the answer to dealing with the economic downturn. This time, I see that the DUP does not even have the audacity to refer to cutting the number of MLAs or to the ludicrous figure of £40 million or £50 million that the Minister used in that regard previously.
Sinn Féin, not surprisingly, simply repeats that monitoring rounds should be used. However, it leaves our three key objectives in place. Having accepted the purposes of the Ad Hoc Committee, Sinn Féin has no mechanism whatsoever of achieving the objectives; they simply cannot be achieved through the monitoring rounds.
I wonder why there is such a mood of conservatism in the two large parties. In one sense, that mood is perhaps not so surprising on the part of the Democratic Unionists, who, for years, had “no” as their party’s middle name. They have resisted change and created a siege mentality for themselves. Psychologically, it is not easy to get out of that mindset and begin to act.
Sinn Féin, of course, thinks differently. Its members come from a command-and-control military culture, so it is perhaps not surprising that they no longer appear to have the freedom to think for themselves. Now, however, we need the ability to think outside the box in order to create new approaches to resolving our particular problems.
We have some support from the DUP. The First Minister commented quite favourably on our document, ‘New Priorities in Difficult Times’. He said that the whole House needs to start examining its priorities, and he called for debate. That is the SDLP position as well. However the Finance Minister made his position abundantly clear by putting his trust in mere slippage money. Yet, a senior DFP official was able to come to the Committee for Finance and Personnel and say that there needs to be a “cessation of low-priority programmes.” How can there be cessation of low-priority programmes without a method to establish which programmes should cease and where to divert the money? The SDLP motion proposes such a mechanism, and I ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel to support his senior official.
I could quote many favourable economists. Most recently, Richard Ramsey, who was referred to earlier, said that, hopefully, the worst is over. However, he also said that unemployment will rise to 10% in 2010. In the same breath, he said that substantially more money should be put into the construction sector.
I note the proliferation of bodies that have been established to advise the leading parties on the economy. Recently, yet another one was established. On top of the Economic Development Forum, three separate in-house economic units and others, the establishment of the cross-sector advisory forum smacks of a leadership that is simply moving ideas about its desk, without translating any of them in to action.
I support amendment No 1. It is difficult to argue against the opening position in the motion with regard to concerns about recent job losses and the need to protect public services. Indeed, my constituency of East Londonderry has been hit as hard as any, given the job losses at Seagate, Spanboard, Eakin Timber and Christies Building Supplies — to mention just a few — and the wider knock-on effect that that has had on the local economy and community.
However, it appears that the SDLP does not understand the Budget process. We already have a Committee that regularly reviews spending, so the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee would be of no benefit and would only increase bureaucracy.
The SDLP should be aware that, since devolution, the Executive and the DUP Finance Minister have ensured that the economy is their main concern, and, via the Department of Finance and Personnel, they have reallocated moneys to address the effects of the economic downturn. That was done most successfully during the past financial year, when more than 150,000 low-income homes received a fuel-poverty payment and rates relief was given to those who had invested in energy-saving measures. Therefore, a mechanism is in place to address any existing and future pressures, without the need for an additional Committee.
The Executive face a range of budgetary pressures that have impacted on public finances, and that require careful management, using the end-year monitoring process, which provides a mechanism by which they can regularly review expenditure plans in order to assist in the present economic downturn and in any future recovery.
Northern Ireland uses a different process from those used in the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, so there is no need for a formal Budget review now. The spending plans for 2008-09 have been reviewed four times in light of current circumstances, and that approach will be maintained during the next financial year. Those reviews provide the flexibility that the Executive require to make changes to allocations to Departments.
The SDLP’s argument to ring-fence front line services and to ensure more strategic targeting of efficiencies would only result in moneys being moved. No real savings would be realised. However, the establishment of an efficiency review panel should result in prompt recommendations to reduce the number of Departments and the efficient delivery of effective public services. If the SDLP is serious about the Government becoming more efficient, it should drop its support for unelected quangos, such as the Civic Forum, and the other unnecessary Belfast Agreement machinery of government.
The Assembly and the Executive are bloated from having too many Members and Departments, at great cost to the public purse.
