The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to seven hours for the debate. The Minister will have up to 90 minutes to propose and to make a winding-up speech, which he can allocate at his own discretion. Two amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have 10 minutes. Given the length of the debate, I propose to suspend the House at around 1.00 pm for one hour.
I beg to move
That this Assembly approves the programme of expenditure proposals for 2011-15 as set out in the Budget laid before the Assembly on 7 March 2011.
I thank you for allowing one hour for lunch; I thought that I was going to be incarcerated here for seven hours, although I could probably afford to do that. I hope that I have the right speech today, as well.
We find ourselves at the final stage of the Budget process. The process has been long and arduous, but in many ways it is the most important single task that the House has discharged over the past four years. The contrast between the opening and closing days of this Assembly could hardly be greater when it comes to the fiscal environment. In 2007, there was a misplaced faith in the belief that economic growth was constant and that public expenditure would continue to flow from Westminster, growing in real terms from year to year. Now we find ourselves having to construct a Budget for Northern Ireland that has been framed by the austerity plans of the UK Government.
Although the citizens of Northern Ireland had no role to play in the various excesses of the financial markets over recent years, we do now have to address the consequences of those excesses. Those consequences are imposed in real terms, through public expenditure cuts on devolved Administrations in the United Kingdom. The Executive have not imposed those cuts, despite what some Members have been suggesting recently. The cuts have come from the UK Conservatives and their associates. This is not the Budget that any Finance Minister would like to deliver. With constrained resources, I have, with my Executive colleagues, explored every conceivable option to bring additional revenue and to impose stringent efficiency programmes on the delivery of front line public services.
Some Members were quick to rush to the media last Friday after I presented the Budget outcome. There were claims that it was unimaginative and false. In my view, conveying such a message to the public does a disservice, in so far as it undermines confidence and undermines the attempts that we are making to kick-start the economy after the recession. Mind you, for all that people have criticised the Budget as being unimaginative and false and not allocating money in the right way, I am still waiting to hear some suggestions from them as to what alternatives they would bring forward to ensure that the extra money that they want for services is made available. Maybe I will hear those today.
I have said many times that I welcome all new ideas, but, sadly, nothing realistic has emerged from the loudest critics in the Assembly. Any ideas that have emerged are contradictory or display a profound degree of ignorance of the public expenditure regime that devolved Administrations have to operate within. Unlike my critics, I do not have the luxury of being able to construct a Budget that is not earthed in reality. Her Majesty’s Treasury would have a word or two to say about that, and I do not think that people in Northern Ireland would be happy if we simply pushed through a Budget based on fantasy figures that unravels further down the line. We owe people a Budget that does not go in that direction.
The defining backdrop to setting the Budget was always going to be the block grant that was set through the Barnett formula. Therefore, the starting point for the Executive in constructing the Budget was the cumulative £4 billion real terms reduction over four years as announced in the UK spending review last October. Since then, I have, through bilateral meetings with Ministers and the ministerial review group, sought to maximise the spending power available to the Executive. Some decisions have not been easy, such as increasing the rate burden on domestic and non-domestic properties. Other decisions will take time to materialise, such as the £20 million per annum dividend from Belfast Harbour Commissioners. Other revenue proposals appear to have genuine merit, but Ministers will require some time to assess their feasibility and the possibility of bringing forward legislation. When those materialise, and only then, will those funds be factored into future monitoring round allocations.
After all of those issues were taken into consideration, it became a question of how to apportion resources across Executive Departments. Some Members have ridiculed the Executive for approving a Budget without a Programme for Government. Again, that is a rather uneducated and naive view, because the Executive are clear that growing the economy is the only policy route available to us to improve the wealth and well-being of all our people. A productive, educated and employed population alleviates so many other expenditure pressures in areas such as health, welfare and social housing.
There was, however, an acceptance that the public have high expectations when it comes to delivery of health services in Northern Ireland. The Health Minister has decided to make health provision a political football in the context of the Budget. He talks repeatedly about the decline in service provision but somehow fails to make a connection between that decline and his four-year tenure of office.
Over the last four years, the Executive have put more money into health than any other public service, and it will continue to do so. At present, health spending accounts for 41% of the total planned current expenditure in 2010-11 and by 2014-15, that figure will have risen to 44·3%. We have also given the health sector greater protection than it has in any other region of the United Kingdom over this spending review period. The final Budget allocation, of a further £189 million of additional spending power confirms that health spending will definitely grow at a faster rate than in any other region of the United Kingdom.
In the light of that, it seems incredible that the Health Minister talks about insolvency and chapter 11, although what relevance the United States commercial bankruptcy code has I do not know. I am concerned only about the public service in Northern Ireland, and I still find it disgraceful that the Health Minister can seek to justify his action — or rather, his inaction — in the media when he has never approached his Executive colleagues with plans to make Health Service delivery more efficient in Northern Ireland. His own research, commissioned from McKinsey and Company at a cost of over £300,000 has highlighted a number of actions that could save hundreds of millions of pounds. What has he done with this work? Nothing.
The final Budget also sees notable additional funding allocated to the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of Education and the Department for Regional Development and, in total, the Executive have dispersed an additional £388 million. The two main sources of additional funding are the release of the uncommitted £100 million that has been held at the centre since the draft Budget for further possible invest-to-save projects; from the decision to create an overcommitment of £30 million per annum, both capital and current; and the balance of additional spending power comes from miscellaneous items, such as additional rate revenue generated by greater collection activity by Land and Property Services (LPS) and the higher GDP deflator assumptions.
Some of those additional funds have allowed the Executive to address many of the concerns expressed during the consultation period. However I am not trying to mask the fact that this final Budget signals a coming period of constraint in public service provision. The cards we are dealt by Westminster mean that the Northern Ireland Executive, just like Scotland and Wales, has no choice. Therefore, the strategic goal for the Executive is to try to insulate key public services from the worst ravages of the UK coalition cuts. We have done so in this final Budget.
There is much work for the incoming Executive and Assembly to do in continuing the work of the Budget review group, bringing online the other deliverable revenue streams, rationalising a number of arm’s-length bodies and driving forward the efficiency agenda — all issues that will improve the financial position of the Executive. The new Assembly and Executive can continue to improve the economic environment, making it fairer for our small and medium-sized enterprises. For example, Members will be aware that I want to rebalance the system of business rates. My Department will also bring forward proposals to significantly extend the small business rate relief scheme from April 2012. While the detail of this has yet to be finalised and will be subject to consultation, I hope to be able to more than double the total amount of overall relief that is provided, while increasing the numbers that are eligible by around a third.
I will be looking to cross-subsidise that by applying a levy to large high-value retail properties, the majority of which are out-of-town properties, but which will also include some very large stores in city centres. This will ensure that more small businesses get help while increased support is provided by a sector that has not faired too badly in comparison.
In conclusion, there is much work to progress over the coming months and years. However, this Budget for 2011-15 sets the framework for moving forward.
“calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to revise the programme of expenditure proposals for 2011-15, as set out in the Budget laid before the Assembly on 7 March 2011, by allocating 38 per cent of the additional £432 million resources identified for key public services (as indicated in the Minister’s statement of 4 March 2011) to year 1 revenue for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety; and further calls for the spending requirements of DHSSPS to be reviewed annually thereafter over the Budget period and for the balance (62 per cent) of those additional resources to be allocated towards key public services by agreement of the new Executive.”
These are Budget proposals tabled in a unique fiscal circumstance, not least because of Her Majesty’s coalition Government’s determination to reduce, over the next four years, the unacceptable size of the national debt caused by Labour’s reckless plundering of reserves, its cycle of poor fiscal management and the encouragement of casino-playing banks. [Interruption.]
I have always said that for Northern Ireland to play its full role in contributing to reducing the national debt we are required to show our people that in asking them to take the pain from austerity measures we have a duty to demonstrate our plans to move from pain to gain. Regrettably, the DUP/Sinn Féin cut proposals introduced here last Friday fall well short of showing the public how today’s pain can be turned into tomorrow’s gain. Put bluntly, there is no plan here, and that is why I am proposing this amendment. The proposals, supported by a majority vote in the Executive, point clearly to the pre-negotiated joined-up intentions of DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers to cut and slash and are purely for narrow party electioneering. There is no plan in that either. Those are not proposals for a Budget in the real sense. [Interruption.]
Rather, they are based entirely on statements of intent that are in themselves based on wing and prayer assumptions that cannot be stood over, are not proven to be deliverable and have been effectively cut to ribbons by a growing list of notable economists and other bodies, such as Age NI, the Royal College of Nursing, UNISON, the Construction Employers Federation, the CBI and NIPSA.
If this debate were about a proper Budget, there would be a Programme for Government underpinning it, with a proper, collectively agreed, set of priorities for the next four years. However, we do not have a Programme for Government in front of us today copper-fastening agreed priorities. This is budgeting on the hoof, and it is very untidy. The outcome of the way that this dysfunctional Executive do their business proves to the Assembly that they are not working for the people of Northern Ireland. Therefore, although very disappointing, it was not surprising to find a comprehensive live list detailing DUP/Sinn Féin cuts in last Friday’s statement from the Finance Minister. Those cuts are not for us to support. We in the Ulster Unionist Party are concerned most of all with delivering the people’s priorities, and chief among those priorities is spending on health services. Ownership of the cuts, therefore, belongs only to the DUP and Sinn Féin. [Interruption.]
Given the thrust of the cuts impact, the Ulster Unionist amendment seeks to return some sanity to the House today. I urge the House to rethink this matter before the unthinkable happens and decisions are taken that fail to protect the delivery of health and social services to all our communities, resulting in public outrage and deep despair. Health and social services are the people’s priority, and today, we can identify with the people by making that our priority, too.
It was inevitable that the Health Minister, regardless of party affiliation, would have to articulate the facts as presented to him. Our Minister should expect to do so without the invective and abuse that he has taken on this matter, which has been disgraceful to say the least.
The man in the hot seat, Minister McGimpsey, has put the issues on the record for the public. He asked people whether they would prefer an Omagh bypass or a new local hospital in Omagh. He asked whether they wanted a new radiotherapy centre at Altnagelvin or a new road between Strabane and Dungannon. He questioned whether a sports facility should be refurbished or whether we should build instead a new maternity unit at the Royal Hospital. He warns that all those capital projects are still at risk and cannot be delivered under the current circumstances. He argues, and has argued well, that we need £200 million next year to balance the books but are getting £45 million. Quite simply, he says, the Health Service is broke. He concludes — [Interruption.]
