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I beg to move
That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £7,566,927,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31st March 2010 and that resources, not exceeding £8,311,830,000, be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31st March 2010 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 3(b) and 3(a) of table 1.3 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Estimates 2009-10 that was laid before the Assembly on 29 May 2009.
The motion was tabled in the name of the Minister of Finance and Personnel. This important Supply resolution seeks the Assembly’s approval of the spending plans of Departments and other public bodies as set out in the Main Estimates for 2009-2010, which were presented on 29 May 2009. I request and recommend the level of Supply set out in the resolution under section 63 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 on behalf of the Executive.
As Members will be aware, at present, Departments are spending money and using resources on the basis of the Vote on Account in the Budget Act (Northern Ireland) 2009, which was passed by the Assembly in February. As the Vote on Account provides only initial allocations for 2009-2010 based on 45% of the 2008-09 provision, it is now essential that further resources and cash be approved before the summer recess to enable public services to continue for the remainder of the current financial year.
The departmental spending plans in the 2009-2010 Main Estimates are based on the second year of the Executive’s Budget 2008-2011, which was approved by the Assembly in January of last year. However, the estimates reflect some technical adjustments that have been made since then. They are a result of reclassification changes or revised budgeting treatment and, in some instances, of transfers between Departments or from the Northern Ireland Office.
There are two key issues in relation to the adjustments. First, adjustments to budgets as a consequence of reclassification changes or revised budgeting treatment do not provide additional spending power to the Executive. That is based on the accepted policy that service delivery should not be affected by such changes. Therefore, although there is an adjustment to the overall Northern Ireland Executive departmental expenditure limit, the result is to maintain spending power at the same level. Secondly, adjustments that are transfers between Departments do not reflect changes in total spending power, but rather that the Budget provision is merely following the service provided.
In addition, Members will recall that estimates also include almost £6 billion of annually managed expenditure (AME). That expenditure is demand-led and is updated at least twice per annum. Therefore, the estimates also reflect updates to the AME allocations published in the Budget 2008-2011 document in January 2008.
The amounts of cash, over £7·6 billion, and resources, over £8·3 billion, sought in the Supply resolution are substantial in addition to the February Vote on Account. The Main Estimates under debate today bring the total requirements for 2009-2010 to over £13 billion cash and £15 billion resource. Although the Minister of Finance and Personnel approves and presents the estimates, and I am doing that today on his behalf, the underlying detail reflects decisions taken by Ministers under the financial authority delegated to them by the Department of Finance and Personnel. Those are the estimates of each Minister; they detail the services planned for delivery in 2009-2010 by each Minister within their Budget allocation.
Although today’s focus is understandably on the amount of funding being made available to Departments with, for example, the Budget allocation for schools set to increase by 6% this year, it is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that the primary purpose of Departments is not to spend money but to provide high-quality, accessible public services for all Northern Ireland’s people. Therefore, although I am sure that during today’s debate many Members will highlight their concerns regarding the funding available for one service or another, I would first like to set out some of the service improvements that will be funded from the estimates that we are discussing today.
For example, the allocations will allow the completion of the work under the farm nutrient management scheme, achieving cleaner water and EU compliance, while, at the same time, providing much-needed work for the construction industry. The 2009-2010 year is the second year of the five-year Northern Ireland rural development programme. At a total value of over £0·5 billion, the further investment this year will improve the competitiveness of the sector, enhance the environment and improve the quality of life in rural areas. If passed today, the 2009-2010 expenditure plans will enable the continued delivery of high-quality primary, secondary and tertiary education services across Northern Ireland. Evidence of that can be seen in the £45 million contract signed recently to provide four new schools in Portglenone, Carryduff, Knock and Downpatrick. During these difficult economic times, that is good news for our local construction industry.
Furthermore, reflecting the Executive’s commitment to lifelong learning, the South Eastern Regional College buildings programme is well under way, construction has begun on the Belfast Metropolitan College development in the Titanic Quarter, and the new skills centre for the South West College at Enniskillen is expected to be completed next month.
In addition, the Skillsafe scheme, which was announced on 26 May, will, initially, assist engineering and manufacturing apprentices who have been placed on short-term working to use their downtime to undertake accredited training that will contribute to their apprenticeships. That represents practical help and protection for apprentices in the current challenging economic environment.
Invest Northern Ireland, for which the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) is responsible, continues to work proactively with local companies and entrepreneurs to help to minimise the impact of the economic downturn. The expenditure plans before the House will fund initiatives such as the accelerated support fund, which provides advice and support to companies that are suffering the adverse effects of the downturn. In addition, the short-term aid scheme, which I announced recently, will provide valuable support to structurally sound local firms that have a significant presence in export markets, but which are experiencing short-term difficulties due to the global downturn.
In health and social care, building work is about to commence on the new acute hospital in Enniskillen. As well as providing the latest health services for the people of the south-west, that project will bring timely economic benefits. Over the construction period, 850 jobs will be supported through the project, of which 180 will be new. In addition, the new Downe Hospital is due to open to the public at the end of the month. It will provide state-of-the-art medical facilities and services to south Down. Construction will continue on two health and well-being centres in Belfast, which will provide employment for almost 200 people.
A dental contract will be introduced in 2009-2010, which will provide access to dental services for 57,000 additional patients. That is particularly good news for areas in Northern Ireland where, recently, access to Health Service dental treatment has been difficult, something that I know a lot about.
Those are examples of the improvements in services that the Executive intend to deliver this year. Overall, the 2009-2010 provision in the Estimates will enable the continued delivery of the vital core services, including hospital services; community and primary care; social services; and mental-health and learning-disability programmes.
Turning to roads, the recent completion of the widening works on the M1, Westlink and the M2 will reduce congestion and benefit the economy. The 2009-2010 Department for Regional Development (DRD) expenditure plans that are before the House will ensure the continued improvement of our road infrastructure. However, there must be an appropriate balance of development between the private and public transport sectors, with further investment in this financial year on new trains to increase frequency and capacity in the greater Belfast area and on the Belfast to Londonderry line.
I could not conclude this brief summary of some of the main services that are planned for 2009-2010 without mentioning the numerous social security benefits, totalling over £3 billion, that the Department for Social Development (DSD) will administer during that period. The passing of the Supply resolution and the approval of the 2009-2010 Main Estimates will enable pension benefits and credit, disability benefits, income support, housing benefits and winter fuel payments, to name but a few, to be paid for the remainder of 2009-2010. Those benefits are crucial to many families at this time of economic downturn, and they underline the importance of the Supply resolution.
The continuation of funding for social and affordable housing, as well as the important support for the community and voluntary sector, is also vital to our communities, and the Department for Social Development has the largest capital allocation of any Northern Ireland Department over the next two years.
The importance of this stage of the public expenditure cycle, including the Assembly’s anticipated approval of the Supply resolution and the associated expenditure plans that are laid out in the 2009-2010 Main Estimates, cannot be overestimated. Failure to approve the resolution would result in serious consequences for public services, which I have highlighted. Departments would run out of cash and public services would grind to a halt, something for which the people of Northern Ireland would not forgive the Administration.
The forthcoming June monitoring round, and those for the remainder of 2009-2010, will provide the opportunity for a revision of the plans in light of changing circumstances.
I am sure that, during today’s debate, Members will avail themselves of the opportunity to provide their advice and recommendations to the Finance Minister and the Executive on our proposed revisions for 2009-2010. Maybe more in hope than in expectation, I ask Members to put forward their spending proposals in tandem with sensible proposals for reductions in public spending elsewhere in the Budget.