Perhaps the SDLP Members should have a word with their Executive Minister, who seemed happy to waste £300,000 of taxpayers’ money on a court case that she had been told she could not win. If they were to do that, they would be in a position to talk about efficiencies.
I feel that the SDLP motion is a mere distraction; it must mean that an election is coming soon. The SDLP’s talk of ring-fencing money serves only to protect its own selfish interest in the Executive. I support amendment No 1.
I add my words of sympathy to those that have been offered already to Mr McLaughlin and his family.
Mr McLaughlin’s speech was very strange indeed. The reason that I think that goes to the heart of the SDLP’s proposal. In previous debates in the Chamber, the point has been well made that Sinn Féin now administers DUP rule in the North. However, what surprised me about Mitchel McLaughlin’s speech was that it reminded us that not only does Sinn Féin administer DUP rule in the North, it administers the requirements of the London Exchequer in the North. That was Mitchel McLaughlin’s essential point.
Mr McLaughlin said that the SDLP Budget proposals were:
“redundant almost before the ink was dry”.
He said that because there was an emergency London Budget. On the one hand, Mitchel McLaughlin and Sinn Féin say that we have to stand up for ourselves and be independent from London, yet, at a critical moment in our recession, when the London Budget is rolled out —
I will give way to Sinn Féin Members, if they want me to; I have no difficulty in doing so. I note their silence.
At the very moment when we have an opportunity to respond to the recession in a way that is dedicated to our needs, the Sinn Féin response is Londoncentric.
Proposals to change our Budget and to get to grips with the ravages of the recession in the North are redundant. One might ask why that is so. It is because a London Budget makes it so.
A number of issues arise from that question. The fundamental issue is that, for now, fiscal powers will not be granted to the Assembly, and that situation may endure for some time. In the absence of that happening, Sinn Féin’s response to the community’s concerns about the recession is to say that it cannot do anything. Sinn Féin says that it has to be left to London to decide our Budget lines; we have to allow other people to decide our destiny. That is the essence of what Sinn Féin Members have said. The SDLP’s view is more nuanced, strategic and developed.
As my colleague Declan O’Loan said, Sinn Féin has lost the freedom to think for itself. There was no more brutal and compelling an example of that when, 20 minutes ago, Mitchel McLaughlin told the people of Northern Ireland that the Executive could not do anything, because a London Budget had to decide our budgetary future. How casually can people give up their independence to think and act for themselves?
I do not want to revisit that particular debate, Mr Speaker.
Peter Weir’s analysis of the SDLP’s proposals was defeatist, and it demonstrated a shallow grasp of the issue. I will give two examples that prove that assertion.
First, if we were to go into Belfast city centre and tell its citizens that an elite group in the Belfast Harbour Commissioners’ office has £40 million or £50 million in cash reserves and that it has decided to spend that amount, and £600 million of other moneys, on developing Belfast port over the next decade, the people in this city would ask whether that is really what we should be doing with that amount of money.
The Harbour Commissioners are now briefing everybody that they cannot spend the money on anything else, and the DUP and others are swallowing that line. We should ask the commissioners why they recently allocated between £12 million and £14 million from their cash reserves to the Titanic signature project. They voluntarily gave up some of their reserves because they felt that it was worth it to support an economic- and tourism-development project for the city of Belfast. If they can give up £12 million or £14 million, they can give up £20 million, £30 million or £40 million, and Belfast’s harbour would be none the worse for it.
The second proof of the shallowness of the DUP’s position can be found in its response to our proposal to spend £30 million on pump-priming the Royal Victoria Hospital site over the next two years for the development of a maternity hospital for the citizens of Belfast. Do not misrepresent that issue, because to do so is inaccurate and to play shallow politics.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tacú le leasú Shinn Féin.
I support the Sinn Féin amendment. I will put my cards on the table — I am not an economist. Having listened to many of the contributions to the debate, it is clear that I am not the only one who is not.