Put succinctly, those are the stark choices facing Northern Ireland people today. If those choices are not faced up to, the tide of public anger will be impossible to contain. The approach to the situation adopted by those who have already voted three times against the health budget in this Assembly is a deep disappointment to the more than 78,000 people who work in the Health Service and their dependants, let alone the hundreds of thousands of patients. I am sure that everyone in the Chamber knows one of those patients, and we are letting them down. [Interruption.]
I contend that support for the Budget as it stands is a rejection of health as the people’s priority. That support delivers on nothing, spins everything and is governing sloppily. In an own goal, self-interested, behind closed doors mentality, that is what we have stooped to.
What matters in this House are the people’s priorities. At the head of those priorities is our National Health Service. Go out onto the streets and ask the people what public service really matters to them and they will answer clearly and unambiguously; the Health Service. That is the same Health Service that has been repeatedly criticised and is under attack from those proposing this Budget. The Ulster Unionist amendment reflects the people’s priorities on health.
The Budget is challenging for everyone. Few will escape its painful impacts. Meeting the family budget, educating our children, protecting jobs and creating new employment across a host of areas will all be hit hard by this Budget. However, nowhere will the impact have more immediate effect than crunching as it does the delivery of our Health Service.
As Members would expect of me, I have, over the months, challenged the Health Minister on his figures and assertions that the National Health Service in Northern Ireland faces insolvency in a matter of weeks. That is what the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s (DHSSPS) accounting officer has told the Minister. That is what the public are aware of. The strength of the case he makes is compelling and of such consequence that the House simply cannot default on advising the Finance Minister to responsibly favour today the amendment in my name and that of Tom Elliott, and, moreover, to secure it in all our names.
The £432 million that has been mentioned has not been included in or formed part of any obligatory public consultation exercise. It was good to see that money unveiled last Friday in the Minister’s statement. However, that gives us only today as the first opportunity for the House to consider and debate the allocations. The amendment will assist the House to do exactly that, by putting forward the proposition to allocate 38% of that new money to the Health Department in year 1 revenue columns to avoid insolvency and to give the Department the cash that it needs to meet its obligations in 2011-12. The 38% figure, which is some £165 million, also places an onus on the Department to step up to the plate with extra savings of its own. Those savings would tighten the Department’s belt.
By supporting the amendment, the Assembly would be saying and doing two things to help our Health Service. First, let the House recognise the urgent need for cash. Secondly, let us knuckle down together in the interests of the people and our Health Service. That approach is not incorporated in the Budget. We must do that, and we can do better. Let us do better. [Interruption.]
“notes that the Budget 2011-15 is not based on any up-to-date Programme for Government; recognises the need to provide a more transparent and detailed breakdown of expenditure proposals over the four-year period as highlighted in the consultation process; calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to revise the programme of expenditure proposals for 2011-15 to include a strategy to raise additional revenue and capital resources, to abolish the social investment fund and to reallocate the £80 million from that fund and any additional resources raised to provide for:
significant interventions to grow the private sector; public sector reform and new models of asset management to rebalance the economy; increased investment in job creation, particularly in construction, renewables, ICT, tourism and the agrifood sector; adequate funding to support front-line health services and to build more social houses; an adequate four-year allocation for the social protection fund to protect vulnerable people from the impact of welfare cuts; greater support for the school building and maintenance programmes; a guarantee that any public sector redundancies will not be compulsory; and support for universities so that student fee increases become unnecessary.”
I am conscious that SDLP amendments to Budget legislation have had an interesting recent history in the House. Members will recall that the House debated an SDLP amendment to the draft Budget Vote on Account on 14 February. Among other things, the SDLP amendment called for more spending on health to protect front line services; more resources for the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) to avoid any suggestion of a hike in student fees; and more for education and job creation. Disappointingly, but, I regret to say, not surprisingly, the SDLP amendment was attacked by the DUP and Sinn Féin authors of the draft Budget. The SDLP was lambasted, not only for having the temerity to question the DUP/Sinn Féin Budget at all, but for believing that more money could possibly be made available for public services. Indeed, the First Minister had indicated earlier that the Health Minister’s dissatisfaction was obscene.
Fast-forward 18 days, and the Finance Minister, in his statement on the final Budget, cheerfully announced more money for health, DEL and education. SDLP proposals that were dismissed and rejected out of hand by DUP/Sinn Féin only 18 days previously were announced triumphantly.
This Budget fails the people of Northern Ireland. It is a formula for thousands of job losses and will heap a mountain of misery on vulnerable households. It punishes low-paid workers, students, teachers, schoolchildren, the construction industry and those who depend on our health service. It crudely dismisses the advice of all independent commentators. It is a 1970s Tory cuts Budget from two parties still rooted in 1970s politics. The DUP/Sinn Féin authors of the Budget have taken a completely defeatist approach when it comes to cuts. They tell us that London has handed us a settlement complete with £4 billion of cuts and that there is nothing that we can do to mitigate it, even over four whole years. I am sorry, but that is not good enough for the SDLP.
Our people deserve better. That is why I have called this Budget lazy and unimaginative. That is why we refer to DUP ostrich economics. They prefer to ignore the difficult realities of the environment rather than do something to try to improve it. We have had the false allegation that the SDLP would have opposed the Budget come what may: that is utter nonsense. All along, we have invited the Minister to improve the Budget so that we could support it.
Let me now recap on why the SDLP is fundamentally opposed to the Budget. First, there is no Programme for Government to which the Budget is supposed to be giving effect, nor was there even any attempt to start to negotiate one. Any Budget should be the financial outworking of a strategic programme. The DUP and Sinn Féin may well try to scramble together a Programme for Government now and retrofit it, but the fact is that the Budget has been cobbled together without any strategic thinking.
Secondly, the Budget fails to recognise that public expenditure is our only real economic lever in the North. Yet, there is no attempt in the Budget to rebalance the economy or any Budget dynamic that will streamline the public sector while driving growth and wealth creation in the private sector. An opportunity has been missed.
Thirdly, there is absolutely no emphasis on or priority given to job creation. The North is in deep recession, and it is our duty, as well as our basic economic imperative, to try to put people back to work. The SDLP has proposed investing in job creation, particularly in the indigenous job-intensive sectors of construction, tourism and food. Add to that a major programme of home insulation, which could counter fuel poverty and provide work for thousands of unemployed construction workers. Despite all the hot air, I have heard no explanation of why that cannot be done.
Fourthly, there is insufficient money for health. Although the Minister of Finance and Personnel has bragged about an 8% increase for health, he knows that it is a substantial decrease in real terms. He employs the shallow and dishonest argument that health is getting a better settlement than other Departments, when he knows that there are greater expansionary pressures in health than in other Departments. The concerted and bad-tempered attempts to demonise the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety are unworthy and unacceptable.
Fifthly, the Budget gives insufficient resources to education. Not only would much-needed investment in new schools and school maintenance provide crucial employment, but, surely, we are duty-bound to invest in better literacy and numeracy outcomes for the many young people whom the education system currently lets down.
Sixthly, there is an absolute failure to identify new revenue streams, additional capital receipts, additional borrowings or cash-releasing efficiency savings. Not only is there a failure to identify self-help measures, there is a stubborn resistance even to consider the available options, as if there is absolutely nothing that we can do even over four years.
Seventhly, no matter what they try to do to make it look respectable, the so-called social investment fund is an abuse of public resources and is unacceptable. The DUP and Sinn Féin have no right to annex £80 million of public money to carve up among their favoured groups. [Interruption.]
I could go on with many more criticisms, but the fundamental picture is that of a lazy and unimaginative Budget that makes no serious attempt to mitigate Tory cuts.
In all the bad-tempered comments from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister and what I can only describe as prolonged slapstick from the Minister of Finance and Personnel, no answer has been provided to the central criticism. If anything, surely that is obscene. The reluctance of the Finance Minister to seriously consider the SDLP proposals is disappointing, but at least he took the trouble to look at them. He cannot seriously doubt that we answer the question of how to fund the proposed additional spending. We produced a 70-page Budget paper crammed with detailed proposals. It is the only paper produced by any political party that contains detailed figures. Indeed, it is unprecedented in our politics. It contrasts with the six pages of superficial nonsense, full of pictures, produced by the green Tories in Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin’s position is utterly unsustainable. The Sinn Féin socialists have waved through £4 billion of cuts in Northern Ireland without so much as a whimper, while pretending that there is an alternative to the inevitable cuts in the South. The position of that party can be summarised thus: in the North, green Tory; in the South, different story.
The SDLP has made all the running on this Budget and is the only party to set out how, as an Executive, we can help ourselves. Helping people is, surely, what devolution is meant to be all about. The SDLP has been cynically accused of all sorts of motives, but it is in the tradition of this party to hold out for higher standards and better outcomes for all our people. It is with the confidence of knowing that our case is right and with enduring pride that I invite the House to support the SDLP amendment.
As Chairperson of the Committee, I think that we should acknowledge at the outset that the Executive have faced an unenviable challenge in developing the Budget in the face of swingeing public sector spending cuts imposed by the British Government’s spending review. As a result, £4 billion was cut from our block grant without any assessment of relative need.
The Executive have signalled their intention to remain focused on the strategic priorities of growing the economy and protecting the most disadvantaged in society while balancing the Budget through a mix of savings, efficiencies, asset realisation, borrowing and revenue-raising measures. The application and outworking of those measures across the 12 Departments and other public bodies, combined with the ramifications for the private and third sectors, will determine whether that approach is successful.
Members will by now have received the Committee’s co-ordinated report on the draft Budget. The report was informed by a great deal of evidence from a wide range of witnesses, including representatives from the business and voluntary sectors, economists, academics and trade unions. The Committee also received submissions from each Statutory Committee, the Audit Committee and the Assembly Commission. A take-note debate then enabled all Members to debate the Executive’s draft Budget 2011-15 proposals.
The Committee’s report is a critical but constructive response to the Executive’s draft Budget proposals. As well as 45 key findings and recommendations, the report includes numerous supplementary observations and proposals, both at strategic and departmental level. Many of those apply to the medium to longer term, and, that being the case, the Committee will recommend that its successor Committee continue with that work. The Committee’s third Budget scrutiny inquiry report will be agreed before the end of the mandate and will aim to identify practical measures to improve future Budget process and to strengthen the role of the Assembly.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel has repeatedly stressed his belief that there are further cash-releasing efficiencies to be found over the Budget period. The area of efficiencies was examined in detail by the Committee in the previous session of the Assembly and again in its consideration of the draft Budget. Members remain concerned that budgetary savings and efficiency gains are not monitored centrally. If they were, that would ensure that savings or efficiencies made by one Department did not have a cost or adverse impact on another Department and that Departments did not lose sight of the need to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the medium to long term as a result of the present focus on the delivery of short-term budgetary savings. The Committee believes that the Department is best placed to fulfil that vital role.
