Benefit Tribunals

Part of Northern Ireland Assembly – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 14th February 2012.

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Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 3:15 pm, 14th February 2012

Not very good on the pronunciation of certain place names in Northern Ireland — however.

That is why we need to ensure that we, as Members of the House, through the Finance Committee and our individual Committees that have a responsibility, place on our Committees on a regular basis the issue of finance, the issue of scrutiny and the issue of asking questions.

In October 2011, the Committee had just been briefed by the Department and was informed of a £21·7 million bid. The Committee was particularly concerned at the lack of communication that the Department had with the Committee and individual schools; for example, principals and boards of governors were written to in November 2011 advising them of the need to calculate their budgets and submit them to the Department on the basis of a three-year plan. A great deal of time and effort was involved. I declare an interest, as a member of the board of governors of two schools, Ballymoney High School and Ballymoney Model Integrated Primary School. The stark reality that faced those schools was that they had to prepare on the basis of the letter from the Department in November, which gained its genesis from the Budget process — the Budget agreed in this House. Undoubtedly, that process caused major concern to many schools across Northern Ireland. I will come back to that point in a moment.

Another issue was that it then transpired that an extra £40 million had been made available to the Department of Education in mid-November and a further £120 million in January. However, it was not until the beginning of February that schools were informed of the impact that that additional funding would have on their individual budgets. That, understandably, yet again created uncertainty, lack of clarity and concern.

I accept that there is an issue in relation to the review of the financial process, but this is a clear example of how it works in practice in one Department. I can speak only on behalf of the Department that my Committee has a responsibility to scrutinise, to question and to query. The point that I am trying to make, and the relationship that this has to what we are debating on the Budget, is this. We believe that schools are all-important and there for the right reasons — to educate our young people — and that they should, therefore, be given all the relevant information at the right time. Does anyone in this House really believe that the process being put in place is useful or yielding the right results?

I leave that question for Members to consider.

The Committee welcomed the additional funding announced by the Finance Minister. I commend him because it was as a result of his intervention in the end-year finance (EYF) crisis, at that famous meeting, which I think was in Armagh, that that issue was addressed. I commend the First Minister and the Finance Minister for their work in relation to the crisis that developed as a result of the November letter, which led to huge concerns about financial planning.

In the January monitoring round, the Finance Minister raised serious concerns about that process of forecasting. He said:

“I am obviously disappointed that DE has surrendered such a large amount of resource, and I have asked my officials to liaise with their colleagues in that Department on improving their forecasting next year.” — [Official Report, Vol 71, No 2, p64, col 2].

It is a concern that we still do not really know what the long-term, sustainable future of that element of our financial processes will be. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to have in place a properly structured and understood process that ensures that delivery of those issues is for the best for schools.

I will now make general comments as a Member. I want to raise a concern about financial planning that needs to be underscored in the House. I said that I would return to the letter that was issued on 25 November, which clearly showed a reduction of -5%, -6% and -11%. That was the reality in November. As a result of that letter going out, I constructed a correspondence that subsequently went to the First Minister setting out that particular financial planning, given in the Budget and set out in all the information given by the Department of Education, and the implications that that budget would have for our schools.

Let me give you one example, namely fixed costs with regard to buildings and maintenance, which had already been reduced to a minimum in previous years. I remind Members that utility bills have risen by 39% and gas by almost 20%. There have also been significant increases in, for example, examination fees. The biggest difficulty that schools faced was in average teacher costs. Even through the pay freeze, salary costs continue to rise, there is a natural drift of about 2%. Therefore, a 4·5% reduction in budget would require a significantly larger cut in teaching staff, probably in the region of 10% to 15%. Those are some of the issues that impact, and the reality for us, if you take the announcement yesterday by CCMS, is that they will have a detrimental impact on the ability to deliver good-quality education in our schools.

I will conclude with one other example. In the Budget process, the Department of Education made it abundantly clear that it will be removing, in 2013, the money for the entitlement framework. The Department told us that that process was about enhancing and widening the experience and availability of courses for young people. In principle, we can generally agree with that, albeit the Department has decided to phase in that process. Where it was once 24 to 27 subjects, it is now 18 to 21. In light of that budgetary decision to remove by 2013 the allocation for the entitlement framework, the challenge for all schools is to find the resource and make the money available out of the reduced budgets that they have been given. That is another pressure, concern and cost for which they must provide. Therefore, I appreciate the concern that exists.

Given the Finance Minister’s previous role as the Chairperson of the Committee for Education and his insight in that area, I appreciate all that he has done and the expertise and knowledge that he has brought to discussions on the issue. However, I make this plea to Members: we cannot continue on the current trajectory with the education budget and expect to have the same outcome. Number pressures exist. Let us be clear about the redundancy package that the Minister has announced. It is not about letting the most expensive staff members go so that cheaper versions can be substituted for them. No, it means job losses. I have written to the Minister. He has confirmed in the House that the process is not about letting some staff go in order to reallocate posts and allow more staff to come in. It is about letting an element of schools’ most valuable resource go. I will repeat what I have already said in the House: a Patten-style redundancy process in education will end in the same way as it did in the police service. Thousands of years of experience disappeared. Remember what happened in the police process. Some years later, the service had to recruit staff, particularly for certain elements of police investigation.

I say to the House that if it values children — we all say that we do — let us look seriously at how the Budget will impact on children’s future education provision.