In proposing the motion, Dr McDonnell said that we are facing the worst economic crisis in living memory and that we must tackle it. Setting up an Ad Hoc Committee, as proposed in the motion, will tackle the worst economic crisis in living memory. Governments who are masters of their own economic destiny are trying to tackle the crisis, but they do not set about it by setting up an Ad Hoc Committee. A local GAA club sets up an Ad Hoc Committee to fund-raise for a sports day, but a Parliament or an Administration certainly does not set up an Ad Hoc Committee to tackle the world’s worst-ever economic crisis.
Before I was interrupted, I was about to outline what we should do, and what can be done, to address the crisis.
Our Committees are already tasked with scrutinising the Assembly’s Budgets and Programmes for Government. The task of each and every Committee is not only to scrutinise its Department but to assist in the development of its work. Surely Committees are the best forum through which to continue the work on finding a way in which to deliver ourselves from this economic crisis.
When I think of Alex Attwood’s comments today, the phrase “savaged by a dead sheep” comes to mind. My republican credentials are being called into question by a party that was tugging its forelock to an English Queen last week. Those who choose to curtsy in front of the English Queen cannot lecture this party on its republican credentials.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Until we are masters of our own economic destiny, all we can do is divvy up what is known in the Assembly as a Budget. The Budget from the British Government is insufficient, as is the block grant. No matter how we slice it up — even if the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety were to be given 75% of the Budget instead of 51% — it would still not be enough.
We will continue to have such debates until this Assembly and the people of Ireland take control of their economic destinies. One of the difficulties that we face, and which was not commented on in the introductory speech by the proposer of the motion, is that of “North/Southery”. It would appear that “North/Southery” has left the vocabulary of the SDLP because it was not referred to when its members talked about tackling the economic crisis.
We are operating two economies on this island back to back, and we are operating our health services and our education systems back to back. Every nature of life on the island is operated back to back. That, in itself, is an economic drain on the resources of this society. Sinn Féin remains firmly of the view that, as part of moving forward, the Assembly should have fiscal autonomy.
After lecturing my colleague Mitchel McLaughlin on his factual comment that we would all have to await the outcome of the British “emergency” Budget, I noted that the SDLP had the brass neck to say that the reason that it voted against bringing powers to the Assembly was because the fact is that the British control our purse strings. The SDLP criticised Mitchel McLaughlin for pointing out that fact, and it is missing from its economic equation. [Interruption.]
We will continue to rely on an insufficient grant from the British Exchequer until the Assembly starts to take control of its economic destiny and until it starts working in partnership with its counterparts in the Twenty-six Counties. Republicans believe that, in future, the island should have a single economic unit. When we do achieve a single economic unit, republicans are not talking about sitting in the Atlantic as isolationists; rather, we are talking about working in partnership with our neighbours in England, Scotland, Wales and the rest of Europe to build a sustainable economy, not an economy based on boom and bust.
The SDLP’s document states that we will raise the finance required by selling off land and property. I opened my comments by saying that I am not an economist, but even I know that we are in this mess because the land and property market has collapsed.
I pass my thoughts to Mitchel McLaughlin and his family. I am glad to see him back in the Chamber.
I appreciate what the motion has set out to achieve. It is another attempt to force action on the economy, which, without a doubt, is the key concern of every party in the Chamber. However, I believe that we are going about the situation in the wrong way. We are fiddling while Rome burns. I appreciate the intention of the motion, but we have had enough Committees.
I attended a conference last week, at which someone said that the Assembly’s response to this crisis cannot be simply to vomit another panel or another Committee. That person said that there should be no more talking shops, no more reviews, no more expensive consultations and studies, and that it is time for action.
I make the distinction that that person was not referring to the Executive. The public do not make the distinction between the Assembly and the Executive, and we need to make that distinction.
The recession has been in full swing for well over a year. There have been enough Committees and reviews announced and argued for to double the size of the already large public sector in this country. However, there has been very little action, and that is long overdue. We are well behind the curve in responding to the situation, and we should have been preparing for the recession before it hit. I am astounded each time a Minister comes into the Chamber and declares that no one could have seen the recession coming. Therefore, there is no one to blame for the fact that we have been unprepared to deal with its consequences.