The Committee has highlighted areas in which it considers true efficiency gains can be achieved. Those include rolling out shared services beyond Departments to other public bodies, better management of the government estate, collaborative public procurement, a strategic review of senior staff complements across all Departments and arm’s-length bodies and better or more efficient working practices.
Reference has been made to the work that the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU) will undertake in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and, given the ambitious nature of the savings required for all Departments, the Committee considered that both an indicative work programme for PEDU and provision for enhancing its capability should be included in the final Budget proposals. I welcome the Minister’s comments on that.
The area of preventative spending was also examined in some detail. From the evidence considered, Committee members believe that there is a strong argument to be made that the current public spending patterns are inefficient over the medium to long term. Departments here do not engage sufficiently or strategically in preventative spending, which may partly be to do with the fact that preventative spending in one Department often leads to savings in another. The Committee believes that any barriers to a preventative spending approach can be overcome by strong leadership and steadfast vision. It therefore calls on the Executive to signal their intent to establish a cross-departmental task force to evaluate existing preventative spending initiatives and to develop proposals for future strategic preventative spending programmes.
I listened to the SDLP leader’s remarks. It is unfortunate that she had difficulty with giving way. If Members do not want to give way, it is important that they indicate that in the Chamber. It is only good manners. You know — [Interruption.]
It appears that the SDLP is as good at economics as it is at telling jokes. The SDLP amendment is absurd. It goes back to the economics and the politicking of the past months. Its amendment shows where it wants money to go, but where is that money to come from? What departmental budgets will the SDLP cut? Perhaps it made a mistake when it put forward an amendment to the Vote on Account. It indicated then what Departments it was looking to get the money from. The SDLP’s economics are based on electioneering for the upcoming election, which is shameful. However, coming from the SDLP, it is unsurprising. The SDLP has the cheek to call us Tories, but it proposes to cut social funds. It wants to cut the social investment fund.
The SDLP amendment seeks to abolish the social investment fund. Poverty, unemployment, lack of investment, educational underachievement and health inequalities affect those who live in areas of disadvantage and need. They affect people who are vulnerable and disadvantaged. Does the Member agree that it is almost a contradiction in terms for the SDLP to call for the social investment fund to be abolished, as that very fund will tackle those issues?
The social investment fund is located in OFMDFM because it is an interdepartmental recipe to tackle social disadvantage and need. Therefore, it sits better in OFMDFM because all Departments can link to it. Does the Member also agree that the social investment fund has to sit in OFMDFM because Departments were working in silos, which meant that projects such as the West Belfast Task Force and the Greater Shankill Task Force and neighbourhood renewal were not working as well as they should have been?
I totally agree. Not only does the SDLP look to cut millions of pounds from deprived areas in our community overall, it looks to privatise services, which has been made clear in its proposals. Of course, the SDLP refuses —
The British Government cut £4 billion, but, in the draft Budget, the Executive found £842 million to mitigate the effects of that cut. In the final Budget, we found £527·2 million and another £200 million to assist the Department of Justice. Sinn Féin and other parties have brought £1·5 billion to the table; the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party have brought £0·0 billion to the table. This is all about electioneering for the upcoming election. On the basis of those figures, perhaps good slogans for the parties to my left are “You are worse off with the SDLP” and “You are worse off with the Ulster Unionist Party”. We are putting forward proposals of substance; we are mitigating the effects of the cuts. We are fighting the cuts in an imaginative way, whereas the SDLP and others in the House are electioneering, which is, frankly, shameful.
We must also remember — I am conscious of my time, a Cheann Comhairle —
I congratulate the Minister on his statement and, indeed, on the Budget. I also congratulate the Executive on their hard work over many months to get the Budget to where it is now, despite obstruction by parties with no responsibility because of their numbers. We can make a difference to our people’s lives. The Budget will affect every person in this country.
It will affect our poor, our sick, our rich, our businesses and the unemployed. It will affect everyone. That is why we need to be careful to get the best Budget that we can.
No one in the House would be wise to say that everything that is needed is in this Budget and that it is perfect; it is not. How could it be, when it was worked on by five Executive parties that have opposing views and are going in different directions? However, it is the best Budget that we could provide to our people at this time. I believe that the public see that, they feel that, and they know that. I believe that they welcome the Budget.
Unlike some Members, I come from the real world. I worked in the construction industry for more than 20 years. I have seen the situation from both sides. People tell me that they need a four-year Budget. They need to see the bad stuff as well as the good, and they need to be able to plan for the bad stuff. I assure you that the construction industry is glad to have the foresight of the four years to plan ahead.
Indulge me, Mr Speaker, while I speak about the construction industry. Coming from that sector, I know only too well how policies and governments can affect the construction industry, which is a major part of our economy — perhaps too much so. Over the years, that has been a failing of the economy and, to a degree, of our political system over the direct rule years.
We in the commercial and industrial side of the construction industry saw dark clouds coming when the housing market fell and people who lost their job in that sector started to come over to the industrial, commercial and shopfitting side. The length of contracts that we had was the only thing that saved us in the sector at that time. However, the rot soon set in everywhere in the construction industry. It brought the construction industry to its knees, with many thousands of people losing their job. I feel for that sector now, as I listen to the comments made and the way in which politics is being played about the Budget. We must remember that the Budget affects every person in this country.
The Executive have again stretched themselves to enhance the money available for health by an additional £91 million in current expenditure and £29 million in capital investment. The Executive have also agreed that the Department may reclassify £20 million from capital investment for current expenditure in 2011-12. That is important, but that money must be put to good use. In our system, which comprises Departments with Ministers from different parties, it is crucial that the money that a Minister — from the DUP, Sinn Féin, UUP or SDLP — gets is spent as wisely as possible. It is important that every Department has planned savings and efficiencies. I have not seen enough efficiencies brought forward by Departments over the past few months of the Budget process. I have not seen that yet, and I have certainly not seen it in the Health Department. I believe that those efficiencies could be produced and that they need to be produced.
I welcome the social investment fund and the social protection fund. I see and speak to my constituents in Ballymena, Ballymoney, Ballycastle, Bushmills and every village in between, and they tell me that they need assistance. I know about the good work that has been done in those areas, so I welcome the establishment of the social investment fund, which will receive £20 million per annum. I also welcome the other social fund. I feel that that money can be used to enhance the good work that has started in those areas. Things do not happen automatically; people need money, and the will of the people in those areas, who have worked so hard over the years, will be enhanced by the social investment fund. That is one way that the Executive have tried not only to strengthen and enhance the economy but to protect the needy and most vulnerable. It is commendable that that has been done.
I welcome the work that has been done on and the money that has been found for the Presbyterian Mutual Society. Having spoken to a lot of my constituents, I know that it is a major issue for the people concerned, many of whom lumped all their savings into the society. Those people are desperate to ensure that their money is safe and secure.
I also welcome the fact that Ministers and Departments will be able to switch capital expenditure to current expenditure. However, I stress to Ministers that they have been given the power to switch budgets to enhance the economy and to strengthen and ease the pressure on the construction industry. I therefore ask Ministers, whoever they may be, to be careful about how they allocate money and about how they switch it back from capital to current expenditure. This is the opportunity to make efficiency savings and to ensure that their Departments is running as smoothly and efficiently as possible.
The decision was taken to take funding away from young farmers’ clubs. I am glad, therefore, that we had consultation on that. It was great to see that there were so many responses and that the Executive acted on them. I therefore praise the Executive and the relevant Minister for reallocating money to young farmers’ clubs. That was consultation and democracy at work.
The extra money that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will direct towards the arts and libraries is crucial. I put the onus back on Libraries NI to think again about the 10 libraries that are earmarked for closure, especially Kells and Connor Library in my constituency of North Antrim, which could and should be saved.
In my remaining time, I will make a crucial point about the welcome assistance that the Finance Minister and the Executive have given to small businesses through the small business rate relief scheme. Retailers, especially in towns, have been crying out for it. We are at saturation point with out-of-town shops, which are in danger of hurting town centres. The rate relief scheme will go some way to correcting the balance. Having talked to retailers just this week, I know that they and small businesses in town centres will welcome the scheme with open arms.
First, I congratulate the Finance Minister not necessarily on the Budget — I will come to that in a moment — but on having the bravery to reference John Rawls at the beginning of his Budget statement last week. Although the Minister referred to him as a nineteenth-century figure, surely it is a sign of progress in Northern Ireland that a DUP Minister can reference the leading liberal political philosopher of the twentieth century in defending his comments.
The Alliance Party will support the Budget resolution today because it is the right and proper thing to do. As a single party, the Alliance Party would have struck a different Budget. It would have been a more strategic, more innovative and more radical document. Indeed, the details of that were set out in our ‘Shared Solutions’ paper, which we published in October. However, we recognise that we are part of a five-party Executive and that the Budget must be the product of negotiation and agreement. We recognise and respect that process while recognising that it is far from perfect. The Alliance Party did not join the Executive last April to play political games. Indeed, we were not simply providing a Justice Minister but were going to play a full part in the collective decisions of the Executive. We were not going to try to be in and out at the same time.
We recognise that the current political and institutional arrangements in Northern Ireland are far from perfect, including in the Executive. Indeed, we have been leading the call for change to the shape of our political institutions over the past decade, and we have set out detailed proposals in that regard, including ‘Agenda for Democracy’ in 2004. However, we have to deal with the institutions as we find them today, and we are determined to make the Executive work better and more collectively. That is our position, and I think that that is the position of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland, who clearly want our politicians to work together. It is a crying shame that other parties have not sought to be similarly constructive.
The positions of the UUP and the SDLP are utterly unsustainable. Those parties perhaps make the most frequent claims about the Executive being dysfunctional, but they stand exposed today as the parties that make the Executive most dysfunctional. There already is a bare minimum level of collectivity in the Executive through the ministerial code. Any UUP or SDLP Minister who remains on the Executive will be bound by the decisions taken by that Executive, irrespective of how their party votes on the Floor this evening.
The adoption of a Budget goes right to the heart of what makes any Government cohesive. For two parties to be in open rebellion on that matter undermines that collective approach and must call into question the credibility of their continued participation in the Executive. It is bizarre that two members of a five-party Executive would bring amendments to the Floor of the Assembly rather than fight the battle around the Executive table, where it should be fought. Amendments to a Budget are brought by parties in opposition, not by parties that claim to be in government.
