Debate resumed on motion:
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 Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.]
The Supply resolution debate is an opportunity to highlight some of the budgetary challenges that face each Department in the current financial year. I should like to mention some of the financial issues that face the Health Department.
The Department’s major challenge is undoubtedly the achievement of the 3% efficiency savings. The Department receives around half of the total block grant and, therefore, has to achieve half of the total efficiency savings. The Minister has given an assurance that he will meet those targets, but the challenge is to do that without affecting front line services. The Minister stated that he achieved the £118 million efficiency savings target in 2008-09. However, given that a total of £700 million of efficiencies must be achieved over the three-year period, there is clearly some way still to go.
There have been major public concerns about home closures and cuts in nursing numbers. A reduction of some 722 nurses is proposed over the three-year period. There was a debate on that issue in the Chamber in February. We called on the Minister to ensure that front line services are not affected.
At that stage, I pointed out that the proposals would result in an estimated total reduction of approximately 2,475 Health Service jobs over the three-year period. That takes account both of efficiencies and any additional investments. In light of the worrying estimate that there will be a reduction of 722 nurses and midwives, I made the point that one cannot remove that many nursing and midwifery posts without directly and detrimentally affecting front line services.
The Committee has played its part by highlighting the challenges, listening to the arguments and pressing the Minister to protect vital services. The Committee heard from the Minister and from each of the trusts about specific plans and proposals. It heard from the unions that represent employees who are directly affected by cuts. Indeed, in recent days, the unions have asked to meet the Committee again about the efficiency plans.
Trust proposals to achieve 3% savings have been the subject of public consultation. The Committee also heard from district councils and local groups that are concerned about specific services in their areas. The new health and social care structures that came into place in April have led to a rationalisation of bodies and a slimmer and more accountable service through a reduction in the number of public bodies and in bureaucracy and administrative costs. That is welcome, and it will make a significant contribution to achieving the efficiency savings target. However, it still leaves a major gap, and we must continue to ensure that the measures that are implemented do not cut patient services.
The outbreak of swine flu will place an additional burden on finances. Earlier today, the Minister highlighted the need for additional funding to deal with the pandemic. Detailed plans have been developed in recent years to deal with such an event, and those are now being put into practice. It is difficult to predict the impact of swine flu at this stage, but considerable expenditure has already been predicted on antiviral drugs, vaccines and so on. If large numbers of cases are experienced, there will be additional costs for trusts and additional pressures on hospital and community services.
Capital funding is another big issue for the Health Department, despite an investment of almost £700 million over the three-year period. The construction industry group told the Health Committee that more projects should be funded to provide improved health facilities and, indeed, to bring some facilities that are in dire need of repair up to minimum standards while providing much-needed employment.
There have been many calls for capital funding to bring forward the proposed new women and children’s hospital in Belfast. That scheme is long delayed, and replacement is needed urgently. Unfortunately, the scheme has not yet been scheduled for funding. The Health Committee visited the existing hospitals and saw the poor state of the buildings and the crowded conditions at first hand. The Committee pressed the Minister to bring the project forward as soon as possible.
Although we accept that the financial climate is dire, in my capacity as the DUP’s health spokesperson, I must ask the question: given all the money that is being pumped into the Health Department, why are Members still hearing the same old stories in their constituencies about the lack of front line services with respect to staff, trained nurses, special-needs nurses to deal with autism and other difficulties, and speech therapists? We have to ask whether our Minister is doing the right thing with the money in hand. It really concerns the public that the money does not seem to be improving the Health Service per se and that there seems to be a black hole.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Supply resolution, which is the mechanism for ensuring that funding is released to continue the priorities set out in the Programme for Government. Members have an opportunity to debate the issues, but it is important to remember that if the motion is not passed, there will be no money for the associated programmes.
There is no doubt that the economic recession has presented the Executive with a number of difficulties, in particular the need to offset the rising number of job losses. It is also a major challenge to help families and businesses who are in economic difficulties. Sinn Féin Members have consistently pointed out in many debates in the Chamber and beyond that the block grant from the British Government is totally inadequate. In the context of that financial shortfall, and with no control over fiscal policy, we will continue to carry the burden of trying to match our limited resources with people’s increasing needs. Today, I noticed that the Scottish Parliament is pushing ahead with tax-varying powers, and I hope that the Assembly and the Executive will come back to that debate.
The only way to sustain economic and social progress in the long term is on an all-island basis. It makes sense to end the duplication and inefficiencies that are being perpetuated by having two health services, two education services and two separate institutions governing separate parts of the island. Given the small population on the island, the Assembly and the Executive need to be debating that issue.
However, for today’s debate, I turn to how families, communities and businesses have been affected by the economic recession, and whether we can examine the way in which the Executive deliver the investment strategy and Programme for Government to make a difference to the quality of their lives. Many low-income households, the elderly and the sick were finding it difficult to make ends meet prior to the recession, but many have now spiralled into even deeper poverty, particularly those living in deprived areas.
I want to touch on a number of initiatives that are sitting in Departments. The credit union legislation was debated in the Assembly and received cross-party support. Introducing that legislation would give credit unions the extra powers that they need. That would benefit not only the people who borrow from credit unions, but those who would be helped by the way in which the money would be invested. For instance, credit unions are keen on investing a large amount of money to meet the needs of social housing. The Assembly must, therefore, push forward on that.
The enhancement of debt-advisory services is another issue that must be progressed. There appears to be some blockage; although the motion was passed by the Assembly, nothing has happened. The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is present today, and I hope that she will push forward with that so that specialist debt advisers can be placed in the community to help people who face difficulties.
The legislation on dormant bank accounts has not yet been implemented. Such accounts contain millions of pounds that could be used for voluntary and community projects that face cuts. The money would facilitate the continued delivery of services, and the skills of those who deliver front line services could be retained in communities.
Several Government-funded initiatives have tried to help businesses, particularly small and medium- sized enterprises (SMEs), that face financial difficulties, and the Assembly has often debated the subject. A recent survey by the Institute of Directors highlights the widespread lack of awareness and minimal uptake of some of the Government-backed schemes. There is an onus on the Government, the Assembly and the Executive to ensure that businesses are aware of the schemes.
There are still problems with the banks, particularly for people who want to take out a new loan or an overdraft. It seems that certain problems persist despite Members continually discussing them in the Chamber. If the Assembly could push forward on tackling such issues, it would help some of the affected businesses.
I want to focus on the process of public procurement, which offers the Executive the opportunity to develop a policy that includes social and environmental clauses that would help people. The Governments, North and South, have an opportunity to maximise the social and employment opportunities of everyone through their public procurement processes. That forms an essential part of the investment strategy. It is more important than ever to grasp that opportunity because existing jobs must be secured and new ones created. Unemployment is rising, and the two main problems facing people at present are the fear of losing their jobs and of descending into debt and poverty. The Assembly must do all that it can to secure existing jobs and to create new employment opportunities.
The Executive earmarked almost £20 billion for public procurement. The Assembly has debated the issue before, but I want to emphasise that, in an all-island context, most of the €16 billion spent on public procurement each year goes to companies overseas; local businesses are often smaller and cannot even get on to the procurement ladder. Ninety-nine per cent of businesses in the North are SMEs. Those in the social-economy sector that deliver front line services to communities also create employment opportunities for local people, including the long-term unemployed, and they provide the quality apprenticeships that are needed.
Some SMEs cannot even apply for public-procurement contracts. They fail at the tendering stage, which they feel is stacked against them and weighted firmly in favour of large companies, most of which are based overseas. That does not generate money in the economy; it is taken out of the island of Ireland. The money must be generated internally to create jobs for people here. Through public procurement and working closely with organisations such as InterTradeIreland, Invest NI, IDA Ireland and the enterprise councils, North and South, there is an excellent opportunity to encourage and develop SMEs on this island so that they can secure contracts.