Like John O’Dowd, I am not an economist or a mathematician, but I can put two and two together. When personal debt exceeds gross domestic product, and when, as an entire country, we spend more than we earn, there will be trouble. When local house prices skyrocket by 20%, 30% and 40%, and when wages creep up in small single digits, there will be trouble. When the Executive put forward a Programme for Government that calls for growth through people spending and consuming more, rather than investing in sustainable development of local communities and local industry, there will be trouble. Whenever our growth is based on borrowing and throwing households and our society further into debt, there will be trouble. Trouble has arrived — big time.
The public impression is that the Executive are fiddling about while people are suffering and struggling to make ends meet. I say to the Executive that they should stop telling us that the economy is their number one priority, but they have limited means with which to deal with it. They should stop telling us that there is no reason to open up the Budget and review the Programme for Government when we are dealing with the most difficult recession in living memory. I recognise that there is a Budget process here, but elected bodies around the world are reviewing their spending priorities and mechanisms. Why can we not do the same?
The message that everything is fine and that recovery is close is not credible. We may be doing better than other regions in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, but a boat that is only half sinking is still sinking. I think that the fact that we are doing relatively better than our neighbours will be of little comfort to the workers at Bombardier Shorts, Wrightbus and Visteon who have lost their jobs recently, to the small businesses and sole traders who are closing up shop now having struggled through the Troubles, or to the people who are losing their homes and struggling to pay rising monthly bills on limited incomes.
I understand and respect the intent of the motion, but I cannot support the creation of another Committee when we should be meeting today to endorse action. The amendments, both of which were tabled by Executive parties, are a smokescreen for Executive inaction and should be rejected as a poor attempt at Government spin. I cannot support either the motion or the amendments.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Like my colleague Mitchel McLaughlin, I support the Sinn Féin amendment, but I do not support either the motion or the DUP amendment. I will touch on some of the many issues that were raised before giving my views.
Stephen Farry mentioned efficiency savings, and his point goes to the heart of the short-term need for the Executive to have fiscal powers and the long-term need for an all-island economy. Only a couple of weeks ago, the British Government reneged on their assurance that the Executive would be allowed to retain efficiency savings for front line services and infrastructural projects in 2010. Indeed, around £40 million, which came from the increase in fuel prices some time ago, was returned to the British Treasury, rather than going to the Executive to be redistributed to people who are in fuel poverty.
Declan O’Loan pointed out rightly that some useful and necessary things can be done. I am surprised that one of those was not touched on, except by Members of my party, in the months that we have been discussing the recession. That point is about how public procurement can be utilised. In the Programme for Government, the Executive set out their commitment to maximise social and employment opportunities for everyone through the public procurement process. The Governments in the North and the South of Ireland have a genuine chance to maximise those social and employment opportunities. That is an essential part of the investment strategy, and it is important that that opportunity is grasped now in order to retain the people who are in employment and to create new employment.
The Executive have earmarked somewhere in the region of £20 billion for the public procurement of works, services and goods over the next 10 years. Examination of the all-island context shows that €16 billion is spent on public procurement each year. Most of that goes to overseas companies, because our small and medium-sized and local businesses cannot even get a foot on the ladder. I am surprised that that real opportunity —
Given Sinn Féin’s concern about the economy and the recession, does the Member share my concern that, as Minister Wilson said, Sinn Féin is continuing to block progress and that there is no Executive business before the House at present nor will there be before the summer recess?
Thank you. Members raised several important points that I want to address.
Other useful and necessary things could be done. Dawn Purvis touched on the real problems that people face, and we heard lately that there has been a 64% increase in home repossessions in the North of Ireland over the past year; that compares with a 4% increase in England and Wales. I ask the SDLP to prevail upon their Minister to introduce a mortgage relief scheme, which has been debated and agreed in the Assembly. That is another way of helping people to offset their economic difficulties.
Alex Attwood referred to fiscal powers and tried to lecture Sinn Féin on republicanism. With respect to the arguments for an all-island economy and efficiency savings, John O’Dowd pointed out that we have two health services, two education services, and all the duplication that that involves, on this small island. Even our energy policy is not joined up. We lack the clear joined-up thinking that we need. We need to consider ways in which local and central government can be more efficient, and that suggests that an all-island economy is the solution. We must consider the economy and investment in the same way that we consider tourism, and this morning, the deputy First Minister referred to InterTradeIreland. We need to work like such organisations: together as an island and not as two separate entities. In the long term, that is the only way forward.