I will talk about health and refer to the UUP amendment in detail later. However, let me make some comments about the SDLP approach at this stage. The SDLP keep accusing the Budget of being a DUP/Sinn Féin carve-up. However, yet again, we had an example today from its leader, who has long since departed the Chamber, showing that the revised Budget since December reflects the changes that the SDLP advocated. Therefore, its fingerprints are all over the changes, but it will still say no to it all. Indeed, it is an example of what was once described by George Bush in a campaign against Ronald Reagan as “voodoo economics”. The SDLP says that it will keep taxes down and spending will increase. It will protect the public service at all costs but, equally, will rebalance the economy and grow the private sector. It will spend more on health, education, the economy and everything else without making a single proposal where the money will come from. People demand economic competence in this society, not cheap electioneering and cheap populism.
The Alliance Party recognises that there have been some quite strong criticisms of the draft Budget. Indeed, we have made many of those comments, and we stand by some of them. We also recognise the comments that have been made during the consultation process. We do not think that the Budget has been as bold as it might have been in promoting the economy, encouraging the modernisation of public services, investing in the green new deal, promoting a shared future and raising additional revenue. Nevertheless, we have been working behind the scenes to make December’s draft Budget a better Budget in March.
Let me point to some of the gains that we believe have been found. There are additional resources for the Department for Employment and Learning, which is a key economic Department.
Rebalancing has taken place, from revenue expenditure to capital expenditure, which should help the construction sector. Furthermore, for the first time, there is an acknowledgment of the £1 billion annual cost of division to this society and an encouragement for Departments to begin to address that.
We also welcome the endorsement of early intervention and prevention as a key strategic approach and, indeed, the importance of collaboration by Departments, which should provide for better joined-up services and greater efficiencies. Therefore, we now have the potential for a much more strategic approach over the years to come, and, indeed, that must be followed through, not least over the four years of the Budget. I welcome the fact that the Budget review group will now be a standing subcommittee of the Executive. My party has been calling for that. The group’s remit will be to seek additional resources and promote cross-departmental efficiencies.
Ultimately, only a finite level of resources is available to the Executive. We are all opposed to the level and pace of cuts to the Northern Ireland block grant, but that is reality. Although we can make decisions here that may make things slightly better or worse, we have limited room for manoeuvre. The Executive and the Assembly are obliged to provide financial stability and certainty over the coming years. Failure to agree a Budget would leave the Assembly and the Executive in default of their legal obligations and would result in a bad Budget being imposed over our heads. Leadership is about being prepared to take the tough decisions, not shirking responsibilities.
The health and social services budget has come under particular scrutiny. My party appreciates the funding challenges facing the Health Service, including the pressures on social care. I am prepared to recognise that health spending in Northern Ireland is now falling behind that in other UK regions, having been ahead of those regions in the past. Indeed, the situation may well get worse when the higher levels of need are taken into account. There are increased costs from changing demographics, new treatments, more expensive drugs and improvements in technology. All of this creates new pressures and new demands, and, indeed, the funding gap by 2014-15 may well be £1 billion. The status quo is unsustainable. We are not talking about bankruptcy; that is a scare story. However, there must be some proper change in policies and practices in the health sector.
My central point is that, although some people are prepared to argue that there has to be parity between health spending in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, very few, including those who shout the loudest on this point, are prepared to be honest and say that the same level of revenue has to be raised in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK. For me, the two go hand in hand. Ultimately, public services in Northern Ireland cannot be run on the cheap. Therefore, although there is an ongoing problem of underfunding compared to other jurisdictions, we should still consider some protection for the health budget. The Budget provides that to a considerable extent, but let us not kid ourselves: that protection will come at an opportunity cost, given the finite resources. It will result in limiting what can be done with regard to the speed with which we rebalance the economy.
Those are the choices that we must make, and the Budget is all about choices rather than wish lists and dreaming things up. We have to make the tough decision. The decision on giving some protection to health has been made, but, equally, there is a challenge for health to respond by making efficiencies and doing things more smartly and more effectively. There are examples of things that can be done differently such as using out-of-hours GPs rather than A&E; directing patients to the appropriate level more effectively; placing greater emphasis on early intervention and prevention; putting greater focus on public health issues; better use of technology; and greater use of home services and community services. It is important that we employ PEDU in the Health Service and give proper consideration to the options contained in the McKinsey report, which is not a diktat. Ultimately, all parties need to take responsibility for working through this and finding agreement on a better way for health.
The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development welcomes the opportunity to provide its comments to the House. I will start by commending the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for overturning her original decision to withdraw funding from the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster. The small amount of £75,000 ensures that significant leverage, in the form of financial injections as well as voluntary activity, is brought into rural communities.
It is unfortunate that the Minister and her Department have not overturned the decision to spend in excess of £26 million on new headquarters. The Committee is not opposed to siting jobs in rural areas. However, at a time when the entire population of Northern Ireland are being asked to tighten their belt, the public sector is being told to make do, and commentators agree that investment in innovation is required to bring us out of these difficulties, DARD chooses to ignore that and pushes on with an untimely and expensive move and cuts innovation to the bare bones. The Department states that Dundonald House is no longer fit for purpose; it is strange that other Departments, including the Prison Service, will continue to use it as their headquarters.
The Scottish Government’s economic strategy, which was published in 2007, stated that innovation drives improvements in productivity and, through creating new products, processes and services, creates new jobs and encourages greater economic participation, which are two of the crucial components of increased economic growth. It also recognises the critical role of a supportive business environment as one of the drivers of growth. It is unfortunate that the Department has not had the same vision; rather, it has adopted a simplistic view that focuses on what are traditionally considered as soft touches: innovation, education and farmers.
Stakeholders unanimously agree that the budget lacks strategic direction. It is unimaginative and piecemeal. There was an opportunity to invest in innovation, but it was ignored by the Department, as it slashes to the core the funding for the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute. There was an opportunity to save up to £80 million over the comprehensive spending review period through eradicating TB, rather than controlling it at levels similar to those prior to 2001. To date, £200 million has been wasted, and there is a prospect of another £80 million to come. There was an opportunity to invest in one of the few growth areas over the past couple of years, namely the agrifood sector. It contributes £3 billion to our economy and employs more than 90,000 people. Rather, we see cuts to the food strategy budget and the disposal of business incubation units at Loughry. There is no strategic direction.
There are a few positives in the budget. I previously indicated that the Committee was pleased to see the commitment towards the land parcel identification system. The Northern Ireland economy cannot support the continued application of extreme penalty disallowances by the EU, particularly given the depth of the cuts imposed on Northern Ireland by the Westminster Government.
The Committee also seeks assurances that national contributions to the Northern Ireland rural development programme, co-funded with the European Union, will be protected. The Committee previously expressed grave concerns at the lack of progress of that programme, particularly with regard to axis 3, and believes that it is imperative that those funds continue to be made available and dispersed in the rural community. It will have a positive knock-on effect in respect of the construction and tourism industries. Appropriate investment can act as a catalyst for economic growth in rural communities.
The motion before the House is:
“That this Assembly approves the programme of expenditure proposals for 2011-15 as set out in the Budget laid before the Assembly on 7 March 2011”.
The Committee has concerns about the proposals specifically contained in DARD’s budget. However, I have no doubt that, in the new mandate, the Committee will continue to work with the Department to ensure the best use of resources, and, importantly, it will continue to work with the industry to ensure that rural businesses, rural families and rural communities are protected.
I cannot possibly comment on that.
It has to be said at the outset that the cuts to the block grant have made the usual Budget process and the debate on it even more problematic. Setting aside the positions that have developed since October 2010, most parties recognise the need to respond to the Tory-inspired cuts, which were supported by the Ulster Unionist Party and would have been voted for by it at Westminster, had it had the opportunity to do so. It is worth mentioning the most recent Westminster election, because the electorate here took the opportunity to reject completely that approach. The consequence of that was that no Ulster Unionist Party candidate was elected to that body. The SDLP argued that it wanted to go to Westminster to oppose the cuts. That is a matter of stated record. In particular, the leader of the SDLP wanted to go to Westminster to stop the cuts. Of course, the argument was spectacularly unsuccessful.
In any event, we are where we are. The Budget document represents the outcome of a process to which some parties committed themselves in a fairly mature and collegiate way. Other parties decided, for electioneering purposes and opportunistic reasons, to stand back and disassociate themselves from that process. They will have the opportunity to set out their alternatives in the debate. However, I suspect that members of the broad community who are interested in such affairs have already stepped back, not out of any criticism of the Budget paper in front of us but because it is their desire to see us get on with the job. That is the overwhelming position of our shared community. People want to see us, as elected representatives, getting on with it and not playing silly games, being opportunistic, holding out or teasing them with the possibility of resigning or breaking ministerial codes and so on.
The approach that the Ulster Unionist Party has taken is for its Minister Michael McGimpsey to tell us, no later than last weekend, that he needs an extra £200 million a year. Today we are presented with an amendment from his party that states that he wants an extra £432 million a year. Talk about galloping inflation. Last Friday, the figure was £200 million. Since the weekend, it has grown to £432 million. People will be judged on whether they are being serious.
Thanks very much. Perhaps Mr McCann and Mr McLaughlin have not read my party’s document, ‘Partnership and Economic Recovery’. If they want to see meat on the bones of our proposals, they should have a look at that document.
I am glad that the Member referred to that document. Far be it for me to praise a DUP Minister of Finance and Personnel, of all people, but that document was dissected extremely effectively by the Minister. It would probably be helpful if the SDLP actually read the Hansard report of that debate. As well as being a bravura performance by the Minister, it was a lesson in reminding parties that, if they will put out positions, they should at least be consistent. He demonstrated, step by step, how a document produced by the SDLP can, even within a period of 18 months to two years, be flatly contradicted and ignored by that party. Now, if that party can ignore its own documents, it can hardly complain if everybody else ignores them. Therefore, sound bite economics will trip that party up in this debate, as it has tripped it up in previous debates.
In fact, my genuine advice is that that party should ask whether it listens to what people on the street want. People understand that £4 billion was removed from the Budget in October 2010. It was not that long ago. As a result of the Budget debate, the process of developing a draft Budget document, the consultation and its responses and the many, many hours of debate in here, including debates in which we listened to monologues that lasted over 90 minutes, we have managed to add value to the baseline position declared by George Osborne at Westminster. That is effective opposition.
This is the start of the four-year Budget period. In this document, we pledge to continue that work. The Budget review group exists. It comprises Ministers from every party represented on the Executive. Unless people can argue credibly that they have produced proposals that would have given more financial resources and economic muscle, protected front line services, indicated or identified additional revenues —
Let me finish this point.