Businesses in the North should have equal access to public procurement contracts in the South and vice versa. As it stands, there is no equality of access in the North or the South because the process is strongly weighted in favour of large companies.
I reiterate that incorporating those social clauses into all public procurement contracts at the tendering stage enables delivery on the important issues of fairness, inclusion and equality of opportunity by actively and effectively challenging existing patterns of social and economic disadvantage. We must use increased prosperity in future to tackle ongoing poverty.
In conclusion, my party will continue to press for the full range of fiscal powers to be made available to the Executive and the Assembly. I hope that other parties will get behind that stance, because the powers are required to facilitate the delivery of high-quality public services, to develop the economy and to build prosperity. To that end, we will seek to ensure the best use and allocation of resources in the short term.
Sinn Féin shares everybody’s concern about the overall resources that are available and the various stated priorities. However, we are tasked with meeting the challenge of achieving the best possible outcomes in the current economic climate. I return to what I said at the outset: some of us have different points of view that can be debated here, but it is essential that the mechanism to release the money be approved. If it is not, organisations and groups will be unable to deliver essential services. Go raibh maith agat.
I apologise for not being in the Chamber for the start of the debate, but I had to attend a Committee meeting.
As part of its review, the Committee for Social Development considered the Department’s Main Estimates and compared them with figures and targets included in the 2008-2011 Budget.
A number of debates on social housing and the Department’s budget deficit have been held in the House recently. I believe that all Members now accept that the social housing budget depended on substantial land and house sales. I also believe that most Members agree that when the property market declined, budgetary difficulties became inevitable.
On a number of occasions, the House has debated the Department’s monitoring rounds, surrenders and reallocations, newbuild v off-the-shelf purchases, and related issues. I am sure that the House will again debate housing and the importance of balancing the housing budget with the delivery of PSA and other targets. Today, however, I am not focusing on those issues but am simply requesting further budgetary flexibility for social housing.
Members want the PSA target for new social homes to be achieved and to see progress made in bringing existing houses up to the decent homes standard. All of that will benefit the economy but will cost a great deal of money. Most Committee members accept that the Department’s budget position is very difficult. Nonetheless, multiple benefits are associated with investment in construction and related industries. Therefore, the Committee is keen to put down a marker for social housing in the event that there is flexibility in future monitoring rounds.
The Committee also reviewed efficiency in the Department for Social Development and was pleased to hear the Department assert that the efficiency target of 3% a year for 2008-2011 will be met. It must be agreed that, when in a difficult budgetary position, efficiencies are essential. Notwithstanding that, the majority of Committee members was concerned about what was described as the driving of efficiency in the Supporting People programme.
Under that programme, services providers, such as the Simon Community, the Triangle Housing Association and Women’s Aid, can already demonstrate that they are efficient and good value. Therefore, the Committee believes that additional funding for providers of the Supporting People programme in the voluntary and community sector to meet, for example, contractually agreed salary increases should be made available in the current budget. I assure the House that, although that is a low-cost request, it will make a big difference to those organisations.
Let me assure the House that the Committee for Social Development will continue to review and scrutinise closely the Department’s expenditure.
I welcome the opportunity to have my say on the spending Estimates, and I am glad that the Assembly is debating the proper business of government. We are living in a difficult economic climate, so if ever there was a time for the Assembly and the Executive to get serious, this is it.
I shall say a few words about the Department for Social Development’s budget for social housing. We could spend hours debating that subject, but my time is limited, so my remarks will be brief. I fear that I may repeat myself, because only last week, I spoke on this matter in the Chamber. Although the Minister of Finance and Personnel was not present to respond to that debate, I am sure that he carefully studied the Official Report and took all the key points on board.
Everyone knows that DSD’s budget has a big hole in the middle, which is a direct result of the capital-receipt shortfall that the downturn in the housing and property market caused. The gap is so big that there is no way that the Minister for Social Development will be able to fill it by making a few savings here and there. Therefore, more funds must be given to DSD.
Every Department — whether it deals with transport, health or education — wants more money, but a limited amount of money is available. Many Departments and their supporters have put forward strong arguments for more funding, and even within each Department, but particularly within DSD, there will be many different priorities.
I thank the Member for giving way, and in the absence of the SDLP’s Minister, Margaret Ritchie, I am glad that he is here to defend her. What does the Minister do with the Housing Executive receipts that she has tried to hide in the past weeks and months? The honourable Member for North Antrim Mr O’Loan will bear witness to the fact that there is a problem with Egan contracts in our constituency. Although the Minister has it, she has failed to produce the money to deliver those contracts. Why blame others?
That question should be directed to the Minister. There is simply not enough money in the DSD budget. Money is required for Egan contracts and for the warm homes scheme, which has been hugely successful but oversubscribed. Therefore, the SDLP wants more money to be given to it.
As well as more money for the warm homes scheme, the mortgage rescue scheme, and so on, money must be directed at social housing and the newbuild programme. Small handouts during the June monitoring round will simply not be enough.
The SDLP identified in its policy document ‘New Priorities in Difficult Times’ from where money can be found. A massive cash injection into the social housing programme is undoubtedly one of the best things that we can do. The reasons for that are straightforward. By building new houses and carrying out repairs, we would cut waiting lists, help people in housing stress and give hope to homeless people.
We will also help the construction industry because building social housing creates more employment than any other form of capital investment. If we use land that DSD and the Housing Executive already own, we could build even more houses.
I know that the Member sits on the Committee for Social Development. Does he agree that the Department and his Minister should consider innovative ideas on how to push forward the programme of social and affordable housing, for example, by working more closely with the housing associations that sit with millions of pounds in their accounts and do not use it?
I agree. The Minister is looking at ways to bring forward schemes to create more houses that people can afford. There must be a way for us to tap into the housing associations’ money and land banks and get the housing programme started. If we were to do that, we would be able to put more money straight into the wage packets of construction workers and into the accounts of local building firms. Construction costs have also fallen sharply, so it is a good time to push forward with those projects so that we get the best possible value for money.
As I said earlier, I fear that I am repeating myself. I know that the housing projects are only one part of the solution and that there is no magic wand. However, I also know that the Minister is well aware of the economics of building social housing. I hope that the Finance Minister will work with the Social Development Minister to push forward the new building programme as quickly as possible and give her the money that she so badly needs.
This is one of a number of debates that have been held about the Budget over the past few years. For those of us who are regular contributors to those debates, there is a great sense of déjà vu that always permeates them.
The Member mentioned that social housing was not a magic wand. Listening to the SDLP, however, one would think that it is the cure for all our ills. That party tells us that the economy’s problems will be solved by providing more housing, although nobody could convincingly argue that that is the case. I am awaiting the SDLP’s putting forward social housing as the cure for swine flu. Perhaps it will put social housing forward as a suggestion to Alex Ferguson as to how he should fill the gap that will be left by the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo. Perhaps Manchester United’s problems would be solved if he embraced the spirit of greater degrees of social housing.
Again, the answer from the SDLP is to produce another Budget. I commend the party for at least producing its proposals, although I have been — and I continue to be — somewhat critical of their contents. However, even taking its Budget proposals at face value, I think that they impact only about 1% of the budgetary process when it comes to resources. We are told that there needs to be an all-singing, all-dancing new Budget, but 99% of it remains unaltered under the SDLP proposals.