Following this debate and the passing of the Supply resolution, I intend to introduce the related Budget Bill. As this is the fifth time since May 2007 that the Assembly has gone through this process, Members will be familiar by now with the need for the accelerated passage of the Bill, as specifically recognised in Standing Order 42(2) of this Assembly. Once again, I acknowledge the vital role played by the Committee for Finance and Personnel and its pragmatic approach to that matter.
Members will also be familiar by now with the differences between Budgets and Estimates. Estimates reflect the spending plans of Departments, while the Budget reflects the spending plans of the wider public sector, including arm’s-length bodies. Those differences are reflected in the resource and capital reconciliation tables, from Estimates to Budgets, in the supporting statements section of each Department’s estimate.
I remind Members of the significance of today’s business. Approval by this legislature of the 2009-2010 Estimates and today’s Supply resolution will provide Departments with the legal authority to spend cash and use resources on the services that they plan to deliver, up to the limit that is set out in the 2009-2010 Estimates, the Supply resolution and the related Budget Bill. That means that this House will subsequently hold Departments accountable for managing and controlling their spending and resources within the limits authorised today. Any breach of the limits set by this Assembly will be reported by the Comptroller and Auditor General to the Public Accounts Committee, following his examination of departmental resource accounts.
When referring to the spending plans for the Budget today, some Members will, I expect, press again the case for the Executive to take forward a formal budget process in light of the changes in economic circumstances or, indeed, for other less benign reasons. However, the Executive already have procedures in place to allow changes to be made to existing expenditure plans throughout the in-year monitoring process. With regard to the economic downturn, that process allowed the Finance Minister to announce a significant financial support package as part of December monitoring, while recent initiatives by the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) and my Department were taken forward without the need for a Budget process.
The Executive are not being dogmatic in that respect, as a Budget process would be taken forward were it required. However, to date, no proposals have been put forward that cannot be accommodated through in-year monitoring. I hope that Members agree that Departments and public bodies should focus on delivering public services and supporting industry, rather than indulging in a costly, bureaucratic and distracting Budget exercise.
The Minister said that monitoring rounds are sufficient to allow flexibility in dealing with different economic circumstances. However, does she accept that monitoring rounds are themselves limited to the amounts that Departments surrender or the Barnett consequentials that the Executive receive, and that, unlike a Budget, they cannot delve into existing policies and practices to see whether they are still relevant or whether moneys could be better spent elsewhere?
I am sure that we will have a full and open debate about the Budget process during the next couple of hours and, indeed, tomorrow. Nothing has come before the Executive yet that has not been able to be accommodated by the monitoring rounds; that is what the Finance Minister is saying clearly.
I wish to make a final point about the presentation of the Estimates document, which I hope Members have had an opportunity to look at. The more observant Members will have noticed the new look for the 2009-2010 Estimates. In recent years, the Estimates documents have been printed on high-quality, glossy, coated art paper — I notice that the Member beside me is flicking through a previous one — with coloured pages separating each Department and the supporting documentation. In line with the Department of Finance and Personnel’s (DFP) sustainable development policy, this year the Estimates have been printed in black and white on recycled paper containing 75% post-consumer waste. In addition, that has reduced the cost of printing the volume in line with DFP’s efficiency savings programme. I am sure that Members will not mind that at all.
In conclusion, as we approve the opening departmental positions for this financial year as set out in the 2009-2010 Estimates, some difficult decisions lie ahead for the in-year monitoring rounds. No doubt, many Members will demand additional funding for many worthwhile projects and services, and they will probably do so during the debate; in fact, I know that they will. However, I ask Members to remember that we have a finite Budget, and any demands that are made today for additional funding should be accompanied by recommendations as to where that additional funding should be found. Our task is to juggle competing priorities within a limited Budget so that we deliver our public services. I look forward to a healthy and robust debate on those issues.
I ask Members to support the resolution to approve the opening position for the 2009-2010 year and to ensure that provision is made for vital public services to continue beyond the current position in the Vote on Account.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for being here to represent the Minister of Finance and Personnel, who cannot be here today. If we were to pay attention to some of the comments in the media, that might be seen as something of a rehearsal. However, I commend the Minister for her detailed and precise presentation of the resolution and the Budget targets.
Senior departmental officials briefed the Committee for Finance and Personnel on 27 May 2009 on the Main Estimates for 2009-2010 and the associated Budget (No 2) Bill, which gives legislative approval to the Estimates and which is to be introduced in the Assembly following this debate. Advanced copies of the Main Estimates were made available to Committee members prior to the briefing, and departmental officials also provided the Committee with a paper that reconciled the figures in the Budget to those in the Main Estimates for 2009-2010.
At departmental level, the main difference in DFP’s allocations in the Executive Budget and the Main Estimates for 2009-2010 related to an additional £4·1 million transfer from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) for the central reform of IT services. Following the briefing, the Committee for Finance and Personnel agreed to support accelerated passage for the Budget (No 2) Bill for 2009.
As the Minister said, the Main Estimates and the associated Budget (No 2) Bill are the outworkings of the process to finalise the Executive’s Budget for 2008-2011, which the Assembly agreed in January 2008. In December 2007 when the Budget was at draft stage, my Committee published a report that included substantive submissions from all the Assembly’s Statutory Committees. The Committee received a formal response to that report, and it is continuing to monitor the implementations of its recommendations, especially those to improve financial management in Departments.
The underlying spending plans for 2009-2010 brought forward in the Main Estimates reflect the position established in the second year of the Executive’s three-year Budget. Although the Budget for 2008-2011 has been agreed already, Members should be aware that the Assembly and its Statutory Committees can have an input to the reprioritisation of resources in 2009-2010 via the in-year quarterly monitoring rounds. Indeed, the Minister referred specifically to that point, which I support
The Department completed a review of the monitoring-round process at the end of March 2009, and my Committee is waiting to be briefed on the outcome of that review. I urge the Minister to ensure that that report is made available as soon as possible, because, due to the ever-increasing pressures on resources and the rising concerns as expressed by all parties in the Assembly, it is extremely important that the monitoring-round process is as effective and transparent as possible.
Another area that may have an impact on the expenditure proposals in the Main Estimates for 2009-2010 is the achievement of existing targets for efficiency savings, especially given the added challenge of the pending additional efficiency cuts that were signalled in the Chancellor’s recent Budget announcement. The Committee has been briefed by the Department on progress in delivering the Department’s own efficiency plans in 2008-09, and officials have raised concern already at the impact that efficiency targets may have on delivery in this financial year, 2009-2010. I urge the other statutory Committees to continue to scrutinise the efficiency delivery plans of their respective Departments.
At a more strategic level, officials from the Department of Finance and Personnel’s central finance group gave evidence to the Committee in January 2009 and informed members that they had undertaken a qualitative analysis of departmental efficiency delivery plans. Almost five months ago, the Committee requested a copy of that analysis, but, disappointingly, we have yet to receive it. I ask the Department to make that analysis available forthwith, and, in the interim, perhaps the Minister will comment on the potential pressures that efficiency targets may place on this year’s Budget.
The Budget for 2008-2011 made provision for capital receipts of £486 million for 2008-09 and £266 million for 2009-2010. That included a planned receipt in 2008-09 of £175 million for the Department of Finance and Personnel from the Workplace 2010 programme, but those funds were not realised as the planned sale of accommodation under that programme was not taken forward. Will the Minister outline how shortfalls in capital receipts for last year and the uncertainties that abound regarding the achievement of the 2009-2010 target have been built into those estimates? If no such provisions exist, will the Minister indicate what options are currently available to the Executive to address in-year budgetary pressures for 2009-2010?