Unless they make those arguments credibly, the arguments will not be regarded as viable. Not only is the House being asked to believe that the Executive turned their back on those proposals, but so are the public, merely because the proposals were made by the SDLP and the Unionist Party. The record of the contribution, if that is the correct word, of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party to the Budget review group process will demonstrate that they have not added one pound note to the Budget proposals in front of us. They have sought to divide, where others have sought to develop a collective approach.
Last October, there were four billion holes in our financial projections. That has been reduced quite significantly by a process that is yet to be completed but is a credible beginning. That is the proposition that we should take from the House to the concerned public. Members should not promise them Armageddon or play silly buggers, if I may use that expression, about whether they are in the Executive or whether they are going to support the Budget. — [Interruption.]
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Maybe the truth hits hard. The point of the matter is: if they have no intention of so doing, do they think that people outside the House are stupid? Do you think that they will not understand that this is playing games with very serious issues?
If we had the money, we would not be having the type of arguments that we are having. However, we might have different arguments, because some people are not comfortable in their skin or with their role, size, influence or mandate. That is their problem. There is an election coming up soon. They can present their case, and they will see the outcome. My party will work with the outcome; we will work with whoever gets a mandate to be in this place. We will not to attempt to sabotage the genuine attempts that people are making to defend the most vulnerable in our society and the economy. Our proposals are there to be measured against the absence of proposals from the two parties that I have mentioned.
Ludicrous proposals have been made. I took a look at the UUP’s proposals, and I described the figures that it presented to us as an illustration of galloping inflation. I also took a look at the SDLP amendment. We should read it; it is worth reading out:
“significant interventions to grow the private sector”.
There is a lot of detail there.
I did not say that there was anything wrong with it; I just said that there was no detail. It also proposes:
“public sector reform and new models of asset management to rebalance the economy”.
The SDLP also proposes:
“increased investment in job creation, particularly in construction, renewables, ICT, tourism and the agrifood sector”.
It could have added, “and whatever you are having yourself”. The amendment also proposes:
“adequate funding to support front-line health services and to build more social houses” and
“an adequate four-year allocation for the social protection fund”.
It calls for an allocation that is “adequate”, whatever that means.
Perhaps these are costed proposals. I know that the SDLP leader did not take the opportunity to tell us how many millions all that will cost, but, perhaps, the economy spokesperson will do so.
Everybody acknowledges that agreeing a Budget is exceptionally difficult, and, even in the most benign of circumstances, Ministers holding portfolios will argue that more money should be spent in their Department than in other Departments. However, our difficult job here, given the mandatory coalition nature of our Government, was made all the more difficult by the £4 billion worth of cuts imposed on us by the Tory Chancellor in Westminster. Sadly, that was supported by, canvassed for and, had any of them actually been elected, would have been voted for by the Ulster Unionist Party. Some £4 billion worth of cuts in departmental expenditure limits, roughly £0·5 billion worth of cuts to our AME expenditure on issues such as social security and a 40% reduction in our ability to spend on capital infrastructure have had a devastating effect on our economy and Budget. Anyone who knocked on a door in Northern Ireland and asked people to vote for that, as some Members did, should be absolutely ashamed of themselves.
Even in those difficult circumstances, we have a Budget. There was criticism from some quarters of the Chamber that no Budget would be agreed and put before the people of Northern Ireland. Yet, here we have a Budget. In spite of the five-party mandatory coalition, we have agreed a four-year Budget that gives certainty to the public and private sectors in Northern Ireland for a longer period than in any other devolved region in the United Kingdom.
As my colleague Paul Frew said, none of us who will vote for the Budget later today would argue for a second that it is everything that we would have wanted. It is not a perfect Budget. It is as imperfect as the system that created it and the financial circumstances in which we found ourselves through the imposition of Tory cuts. Nobody would say for a second that it is everything that we wanted, but, in the circumstances, it is the best that we can get.
It is no surprise to me or to the people of Northern Ireland that there is opposition to the Budget. There is no surprise either about the quarters from which that opposition comes or its timing. As I listen to some Members, it could be thought that they were not part of the Executive, were not represented on the Budget review group and were not part and parcel of the Budget process from day one. Those Members try to fool people, pull the wool over their eyes and have them believe that they had absolutely nothing to do with it, when every one of them was there from the start and was part and parcel of the process.
I now turn to the amendments. The SDLP amendment is exactly what we have come to expect in the House. As might be expected from the verbose SDLP, it is big on words but short on detail. There is absolutely no substance in that amendment. It contains what we have come to expect — the usual call for more money — but there is no indication of where that money should come from, with one exception. The SDLP’s only suggestion is that we should scrap the social investment fund and that £80 million from that should be allocated elsewhere. That amounts to £20 million a year for each year of the Budget period. Never mind the attack on vulnerable people that that represents, because that is what it does —
I understand that the DUP does not like the SDLP’s 70-page Budget proposals. However, I must hand it to the party that it tried to respond in detail to those proposals, something that the party to my right has never managed to do in any detail, except in rhetorical terms. Does Mr Hamilton agree that we should and could do a huge amount more to realise the latent value of public assets and other potential revenue-raising opportunities in this region and that, if he was not stuck in a partnership with a party that is myopic on budgetary planning and stuck in the 1960s in economic terms, we might be able to get on with making this region a better place for everyone?
The Member and I may be wearing the same colour of tie today, but that is probably the only thing that we have in common. My party and I have been on the record consistently, long before anyone else, making calls that we should make much more of redundant assets, not least those in the Stormont infrastructure. It is high time that the ugly scaffolding was taken down from outside this Building. Let us look at the Departments, the number of Assembly Members, the quangos and the infrastructure that was put in place, not least by the Member’s party.
Never mind the assault of taking £80 million from the vulnerable in our society; it is only £20 million a year. That is probably a lot of money to everyone in Northern Ireland, but it is minuscule in the context of the entire Northern Ireland Budget, and it equates to less than one fifth of 1% of the total expenditure in Northern Ireland each year. Despite that, the SDLP proposes to do everything with that less than one fifth of 1%. It proposes to reform the public sector, to create jobs, to enhance tourism —
Hold on. That party also proposes to fund agriculture and to give more money to health, social housing, social protection and so on and so forth. That is what that party proposes to do with less than one fifth of 1% of the total expenditure in Northern Ireland. The Budget before us —
No, I will not give way. Time is moving on.
The Budget will give £400 million to most of those areas anyway, yet what has the SDLP brought before us today? It proposed £20 million, which is less than one fifth of 1%.
I now turn to the Ulster Unionist Party amendment. Although it is a bit more detailed than that tabled by the SDLP, the first thing that I noticed about it is that Danny Kennedy seems to have lost an argument in the Ulster Unionist Party. His £50 million chunk of the further allocations of over £400 million made in the Budget has been taken from him. Some of us on these Benches are wondering whether that is the only argument that Danny will lose this week and whether he will win the argument to stay in government or whether the Health Minister will win by taking the Ulster Unionist Party out of government. The Ulster Unionist Party amendment proposes to give money to the Health Department and only to that Department. However — this is a critical point — that amendment proposes to give only an extra £164 million to the Health Department, when the Finance Minister has come to the House with a Budget that proposes to give it an additional £190 million.
I am worried that some Members on the Ulster Unionist Benches will have an aneurysm and so put more pressure on the Health Minister and his services.
The amendment proposes to reduce not only expenditure on health but overall expenditure. It will take away the extra allocations that were made in the Budget to fund schools, colleges and roads. That is what the Ulster Unionist Party proposes to do through its amendment. It tried to put the focus on health, but it will actually cut the allocations to the health, education, higher education and regional development sectors. That is some process. However, what else could be expected from the Ulster Unionist Party, which has a spokesman in the shape of Mike Nesbitt? He went on the radio this morning, and, when he was asked whether the Budget that was handed down from London was a good deal for Northern Ireland, he hummed and hawed and said that that was a difficult question. If anyone thinks that a £4 billion cut to our Budget is a difficult question, there is something seriously wrong with them. However, when he came to the point, he said that it is and is not a good deal for Northern Ireland. That is a bit like Members from the Ulster Unionist Party, who sometimes are and sometimes are not. Are they with the Conservatives or against the Conservatives?
At the beginning of the debate, the Minister of Finance said that this is the most important single task that the Assembly has performed in four years. We spent hours and days, quite properly, on high hedges. We have held debates over the past four years that would have embarrassed a parish council. Yet, when it comes to the most important single task that the Assembly has performed in four years, we get 10 minutes each to speak. That process needs to be looked at because that is clearly an inadequate amount of time to deal with such important matters.
Obviously, it is difficult to devise a Budget at any time. As other Members said, it is even more difficult in a time of contracting public expenditure. The idea that we are somehow isolated and insulated from what is happening nationally is nonsense. Our country was on the verge of bankruptcy, and if measures had not been taken in London in May and subsequently, we would end up in the same position as our colleagues in Dublin, where the IMF is parked at the front door. We would have had to deal with all that goes with that because the previous Government overspent and left us with a catastrophe of debt, which will take a generation to repay, just as people in the Republic will take a generation to regain their composure.
People might not like this, but we must remember that this Assembly is a wholly owned subsidiary of Westminster. The money to keep the lights on in this room comes from London. Therefore, we have to participate in what happens nationally; there is no question about that. As for the previous Government, Alistair Darling said on 25 March 2010 that, if Labour were re-elected, public spending cuts would be deeper and tougher than those seen under Margaret Thatcher. Any idea that we were going to escape that was wrong from the start.
A series of choices has to be made in arriving at a Budget. There was a whole range of combinations that could have been arrived at in deciding this Budget. The Executive decided on one; we are suggesting another. However, within the very narrow confines of what is allowed on the Order Paper, amendments have to be compressed and comply with certain rules. We would like to put forward more detailed proposals, but we are limited. However, the very simple —
No; I am not giving way. The very simple matter that I want to address is why there is disagreement here today. It is perfectly natural and normal. Indeed, different opinions are to be expected in any democratic society, including one with a mandatory coalition. There would be something wrong with us if that did not happen. I have been conscious of how that has arisen, in and out of the Executive Committee.
Matters could be handled a lot better. The Member for South Down and I prepared a report that we submitted last year to the Executive that dealt with the Hillsborough agreement issues. On 23 September 2010, the Executive accepted most of the recommendations, bar, of course, the one that was blocked by Sinn Féin with regard to the formation of a proper coalition. One recommendation that the Executive did agree was that:
“Leaders of parties in the Executive should commit to regular meetings for the purpose of discussing matters of policy and strategic and sensitive issues outside the Executive” — to provide and achieve consensus on the objectives of the Executive.