Without going into the detail, with which I have dealt on a previous occasion, a wide range of the SDLP’s proposals regarding where the money will come from are highly questionable when they are scrutinised. For example, the reprofiling of Housing Executive debt would require the support of the Treasury. I think that that is fairly unlikely. The funding for the multi-sports stadium is earmarked for elsewhere. The Invest NI surplus funds are somewhat illusory in nature. There are a range of other matters that, quite frankly, do not add up.
However, I give that party credit for at least putting forward proposals. At least it has done the decent thing and stayed for the second part of the debate. By contrast, there is a deafening silence from the Ulster Unionist Party Benches, which is not surprising as none of them have even bothered to be here for this part of the debate. Silence is also what pervades the Ulster Unionist proposals in respect of alternatives to the Budget.
It seems to me that the Ulster Unionists suffered from political and economic amnesia at various stages today. Their biggest lapse was that they are in some way separate from the Executive; whereas, in fact, two members of their party sit on the Executive and have endorsed the proposal at that level. As another Member pointed out, the Ulster Unionists were keen to criticise the Programme for Government today, yet, when asked about it on ‘The Politics Show’, their leader and one of their Ministers said that there was no need to recast the Programme for Government as it was fundamentally sound. I know that not just from watching the programme but from sitting about six feet from the said gentlemen during the debate.
There is also amnesia among the party’s Members. We heard from the modern-day Galileo of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mr McNarry, on his quest for the black hole. I will bow to the superior knowledge of the honourable Member Dr Farry, who described it as a quasar. I thought that a quasar was one of those laser battles that took place in an arena near the Ormeau Road. In the illusory search for the black hole, one is reminded of a mythical search for the Holy Grail. Mr McNarry keeps searching for that black hole, yet, curiously, does not find it. On the one hand, the first Member to speak on behalf of the Ulster Unionists, Mr McNarry, accused us of creating a massive black hole in the Budget; yet the criticism from the second Ulster Unionist Member to speak, Mr Beggs, was that we were “balancing the books”. Balancing the books is a fairly tame criticism; some Administrations would be delighted if that was the only criticism made of them. It shows the contradiction at the heart of Ulster Unionist thinking on the issue.
There is an all-pervasive silence from the Ulster Unionists on alternatives, although, to be fair to them, they produced at least one: Mr McNarry’s idea of some sort of equity release scheme involving selling off all our assets and then mortgaging them back. Any independent expert would advise that that idea is not a runner with the Treasury. Perhaps that explains why, having put the issue into the ether, there suddenly seems to be silence on it. It has all gone very quiet. The Ulster Unionist Party has suggested no alternative.
Even taking the SDLP changes at face value, and, as I said, I have serious doubts about whether they are realisable, the amount of money that is proposed is less than half that realised by the various monitoring rounds over the past two years. More than £1 billion has been reallocated. Although it is believed that the Budget process has been fundamentally sound, there has been an opportunity to readjust. Indeed, the Executive, of which, in case the SDLP has forgotten, it is also a member, have undertaken various measures to tackle the crisis. We have seen the announcement of the relief for small businesses and the freezing of regional rates for the non-domestic sector. We have also seen proposals from the Economic Development Forum, which was set up by the Executive to deal with construction, the financing of SMEs, businesses in difficulties, and skills. Measures have been introduced and there is more to come. Pro-active action is being taken.
The reason why there is a need for adjustments rather than a fundamental review is that, in both the Budget and the Programme for Government, the Executive put economic development at the top of their priorities. Calls for re-prioritisation prompt the question: how exactly is something to come above number one on the list? Should another issue be placed ahead of economic development? The economy is at the centre of the proposals and at the heart of Government. The Executive have acted. However, there will be a limit to what can be done, because contrasting what we do with other Governments’ measures is not comparing like with like. Ultimately, we are a regional Government dealing with a block grant.
There may well be more difficult times ahead; I bow to the superior knowledge of the Ulster Unionists on that, because we see the slash-and-burn of the Conservative Party’s proposals and the potential that they hold for large cutbacks.
One assumes that the Ulster Unionist Party would have sought some sort of guarantee that future block grants for Northern Ireland would be protected before any degree of reciprocation or electoral arrangements were made with the Conservative Party. However, that does not seem to have figured in any way in the Ulster Unionists’ calculations. I am happy to give way to any Ulster Unionist Member who is willing to confirm that the Conservative Party will add the Northern Ireland block grant to the list of items that it says it will protect in the next Parliament. The silence is deafening.
As I said earlier, the Labour Government have accrued huge debts, and they will have to be repaid. Regardless of whether a Labour Government or a Conservative Government are in power, the British Exchequer will have to make significant repayments in the next number of years. That will affect finances throughout the United Kingdom, irrespective of who occupies Number 10. Does the Member accept that?
Yet again, the honourable Member misses the point. Due to the difficulties that Northern Ireland has faced, one assumes that any party would, at least, have sought to protect the region from which it comes before making any electoral arrangement with another party. The DUP is not linked with the Labour Party or the Conservative Party; we are here to defend Northern Ireland, first and foremost. The Conservatives have announced a number of areas in which they will offer protection in public spending, whereas there will be large cuts elsewhere.
I am happy to give way to any Ulster Unionist Member who can assure the House that the protection of the Northern Ireland block grant was part of that party’s negotiations with the Conservative Party, but, again, the silence is deafening.
The process that we have put forward is one —
I want to respond to one matter that Mr Weir raised. He failed utterly to grasp the inconsistency that was evident in his last point to Mr Beggs. He berated Mr Beggs for not securing protection for the Northern Ireland economy, given the Ulster Unionists’ relationship with the Conservative Party. However, the DUP boasted about the protections for the Northern Ireland budget that it had secured from Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, and those protections went out the window in Gordon Brown’s recently announced efficiency cuts strategy. Perhaps, the next time that he wants to challenge —
I will not give way until later. Mr Weir was not himself able to secure the very thing that he asks of another party. If he cannot see the inconsistency and contradiction, shame on him.
If this debate is to mean anything, the Minister has to respond today, on the eve of recess, to four or five representative issues that have been in and around the Chamber over the past two months. First, can the Minister come to the Chamber today and confirm for Members, and for everyone else, who will chair the Senior Salaries Review Body, and what its time frame is in bringing forward its proposals? Does the Minister agree that if a review is to have any value, it should go further than the Senior Civil Service salaries? There is now a need to look at the salaries of other people in senior posts in publicly-funded organisations.
According to media reports, the vice chancellor of Queen’s University had a 13·3% salary increase in the past financial year, and it has been mooted that he will have an increase of 5·5% in the current financial year. His salary has increased by one third in four years.
In a year such as this, when other staff have been offered an increase of 0·5%, and given that this Government provide Queen’s University and other higher education institutions with £2 of every £5 that goes to their coffers, is it not time for this Government and Assembly to cast their net further than the Northern Ireland Civil Service and look at Northern Ireland chief executives who receive substantial pay from the public purse.
In my view it is unsustainable to — rightly — ask our civil servants to have a review of their pay and conditions when we do not apply the same principle to institutions such as Queen’s University, which receives more than £90 million of its £250 million annual income from central Government.
My second question to the Minister involves a report that appeared in ‘The Irish News’ on Saturday and concerns Queen’s University; I use that institution only as a general example of a publicly funded body. The article contained leaked information from the university’s unpublished corporate plan. It said that:
“informed forecasts suggest that the university should be planning for a 10 per cent reduction in government income by 2012-13.”
What does Queen’s University know that the rest of us, who are meant to be in and around Government in the North, do not? What information can Queen’s University put into a document that may be published and that quotes informed sources saying that there will be:
“a 10 per cent reduction in government income by 2012-13.”
Why have we not heard about that, if that is what will happen?