Stopping the Workplace 2010 procurement exercise has had expenditure ramifications for the Department of Finance and Personnel’s own budget beyond the loss of the £175 million capital receipt. Much of the public sector estate, as I believe all Members will be aware, is in urgent need of maintenance, with health and safety implications now having to be addressed by the Department.
Indeed, the Department of Finance and Personnel has already submitted a £6 million bid in the June monitoring round for urgent maintenance to the Civil Service office estate. That Department also has a lead responsibility for a number of Civil Service reform programmes, and, despite previous assurances that those will be funded from the monitoring round process, many of the Department’s bids in relation to those programmes were not met last year. A further bid of £15 million was submitted in June, and we wait to see whether that will be met.
Already, it is apparent that the Department’s budget for 2009-2010 is under pressure. The Department submitted bids totalling £26 million for the June monitoring round, which is a very early stage in the financial year and is against an opening departmental baseline of £190 million. In the past, DFP officials have stated that more revenue will be generated from an improved performance in the collection of rates by Land and Property Services, and the Committee has taken a very focused and critical interest in that body. It has asked to be briefed as soon as possible on the performance and efficiency delivery unit’s review of it.
Going forward, the Committee must agree an efficient and effective process for scrutinising and agreeing future Budgets. My Committee has already made representations in that regard, including a submission on the Budget process, made in October 2008. However, the Committee is still waiting for a response from the Department of Finance and Personnel on the recommendations in that submission and an outline of the Department’s views on a future process. That must be addressed as a matter or urgency.
In conclusion, I want to speak on behalf of my party. For Sinn Féin, tackling the economic and fiscal crisis is a key priority for the Assembly and the Executive. At a time of economic crisis, it is even more critical that those who are most disadvantaged and in the greatest need are given additional help and assistance. My party recognises that the Executive have been very alive to that priority.
Given the efficiency savings pressures that exist, including those that are being proposed by the Chancellor and the Treasury, there is a need for an all-party commitment to defending front-line public services. Sinn Féin supports greater efficiency savings, but such savings should be made in obvious areas, such as the bonuses received by senior civil servants and the grossly inflated salaries of some in public bodies. Front-line services must not be the first resort; indeed, they must be defended. Sinn Féin believes — I think that other parties would expect us to — that, given the financial and economic constraints affecting the Southern economy and our regional economy, there is a need for greater co-operation, particularly on delivering shared services, especially in the border area. It is simply a waste of time and money to deliver such services on a back-to-back basis. It is a particular waste when the economy is under such pressure.
I speak as the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, and I will limit my comments to the Estimates that are relevant to that Department.
This has not been an easy year for the agriculture industry, and everyone who knows that industry is aware of the challenges, including the high costs of fuel, feedstuffs and fertilisers that are impacting on farm businesses across the sector. In addition, the severe weather in the summer of 2008 played havoc with, in particular, the potato and cereal sectors. I therefore thank the Minister of Finance and Personnel and his Executive colleagues for agreeing to lessen the burden on small but important parts of the industry through the hardship schemes for the fishing and potato industries. Those small amounts of money have been important in securing family businesses and have certainly not been taken for granted. I also welcome the additional £2·3 million that has been made available for the south Down fishing village programme. That will provide much-needed support to communities that have been negatively impacted as a result of the difficulties faced by the fishing industry on which they are dependent.
Overall, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will see a net increase in its cash requirement of just over £40 million. That is to be welcomed. The highest proportion of that, some £29 million, relates to the farm nutrient management scheme, which will allow Northern Ireland to be compliant with the EU nitrates directives. It should be noted that, as with most schemes of that nature, the grant that is payable represents only 40% of the total cost of carrying out those works, the balance of 60% having been found by the farm businesses. That represents a major investment in Northern Ireland’s rural economy by farm business at a time of severe economic downturn.
I am sure that the House will agree that we ought to congratulate farmers on their bravery in investing their hard-earned moneys in their businesses and in the economy. I also call on the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to ensure that it processes the outstanding claims with as much speed as possible, because most farmers will have had to borrow money in order to invest. It would be a total injustice to them and their willingness to support their local and national economies if they had to incur huge bank fees because of the apathy of the Department in processing claims. That is vital because many farmers have not received much help from the banks. In fact, fees have been burdensome at a time when farmers have had so many other economic pressures. It is therefore very important for the Department to pass on the money as quickly as possible, and all steps must be taken to allow that to happen. If positions must be rejigged within the Department to make that happen, that must be done, as many farmers have received a half payment but are still short of the other half and have had to subsidise that for the benefit of everyone and the environment.
Although it is not strictly relevant to the debate, my Committee also notes the willingness of family farm businesses to invest in the modernisation of their enterprises.
I call on the Department to examine critically its budget provisions in the Northern Ireland rural development programme to determine whether shortfalls in parts of the overall programme budget can be transferred to that worthwhile and well-supported scheme. The leverage of approximately 60% of overall costs from the private sector — the farmers themselves — will massively boost the local economy and local businesses beyond those that are involved in farming. For example, it will boost light engineering and processing companies. I ask the Executive to encourage that to be a reality, because it is vital to get the money circulating in Northern Ireland. I take my hat off to the farmers, who, in these times in which they face so many challenges, are up-front in investing their own money in the industry’s future and in the Northern Ireland economy.
Although the Committee supports the Department in such matters, it is concerned about some traditional allocations, particularly that for disease control. We note that an element of the £12·5 million increase given to the Department’s central policy group is for animal disease compensation. I am not sure whether that figure includes the bid for an additional £6 million that was made in the June monitoring round. Irrespective of that, it is evident that the Department is not controlling the diseases that are most relevant to Northern Ireland agriculture, particularly TB. The Minister of the Environment has given the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development approval for a limited badger cull, yet DARD has been totally inactive on that. The Committee calls on the Department to take the brave decision to eradicate animal diseases, thus saving the Northern Ireland block more than £60 million a year. That is no small amount of money, so the Minister must take every possible action to ensure that the money is well spent. I am sure that the Minister of Finance and Personnel will consider the situation very carefully, because that is a recurrent amount of money that is being spent in Northern Ireland. The underlying problem of eradication of disease is not being dealt with. Action must come from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The Committee notes that the spring Supplementary Estimates identify a number of significant decreases, for reasons such as the reallocation of administrative budgets. We appreciate that those decreases are subsequently reallocated across Departments and the Northern Ireland block, but we are concerned that they are happening. Therefore, we call on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to assure the Committee and, more importantly, the rural community that the decreases will not result in a decline in the provision of front line services to rural Northern Ireland.
The Committee is pleased at the additional moneys that are coming to the Department. We hope that the Department will continue to work with the industry to promote a stronger, more vibrant industry and rural economy.
The outgoing Minister of Finance and Personnel either holds this place in contempt or has a genuine reason for his absence. Therefore, it would be appropriate to hear the reason that Mr Dodds has for not attending. I shall not speculate or fuel rumours about his future or that of other DUP Ministers as they dispose of double-jobbing in a party reshuffle to hide their unbounded embarrassment, but the fact that the outgoing Minister is not here today and, I understand, will not be here tomorrow for the Second Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill tells its own story and adds only to vivid speculation. He should be here. The reason for his not being here needs to be better than “very good”.
Perhaps the interim Minister could explain why the Department is not accepting any spending bids for the June monitoring round. Is that not an exceptional situation that deserves explanation? Has a decision been taken that effectively means a scenario of massive overspend, or an unwillingness to admit reliance on underspends, which creates an inability to balance the books not at the end of the year but in the first quarter? In other institutions, a message that instructs Departments not to make a bid would set alarm bells ringing. Is that a message of prudence, or has spending been excessive and the purse emptied? Is such an instruction from a Government not unprecedented? Will the interim Minister take time to allay the genuine fears that are circulating that the Department is overseeing the stretching of the Northern Ireland block grant to levels that cannot be sustained?