There has been no such meeting despite the report calling for regular and frequent meetings. Indeed, as I have said previously, there has been no such meeting since 2007. So, for four years, the entire term of this Assembly, the leaders of the parties in that coalition never met. That speaks volumes about why we have such difficulties today.
As regards the specifics, there is, of course, the issue of health. As leader of my party at the time, I chose the Health Department because I believed that it mattered to people. In the previous mandate, the parties, by and large, dodged it, and it ended up in Sinn Féin’s possession. Health goes to the top. Not one of us in this room knows when we or our families will next need the Health Service.
I disagree with the Health Minister — [Interruption.]
I disagree with the Finance Minister when he says how well the Health Department has been treated. What he does not say is that, when the Assembly term started in 2007, the Health Department was £600 million behind to begin with. In addition, this country’s demographics — the number of children being born and the number of people over the age of 65 — show that our population is the fastest growing in the United Kingdom. As Dr Farry said, the demand is rising disproportionately.
In those circumstances, what is the reaction of the Assembly? We tabled more debates on the Health Department than on virtually all the other Departments put together; we asked more questions of the Health Minister; we wrote more letters to the Health Minister than to any other Department; and when reductions were being made in different areas, people, including Members, stood outside the hospitals or homes being affected by closures, with placards saying how awful that was. Therefore, what I say to colleagues — [Interruption.]
They can heckle — I am used to that, Mr Speaker; it will not stop me.
The decision for the Assembly is simple: either we provide the funding or accept a lower level of service. Given the inevitable consequences of that decision, we are looking at significant hospital closures, because there are more hospitals per capita in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the United Kingdom.
We have suggested a mechanism — there could be other ways — whereby the Health Department will be provided with the funds it needs. The reasons for that are simple: we believe that the general public want the highest possible standards of healthcare. If any one of us or our loved ones needs the latest medicines, are we to be told that we are not getting them? Or are we to be in the position of the Irish Republic where people pay €60 to see their GP? We could raise plenty of money doing that. We have to answer those questions.
I listened to Mitchel McLaughlin’s contribution — he is not in his place — and it was as though we were being lectured. Let us face it: he and his colleagues took themselves off for six months until they got their way over policing. They do whatever they like. They closed down the Executive at the very beginning of the recession when we should have been dealing with it. However, until they got their way, they were quite happy to close down the Executive so that they could not meet. Not a word was said about that, and they did that for their own reasons.
Daithí McKay said that Sinn Féin brought £1·5 billion to the table. Does he not realise the utter nonsense of such a statement? If we wants to talk about £1·5 billion, I could point out to him that the campaigns run in this country for 30 years, which he and his colleagues supported, cost that 20 times over. Does he not recognise the irony and stupidity of his statement? His leader said that crumbs were coming off the table from London. More than £10 billion a year is not crumbs. Let us remember that every cent that comes into this place, bar a few charges, comes from London. We had better realise that we have an obligation to be part of the national financial solutions. Let us keep the International Monetary Fund out of here and keep our credit worthiness so that we can rebuild our economy and rebuild our charges.
We cannot pretend that we can have the Health Service that we want if we are not prepared to pay for it.
If we are not prepared to pay for it, let us say so and reduce health provision to the level that we can pay for instead of carrying on as if we can do something that we cannot.
The Finance Minister has presented us with a not-an-inch Budget. The Budget will move us forward not an inch when it comes to our economy, our Health Service and our education system. I am pleased, therefore, to support the SDLP amendment and argue against the motion.
I spoke previously about the lack of a Programme for Government, and my party leader reiterated that point this morning. There is no coherence at any significant level between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Their version of partnership is one for you and one for me, and we all end up being the losers. There is no better example of that than the social investment fund, which is nothing but a corruption of the partnership model that was built into the Assembly.
We listened to the sad story about disadvantage that was presented by at least one of the Sinn Féin representatives this morning. We know about disadvantage, and we understand disadvantage. We were told about the health problems, the education problems and the social problems in areas of disadvantage. There is a simple response to that: provide the necessary money to the Department for Social Development (DSD), the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of Education and let them address those problems. Those Departments have the expertise in such matters that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) does not have.
Let us take a look at the changes to the draft Budget that have been presented in the final Budget. The Minister told us that there is an extra £430 million in the final Budget. That is funny money, indeed, when one looks at it. He was holding back £100 million as a sweetener to make the final Budget look a little bit more palatable. There was £70 million suddenly taken, without consultation, from the Department for Social Development. Perhaps most remarkably of all, a £240 million overcommitment has been built into the Budget.
The Minister has come before us repeatedly in recent times to tell us that we need to take overcommitment out of the Budget. With some pain, the overcommitment that was built into this year’s Budget was taken out, because Departments, we were told, were managing their affairs better and we could not, in good financial management terms, have that overcommitment. Now, the Minister has built in no less than £240 million of overcommitment. We are back to a slack management of our finances and putting a bet —
We know that difficulties will arise and that unforeseen things will happen. We have talked about the need for some contingency provision. We know about the things that have happened in the past. What if swine flu returns? What if there is a natural disaster? What if there is a major economic need, such as the one that arose with Bombardier? Not only do we have no contingency measure, but, if any of those situations arise and funds are needed, we will come back to the Minister’s only remedy: top-slicing the funding of all Departments, savagely cutting into their pre-planned programmes and sending the message to our community that, once again, the Assembly is in a mess.
So, the final Budget is not an improvement on the draft Budget. It is arguably a worse Budget. [Interruption.]
The extra money that he has ostensibly put into the Budget on the revenue side is 0·7%. I wonder what the 7,000 people who responded to the departmental consultation, and the many thousands of others who responded to individual Departments, will think of their efforts on hearing that.
From his seated position, the Minister is dismissing the people who made those comments.
A good starting point for what is needed in the Budget comes in the opening pages, which set out some of the economic facts of where we are. What is noticeable is that it does not go on to set out the facts of where we need to go and how we will get there. However, there are two major facts. First, public expenditure represents 62% of our total output and, secondly, our private sector productivity is only 80% of the UK average, and has been running for years at that level. The message there is very clear: we need to rebalance our economy and improve our productivity levels.
I draw Members’ attention to the table on page 7, which shows our economic growth in recent years and, from 2000 to 2007, it was doing remarkably well. Although it was not gaining on the rest of the UK, it showed significant growth. We are now in significant recession, a recession significantly worse than that in the UK. This morning, I spoke to Frances Hill, the Bank of England representative who was in the Building, and she confirmed that we are lagging behind the rest of the UK and that we are not pulling out of recession as the rest of the UK does.
What does the Budget say about getting us out of the recession? If we do pull out of the recession in a couple of years’ time, what is there in the Budget to give a further lift-off for the graph to continue upwards? The truth is that on the long-term structural problems of the economy and the need for a short-term stimulus to get us out of recession, the Budget fails. It lets down the people in the construction sector who have been thrown out of work in recent years, those other workers in that sector, and others in the public sector who will be out of work over the next four years, and there will be knock-on effects for our private sector economy where other workers will be out of jobs. The Budget does not answer their needs.
I want to comment on the Finance Committee’s response to the Budget. If that document had been produced by the SDLP, the Minister would be dismissing it as political argument for the sake of it. It contains 45 recommendations. It is described as a “critical but constructive response”, and it was carried unanimously in that Committee, which I note has seven members from Sinn Féin and the DUP.
I wonder whether the Minister will dismiss its 45 recommendations with the same derision that he has shown for the critical but constructive response that has come from this party. The section on strategic concerns uses language stronger even than that used by the SDLP. It says that the Budget:
“fails to explain clearly the rationale and guiding principles behind the proposed departmental allocations”.
It goes on to say that it finds:
“no evidence of a proper zero-based review of resource baselines…and how they contribute to strategic priorities.”
It also highlights:
“a missed opportunity to find new ways of optimising resource allocations”.
It also says that the Budget:
“should have been accompanied with a draft Programme for Government…and an updated Investment Strategy.”
It also calls for an annualised Budget. The Minister talks occasionally about a living document but, when pushed, he reverts back to the monitoring rounds as his mechanism for addressing pressures, when something much more fundamental is needed annually.
The section on revenue raising, the related sections on capital asset realisation and alternative sources of finance are most striking. In language every bit as strong as the SDLP has used, it calls for radical revision of how the Budget is done and will be done over the next four years. I noticed that it had much to say on economic levers. The words “corporation tax” appear, and I believe that the words “corporation tax” do not appear anywhere in the entire Budget document.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
My party colleague Mr McLaughlin set out the political reality of where we are in dealing with the Tory-imposed cuts. I do not need to rehearse that argument for the Members of the House. We are all very aware that the Tories are being supported by their UUP friends. Instead of accepting the cuts, Sinn Féin and others who are positively engaged in the Executive have set their minds to raising additional revenue streams to assist us. I welcome the fact that those are reflected in the final Budget.
The fact that we are discussing an extra £842 million to go into all Departments, which the SDLP obviously does not want, is a commitment from the Executive and a massive step in the right direction. It is a pity, and other Members have picked up on this, that there has not been one credible proposal from the party that is shouting from the sidelines.
Does the Member agree that the last speaker from the SDLP made a bizarre observation on this Budget? He said that it is probably worse than the last Budget and went on to say that there is a £240 million overcommitment in this Budget. The logic of that is to take the £240 million out. Has the Member any ideas from where that money might come? [Interruption.] As usual, you have no idea about where to take it from.
I thank the Member for his intervention. It is typical of the SDLP’s Budget position. It says: we have too much money and then it says that we do not have enough money — the party needs to make up its mind. It is clear that the SDLP and the UUP are playing a game of two-faced politics. On the one hand, their Members want to stay in the Executive and be positive members of it, take the ministerial wage and the perks that go with being a Minister, and take credit when positive decisions are taken. However, on the other hand, when they do not get their own way, they say they do not want to play the game any longer and they put their heads in the sand.
As Sinn Féin health spokesperson, I want to pick up on the points about the Health Service needing more money. The SDLP and the UUP have both spoken about that. Sinn Féin is very much aware of that need. We are proud of the Health Service, and it has to be cherished. The Health Service affects everyone at every stage of life and we have always supported additional moneys and resources going into it. We have delivered on that promise, as we always said we would. Since the publication of the draft Budget, an additional £189 million is being invested in the Health Service, and rightly so. We very much welcome it. We also have a commitment from the Executive that, if and when the PEDU report is completed and submitted to the Executive, and if additional funding is needed, the Executive will look at that matter. That is another commitment to the Health Service and it must be very clear to the public that the Executive prioritise health, recognise the need to invest in the Health Service and maximise additional funding for the Health Service when they can allocate the money.