In the short term, we need greater fiscal powers. Everyone agrees that there are problems, but we have opportunities to offset some of the job losses through our public procurement policy. Our party is the only one to push that.
When I was a young lad, I used to enjoy ‘The Beano’ and ‘The Dandy’ for a bit of entertainment at the weekend; it was light relief from school. It was very enjoyable to receive the ‘New Priorities in Difficult Times’ document from the SDLP. On the front, we have Dennis the Menace and Gnasher, and on the back, we have the Bash Street Kids. It made for some very entertaining reading. For example, we will spend £30 million on a hospital that will cost more than £300 million. What will we do in that women and children’s hospital? Dig the foundations and use them as birthing pools? Anyone who would start a project without having the capacity to finish it would make himself totally ridiculous.
Have Members ever driven past a bungalow in the countryside that has been built to the peaks? Everyone asks what eejit started something that he could not finish. Yet in a supposedly serious document, the SDLP proposes to do just that. We have had some great entertainment from that document.
The SDLP attacked the DUP and accused it of using smoke and mirrors. According to the SDLP, the world recession is to be blamed on one political party in a regional Assembly representing 1·5 million people in a world population of more than 6 billion. The DUP is not to blame for a recession that has taken place across the world; however, I allow others to give us the credit for how we respond to that recession. I allow people to admit that we treated the economy as our first priority, even before the recession kicked in.
Mr McNarry spoke about expert advice of Richard Ramsey from the Ulster Bank. I wonder whether Mr Ramsey was working for the Ulster Bank in 2007 and 2008. If he was, I would not pay too much attention to his advice, given the losses that that organisation has experienced and the fact that we, as taxpayers, have had to bail it out.
When striking the Budget, the DUP froze business rates to make life easier for the business community. We also identified additional money for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL). I often hear the Ulster Unionists say that the Budget should be redistributed and that money should be reapportioned. Are they saying that they want the money that we gave to DEL for additional training and employment to be taken away from it?
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has the biggest budget. Are the Ulster Unionists proposing that we take money from that budget and use it to focus on more economy-based issues? That is what the Ulster Unionists are suggesting to us today. Those are not very Conservative-type proposals; however, they are Ulster Unionist Party proposals. [Interruption.]
As regards how the Executive and Government do business; a 10-day turnaround policy for bills received has been introduced to help facilitate businesses. In addition, the planning system now gives greater weight to economic proposals that will benefit the economy. Furthermore, planning applications are being dealt with more quickly than at any time in previous years.
Some Members spoke about the need for higher levels of public spending on the construction industry. That is already happening, folks. A total of £1·4 billion is being spent on public construction. However, we need to ensure that the private sector can respond. The private sector needs investment in an educated workforce and a quality infrastructure.
Therefore, the Executive, led by the DUP, are making the right investments. Better roads and good broadband facilities are the sorts of things that businesses want to see. They do not want to see the Port of Belfast being starved of funds, because were that to happen, developments in the South of Ireland would pull business there.
Given that the Port of Belfast is a key part of our infrastructure, it would not be wise to prevent its progress by taking resources away from it. I support the Port of Belfast investment in the Titanic signature project. I welcome the fact that it is prepared to give money to that project, which is within the confines of the port.
On that point, is it not equally feasible that the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, with anticipated reserves of £600 million over the next 10 years, could find an extra £10 million to give to the signature project, thereby reducing the Executive’s contribution to that project? Does that not make economic, popular and political sense in the current economic downturn?
In proposing the motion, Alasdair McDonnell set out the issues of concern that the economic downturn has raised.
There seems to be clear consensus on the first four lines of the motion. In proposing amendment No 1, Peter Weir attacked the idea of an Ad Hoc Committee and criticised the SDLP’s economic discussion document.
Mr Weir seemed to say that we should just rely on the banks to deal with a lot of the problems that face the economy, but those same banks got us into a lot of these problems. He said that the Assembly should not look at some of these issues as the banks would take care of them. I doubt that many people will find good sense or wise counsel in that.