The refusal of the Finance Minister to shift on reprioritising the Budget must be one of the foremost examples of political inflexibility and rigidity in the modern legislative arena. As we vote for the Supply resolution, we vote to sustain a system that predates the world financial crisis and the recession that occasioned the rewriting of budgets and the redesign of governmental fiscal structures across the world in every country except Northern Ireland. “No change here” is the slogan.
Unfortunately, there is change here. When I first raised this matter last October, there were 29,000 people unemployed. Today, that figure has risen to over 47,000. One might suppose that those horrendous figures would present a learning curve steep enough for even the outgoing Finance Minister to recognise that he might possibly have been mistaken in not reordering the priorities of the Programme for Government. However, his refusal to move on that matter earns the cosy coalition the title “the do-nothing Government”, presiding over a situation in which 81% of this Assembly’s time is taken up with private Members’ motions that are not binding on Ministers and only 18% is taken up with Government business. That is a scandalous state of affairs that cannot continue. After the humiliation and reversal of last week’s election result, one hoped that there might be a rewriting of the Programme for Government. However, the DUP are like the Bourbons after the French revolution:
“They have learnt nothing, and forgotten nothing.”
We vote today on a Supply resolution and associated Budget designed for a world before the worst recession and banking crisis since 1929. I ask the Minister once again, even at this late stage, to think again and order a thoroughgoing review of the priorities in the Programme for Government. I ask that in the name of the 47,000 unemployed and those who daily increase that number and of those who live in fear that their jobs will be terminated tomorrow or even today. I ask it on the grounds of common sense.
What about the black hole, which was £1 billion and rising at the last count? When will someone level with us as to how the deficit-financing scheme is performing? How many Departments have underspent so that they can balance their books? When will someone withdraw the bonuses of senior civil servants in Departments that have underspent and failed the public? Will someone tell the House what will happen after 2011, when efficiency savings of £14 billion will be imposed throughout the United Kingdom legislatures? What are the contingency plans for that situation? Members want to hear from someone with ministerial responsibility for finance.
Until now, yesterday’s Finance Minister had been building his latest house of cards around the suggestion that all of the pain would come after 2011: bully for him. However, it goes without saying that, if the Chancellor proposes a three-year spending review, that will lead, almost inevitably, to a reduction in the block grant before 2011. That is what is likely to hit Northern Ireland; that is the pain that is coming very soon.
Sound Government finance is not theory. It can never be established by creating a Programme for Government before a worldwide economic crisis erupts and then sticking to it rigidly, no matter what happens in the economy or in the real world. Of course, it must be difficult for double-jobbers and treble-jobbers to latch on to that fact. Let us face it: their multiple salaries cushion them from the impact of an economic downturn or recession very nicely.
That fact has resonated with an electorate who are fed up with false promises. It has struck home with people who, last week, struck back and sent the DUP crashing. Those people are indignant and angry at seeing that their trust has been misplaced. What is being talked about today, regarding the Supply resolution, is the highlighting of a financial situation and the fact that the person charged with responsibility happens to be somewhere else. We do not know where. The House deserves better, and I hope that that is what it will get in the not-too-distant future.
I am pleased to contribute to the debate on the Supply resolution. Some time ago, Jonathan Swift made a modest proposal to deal with the enormous poverty and hardship that existed on the island of Ireland at that time. He proposed that the people of Ireland should eat their babies. I want to start with a modest proposal to deal with the current crisis in Government finances: the Assembly should abolish the post of Minister of Finance and Personnel. It is a modest proposal, which would be easier to realise than Swift’s for the simple reason that the Northern Ireland public would not notice any difference.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel says that a three-year Budget has been created and that, no matter how the world changes around him, he will not alter it. The Finance Minister’s function is, essentially, to create the Budget. He says that he has created a Budget and that it still stands. At the start of the debate, Minister Foster made a speech which could have been written 18 months ago. Indeed, quite probably, civil servants wrote it when the Minister of Finance announced his three-year Budget, and it has simply been cut and pasted from that speech. That is consistent with his position. He says that there is no need to make any change to the Budget. Therefore, I offer my modest proposal to the Assembly.
The SDLP expressed serious concerns about the three-year Budget and the Programme for Government at the time of their creation. Many of my party’s fears have been realised. We remain gravely concerned about the extent to which the Budget was predicated upon efficiency savings and asset sales, asset sales that have not been realised. That has led to major concerns from a range of organisations and sectors about subsequent cuts in front line services. A senior Housing Executive manager said that he is operating in the most difficult funding environment that he has ever operated in, and a senior Health Service manager said that efficiency savings are simply cuts across the Budget that directly impact on front line service.
The global and, consequently, the local economic climates have shifted hugely in the past year to 18 months. The Executive have done remarkably little to take account of that. The deferral of water charges is a significant issue, and we have talked before about the lack of ring-fenced money to deliver much-needed services for children and young people.
During last year’s debate on the Supply resolution, the SDLP expressed serious concerns about the ability of the DUP and Sinn Féin to deliver a coherent strategy of government based on a shared society. There have been some high points, and, when good things are done, I recognise them. Politicians on all sides of the House rose to the occasion and showed what a shared society could mean after the recent tragedy of the murders at Massereene barracks. However, there is no question that that approach is not broadly sustained in the day-to-day realities of delivery in the Assembly.
The public have a vague sense that the Assembly is not delivering. However, people would be shocked if they knew how little business is before the Assembly. The reality is that numerous issues and papers are logjammed because of conflict between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin. The two parties have managed to deliver, at best, a fraction of what was promised in the Programme for Government, and the Executive seem to lack strategy and leadership. They talk about delivering for the economy, but the SDLP has identified many issues in its significant paper, ‘New Priorities in Difficult Times’, and our lead has not been followed.
The Minister has stated that he wants to always be:
“flexible and responsive to changing circumstances.” — [Official Report, Vol 40, No 3, p152, col 1].
Moreover, a senior Department official referred to the “cessation of low-priority programmes.” However, those approaches differ from the Minister’s actual decisions on this, which have meant no change to the Budget in light of the colossal change in economic circumstances. Yet again, the SDLP calls on the Minister to prioritise retraining, helping small and medium-sized businesses and putting more money into social housing and the green economy, particularly energy efficiency.
I want the House to recognise that I give credit where it is due. I have heard sound and good feedback about Invest Northern Ireland’s credit crunch seminars and its follow-through, which provides diagnostic input to businesses. I welcome the two recent ministerial statements about retraining and apprenticeships. However, not nearly enough has been done. As Stephen Farry said, it is not good enough to say that we can address those issues through monitoring rounds alone. I spoke earlier about abolishing the post of Minister of Finance; perhaps we need a Minister for monitoring rounds.
It is worth commenting on the interesting little example of Workplace 2010, which collapsed. I could say much about the reasons for that collapse and what it indicates about the Department’s management of the project. We have been told that that financial hit was taken last year, and it has been suggested that we are through that problem. We are not through that problem. The £175 million that ought to have been available through last year’s Budget should have been used to deliver projects. However, those projects have not been delivered.
There are other Workplace 2010 issues, such as the decentralisation of posts, which was one of the fundamental political challenges that faced the Assembly. On the face of it, each party in the Assembly subscribed to decentralisation, but the degree to which it was written into Workplace 2010 was unclear from the outset. There now seems to be no commitment to the proposals in the Bain Review on policy on the location of public-sector jobs in Northern Ireland.