Does the Minister or DFP know about any plans for major cutbacks or efficiency savings to the tune of 10% that might affect higher or further education institutions, or other publicly funded bodies in the North? In my view, such predictions raise a lot of questions and anxieties that we have an obligation to calm or, at least, discuss.
Mr Weir’s comments were verging on cheap and shameful when he compared the issue of social housing and Margaret Ritchie’s requirements in respect of that and the SDLP —
That comment says a lot about the person who has just made that intervention.
My point is that if Mr Weir does not believe that the SDLP proposals on social housing are a panacea, he should ignore them. However, the current Finance Minister and, perhaps, a future Finance Minister, cannot ignore the evidence in the Smyth/Bailey report. That report says that the construction sector was the most exposed of all employers in the North. It says that for every 10 construction jobs there will be seven other jobs. It says that, although hundreds of millions of pounds have been released by Governments in London and Scotland for construction projects in the recession, there has been no response of a similar scale in the North.
The argument that Smyth and Bailey put forward is that it is possible — in my view, it is probable — that the single biggest intervention that one can make in a time of recession is to build houses, not only for all the reasons that I have outlined, or because costs in the North are down by 17% compared with what they were a short time ago, but for all the other social and wider community reasons that uplift a society that has secure housing. The Minister can ignore the SDLP proposals if she chooses, but she cannot ignore serious academic evidence that outlines a strategy that is based on social and affordable housing and that can make an immediate and serious intervention in our economic situation.
Moreover, I ask the Minister to confirm whether she or the DUP agree with what Fra McCann of Sinn Féin said in last week’s housing debate. He said that if there were £110 million of unspent DSD money for the Royal Exchange projects, Sinn Féin would support the SDLP’s argument and:
“agree if that £110 million were moved across by the Minister, it would deal with the problems that we face” — [Official Report, Vol 41, No 7, p284, col 1].
The problems being in respect of the housing shortfalls.
Will the DUP confirm, through the Minister, that it agrees with the SDLP and Sinn Féin that in the event that that £110 million becomes available in the next monitoring round or in future monitoring rounds before the end of the financial year it will be authorised to be put back into DSD’s construction and housing budget? On 7 January, the DFP Minister told the DSD Minister that he accepted the argument that a lack of housing money had a disproportionate material impact on the construction industry in the North.
Two of the Minister’s ministerial colleagues came to the House recently; Martin McGuinness on 5 May and Gerry Kelly on 20 April. They spoke about the fact that a childcare strategy was being developed. Indeed, on 5 May 2009, the deputy First Minister said:
“I understand that a meeting of the relevant Ministers has been arranged for 28 May 2009 to discuss it.” — [Official Report, Vol 40, No 5, p215, col 2].
I know that that subject is dear to the Minister’s heart because a year and a half ago when we talked about childminding in the North we shared a photograph in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’.
Will the Minister confirm whether that report has been received and will she confirm that money has been allocated to fund that report? Will we have a situation at the end of August where, once again, childcare organisations such as PlayBoard will come to the end of their funding stream? Those are simple questions: has the report been received and is the money available?
Equally, given the DUP’s surrender, on 1 June, on the equal pay issue where, variously, Simon Hamilton accused other parties of playing politics, etc, only for the DUP to withdraw its amendment; is the money in the coffers to pay for the equal pay consequences in the event that agreement is reached quickly about who should get what amount of money?
I speak as Chairperson of the Committee for Education. I wish to highlight some aspects of the Committee’s scrutiny of the Department of Education’s budget, which are reflected in the Main Estimates. For those who have trawled through that small document, the details can be found on pages 57 to 86 of the ‘Northern Ireland Estimates 2009-2010’.
One of the Committee’s key areas of budget scrutiny continues to be the £200 million earmarked primarily for schools and youth services; approximately 10% of the overall education budget for 2008-09. The Minister of Education recognises that earmarking budgets erodes flexibility in the use of resources, and the Department has been assessing the scope for mainstreaming budgets directly to education users, mainly schools.
The Committee’s objective is to increase the overall percentage of the education budget that goes directly to schools, and no one in the House would argue that that is not of paramount importance. How many of us have visited schools and spoken to boards of governors, principals and staff and found that the recurring issue that they want to see resolved is about money going directly to schools? The overall percentage of the education budget that goes directly to schools here is 62%, which is much lower than in other parts of the United Kingdom and some of our neighbouring European countries. The Committee for Education’s particular focus in that area is to encourage the Minister to increase delegated funding through the common funding formula to primary schools and reduce the current differential in average funding levels between primary and post-primary schools.
In a letter that the Committee received from the Minister in July 2008, she stated that:
“baseline funds for distribution to schools in 2009/10 provide for a further increase in primary AWPU funding (from current level of 1.04 to 1.05), from next year – with a view to increasing progressively the relative funding levels distributed to primary schools under the LMS funding arrangements across the budget period.”
Although that increase is welcome, it is not enough; we must go further.
Members of the Committee and Members of the House will have attended various presentations and seminars or have been lobbied by organisations such as Early Years. All those organisations stress the importance of early intervention in ensuring the delivery of good educational outcomes in the future, but those outcomes cannot be delivered if the adequate financial resources are not in place. Therefore, although the uplift to the AWPU (age weighted pupil limit) is welcome, as any additional funding is, the Committee feels that it is not enough to close the gap and deal with the differential between primary and post-primary schools.
The Committee welcomes the fact that there will be an increase of almost £27 million in the delegated budget for primary schools in the 2009-2010 education Estimates. A small element of that is additional funding, but that change demonstrates to the House that limited budgets can be used to better effect. The use of delegated funding allows primary schools to determine how they wish to use such funds to best meet their own needs and priorities, which is particularly important as needs and priorities can differ from area to area.
The Estimates touch on another aspect of the education budget that continues to be a matter of concern for Committee members and, no doubt, members of the House: school maintenance. There is a huge schools’ estate in Northern Ireland, and it may come as a shock to Members to learn that the backlog for carrying out maintenance to that estate across the five education and library boards has risen to somewhere in the region of £200 million. Although it is imperative to have a speedy and effective procurement system in place, we must raise the major issues around the way in which procurement is being delivered. We are not seeing a lot of newbuilds being built and those that are being built are not being built quickly enough. I declare an interest as a member of the board of governors of Ballymoney High School, which has been waiting since January 2009 for the Department to finalise the financial arrangements that would allow it to cut the first sod and begin construction of the school that it was promised three years ago.
Several Members made references to the construction industry during today’s debate, and the call for that industry to be given the green light to move forward must be extended to the education sector. We must be more aware and focused rather than allow ourselves to be held up by bureaucracy and red tape.
Let us adopt a can-do attitude. I have grave concerns about the way in which we govern ourselves. There is no point in my trying to blame other Ministers. If we are to have an Assembly, we need to take collective responsibility. Often, we do not adopt a can-do attitude when trying to move forward on these matters.
The issue of the maintenance budget must be urgently addressed to ensure that there is no further decline in the educational estate and that more problems do not arise in years to come as a result of delay and the system being unable to respond adequately and quickly enough.
The Committee noted the additional £5 million in the final monitoring round for 2008-09 and the Department of Education’s bid for £14·8 million in the current monitoring round. However, during a recent budget briefing by senior departmental officials, the Committee heard that the current education and library boards now have no set school-maintenance budgets. That is a matter of grave concern.
I have examined the Estimates that relate to the Department of Education. It is worrying, to say the least, that no established school-maintenance budget is included in the tables on pages 59 and 61. That is particularly worrying when one considers the £200 million backlog to which I referred earlier. I can assure the House that the Committee for Education will scrutinise that matter in some detail, and will ask the Minister of Education to put the proper budget arrangements in place for schools maintenance.
Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I speak on behalf of the SDLP, not the Education Committee. Mr Storey has done that eloquently, and although I may echo some points that he made, I do so to underline their importance.
I begin with the issue of the procurement of capital projects in education; newbuilds, as they are better known. The Department of Education is notoriously slow in providing new schools, with delays running into years, and, in some cases, into a second decade. That is totally unacceptable at a time when we need an injection of capital into the building industry in this part of the country. In that procurement process, every second year of delay requires a fresh economic appraisal, which creates further delay. It is a vicious circle. For projects costing more than £5 million, DFP requires what is known as a BREEAM assessment, which may mean a fundamental redesign and restructuring of a project, creating further and longer delays.
That type of bureaucracy is a mire that causes delays that are impacting on the delivery of the education service at the chalk face. It would be of great assistance to those awaiting newbuilds if, for example, DFP could streamline its procedures and those of the Department of Education in such a way as to fast-track schemes to ensure that there are no delays, or that any delays are kept to a bare minimum. Such a development would provide a major stimulus to the building industry at a time when it is on its knees, and when the queue of unemployed construction workers is lengthening by the day. We need to bring new school builds on stream much quicker than is the case at the moment. We literally cannot afford those delays.
Mr Storey referred to the difficulties of school maintenance. In response to a question that I asked the Minister of Education on that issue, she gave an answer that ran to more than 60 pages. As Mr Storey said, the backlog in school maintenance is more than £200 million. Newbuilds would go some way to reducing that, but the bid of £14·6 million in the June monitoring round is not enough if children are to have access to the best possible educational facilities.
Greater investment in schools’ maintenance is needed, as the estate is crumbling due to lack of investment. The maintenance budgets of education and library boards must be ring-fenced; they have been continually raided for other purposes throughout the years. That must be put right: money for educational maintenance must be spent on educational maintenance. Such investment would also benefit the building industry.
During a debate on 19 May 2009 on special educational needs, the issue was raised of releasing £25 million to implement the findings of the special educational needs review. Unfortunately, the matter is not resolved. Apparently, that resource is still locked in dispute at Executive level. Many parents who have children with special educational needs wonder why a local devolved Executive is failing to release a valuable resource that would go some way to providing better educational services to their children. The issue must be resolved immediately: further delay will reflect extremely poorly on government here.
Other important reviews need resources to be allocated to them, including the nought-to-six strategy and the review of Irish-medium education.
The unregulated system of transfer that has emerged under the Minister has meant that area-based planning has not progressed at the rate at which it should have. Nevertheless, school closures and reorganisation are proceeding, with the axe hanging over many small rural schools. It seems sensible that school closures and school reorganisation should be stalled until properly agreed area-based plans are developed. The Executive should commit to providing financial support for small viable rural schools at risk of closure until proper area-based plans are developed.
I agree with the Member. The Executive, and not just the Department of Education, must use logic in the treatment of schools. I take the Member’s point that small schools must be supported in the interim period until area-based plans are worked out. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development spoke effusively about the publication shortly of a rural White Paper. Does the Member agree that it makes sense to keep supporting small schools until the outcome of the rural White Paper is known, as well as the area-based plans? When that information is available, decisions can be taken about the future of education provision.
I agree wholeheartedly with the Member. In fact, this evening, I shall visit a small rural school that faces closure. That school has enough pupils to make it viable; in fact, it benefited recently from £250,000 of investment from the Department of Education. One fails to see the logic when an investment of that size is made in a small rural school, but, within five years, that school is designated for closure. That simply does not make sense.
As to transfer 2010, I ask the Minister of Finance whether any consideration has been given to the possible costs that are associated with the current unregulated system, which may see the Department of Education joined in legal challenges that parents take. We may be faced with that scenario, and it is one for which the Minister should be prepared.
I assume from the thrust of the Member’s question that he is concerned about whether transfer 2010 will cost us more. Does he join with me in saying that in our segregated system, the maintained sector has cost three or four times the size of the budget? Alliance Party Members will know that I am good at quoting the document on the cost of division. Will the Member be consistent and say that the best way to reduce the cost of education is to not have the segregated systems that we have?
I cannot agree with the Member on that point. He will remember that, on a number of occasions at the Education Committee, I traced the history of the segregated system in Northern Ireland. He will also remember what I said about Lord Londonderry’s attempts to establish a non-segregated system and about who opposed him and introduced the segregated system. I am sure that I do not have to give the Member a further history lesson.
The SDLP is very much in favour of parental choice, be that for maintained, controlled, integrated or Irish-medium education. If parents want choice, we have to pay for it.
I support the motion and Members’ comments about it.
Times are indeed hard for most people in the Province. In the United Kingdom as a whole, the economy is expected to decline by 3·5% in 2009, with a slight recovery possibly this time next year. We are all asking what that means for the Province, and I will address that point.
I am informed by the Department of Finance and Personnel that the Chancellor has confirmed that an additional £5 billion in efficiency savings will apply to the devolved Administrations. That means that our block grant will be reduced by some £122·8 million this year. However, the potential impact of that is offset by the allocation of Barnett consequentials of £116 million over this year and the next. That is a serious situation, and I am not taking away from it, but it is not all doom and gloom.
What does all that mean in layman’s terms to you, me and our constituents? It means that not much money is available; we all know that. We must tighten our belts considerably; we all know that as well. We cannot expect that we will get money to meet all our wants in each Department; indeed, nor will we.
Above all, it means that we must show wisdom in the manner in which we spend money in each Department to ensure that each pound that is spent is put to the best use. The current financial position means that the only way that more resources can be allocated to a particular service is to scale back other public services. That is robbing one service to pay for another. For that reason, each Department must plan and allocate funding carefully according to priorities and needs.
Tha Mannyistar haes wrought wi’ caer tae mak shair tha best uis o’tha shair oot tha mony tae each Depertmunt, an haes wrought oan brinin aboot as much setisfactry effecht as poasibel.
The Minister has worked carefully to ensure the best use of money in the distribution to each Department, and he has tried to ensure as high a level of efficiency as possible.
In addition, the position on the Executive’s expenditure plans, which are grounded in the Programme for Government, is dynamic and fluid. Other Members mentioned that the programme’s number one priority is economic growth. They indicated that they support that and wish it to continue.
In particular, although Whitehall Departments’ three-year expenditure plans have remained largely unchanged since October 2007, spending plans for Northern Ireland Departments in 2008-09 have, as part of the in-year monitoring process, been reviewed on four occasions in light of the most up-to-date, available information. Clearly, work has been done. That approach will continue during 2009-2010 as part of the forthcoming June monitoring round. We are keeping up to date and on top of monitoring to ensure value for money and to make change as and when it is needed. Certainly, the Minister and his Department work hard to ensure that the Province receives as much money as possible.
At the same time, I must point out that the Finance Minister can only direct money towards Departments; he does not earmark money for individual projects. That is the responsibility of individual Ministers. The onus is on them to ensure the proper distribution of funds on the ground. There is a need to ensure that funding is not wasted on processing schemes through the system and that the process is sufficiently efficient to ensure that as much money as possible goes to schemes and, subsequently, to the people who need it. That is no easy task.
Wearing my other hat as a member of my local council, I am aware of the background work that goes into every decision, every paper that must be researched, and every in-depth inquiry that must be carried out. Departments must ensure that that work is carried out as efficiently as possible so that more funding for projects is secured.
I have considered the SDLP’s proposed Budget, some of which would certainly be beneficial if it were taken on board. However, I also see that it is not a solution in itself. It contains a number of factual inaccuracies, and some of its goals cannot be realised within our current timescale. I have every confidence that the Minister will take on board and incorporate the parts that are of benefit and use to the entire Province.