In proposing amendment No 2, Mitchel McLaughlin made a virtue out of the monitoring rounds, on which, as other Members said, the Sinn Féin and DUP amendments rely entirely. Mitchel McLaughlin suggested that an agreed mechanism on monitoring rounds exists. However, that is not a new concept; monitoring rounds have existed since direct rule and were in operation during the previous mandate. Monitoring rounds are not, and never were, a strategic intervention; they are slippage-led, not strategy-led.
When I was Minister of Finance and Personnel, I delivered reports in the Chamber on monitoring rounds that involved big money, but I never pretended that they were a significant strategic intervention by the Executive. Strategic interventions are made when the Budget is being prioritised. When slippage leads and determines what happens, one cannot pretend that that is a strategy.
When Mark Durkan was the Minister of Finance and Personnel, did he not argue strongly that all the “slippage money” should be returned to the Executive so that they could reimburse it strategically, rather than allowing the money to remain with the Departments? Mr Durkan said then that he had a strategy.
That is because Executive programme funds were used at that time. The Executive had funds into which they could put money to be used for strategic purposes. The current Executive did away with that; when they abandoned those funds, they abandoned the concept of a devolved strategy. The monitoring rounds do not give the Assembly the means of responding to current issues.
David McNarry emphasised the need to reappraise the Budget in light of current and future pressures.
Stephen Farry highlighted the limited nature of the monitoring rounds, as I have done. He questioned the quality of the Executive’s response in support of the economy. It is one thing to have the economy as a stated priority, but the real test is what is done in response to pressures and whether investment is made in any prospects.
Ian Paisley Jnr must win the drivel-of-the-month award for his contribution. He complained that we are all being negative and should be talking things up. He, however, is not voting for an amendment that talks things up; rather, he is voting for an amendment that is full of the doom and gloom that he talked about. It shows neither imagination nor positive commitment. The SDLP motion refers to recovery and to the prospects of recovery; the amendment supported by Ian Paisley Jnr contains nothing about recovery.
Robin Newton said that £1 billion has been directed at the economic downturn; he must have misread the DUP amendment. It says that £1 billion has been reallocated in monitoring rounds, but can quote only £70 million as a response to the downturn. In fact, some of that money is not even for this year, but will come in the form of rate relief next year. The DUP amendment offers little new and little now, and is not much of a response to the economic difficulties.
Declan O’Loan highlighted the hollowness and inconsistency of the amendments.
Adrian McQuillan said that a Committee already exists to review Budget spending, but there is not. Although a Committee for Finance and Personnel exists to scrutinise the Department, the Assembly does not have a Budget Committee. The Assembly does not have the style of ways-and-means Committee that exists in other legislatures. What we are talking about is an Ad Hoc Committee on which the parties of the House could agree that issues, including the structural defects in the Budget process, must be faced in the short and long term. This Ad Hoc Committee could be one way of considering how to resolve those. I will touch on some of those ideas later.
Alex Attwood expressed his surprise that Sinn Féin is now confined in its thinking to whatever parameters are set by a UK Budget, and John O’Dowd corroborated Alex’s concerns when he said that “North/South” had gone from the vocabulary of the SDLP. The questions that we asked this morning about the North/South Ministerial Council institutional format demonstrated that we are the ones who are pushing the North/South Ministerial Council to address the issues relating to the economic downturn now and in the long term. The message that we got from the deputy First Minister was that we should not push any of those issues just now, but let the efficiency review that the DUP wanted take its course and see where we stand after that. Therefore, the SDLP, not the DUP, is the party trying to push things forward.
Dawn Purvis expressed concern at the establishment of another Committee. However, we do not propose that yet more experts be hand-picked or hired by Ministers or that more people be assembled in a forum of the great and the good. We are talking about an Ad Hoc Committee of this House. MLAs on that Committee would simply be doing the job that they were elected to do.
Dawn Purvis said that other elected Assemblies around the world are reviewing Budgets, and she asked why we are not. However, in opposing our motion, she opposes the very way in which the Assembly could review the Budget, because it is quite clear that the Executive have told us that they will not review the Budget. Unless the Assembly finds a way of reappraising budget lines and re-profiling the Budget, not only for this year and next year, but beyond that, we will have problems.