The collapse of Workplace 2010 means that the Civil Service estate is not fit for purpose, and no revised proposals have been made on how to put that right.
We were told last year that the Civil Service equal pay claim would cost at least £100 million. Is the Minister going to tell us that, in light of the resolution in the House on 1 June 2009, he will resolve that issue and pay those civil servants what they are entitled to within three months?
I welcome the Minister’s announcement on senior Civil Service pay and bonuses, but we need more detail about how and when that will happen.
The Minister will know that the Committee for Finance and Personnel has embarked on a major inquiry into public procurement because of serious concerns that the system is not working. Legal challenges have been made, and owners of small and medium-sized businesses say that they cannot get a slice of the action. There has been a failure to use social and environmental clauses to deal with the current economic situation.
There are many other issues that I want to address, but they will have to wait for another occasion.
I apologise for missing the first few minutes of the Minister’s statement; I was in a Committee meeting.
I welcome Arlene Foster to the Chamber today; she has been a dextrous Minister in the past few days in fulfilling a number of roles, which may be a portent for the future. We do not need to abolish the post of Minister of Finance and Personnel; finance is an integral part of government around the world. However, I concede that we need a change of direction with regard to budgets, and a change of personnel may assist us in that.
There is frustration not only in the Chamber but across the whole of society about the inability of the Assembly to respond more effectively to the effects of the economic downturn on Northern Ireland and to plan for economic recovery when it comes. We should be optimistic in that regard. There is a lack of flexibility in what we do, which stands in stark contrast to what is happening in virtually every other jurisdiction around the world as they wrestle with the economic situation.
We are locked into the figures that were set out in the 2008-2011 Budget, with some minor modifications. Nevertheless, it is worth stressing that even the changes that were made in previous monitoring rounds do not affect the underlying baselines. For example, the Minister mentioned what I now call the £150 spring fuel payment, as opposed to the winter fuel payment. That one-off payment was taken out of the £25 million fund that was set up under the Financial Assistance Act (Northern Ireland) 2009; it remains to be seen whether a similar decision will be taken for next winter. If that is the case, it begs the question of whether it is better to invest in energy efficiency in people’s houses rather than giving them payments every year. Surely that would provide a more longer-term benefit for people who are in fuel poverty.
It is important that we nail the wider issue of monitoring rounds. The Executive have made a lot of the fact that monitoring rounds exist to deal with flexibility and to allow Northern Ireland to respond to changing circumstances. That may be true to an extent, but the extent to which it is true is extremely limited. Monitoring rounds are determined by two factors: first, what Departments are prepared to surrender as underspends; and, secondly, what Barnett consequentials come to Northern Ireland. However, I will say more about that shortly.
Monitoring rounds do not have the same effect as a Budget. They do not allow for a review of existing policies and programmes to see whether we are responding to situations as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. At the same time, they do not allow us to ascertain whether current programmes are redundant or whether money can be better or more efficiently used for other, more productive purposes. That means that we are missing out on that root-and-branch analysis of what we do with the very limited and scarce resources that are available to us.
Claims have been made that through monitoring rounds, large amounts of money have been changed between Budget headings. Again, it is worth stressing that few of those changes relate to the specifics of dealing with a recession in Northern Ireland. A lot of the changes have been made to simply meet demands from Departments, or more usually, to help in situations where funding pressures have been created, whether through Workplace 2010 or the Executive making a decision without having worked out the cost of further deferrals of water charges, for example. Even today, we are faced with a paper from the Minister for Regional Development calling for the further deferral of water charges beyond 2011. That may be the right thing to do if we weigh up all the different and competing demands facing Northern Ireland. However, I find it incredible that we are talking about making a decision on future spending before we even get sight of what the 2011-14 comprehensive spending review will mean for resources for Northern Ireland. If we think about financial management, that is an amazing situation.
We have also heard talk of a £1 billion black hole. I am not going to go down that route, because that is essentially a notional figure somewhere between the maximum amount of future demands from Departments and resources being surrendered. In practice, the sum will be a lot less than that. However, we are uncertain about what Departments will be surrendering, and there is a legitimate question about how the Executive will be able to balance their books over the months and years to come. If we are going to use astronomical terms, we should perhaps talk about a quasar, where a little light comes out at the end of a tunnel, rather than a black hole, which sucks up everything.
In the short term, although we must accept the limitations of monitoring rounds, a lot of the focus will now shift to the June monitoring round to see what the Executive can do. Following the Chancellor’s Budget in April, £116 million in Barnett consequentials will flow into Northern Ireland over the next two years. Those consequentials have arisen due to the fact that the Government made the decision, at a UK-wide level, that they still need to invest to deal with the downturn and to prepare for recovery. That should give a very clear hint as to what we should be doing in Northern Ireland.
At the same time, we are faced with finding £123 million in efficiency savings over the next two years. There will be a very strong temptation for the Executive to set one sum off against the other. Rather than taking the opportunity of spending £116 million to help our economy, we may simply use it to balance the books without trying to change the way that we do things in Northern Ireland. If that were to happen, it would be a tremendous shame and a wasted opportunity. It would show a lack of creativity and imagination on the part of the Executive. Two weeks ago, the Finance Minister indicated that he was minded to do that with those figures. That is disappointing. Although I recognise that under devolution, it is fully up to the Executive to do with those consequentials as they see fit — and I defend that right strongly — equally, there is a responsibility to ensure that we spend that money wisely.
Overall, the scale of the stimulus in Northern Ireland has been extremely small; it is barely 1% to 2% of the more than £8 billion departmental expenditure limit. That pales into insignificance when compared with stimulus elsewhere in the UK.
We are in a situation in which there are looming efficiency savings in the longer term. There is no doubt that Mr McNarry and his new party colleagues will be doing their utmost to ensure that Northern Ireland is spared the worst. However, we wait to see whether that will be the case. There is a wider debate taking place at UK level about when to turn off the tap with regard to Keynesian stimulus. Should one keep going, or if there are sufficient indicators of the green shoots of recovery, should one turn off the tap and recognise the looming difficulties of the debt burden that will have to be borne? I do not see any evidence that detailed and strategic economic discussion is taking place in Northern Ireland about whether we should be spending money now or holding back for a rainy day, which is disappointing.
The Minister challenged Members to state where savings can be made. First, we must be careful of going down the populist route: it is very easy to do so and receive easy plaudits. There is a need for responsibility in Government. I would hate to see the situation arise in which populism were pursued until the elections in 2011, with pain following thereafter. That is not the responsible thing to do for the people of Northern Ireland, who are more sophisticated.
The second issue relates to the cost of division. We have tabled proposals to the Executive on that matter, and I may take an opportunity to discuss them in greater detail tomorrow. I note that a Sinn Féin Member was talking about shared services around the border. Although I respect constitutional appropriateness, my party and I are happy to explore that theme in much greater detail, because that is the constructive approach.
I am pleased to contribute to the debate. This is the third year in which the Assembly has entered into the process. Many have stated their dislike for the process, but at least we are engaged in one. Regardless of one’s perspective, we can all acknowledge that it is much more positive to have our own devolved Assembly in which people who are directly elected by the Northern Ireland electorate can contribute and make their points. If people disagree with the direction that the Executive are taking on public finance matters, they can air their views, which will be listened to and, from time to time, adopted. It is positive that we are debating the Supply resolution and that it is not being foisted upon us without any direct local input.