The current situation is as follows, and it is a testimony to the commitment to the Health Service. The Executive have allocated more than 50% of the entire Budget to the Health Department. We need to look at how that is spent, which is the role of the Minister in charge of the Department. How has he carried out his responsibility as Minister? He has protected £57 million in bonuses paid to consultants. Is that an efficient use of money? The public do not believe so. Frequently, over the last number of weeks, the Minister and his party have referred to the fact that they have delivered on the review of public administration. The Minister may have delivered on it, but what has he delivered but more managers in the Health Service. The Minister can shake his head all he wants, but that is true. Is that efficient? I have spoken to people who work in the Health Service and who previously had reported to two line managers but who now report to seven. That is reality, and that is what the Minister has implemented in the Health Service during his watch.
On many occasions in the House, I have listed many inefficiencies in the Minister’s management of the Health Service. I do not need to go through those again because the public are very well aware of them. Time and again, it has been said. The public are aware of how the health budget has been spent by Michael McGimpsey and that that problem lies at his feet.
Over the past number of weeks, I have listened to the claims of insolvency and bankruptcy in the Health Service. Again, I think that that is just scaremongering by the UUP. A health economist said on the radio this morning that that claim is, quite frankly, just silly. When did Michael McGimpsey start to run the Health Service into the ground, because it cannot become bankrupt over night? Has he been working on that over the past four years? That does happen overnight, so it is a nonsense statement to make repeatedly. [Interruption.]
As I said, we are very aware that the SDLP and UUP are overtly electioneering in the most disgraceful manner, and they are using the Health Service as a political tool to do so. However, the public are very aware of that. An election is coming up in which the people will vote, and we will await the outcome of that. As I said at the start of my contribution, Sinn Féin has always believed that we need to find additional moneys for the Health Service and to maximise its funding.
We found £189 million. You do not want that, but the Health Service does. As I said, the Executive have given a commitment that if more moneys are needed, more will be found. We need to ensure that we maximise funding for the Health Service while driving out inefficiency. We do not want to see money going towards bureaucratic administration in the Health Service and towards bonuses for senior consultants. Rather, we want to see money going to the front line. Sinn Féin stands up for delivering for the most vulnerable in society. We deliver for the people of the North. Quite frankly, I believe that the SDLP amendment is an attempt —
I am quite sure that Mr McDevitt will have his opportunity to speak to the House at some stage today and that we all eagerly await that. I cannot wait.
Sinn Féin stands up — [Interruption.]
As I said, I think that the SDLP has failed in being relevant to the electorate, and the electorate will speak in the upcoming election. I am delighted that more money has been found for the Health Service and that the Executive have given a commitment to look for more money.
It is ironic that the two amendments tabled are from two parties that are struggling to stay on the political landscape. As they approach the election, I suspect that this is not going to help them.
Of course, the real reason why they are criticising the Finance Minister today is simply that he was able to come to the House with a Budget and expenditure proposals. That is what has annoyed the folk to my right. The fact that he has been able to do that has, of course, gutted them, and that is the one thing that has perplexed them most. They thought that the Finance Minister would be in no-man’s-land and would not be able to come to the House with any Budget proposals or that, at best, he would be able to come with one-year proposals. However, he has done infinitely better, because he has come to the House with four-year proposals, and that, of course, disappoints them immensely.
Then, of course, we had Mr O’Loan suggesting to his party a few months ago that the best way to stop this was to join up with Sinn Féin to form a pan-nationalist front. However, his suggestion was rebutted. He was sanctioned and put in the naughty box by his present leader, who said, “Look, be quiet for a while, because that is silly sort of talk”.
At least he was an obedient servant; I will say that for him. He went away, was quiet for two or three months and was not seen for a long time, and then they allowed him out.
I will now speak as Chairman of the Justice Committee. I do not intend to go over all the issues around the Department of Justice budget proposals, which I spoke on at Second Stage of the Budget Bill. However, there have been developments and further information in some areas, and I want to cover those today.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
I welcome the final Budget proposals, which, once agreed, will bring certainty to Departments and enable them to get on with planning expenditure over the next four years. Every MLA should acknowledge that. Some will not, but they can answer to the electorate. I previously highlighted that, for the Department of Justice, one of the most crucial issues in the proposed Budget was the £200 million bid from the Chief Constable to the Treasury reserve to fund exceptional security pressures facing the PSNI over the next four years. At that time, I indicated the grave implications of that bid not being met in full. Since then, confirmation has been received that the UK Government will guarantee £199·5 million for the PSNI to help protect the community and tackle the threat from terrorism. Together with the additional £45 million provided by the Executive, that guarantee will enable the Department of Justice to take forward its key priority of protecting as far as possible front line areas across the Department, the voluntary and community sector and day-to-day front line policing. That is very welcome.
I want to express my thanks to the Minister of Finance and Personnel and his Department for their assistance in dealing with the Treasury during those negotiations. The Department of Justice is, of course, still required to deliver savings and will have to ensure that spending is targeted at key priorities. The Department is required to deliver savings of £162 million by 2014-15. In its draft savings plan, the Department has indicated that achieving that will require the suppression of posts, a redeployment in headcount, workforce modernisation, absorbing vacancies, natural wastage, a reduction in office equipment, reduction in training costs and reviews of the frequency of research work.
I knew that I did not need to do that. I checked that Mr McCarthy was in his seat and, on seeing that he was, knew that he would do that and would save me any bother.
Of particular concern to the Committee were the indications from two justice organisations — the Police Ombudsman’s office and the Probation Board — that there may be a need for redundancies to achieve the savings that they are being asked to deliver. The Minister of Justice recently responded to the concerns raised by the Committee, and I welcome the more than £1 million of additional funding that has been provided from within the Department’s overall budget to minimise the impact on the front line service provided by the Probation Board. The additional funding to deal with cases referred to the Police Ombudsman’s office by the Historical Enquiries Team will provide flexibility to reallocate staff in that organisation. I am, however, still concerned that it is difficult to assess the full impact and implications of the proposed savings on the delivery of services. That is unlikely to become apparent until the savings measures are actually implemented.
Following the preparation of the Committee’s written submission on the Budget, additional information provided by the Department highlighted other areas of concern and raised further questions around the level of required savings and their impact, particularly on areas of the justice system that were not apparent initially. The Committee is seeking further clarification and explanation. I am sure that the Minister, who Mr McCarthy spoke about, will provide that post-haste.
I turn to the Prison Service. The recent interim report by the prison review team indicated the need for a substantial and radical change programme. It is also clear that the current financial cost of the Prison Service is unsustainable and must be addressed. That presents a very difficult challenge. The Committee has expressed concerns about the Prison Service’s ability to deliver the savings required. It also has concerns about whether the provision of £13 million for an invest-to-save programme is realistic to achieve the reforms that are being considered. The Committee will wish to closely scrutinise the details of the proposed strategic efficiency and effectiveness programme.
The review team also stated that there was a need for a new custodial facility for women and that they should not be held at Hydebank Wood. The Committee very much welcomes the provision of an additional £27 million capital funding from the Executive to the Department of Justice and supports the Department’s intention to use that to develop the prison estate. It will be a challenge to deliver the requirements for a new women’s facility and the redevelopment or replacement of Magilligan prison. Again, the Committee will wish to keep that under review.
There are challenging times ahead for the Department of Justice in the delivery of its key priorities and services within the expenditure proposals set out in the Budget. Nevertheless, I support the motion.
I thank the Member for that valid point, which is worthy of comment. I must say that the Health Minister adopted a very unhelpful attitude. I thank the Executive for stepping in and saving the situation. Indeed, if it had been left to the Health Minister, we would probably not have had a training depot at Desertcreat.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The SDLP amendment calls on the Finance Minister to abolish the social investment fund and calls for an adequate four-year allocation for the social protection fund to protect vulnerable people from the impact of welfare cuts. It is my understanding that the social investment fund is to provide funds for organisations that deal with the most vulnerable and deprived. Therefore, I am not sure how those proposals would work.
Perhaps the Member will share information with the House that the rest of us have not been privy to. I do not believe that any information or detail has been given about what the social investment fund, as it is called, will be spent on.
In the last election, the SDLP leader made much of going to Westminster to fight cuts, including welfare reform. Unfortunately, she seems to have given up the ghost on that as well. Her recent stance has shown the SDLP to be bereft of constructive economics. Welfare reform will have a huge impact on people across all levels of our society. The so-called reforms are an opportunity to impose punitive cuts on the most vulnerable.
Since the changes were put forward, initially by a British Labour Government and now by the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition, Sinn Féin has opposed the cuts and how the changes will be implemented. When welfare reform measures started to come through, we put forward amendments designed to protect the most vulnerable. We opposed the privatisation of areas of the Social Security Agency. However, we were told by the then Minister for Social Development, now the SDLP leader, that privatisation would not happen. It has happened. It is very apparent, with the introduction of people being medically examined for benefits, that medical support services have been privatised.
We were told that the current Minister for Social Development would not impose sanctions, but that is now happening to lone parents. I have had to deal with several cases in which lone parents, some of whom have children as young as seven, are forced to justify themselves. They are not available for work because of various domestic circumstances. It is welcome to read that a childcare strategy is being proposed in the Budget, because it is much needed. I have not heard much from the SDLP on that issue today or at any other time in discussions about the Budget.
The current Minister for Social Development has told us how he has made an impact on welfare reforms by meeting frequently with Lord Freud in London. As I have said in the past, he might have had more success with Sigmund Freud, as he certainly has not had any success with Lord Freud. Changes are being implemented and will continue to be implemented.
The Minister talked about stretching parity to the limit. He needs to consider the most effective way of ensuring that vulnerable people here are protected and do not become more and more irrelevant. The Committee for Social Development produced a comprehensive report on disability living allowance, which was designed to help people receiving that benefit who were most in need, but it has been ignored. The buck stops with the Minister, and it is time for him to face up to the issues and do something constructive to oppose the cuts, instead of posturing.
No, I will not. Sinn Féin has been instrumental in ensuring that the social protection fund is brought into the Budget to protect the most disadvantaged, people who are on benefits through no fault of their own. I am getting fed up listening to all the so-called experts pontificating on the unemployed and saying that they should be able to get out of the situation in which they find themselves. I have been dealing for a long time with people on benefits, but I have never met anyone who is happy to live on benefits or considers it to be an acceptable situation. It is time that parties here stopped posturing, accepted the realities that we face and started doing something constructive to oppose the cuts and alleviate the hardship that they will undoubtedly cause. At least Sinn Féin will stand up for the underprivileged, the elderly, the disabled and the most disadvantaged in our society.