Although the situation is not a crisis, it must be monitored. I have faith that my colleague Nigel Dodds and his spokesperson in the debate, Arlene Foster, will ensure that we survive the economic downturn and see the beginnings of the shoots of prosperity. Although there are major problems, it is important that we understand that the dawn is coming. In the meantime, we must ensure that each and every Department takes on board the concepts of efficiency and priorities so that they can pull us through.
Through his Department, Minister Dodds has done a good job in difficult circumstances. I know that he will continue to monitor the situation and ensure that Departments get all the funding that is available. People on the ground need to see Departments choose what to spend the money on wisely. I challenge every Minister, Committee Chairperson and Committee to get that money on the ground and to let people see a difference. I support the motion.
The debate has been good. It raised many issues, which was to be expected. I have noted those issues, and I will try my best to deal with them. Clearly, if there is anything that I do not deal with, or that I am unable to deal with, I will, undoubtedly, be reminded during tomorrow’s debate. I hope that I will be able to deal with any such issue during that debate, if not during these closing remarks.
At the outset, I acknowledge confirmation by the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel that there has been appropriate consultation with his Committee on the public-expenditure proposals that are reflected in the 2009-2010 Main Estimates, the Supply resolution and the related Budget (No.2) Bill. As a result of that confirmation, the Budget (No.2) Bill that I will introduce shortly will proceed under accelerated passage, which will exclude Committee Stage. On Mr Dodds’s behalf, I appreciate the Committee for Finance and Personnel’s assistance and action on the matter, which will help to ensure the seamless continuation of public-service delivery throughout the coming year.
As I said, I will try as far as possible to address the issues that various Members raised, and if I miss any, I am sure that I will be reminded of that.
The first issue that I want to address is the limitation of monitoring rounds, which many Members raised, not least Dr Farry and Mr O’Loan. I must say that Members are too dismissive of the monitoring process, which is an important tool for the Executive in the strategic management of the public-expenditure position.
Mr Hamilton pointed out that the monitoring process has facilitated more than £1 billion of changes in departmental allocations in the past two years. Mr Beggs questioned the purpose of monitoring rounds without reallocations. I want to put him straight: there have been £1 billion of reallocations since the restoration of the Assembly.
Absolutely. However, the flexibility of the monitoring round allows us to reallocate if necessary, and Ministers have used in-year monitoring to reallocate money to Departments. Where original programmes or projects have encountered difficulties, or where costs have decreased rather than lay idle, the money can be redirected into the economy. That approach has facilitated substantial redirecting of money, not least £22·5 million for the fuel poverty scheme, £26·5 million for housing programmes, £20 million for the farm-nutrient management scheme and almost £10 million for minor capital projects. Members should not dismiss those significant developments.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel mentioned the review of in-year monitoring. In March 2008, the Executive agreed that there should be a review of how the Executive and the Assembly conduct the Budget processes. We listened to the concerns of Members and the Committee for Finance and Personnel on those processes. The Committee provided valuable and substantive input into that review and incorporated comments from other Committees. Similarly, a review of the in-year monitoring process has been undertaken, and as the Chairperson said, the evidence-gathering stage of both reviews has largely been completed. I understand that officials will soon bring the emerging position to the Minister of Finance and Personnel for his consideration, after which the various Committees, not least the Committee for Finance and Personnel, will consider the matter.
The Member also raised some issues about capital delivery. I will offer two points in response. First, as he highlighted, we face a difficulty owing to the lower level of capital receipts. Although that was an issue last year, its impact was largely managed through the in-year monitoring process. The best illustration of that success is that the Department for Social Development, with Executive support, delivered 1,365 new housing units last year against a milestone of 1,500. That performance leaves the Department well on track to meet its Programme for Government target of 10,000 units over five years. The current economic climate, as bad as it is, will not last for ever, and assets that we cannot sell today will be retained for future disposal. Secondly, the current state of the construction market provides an opportunity to procure capital projects at lower costs. Mike Smyth and Mark Bailey’s much-quoted report, which I had the opportunity to read at the weekend, picked up on that point.
Rev William McCrea, the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, spoke about farming issues. I am grateful for his recognition of the funds that have been provided to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for the farm-nutrient management scheme and to support the fishing industry. The farm-nutrient management scheme is a long-term investment in farm infrastructure that is essential for EU compliance and to create an environmentally sustainable future. However, we need to support and assist our farmers, and he made the point, very forcibly, that farmers are investing a great deal of their own money in the industry. That point must be acknowledged.
Mr McNarry made several points about the Budget process and said that the Department of Finance and Personnel does not accept bids during the June monitoring round. He has either been misinformed about or has misunderstood — Members can take their pick — the scope of the June monitoring round.
Departments have been asked to submit spending bids in this monitoring round as they would in any other year. As always, the Executive will determine the way forward only when all the evidence on the bids has been collected and analysed. I understand that some considerable bids have still to be dealt with.
The level of funding for the Budget plans for 2011-12 and beyond, which will be available to the Executive in the form of the block grant, will be confirmed only as part of the next UK-wide spending review, which is not expected until some time next year. Some very rash assertions were made about funding cuts, the best examples of which were made during the debates on the previous Budget, when similar fears were largely overblown. Once again, that highlights the folly of rushed and ill-informed judgements on Budget proposals, which Mr McNarry continues to make. Some people never learn, and he is clearly not in a position to listen to what is happening. Just as he has still not grasped the concept of Budget proposals, he has not grasped the concept of a four-party mandatory coalition. The Executive are comprised not of two parties but four.
Jim Allister is not in the Executive, funnily enough. The do-nothing Executive to which Mr McNarry referred have two Ulster Unionist Ministers. What an indictment that is of those two Ministers, if that is what Mr McNarry thinks that they are at. As for deceit, Mr Deputy Speaker, hypocrisy knows no bounds from Mr McNarry. I am sorry that he is not here to hear my remarks, but no doubt he will read them in the Hansard report and respond tomorrow. For the record, however, I will not take any lectures from a man who was a special adviser to David “No guns, no Government” Trimble.
Moving on, which I am glad to do, I want to deal with some of Mr O’Loan’s comments about the difficult financial situation that we are in. There is no denying that the financial environment has become more difficult, and, unfortunately, it will become even more challenging. However, Mr O’Loan is simply wrong to suggest that efficiency savings are the cause of our difficulties. It is only by making savings in existing services that Departments will be able to meet spending pressures. I heard Mr O’Loan say that civil servants gave me a cut-and-paste speech that was written 18 months ago. If that is the case, I do not know how I could have given details of up-to-date expenditure such as that for the new hospital for the south-west in Enniskillen. He should not judge others by his tactics of cutting and pasting speeches to make in the Assembly. Not every Member does what he does.
Those of us who were out and about during the European election campaign know that the Civil Service equal-pay claim is an important issue. Mr O’Loan, and Mr Attwood in particular, said that the desire to deal with the equal-pay claim is clear to us all. I was disappointed by Alex Attwood’s attack on Simon Hamilton for withdrawing an amendment to the motion on the equal-pay issue on 1 June. He attacked Peter Weir, which he is entitled to do, but he should have thought better of following that up with a snide attack on Simon Hamilton, whose intention in withdrawing his amendment was to avoid dividing the House.
The Civil Service equal-pay claim involves very complex issues, and a great deal of work remains to be done before the matter can be resolved. The Minister of Finance and Personnel met NIPSA representatives on 7 May to hear at first hand the union’s issues of concern and to assure them of his commitment to resolving the matter, if possible through a negotiated settlement, without the need for litigation. As we all know, the only people who benefit from litigation are the lawyers.