I will respond to some comments and try to make some of my own. I am instinctively drawn to Mr McNarry’s comments first. In the same way that he sought an apology from the Finance Minister for not attending today’s debate, Mr McNarry should apologise to the House for being here. He ran through a reheated ramble that, sadly, we have had to listen to time and again. However, he did make some new mistakes: he claimed that no new bids were being submitted by Departments in the upcoming monitoring round, which is incorrect. I am a member of the Finance and Personnel Committee and the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, and I recall that during meetings of both Committees, departmental officials had submissions for the monitoring round. The Finance Department submitted bids for the monitoring round: what the Executive choose to do with those bids is a matter for them, but it is completely erroneous to say that no bids are being submitted.
We also heard the old chestnut about rewriting the Budget and Programme for Government: it is really time for the rewriting of speeches.
Whenever Mr McNarry calls for the Programme for Government to be rewritten, I am reminded of that now-famous comment from his party leader, the Minister for Employment and Learning, who when asked on the BBC’s ‘Politics Show’ whether it should be rewritten, said “no, not at all”. Instead of trying to bring that idea to the House to persuade the rest of us, Mr McNarry would have a good job trying to persuade the leader of his own party of the merits of that argument.
Other Members touched on the issue of monitoring rounds. The Budget, or the financial position, is not in any way static: it does change. Sometimes, it can be limited in its quantum and scope. However, if we are looking for a rapid response to an issue, the monitoring round process can deliver. It is completely and utterly wrong to say that nothing has happened since devolution. I believe that about £1 billion worth of resources have been re-allocated as a result of the monitoring round process since these institutions were re-established two years ago. Furthermore, £1 billion is not an insubstantial amount in any respect; it is a sizeable sum, which the monitoring round process has allowed to be moved to areas where it can be spent effectively.
I listened intently to Dr Farry’s remarks about the June monitoring round and the impact of the Barnett consequentials. He made an interesting case, and it is worth examining how we deal with that impact. Obviously, none of the Executive is contemplating that, but there is, perhaps, an argument in doing as he suggests, rather than just offsetting the additional money received against that which we lose. Perhaps we could examine how, even within Departments that would be losing that money, it could be reprioritised and retargeted, particularly for use as an economic stimulus. There is merit in that argument.
However, we saw recently that we do not need even the monitoring round process to deliver impact and benefit in the economic downturn. The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment announced in the House recently a £15 million short-term aid scheme to help businesses, and the Minister for Employment and Learning announced the Skillsafe initiative, which is aimed particularly at apprentices. Those initiatives emerged without the need for a monitoring round or a formal Budget process. There was a reprioritisation within existing allocations to help those who are in need in this difficult economic climate.
When one hears talk about reprioritising the Budget, particularly from the Ulster Unionist Party, it would be interesting and useful if that party came forward with its own suggestions.
I hear nothing at this stage; I hear only calls about reprioritising, but nothing about from where. There are lots of demands for more money for this and for that, but the flipside of that equation — the downside, the nasty side — namely, from where money would be taken, is something about which the Ulster Unionist Party is silent.
I have to at least acknowledge the SDLP’s contribution. I might not agree entirely with some of its suggestions, such as felling an eighth of Northern Ireland’s forests, or the idea that some of the money in Invest Northern Ireland or the Harbour Commissioners’ resources, capital reserves or current cash reserves may be entirely accessible. At the same time, I do not believe that some of the very good ideas that the SDLP has about selling off some assets might be realisable at the levels that it suggests or at this time. However, the SDLP has at least made a valuable and useful contribution.
Dr Farry made a similar contribution for the Alliance Party. I will not say that I am looking forward to his contribution tomorrow, but I will certainly listen to it intently. However, at least that quarter is also making suggestions about what could be done. We can examine those, and the Executive and Departments could take some meritorious points from them and take them forward. However, the Ulster Unionist Party is curiously silent when it comes to making suggestions as to what can be done. Indeed, in the Executive, Mr McNarry’s party colleagues agree, and have agreed, to what is going on. In fact, they initiated some of the very changes about which we spoke earlier.
Again, we had the re-appearance of the mysterious black hole. Dr Farry is correct in his assessment that many of the figures are simply aspirational. There are many things in the so-called back hole that it would be nice to deliver, and there are many ideas, policies and initiatives that it would be nice to implement. However, they were simply not as pressing or as likely to be realised as other matters.
I recall Mr McNarry saying some months ago that the Executive would overspend in the previous financial year. However, the provisional out-turn figures, which are due before the end of the month, will show that claim to have been nonsense.
Similarly, Mr McNarry’s assessment that there is a black hole is nonsense. It is apparent that one thing that has fallen into a black hole is Mr McNarry’s short-term memory. He said that nothing was being done on the review of senior civil servants’ pay and bonuses. However, only last Thursday, the Minister of Finance and Personnel announced his intention to establish an independent review of senior civil servants’ pay and bonuses. Therefore, Mr McNarry appears to be asleep at the wheel in that respect.
In discussions about what will happen in the next spending round, we are continually reminded by Mr McNarry and his colleagues that the next Government are likely to be Conservative. Things are bad now, but I am absolutely certain that, under the Conservative Party’s power —
Times are difficult, and Labour has shown its true colours by cutting and slashing away at budgets. However, one thing that is absolutely certain is that the Conservatives would be in no way better; in many respects, they would be much worse. There were revelations last week that the Conservatives would make 10% cuts to all Departments except health.
It is incumbent on the Ulster Unionist Party, which extols the virtues of its link with the Conservative Party, to explain how the people of Northern Ireland would benefit from a 10% cut in our public expenditure. The people of Northern Ireland will find it very difficult to see the benefit of that. Northern Ireland is experiencing difficult times, but it will be absolutely savaged by cuts if the Tories win the next Westminster election.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle agus a chairde.
An issue that continues to make the headlines is the provision of housing, as does the issue of housing in general. The SDLP may well laugh, but the lack of available resources for housing is a matter of great concern to those of us who sit on the Committee for Social Development, particularly given the collapse of house and land sales.
We constantly hear about rising waiting lists — the latest figure is around 40,000 — and rising homelessness. The Minister of Finance and Personnel needs to take that into account when dealing with the Budget. It is essential that housing is provided to the people who are most in need in our society. That provision is a cross-cutting issue that impacts on people’s education, health, employment and development in their community. Therefore, we have an obligation to ensure that resources are made available to deal with the issue.
Mike Smyth’s report, which was launched last week, is a welcome addition to the housing debate. That report states that a well-funded social housing programme would impact on the hard-pressed construction industry. However, it must be noted that it was the collapse of the private-housing market that had the biggest impact on the construction industry. In 2003-04, more than 93% of all housing — some 13,900 housing units — was built for the private sector.
The Committee for Social Development has supported, and will continue to support, the calls for more resources to be made available for housing, whether through the Budget’s Main Estimates or through monitoring rounds. There is an argument that all types of housing need to be provided, not only social-newbuild housing. We must ensure that our housing stock’s infrastructure is maintained. We must ensure that whatever Budget we are awarded reflects the different aspects of housing.
Unfortunately, that has not happened. Failing to include improvement grants, replacement programmes and cyclical maintenance in the overall housing strategy is short-sighted, and such an approach has a knock-on effect on the building industry. Unless the budget is revisited by the Minister for Social Development or additional resources are found, people who survive on Egan contracts or maintenance contracts, including those for repairs grants, will have to lay off many hundreds of people. That would have a knock-on effect on the entire local economy. Something needs to be done quickly, and I urge the Minister of Finance and Personnel to take that on board.
I would also like to make a couple of suggestions, one of which is to do with providing resources from the June monitoring round. Can the Minister stipulate that additional money will be reserved for all aspects of maintenance and repairs, including adaptations? Furthermore, will the Minister of Finance and Personnel consider allowing the Minister for Social Development to move the £110 million from the delayed Belfast Royal Exchange development project to cover the reduction in money for Egan contracts and all other aspects of maintenance?