Ms Purvis said that she will vote against the motion and all of the amendments. We will have a penalty shoot-out in which no one will score. Both amendments and the motion will probably be defeated. What does that say to the people of Northern Ireland about how coherently and competently this devolved Assembly takes its responsibilities?
The SDLP has tried to avoid simply coming up with ideas and dumping them at the door of the Finance Minister or the Executive. We recognise that the Assembly has a responsibility. We agree with the First Minister’s comments in the Chamber of a few weeks ago that the whole House must re-examine its priorities. How will the whole House do that if it does not agree with the motion, which would set up an Ad Hoc Committee to allow us to re-examine priorities in a number of ways?
What would the Ad Hoc Committee be asked to consider, and what is the DUP rejecting? It is rejecting proposals to revise Budget lines and spending profiles to ensure best support for key economic sectors. It is rejecting the innovative use of public money to address the pressures that have been caused by the global downturn, which, as the DUP said after a visit to Brussels, is the very measure that President Barroso asked us to take. The wording of the motion emerged from that request, yet the DUP amendment rejects it.
The Ad Hoc Committee would be asked to consider proposals to ring-fence front-line services and ensure more strategic targeting of efficiency savings. In a health debate a couple of weeks ago, the DUP said that it was in favour of such measures, so it must have been regretting the effect and impact of the Budget and the flat-rate efficiency savings of 3% that it had imposed. We propose a Committee that could come up with ways of doing that, not only in regard to the current Budget, but permanently.
Why should we not look again at the entire Budget system? One cannot tell from reading the Budget where the front-line services sit in respect of the budget lines. Let us re-profile the budget lines so that people can know which of them are wholly or mainly for front-line services, which are partly for front-line services and which are not at all. That means that the Committees that scrutinise Departments will know which budget lines to challenge for efficiency savings, because they will know which are administrative and which to test for performance and delivery because they relate to front-line services. That would improve the intelligence of the Budget system, not only now but well into the future. That is the type of good idea that could be worked through by the proposed Ad Hoc Committee.
Jennifer McCann and other Sinn Féin Members talked about the need for fiscal powers in the short term. However, for all of Sinn Féin’s talk about fiscal powers, it has never said which tax it would raise. How high does it wish to raise income tax in Northern Ireland? How high does it wish to raise corporation tax? Sinn Féin did not support the SDLP when we sought fiscal discretion when negotiating the Good Friday Agreement. The only party in the negotiations —
Sinn Féin has already had one intervention in my speech.
The only party in the negotiations that supported us on the need for some type of fiscal discretion was the Alliance Party, but its support was purely to vary income tax by three percentage points, which is the same fiscal power that is held by the Scottish Parliament — [Interruption.]
We wanted a power that was wider than that.
Edwin Poots, when summing up on the DUP amendment, reinforced what we all believed as he told us how much he enjoyed ‘The Beano’ and ‘The Dandy’ and how they were so formative in the early years of life. His attempts to rubbish the SDLP document fail, because — [Interruption.]
Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.
Mr Bresland, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McQuillan and Mr Spratt.
Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Burns, Mr W Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Cree, Dr Deeny, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr McCallister, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mr McFarland, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McNarry, Mr Molloy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Mr K Robinson, Ms Ruane.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Attwood and Mr O’Loan.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question put,That amendment No 2 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 18; Noes 58.
Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr W Clarke, Mr Doherty, Ms Gildernew, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ruane.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Boylan and Ms J McCann.
Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Bresland, Mr Buchanan, Mr Burns, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Dr Deeny, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Durkan, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mrs Hanna, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Dr McDonnell, Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Newton, Mr O’Loan, Mr Poots, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr P J Bradley and Mr Burns.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 29; Noes 47.
Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Cobain, Mr Cree, Dr Deeny, Mr Durkan, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Dr McDonnell, Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone, Mr McNarry, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mrs M Bradley and Mrs Hanna.
Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr W Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Miss McIlveen, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy, Lord Morrow, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Poots, Ms Purvis, Ms S Ramsey, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Boylan and Mr Spratt.
Question accordingly negatived.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]