It is necessary to reach a negotiated settlement, and that is still the desire of the Executive. A review of technical support grades is being undertaken to ensure that posts are correctly graded, and to provide a firm foundation for resolving the matter. Discussions are continuing; therefore, it would be inappropriate for me to go into any more detail at this stage.
Mr O’Loan and Mrs Hanna mentioned the SDLP Budget proposals, as did others. They are a welcome contribution to the debate on the handling of public expenditure. The proposals have been examined by the Department of Finance and Personnel, and by Ministers of other Departments. However, it is important to recognise that there are flaws in that analysis, as have been mentioned, and that the proposals require significant development before they could be considered for further implementation. Furthermore, some of the proposals to generate funds for reallocation may not be deliverable in the next two years; for example, additional asset sales. It should also be recognised that there are deeper flaws in respect of the amounts that are identified as being available from Invest NI and the Port of Belfast.
Many Members mentioned the impact of the loss of Workplace 2010 receipts. The potential of £175 million from Workplace 2010 receipts was factored into the plans for 2008-09. However, the loss of those receipts was managed through the in-year monitoring process. Lower construction costs also provided an opportunity for Northern Ireland Departments to procure capital projects at lower cost.
I accept that we were able to manage that through the in-year monitoring process — the same process that is being attacked by Members across the Floor who say that it is not adequate to deal with issues that come up during the year. We used that process to deal with the loss of that contract. As the Member is aware, the reasons why the project was not completed were external, and did not represent a failure by the Executive to proceed with it. It was simply the case that both contractors who were involved in the competitive tendering process joined together, and as a result, there was no competitive tendering. That was the issue, and we could not proceed.
On the one hand, Stephen Farry complains that nothing has been done about the economic downturn; he then raises concern that the measures that have been adopted have not been baselined. That is a disparity. He also said that we compare unfavourably with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is simply not the message that Nigel Dodds gets when he speaks to colleagues in Wales and Scotland. We are the first devolved region to deliver such a programme as a short-term aid scheme to help people in business. Sometimes, the Members opposite indulge in a bit of glass-half-empty rather than glass-half-full thinking. We are effectively dealing with the issues that are before us, particularly those that the business community wants us to deal with.
The Member also raised the concern that funds have been allocated to pressures other than the economic downturn — I think he used the term “populist” — but we should ensure that sufficient resources are made available for all public services. I am sure that the Member would accept that, in tough economic times, support for the vulnerable is just as important as hard-nosed economic initiatives.
Dr Farry also suggested that we should not offset the reduction in funding for 2010-11 as a result of the additional efficiency savings through the use of Barnett consequentials. However, he provided no indication as to how he would bridge the resulting funding gap that would remain, other than to make non-specific reference to the costs of division again. There are undoubtedly some additional costs associated with a somewhat segregated society. I do not think that anyone would deny that.
The Member for North Antrim Mr Storey talked about the costs of our segregated education system. However, as has been made clear previously, the suggested savings are sometimes overblown, and would also involve job cuts. That would not be achievable in the short term.
He also mentioned the tension between policies that look at stimuli and having to deal with a debt burden, which was a fair comment. When do we move from trying to create stimuli to dealing with the debt that we have as a result of those stimuli? That was a question that I had to ask when I looked at the short-term aid scheme. I asked whether it was worth doing it at the time and decided that we had to do something to help businesses in need. The scheme is time-limited and will end in 2010. We hope that the upturn will have arrived by that stage and that we will be able to make use of the skills that we were able to save in companies.
Fra McCann, Roy Beggs and Alex Attwood mentioned social housing, as did other Members. Over the past five years, the number of social houses completed per capita has been almost a third higher in Northern Ireland than in the UK as a whole. Similarly, total housing completions per capita were 160% greater in Northern Ireland.
Members also referred to the report by Mike Smyth and Dr Mark Bailey. Although that report attempts to provide an assessment of the monetary and non-monetary benefits of investment in social housing, its content and conclusions clearly reflect that it was commissioned by DSD. That is something that Members should consider very carefully when reading the report’s analysis. Any Department can commission its own consultants to prove the case for additional funding; I am sure that Departments have done so in the past and will do so in the future.
Unfortunately, the underlying analysis in the report is rather sparse. Evidence for the construction sector as a whole is based on data for Scotland that are five years old. In addition, the evidence in support of investment in social housing relies on a single study from 2003, which, again, was based on the position in Scotland. Therefore, although the report adds to the debate, it is not particularly applicable to Northern Ireland or informative in the current economic climate.
Does the Minister share my sense of irony that the SDLP Minister with responsibility for housing has commissioned a report by consultants to try to prove her point when her party’s proposals for the public finances in Northern Ireland refer to doing away with consultants to a large degree?
There is considerable experience and knowledge in our university system, which is available to the public sector at considerably less cost than traditional methods of consultancy. If Departments were to avail themselves of that knowledge and experience, it would be very beneficial and considerably more cost-effective than taking our present routes.
That is something that I intend to look at this week; I plan to meet economists from our local universities and take the very route that the Member mentioned.
Mr McCann and Mr Attwood referred to the £110 million easement in respect of the Royal Exchange project. The Social Development Minister has not yet formally identified that money for reallocation by the Executive. The Royal Exchange project will also provide additional business and work for the construction industry. The decision is one for the Social Development Minister, but, as Mr McCann said, social regeneration is also an issue. Therefore, the question is whether the Minister wants to transfer funding for the project to housing or whether she wants to continue with the regeneration. That is her decision, and we can have a discussion around the Executive table about the reallocation of that money.
There has been a bit of mischief-making about the DSD report that was acquired by Margaret Ritchie. However, there can be no mischief-making about what Mrs Foster’s colleague Mr Dodds said. He said that building less social housing in a recession had — to use not mine or Margaret Ritchie’s but Nigel Dodds’s words — a materially disproportionate effect on the construction industry. Given that the evidence, not from Scotland, Wales or England but from Northern Ireland, is that the construction industry has suffered more than any other sector of our employee base — the Minister knows that because of her DETI background — how can she not join up the dots and draw the conclusion that investment in housing materially benefits the construction industry, as well as all the broader uplifts that would come to society?
It is not that I am not joining up the dots. We all recognise the value of social housing, and those points were made in the report by Mr Smyth and Mr Bailey about homelessness, social exclusion and other issues. However, the report skews the evidence to argue for social housing over, for example, public transport and roads infrastructure. Homelessness will not have as high a rating for public transport and roads infrastructure as it does for housing. There are other areas of construction that I urge Members to consider. We need a full and open debate, not just a consultants’ report that was commissioned by the Department for Social Development to argue its case for social housing.
Nelson McCausland raised the issue of safety at sports grounds and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s opening capital budget for 2009-2010 of £29 million for stadia development. The Culture Minister has reallocated £22 million of that to accelerate projects in sport and in other sectors. It is my understanding that those accelerated projects, including those relating to safety at sports grounds, will be taken forward.
I also welcome the Member’s emphasis on the need for support for sport and tourism, areas that are close to my own heart. Tourism is a growth area, and the Executive are always aware of the need to keep it high on the agenda. It is gratifying that the relative peace in our community facilitates further concentration on it. As the Minister with responsibility for tourism, I assure Mr McCausland that I will not be found wanting in pushing ahead with tourism infrastructure.
Roy Beggs highlighted the need for more public spending and spoke about balancing the books, directly contradicting his colleague Mr McNarry, who talked about a black hole. It is hard to see the meeting of those positions. However, there is no denying that the financial environment has become more difficult and will, unfortunately, be more challenging, particularly if we face cuts from a Tory Government should David Cameron become the next Prime Minister. However, the Member is wrong to suggest that efficiency savings are the cause of those difficulties. It is only by making savings in services that Departments will meet spending pressures. Surely the Member recognises that the Executive can best support the economy during the downturn by delivering on the commitments in the Programme for Government.