I remind the Minister for Social Development that she is the Minister for Social Development and not just the Minister for housing provision. She needs to deal with all aspects of housing, including urban regeneration, social security and the community sector, which feels that it is being ignored when it comes to the Department’s budget allocations. She needs to address all the issues for which she has departmental responsibility as a matter of urgency.
I am glad that we have devolution in Northern Ireland and that we as an Assembly have the opportunity to deal with issues concerning the Budget, rather than having decisions about financial matters imposed on us without any input from local politicians. Therefore, I welcome today’s debate. However, we must face up to the reality that, whatever the Budget, only a certain amount of money can be allocated, and if money is to be moved from one Department to another, it is a fact that one Department’s gain will be another Department’s pain. People who make unending demands for additional resources for their chosen Department and who seem to be almost insatiable in that regard must face up to the fact that if their demands are met, others will face substantial cuts. Therefore, we need to have a sense of realism in facing up to our responsibility.
I want to focus on one aspect of government, which relates to sport and culture. Those are areas of great importance, yet they are undervalued and underestimated in some sectors. In spite of all the financial pressures, one area of future economic growth in Northern Ireland is tourism. It is particularly important at a time when there is a lot of pressure on the economy and there are financial difficulties across the world.
The growing number of tourists coming to Northern Ireland over recent years is a continuing trend. Northern Ireland continues to be an increasingly popular tourist destination. However, if we are to meet the needs of tourists and attract them back again and again, we need to ensure that we provide an adequate product that will draw them here initially. Although that is primarily an issue for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Tourist Board and Tourism Ireland, the field of culture, arts and leisure has a major contribution to make in that regard.
I welcome the fact that the work on the upgrading of the Ulster Museum is almost completed, and there are developments planned with regard to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra and the Ulster American Folk Park at Omagh. However, that must be seen as simply the first stage in the development of our museums sector. Some good work was done on the development of a strategy for that sector, and the Department is taking that forward.
There is a certain predictability with some of us, and I agree with that predictability entirely, because I was just about to come to that very point. Northern Ireland has a tremendous shipbuilding heritage and maritime history, and that needs to be developed. [Interruption.] I will ignore the comments from my colleague on the right. That sector of the museum world needs to be developed, and I fully support the Member’s comments.
In fact, when the Committee was working on the subject of museums, maritime museums were brought up again and again as being of great importance.
However, museums are only one sector, and the needs of sports must also be considered. The safety of sports grounds presents a major challenge. I hope that not only will the money currently focused on that area continue to be provided, but that a little additional money may be obtained. Over the years, the necessary investment has not been made in sports grounds right across Northern Ireland, with the result that many fall below the standard of safety that is desirable — indeed, essential — for the good of spectators. Therefore, the safety of sports grounds must feature strongly in the Assembly’s financial planning, alongside the issue of stadium development.
Before leaving the subject of museums, does the Member agree that Northern Ireland is entitled to a sports museum? Throughout the ages, Northern Ireland has produced a great many sportsmen and sportswomen, and a sports museum would be highly attractive to tourists.
I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree that Northern Ireland’s rich sporting heritage should feature in the museum sector. How that will be done is a matter for consideration in the context of the strategy for museums, but sports should not be ignored. Northern Ireland has a number of sportspeople of world renown.
The reports that have been produced on the state of sports grounds give genuine cause for concern. Therefore, investment in that area should be encouraged. Sport does not merely have the general benefit of improving and enhancing the quality of life; it can contribute substantially to young people’s good health. I am holding my stomach in as I say that this country has an obesity problem. It is, therefore, good to encourage young people, and those of us who are slightly older, to become involved in sport. Such increased involvement would, undoubtedly, improve the standard of health right across society and result in savings in the health budget. We should not simply regard culture and sports as separate entities to be examined in isolation. They benefit all society, through the economic development of tourism, improving health, and enhancing physical and mental well-being.
It was noted earlier that, although a certain amount of money will be allocated to Northern Ireland, ultimately, we are dependent on the Westminster Exchequer. My colleague Simon Hamilton pointed out what will happen whatever is the outcome of a future Westminster election. All the evidence shows that under a Conservative Government, which is a distinct possibility at present, the financial situation in Northern Ireland will become even more stringent. We must keep that to the forefront of our minds as we move towards that election.
Once again, the Assembly finds itself debating Northern Ireland’s Budget. Although today’s and tomorrow’s motions on the Budget are largely technical in content, they provide another opportunity to take stock of our collective position in the middle of an economic crisis.
I join other Members in seeking an explanation of the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s absence and his failure to deliver the Budget on behalf of his Department. That is one of the annual duties for which he earns some £54,000 a year, or over £1,000 a week, in a part-time role. He may have a valid and genuine reason for not being here, but surely Members should be made aware of what that is.
It is without any joy that I acknowledge that we seem, unfortunately, to be largely in the same position as we were after the February 2009 and December 2008 monitoring rounds. We are still balancing the books, as opposed to taking any decisive action to ease Northern Ireland out of the recession and place it in a strong position to compete in the future. It ought to be acknowledged that very little flexibility is available through in-year monitoring.
There has been much debate over the past year as to the existence of a hole in the Northern Ireland Budget. Perhaps we have been looking at that issue from the wrong angle. Northern Ireland is unlikely to go bust, as almost happened to some of our banks. Despite the unprecedented level of debt in which Gordon Brown has placed Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, we will, hopefully, remain solvent.
However, our immediate aspirations and much of our Programme for Government are going or have gone bust. The public’s belief in these institutions, in the lead parties that direct them and, most worryingly, in politicians in general, has been lost. Retaining the status quo of a Budget that was agreed two years ago does not give the public great confidence.
I will explain further. We are all aware that there has been a reduction of £133 million in the block grant for 2010-11. How will that be accounted for in the future? We must start to think about that now.
Mr Hamilton did not give way to me earlier. Therefore, I will not give way.
How is the Northern Ireland Civil Service pay claim, which some estimates put at more than £100 million — perhaps £200 million or £300 million — dealt with in this Budget? There is also the Workplace 2010 debacle. As has been said, much of the Civil Service has substandard accommodation. There has been the miscalculation of the value of the Crossnacreevy site by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) and by DFP, which had to accept that valuation. There is the loss of rates income by Land and Property Services, another DFP agency that is generating costs and reducing income through its gross failure to run an efficient rates collection system. A further £236 million of costs will accrue to the Executive as a result of the further deferment of water charges until after 2011, as suggested by Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, and the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Nigel Dodds.
In light of those realities, and amid repeated calls from these Benches to take action —
No, I will not give way, for reasons that I explained earlier. The Member will have his opportunity to speak.
Amid repeated calls from these Benches to reprioritise the Budget in order to make what we have work better for Northern Ireland, the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the two main parties in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister have refused to do anything. Is that because they cannot agree on what action to take?
Earlier in the debate, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, on behalf of the Minister of Finance and Personnel, advocated the use of monitoring rounds for reallocation. I recall that last June there was no reallocation whatsoever. Will the Minister indicate now what moneys she expects to be reallocated in this year’s June monitoring round? On the other hand, is the Minister being disingenuous by pointing Members towards a monitoring system that may not materialise?
It is continually claimed that the core of the Programme for Government was written for economic growth. However, unless one has been living on Mars for the past year, it is perfectly clear that, rather than economic growth, Northern Ireland has been experiencing growing unemployment. When the circumstances in which a plan is made change, surely the plan must adapt to that change.