Does the Member agree that the social investment fund will be delivered in a strategic way that will allow it to make a difference in areas where there is disadvantage and need? The SDLP amendment outlines eight different ways to reallocate the social investment fund across all Departments. It is a very small piece of funding, so it must be targeted. Communities will decide where the social investment fund goes. They will set priorities in their own communities.
No, Mr Brady will not. Mr Brady has been listening to Mr McDevitt for the past few months and has not heard him say anything constructive yet.
On that note, I will carry on. It is my understanding that infrastructure is needed so that people can use the social protection fund. If the social investment fund is abolished and the infrastructure is taken away, it will be very difficult for people to access the social protection fund.
As I said, Sinn Féin will stand up for the underprivileged, elderly and disabled people and the most disadvantaged in society. We will not use their situation for political posturing.
I will make a few comments about the Budget as the Chairperson of the Committee for Education. First, the Committee welcomes the Executive’s allocation of an additional £154 million to the Department of Education for the Budget period. The Committee also notes and welcomes the fact that the Executive Budget document states that that additional £154 million will:
“allow the Education Minister to direct more funding to frontline service delivery.”
That is to be welcomed. However, I will return to that point.
Unfortunately, I must report that the Committee still awaits the Minister of Education’s spending proposals and key information on the impact of her savings proposals. We desperately need to have sight of those. Despite not having that essential information, on 15 February, the Committee for Education provided a substantive response to the Department’s draft budget to the Committee for Finance and Personnel and the Minister of Education. That has now been published in the Committee’s finance report to the House, and it is also available on the Department of Education’s website.
One of the Committee’s key concerns was the impact of the Minister of Education’s proposal to remove substantial money from the aggregated schools budget. That money goes directly towards funding our schools and classrooms. I remind the House that the 2011-12 saving was to be £2·65 million, and this builds to a colossal £180 million in year 4 of the Budget period. That is almost one fifth of the cuts to the school budget. It is only right that the Committee’s concern is registered in the House. I trust that the Education Minister will use much of the additional £114 million of current expenditure to lessen her savings proposals in respect of the aggregated schools budget and thereby protect front line services in our schools and classrooms.
In its response to the Minister of Education’s draft budget proposals, the Committee registered its concerns about the proposed transfer of £41 million from capital to current expenditure. That created a risk that there would be insufficient capital resources to fund statutory maintenance work. For example, there is a massive £250 million backlog of essential health and safety work to be done in our schools. I trust that the Minister of Education will not now seek the Executive’s approval to reclassify the £41 million capital expenditure as current expenditure in 2011-12. As that reclassification would require his and the Executive’s approval, perhaps the Finance Minister could confirm what the situation is. The Committee will also ask that question of senior departmental officials next week, and I hope that we will at last be informed about the Minister’s spending proposals.
I want to make one final and important point about potential additional efficiencies or savings in the Education Department, which the Finance Minister may be able to shed some light on. Back in August 2010, he announced that there would be a joint PEDU and Department of Education efficiency review. The Committee was informed that stage one of that review commenced in mid-November 2010 and was to be reported on within six weeks of that date, with stage two due to commence mid-January and, again, be reported on within six weeks. That was to lead to a joint meeting of the Finance and Personnel Minister and the Education Minister in the week commencing 28 February 2011. Will the Finance Minister confirm whether that has taken place? It would seem that we have now run out of time as regards reporting back to the House about the work of PEDU.
I will now speak as a Member of the House. It was unfortunate that, when we were coming to the House today, we were subjected to a member of the Ulster Unionist Party who, apart from knowing what day of the week it was, did not know much. It was the soon-to-be Member Mr Nesbitt — if the electorate are silly enough to send him to this House. We heard Mr Nesbitt on the radio this morning. He was not sure whether the Budget was a good or bad deal, and he then castigated the Department of Education over the establishment of the ESA. He was right that the Department squandered £10 million on the establishment of the ESA, a body that this party was very clear should not be established, and we gave reasons for that. However, the Ulster Unionist Party then cast doubt in my mind as to whether it was in favour of the establishment of ESA. Perhaps in some of their interventions that party’s Members will confirm whether that is the case.
I move on to the SDLP and its attitude to the Budget. I was wondering whether that party should go through a rebranding exercise. There is a well-known airline in Northern Ireland called Flybe. Perhaps the party should become “FlySDLP”, because it seems happy to propose to sell an airport but is not capable of bringing any logical or sensible proposals on the Budget or the future of Northern Ireland.
We can continue to play politics and try to get the sound bites, but the reality for the people in Northern Ireland is that we still require our services to be funded and supported. It is a shame and disgrace that the two parties on the Benches to my right are prepared this afternoon to abdicate every ounce of responsibility that they promised to the electorate when they were elected.
If he does not want to intervene, maybe he would have the manners to listen.
Let us remind the Member of where this all came from. Was it because of an alliance between the DUP and Sinn Féin, or was it because of an alliance called UCUNF — I think that that was the name, or was it New Force? The people of Northern Ireland will be reminded that the party on the Benches beside us in the House aligned itself with the Tory cuts.
Will the Member explain why the DUP backed the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats on, I think, five different occasions against Opposition motions in the House of Commons? Why did the DUP vote with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in trying to maintain the Programme for Government? Explain yourselves.
It is a new version of McDonald’s for Northern Ireland. Will the people of Northern Ireland forgive any politician in the House who does not see that there has to be collective responsibility? I do not sit comfortably with the fact that we have to have the governance arrangements in Northern Ireland that we do. Those arrangements were, by and large, the architecture of the Ulster Unionist Party. It created the 11 Departments.
Turning to the issue of health, let us look at some of the achievements of our Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey, in reforming the Department over the past few years. He has cut the number of trusts and changed the number of boards, having started in 2007 £600 million behind the position in England. He delivered £700 million in efficiencies in the CSR period that is drawing to a close. That is a mammoth achievement set against a backdrop of year-on-year rises in demand for services of 8%, 9% and 10%, more activity in the Health Service, pressures on technology and new developments and drugs.
So often, we in the Chamber simply debate health issues to the exclusion of social care and public safety responsibilities, such as the Fire and Rescue Service. I heard Members shout about the new college in Desertcreat. They seem to forget that, if the Budget goes through today, there may be the money to build it but no money to run it. That is what they have to focus on and remember when they vote on the Budget.
Who is setting out the case for an increase in health spending? Yes, the Minister, quite rightly, has led the charge in declaring that health needs increased funding. His permanent secretary wrote to the Minister of Finance to detail how the Health Service would effectively go bankrupt, but the Finance Minister seems to ignore that. The Chief Medical Officer has questioned whether we can operate a safe Health Service with this Budget, yet no one from the DUP or Sinn Féin is coming up with any answers.
As regards the reforms, the Health Department is the only one to have fully met its RPA commitments and delivered the savings it was meant to. It has delivered real change on the ground. Where will this hit hardest? Sinn Féin and the SDLP debate the social fund or, as some people refer to it, the slush fund. It is claimed that it will help vulnerable people. How many vulnerable people does the Health Service help? Everyone who goes through its door is a vulnerable person. Everyone who needs social care or domiciliary care is vulnerable, and they need and demand our help and support. That is what this Budget is about. That is what this vote and this debate are about. Are we going to help those people, or are we going to turn our back on them and forget about them and say that we can sort that out the next time?
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I want to raise a point about the social investment fund. It is referred to on page 28 of the Budget document, but it contains little in the way of detail. That confirms the suspicion of your party and mine that this fund is simply a slush fund to be divided up between the DUP and Sinn Féin.
Order. The Member will resume his seat.
I am sorry to say that a couple of individuals to my right are persisting in shouting from a sedentary position. I warn them that they will find it much more comfortable to listen to the debate in here than somewhere else.
I will see whether I have time.
I have considerable concerns about various aspects of the report. Issues that are to be welcomed include moving on generic prescribing, which the Minister is doing as part of delivering real savings through year-on-year improvements. That is the type of thing that will make a huge difference to the Health Service. The DUP and Sinn Féin need to decide which bits of the McKinsey report they are for and which bits they are against. Are they in favour of aligning prescription charges, dental fees and social care contributions with those in England — I did not think that Sinn Féin would end up wanting to do so much of what is done in England — or additional charges for outpatient appointments, GP attendances and inpatient stays along the lines of those in France and Germany —
Apparently, the DUP wants us to accept the entire McKinsey report.
The introduction of such charges would break the founding principles of the NHS, which our party brought to Northern Ireland in 1948 and which we have continued to support. Time and again, Minister McGimpsey has said that the Health Service should continue to be free at the point of delivery. The DUP and Sinn Féin need to tell us whether they want to introduce additional charges for services such as domiciliary care. Is that the road that they want to take the Health Service down? That is the cornerstone of the debate. Do we want that type of Health Service? I accept that the Health Service is constantly evolving, but do we want to keep the principle that it should be free at the point of delivery? That is the difference between them and us. They want to charge people for GP appointments. They are happy to do that because that is what happens in the South, but they can afford that because they have so much money coming in. I believe in the founding principle of the NHS, and we should protect it.
Turning to wider economic issues —
I will if I have time, but I want to make a couple of points.
The First Minister should know better than anyone else about the mess that the coalition Government had to pick up after 13 years of Labour Government. When he first went to Westminster, a Conservative Government had to pick up another Labour Government’s mess. Labour always ends in failure. We now have a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition. Last year, I was a Conservative and Unionist candidate, and the bit in our manifesto of which I was most proud was our commitment to protect health. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government have honoured that commitment.
No, I have only one and a half minutes left.
The coalition Government have honoured the manifesto commitment to health on which we stood and which, incidentally, the Finance Minister has not passed on in full to the Health Minister. He has to realise that we campaigned on that commitment. It is perfectly obvious that we did not win any seats. The DUP admits that its eight MPs have less influence at Westminster than we do with no MPs. Their MPs are irrelevant at Westminster. We need to tie into the national debate — [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I did not realise that I had upset them again.
Mr Hamilton made allegations about us canvassing on doorsteps. Should he not be ashamed of promising on doorsteps last year that the eight or nine MP seats that the DUP hoped to win would deliver? The DUP almost thought that it would be in government. It wanted to form some sort of Liberal Democrat-Labour Government and join all the nationalists as Little Ulster nationalists. The DUP wanted to do that instead of working in the national interest.
Order, please. I am sure that Members will want to discuss that matter over lunch. I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm, when the next Member to speak will be Mr Pat Ramsey.
The sitting was suspended at 1.05 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)