Last year, we had the highest levels of funding for public services, as well as record capital investment, providing support to the construction sector. Furthermore, Mr Beggs’s pessimistic view of the economy contradicts reports in the ‘Financial Times’ that most City economists think that the UK economy has begun its recovery. Although the Member is right that public finances will be more constrained, regardless of which party is in control after the next general election, the challenges will be much worse under a Conservative Government than under the current Labour Administration.
The Member spoke about Budget pressures. The main Budget pressure facing the Executive this year is that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has said that the capital receipt from the disposal of the Crossnacreevy site will not now be delivered. However, that and other shortfalls in capital receipts should be compensated for by slippage on other projects.
Another potential pressure is the impact on Northern Ireland of the additional efficiency savings that are expected to be made in UK Departments. However, the outcome of the 2009 Budget was not as bad as some had predicted. Additional allocations largely offset the reductions made through the Barnett consequentials. Therefore, most of the known pressures that the Executive face should be absorbed as part of the in-year monitoring process. However, the House must note that major uncertainties remain in respect of domestic water and sewerage and the NICS equal pay scheme.
I appreciate that there are also concerns about the performance of Land and Property Services. Many of those concerns resulted from the change to the rating system that occurred at the same time as services were shifted to that agency. The Minister of Finance and Personnel has asked the performance and efficiency delivery unit to conduct a review in collaboration with Land and Property Services. The aim of that review is to provide assurance that the agency is structured and managed in a way that focuses on the delivery of its important objectives. The team is framing its final conclusions and is due to report back shortly.
I am sorry that Mr Beggs is not here. I listened carefully as he spent considerable time talking about double-jobbing and how people cannot be in two places at once. I look forward to his resignation either from this place or from his council position, because the logic of his argument dictates that he cannot hold both those positions. Indeed, one would have thought that Mr Beggs, of all people, would be careful about making such statements. His father was MP for East Antrim, a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly between 1982 and 1986, a councillor and an active farmer — all at the same time. Despite that, Mr Beggs comes into the Chamber and speaks about double-jobbing and how people cannot be in two places at the one time.
Mrs Hanna wanted to speak about redundancy payments in light of the Audit Office’s report on the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. I appreciate the Member’s concerns about the cost of redundancy payments made to senior staff following the reorganisation of the Health Service. However, we must respect the rights of the senior and lower-paid staff who are being made redundant as part of efficiency-driven reorganisation. The Member must also bear in mind that the redundancy payments will bear fruit in the longer term, by producing much-needed efficiencies that can be reinvested into front line health services. That is something that I would consider to be a longer-term aim for the House.
I fully agree with Mrs Hanna that the focus should be on outcomes and quality of service and that there must not be a slash-and-burn attitude to efficiency savings. It must be taken on board that Committees have a clear role in ensuring that savings are made through doing things better rather than through making crude cuts.
Jennifer McCann, perhaps unsurprisingly, said that the Executive should be given the full range of fiscal powers. Northern Ireland does very well as a consequence of being a full part of the United Kingdom. Full fiscal autonomy from the UK is not a risk-free option, and that needs to be addressed by the people who propose it. Indeed, the latest figures indicate that there is a £6·7 billion gap between the tax revenue that is generated here and public expenditure. The Member might want to consider how she would manage such a Budget deficit were we to have full fiscal autonomy.
The Member also mentioned public procurement, which arises again and again as a matter of concern. In December 2008, the Minister of Finance and Personnel established the construction industry forum procurement task group to agree the principles to be applied to future construction procurement. The group’s report was finalised on 30 April and was tabled at the procurement board on 7 May. The Finance Minister has instructed Central Procurement Directorate to work with all government construction clients to implement the seven key principles agreed by the task group, one of which is to provide recurrent tender opportunities for enterprises of all sizes.
Centres of procurement expertise are required to advertise all construction procurement opportunities that are in excess of designated thresholds on their websites or in the local press. The procurement board approved the use of the eSourcing NI web portal as a single sourcing tool for all centres of procurement expertise. The portal offers all registered construction firms 24/7 access to view all procurement opportunities and facilitates the submission of electronic tenders.
Recently, a hospital in my own area of the south-west held a successful open day for local contractors, which was facilitated by Invest Northern Ireland. It was a hugely successful event and indicates what can be achieved locally if we put our minds to the issue of procurement.
Mr O’Loan and Dr Farry mentioned the green economy, which is one of the key growth areas for us. It is one of the reasons why I set up the interdepartmental working group on sustainable energy. The working group has met on a number of occasions, and a subgroup has been set up to examine green jobs. I am hopeful that we will see a lot of progress in that area.
Alex Attwood asked me a number of questions, and I hope that I have answered one or two of them already. He asked me about the review of senior Civil Service pay and bonuses, which was announced by Nigel Dodds only last Thursday. I have no doubt that he will want to say more on the whole procedure and on the leadership of the review. My colleagues are discussing the issue, and the terms of reference may well be extended, as they are not set in stone. However, Executive Ministers will discuss the issue.
In relation to Queen’s University, Belfast, and its 10% cut in funding as reported in ‘The Irish News’, the allocation to the Executive in relation to public bodies, such as Queen’s University, is in line with the UK’s public expenditure system. However, despite some forecasts that the wider economic position in 2012-13 will be known, we have public expenditure plans only up to March 2011.
First, I want to acknowledge that the Minister indicated that the Senior Salaries Review Body’s terms of reference may extend beyond the Civil Service. If that were to happen, it would be timely, and it would be a good development. However, the Minister indicated that what happens after 2011 is yet to be determined, even though a public body in Northern Ireland appears — I stress the word “appears” — to be making proposals, including making up to 300 staff redundant, because of what informed sources tell them may be the position from 2012-13. It is a concern when a publicly funded body in Northern Ireland appears to be making decisions based on figures that it believes to be the case, even though those figures are not in the public domain and are not even known to our Ministers. Surely there needs to be a conversation with that public body about what it is doing.
I am sure that the Member will take the issue up with the Minister for Employment and Learning. However, on the basis of what we know, I can offer no clarification of the item that appeared in Saturday’s edition of ‘The Irish News’. If you wish to take the matter up with the relevant Minister, I am sure that he will endeavour to find out the answer for you.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Education, Mr Storey, raised the issue of schools funding in the latter part of the debate, and Mr Bradley took the matter on. I recognise the Member’s call for additional funding for schools. However, we need to recognise that, overall, schools funding is set to increase by 5·9% this year, which is significantly greater than the average for other public services. The Member will also be aware that, as part of the December monitoring round, an additional allocation of £4 million was made for school maintenance to the Department of Education. However, as the Member will know, that is primarily a matter for the Minister of Education, who has a considerably large budget. In fact, that Department receives the second-highest level of funding.
I am aware that there is at least one question of Mr Attwood’s that I have not answered. I am not in a position to answer his question on childcare today, but, if he will be in the House tomorrow, I will endeavour to find the answer for him by then. Members have a considerable interest in childcare, as do I, as Mr Attwood mentioned.
I thank Members for their contributions to the debate. I acknowledge their genuine concern and their desire to fund many needy projects and programmes. However, as has been said many times, my colleague the Minister of Finance and Personnel does not have a bottomless pit of money from which to draw. The extent to which specific pressures in one area will be addressed is contingent on the level of reduced requirements declared by other Departments.
I commend the Supply resolution to the House. I remind Members of the importance of today’s vote. It is vital that public services continue seamlessly in 2009 and 2010, and I ask all Members to support the motion.
Before proceeding to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
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.