Recent reports of “green shoots” are welcome, but do not hide the fact that job losses are still increasing and that job security is diminishing in many areas across Northern Ireland. I noticed during the past few days that the Institute of Directors forecasts that it may be next January or early in 2010 before the real “green shoots” appear. Only last week, like other Committee witnesses, Mike Smyth and Dr Mark Bailey from the University of Ulster indicated in their aptly entitled paper, ‘The Case for Increased Investment in Social Housing: June 2009’, the economic and job-creating benefits of investing in building social housing.
However, largely due to a reduction in capital receipts received by her Department, the Minister for Social Development is facing a hole of £100 million in her housing budget. Setting aside the issue of social housing, the Assembly and Executive have been slow to react to areas of potential economic growth, such as green technologies and the wider economic potential that exists in tackling climate change. The Minister of the Environment, of course, does not believe that anything can be done about climate change, because man has nothing to do with it. How ridiculous.
The Programme for Government is focused on attracting foreign direct investment while our small businesses are struggling to get funding from the banks. Suggested programmes in that area must be welcomed.
Although financial and budgetary decisions take a while to filter down to the public, they undoubtedly have an impact, and the fact that we are, yet again, having a no-change Budget will further diminish the public’s belief in the ability of politics to change things. Instead, the public appear to be focused on the observations and revelations about MPs’ expenses. As people struggle with their own finances, they become increasingly aware of double-jobbing MPs, who receive MLAs’, ministerial, Committee Chairpersons’ and Deputy Chairpersons’ salaries. That creates public dissatisfaction and a disconnection from politics. Public confidence is necessary if we are to change policies and budgets to meet people’s needs.
MPs cannot be in Westminster and Stormont at the same time. Double-jobbing costs the public purse and, more importantly, there are bound to be other impacts. Obviously, double-jobbing means that we do not have full-time Ministers, and not being present in Departments for the required length of time undoubtedly has an impact on the decisions that are made. Following pressure from David Cameron, the DUP was forced to end its practice of double-jobbing, and the people of Northern Ireland showed their disgust in the European elections.
Recently, the Finance Minister announced that he is to commission an independent review of pay and bonuses for senior civil servants in Northern Ireland. I have no problem with that.
I draw the Deputy Speaker’s attention to the clock, which continues to run, so I hope that he will be lenient when it comes to the end of my time.
Those are issues that ought to be addressed. Rather than pointing the finger at others, let us set an example.
The huge debt that Gordon Brown has handed to the United Kingdom has been highlighted. Therefore, regardless of whether there is a Conservative or Labour Government, that debt will have to be paid. The failure of DUP Members to acknowledge that fact is quite surprising. Indeed, when talking about the Assembly Budget, Nelson McCausland said that Members will have to face up to a new reality. That is not the message that was being delivered when the DUP was talking about the prospects of future funding for the Assembly from Westminster. We will all have to face up to difficulties in the future, irrespective of who occupies Number 10.
It is accepted by all parties that, to date, the devolved institutions —
I rise primarily to contribute on health matters. The National Health Service has delivered major improvements, particularly in recent years. Investment has trebled, and the positive impact of that can be seen in the welcome reduction in waiting lists, and in the increasing number of healthcare staff. In Northern Ireland, approximately 100,000 people are employed in the National Health Service, and that includes a significant increase in the number of doctors. Furthermore, some good initiatives have been embedded in practice.
However, there are still many concerns. The media picked up on the Northern Ireland Audit Office’s report into the health and social care sector, which highlighted the £16 million that has already been spent on compensating senior staff for the loss of their jobs as a consequence of reducing the number of trusts from 18 to five. In addition, a further £90 million has been set aside to meet the total early retirement and redundancy costs that will arise under the review of public administration.
That commitment of £106 million is front-loaded in anticipation of future substantial savings to the public purse as a result of the amalgamation of the trusts. Those savings must be delivered, and they must be quantified as having been delivered.
Some senior staff who have been let go are in final salary schemes and on salaries that are very generous by Northern Ireland standards. We must ensure that the interests of lower-paid staff in the trusts are as well protected as those of top management. People should not retire on generous packages and then pop up almost immediately in quangos or posts that should be available for people who are appropriately qualified and need the job. The Minister of Finance and Personnel should take another look at his — or, indeed, her — proposals because we are in a much changed financial environment.
There are also many concerns that the investment in the National Health Service does not always afford adequate front line services where they are most needed and that resources are being spent on expensive managers and agency staff rather than on permanent posts. We in the SDLP propose protecting front line services. In our ‘New Priorities in Difficult Times’ paper, we outline the need to ensure that we retain the 700-plus nursing jobs that the Minister has proposed to cut. I understand that the Minister has reassured the Royal College of Nursing that that will not be the case, and I hope that that is so. I will certainly watch that space.
There needs to be far more transparency and openness regarding performance and outcomes. Now that the trusts have been reduced and structures have been reformed, there will, hopefully, be no more changes for some time. We have to make the new system work better than the previous one. People are far more concerned about outcomes and quality, which is where the focus needs to be.
We are very concerned about the pressures on midwifery services across the North. We want the best possible start for babies and the best circumstances for mothers. I regularly meet former colleagues — doctors, nurses and midwives — who are deeply concerned about issues in the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital, primarily around staff shortages and overcrowding. Morale is sometimes low among staff because they feel that they cannot do the best possible job for their patients. They are worried about patient safety being compromised. I would be very interested to hear what consideration the Executive have given to our proposals, which would certainly ensure that early intervention is put into practice. They would also bring valuable jobs to an area that has been hit hard by job losses in the construction industry. Last month, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors highlighted that the plunge in activity in the construction industry shows no signs of changing.
Despite many assurances that the recommendations of the Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability will be implemented, the low level of available resources for mental-health services, especially for the next few years, has seen many improvements put on the long finger. The delay in the implementation of key changes to services to support people with mental-health issues and/or learning disabilities is very concerning. There are old buildings that need to be replaced, but we cannot afford to close them until we have new buildings. People who leave care should also be provided with more appropriate supported housing.
There must be real partnership between Departments in all areas. There needs to be far more transparency and openness regarding expenditure, performance and outcomes. There must be a tightening of belts all round. As I have said, there should be far more focus on positive outcomes and a far more action-orientated approach.
We know from the Royal College of Nursing that there is a continuing reduction in the number of specialist nursing posts and a tendency to place inappropriate and unpaid leadership responsibilities on band 5 and band 6 registered nurses, which is unsafe practice. The number of trained mental-health nurses needs to be further increased to meet the needs in hospitals and the community. Although we welcome the increased number of midwives being trained this year, that increase needs to be repeated for several years to achieve an adequate number of trained midwives and to allow for wastage and increased birth rates in some areas.
In its ‘New Priorities in Difficult Times’ discussion paper, the SDLP identified ways in which money can be found to protect front line services. Saving money cannot simply be about taking a slash and burn approach to public spending in an effort to balance the books. The Department of Finance and Personnel can and should do more to support Departments in making efficiency savings. A Department with a huge number of staff, it could take more time to study the absolute financial detail. It is also the Department that has responsibility for personnel —
Does the Member agree that, for those of us who sit on and who chair Committees, it would be very useful, in the interests of transparency and efficiency, to obtain the details of the monitoring rounds on time? One of the problems last week was that the Committee for the Environment did not have access to that detail to discuss it at what was a fairly late stage.
I thank the Member for his intervention. It is absolutely essential that we get the details of the monitoring rounds on time. It is important that we get far more financial detail to all Departments to help them make efficiency savings so that a slash and burn approach is not adopted, resulting in the loss of important front line services.
People who work in Departments are also affected. It is not Whitehall but a very small, local area. We must make a difference, because that is what devolution is supposed to be about.