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Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly approves the programme of expenditure proposals for 2016-17 as announced by the Minister of Finance and Personnel on 17 December 2015 and set out in the Budget document laid before the Assembly on 13 January 2016. — [Mr Storey (The Minister of Finance and Personnel).]
I remember saying last year that the Budget-setting process was very difficult. Well, it is even more difficult this year. The Chancellor's spending review announcement was late. The Fresh Start timetable means that there will not be adequate scrutiny by the Statutory Committees. In fact, the Executive have already agreed the Budget. A further complication is that the figures, which have been produced on the basis of the new nine-Department structure, represent a problem in itself. Baseline positions of resource DEL have been reworked from a 12-Department model to a nine-Department model. Departments with existing responsibility for functions have decided how these should be applied to the spending areas of the nine future Departments. Does this mean, for example, that arm's-length bodies will be given a budget that will reflect the Minister's priorities, only to find that, two months later, their new Minister has different priorities? This would make it very difficult for these bodies to plan ahead and secure adequate staffing. We have been told that the Executive have agreed to Budget flexibilities in the 2016 June monitoring round, but we do not know what resources may then be available.
Turning now to the detail of the Budget, ring-fenced resource DEL is now being handled differently and, we are told, by the Treasury itself. Bearing in mind the difficulties that have been experienced in the past with depreciation and impairments, is the Minister satisfied that there will be no unpleasant surprises when these figures are allocated in due course? A substantial sum of £115·2 million has been identified for a range of projects, some of which has been included in previous Budgets and not been spent. Can the Minister give an assurance that, this time, the resources will be used and not reallocated to another holding position?
Certain areas of the Budget have been protected. For example, the police budget will be reduced by only 2%. However, the police are currently unable to provide the same service. There is a diminution of the service to the public. That is not acceptable. Neighbourhood policing is sparse and the new police districts are much too remote. Only yesterday, we had the Fire and Rescue Service at Stormont. It is facing a cut of over £4 million. It has told us that it is not operating at all times within its own safety limits and, at present, cannot fund ongoing training requirements. Surely that needs to be addressed urgently.
In the Budget, there are several flagship projects, which have been decided by the Executive. This will certainly reduce the Minister's discretion when allocating Departments' capital DEL. Perhaps, the Minister can advise us whether these projects have all been approved to proceed.
One of the new Departments is to be the Department for Communities. It will incorporate part of DCAL's functions. Non-ring-fenced resource DEL is approximately £83 million. Again, can the Minister advise on the breakdown of that figure? There appears to be no detail.
Once again, a friend of mine — financial transactions capital — is included in the Budget. In the past, our utilisation of that capital has been at patchy at best. The current figure of £57·8 million has been allocated to four Departments. Is the Minister satisfied that it will be spent in 2016-17? A further £55·8 million in FTC has been earmarked for the Northern Ireland investment fund. Can the Minister confirm that the fund is now ready to operate? Have all the previous FTC moneys that were set aside for the fund, going back several years, been reallocated over past years or is there any carry-forward?
Considerable activity has taken place over recent years on asset management. A unit was set up to maximise asset utilisation and disposal. In the current year, 2015-16, the Budget envisaged that the unit would deliver £50 million of capital receipts. Has the £50 million target been reached, and, if not, how much was raised in receipts and what lessons were learned from the unit's work in that area in 2015-16?
Former Minister of Finance and Personnel Mr Hamilton mentioned in his statement on the 2015-16 Budget:
"our economy and therefore our tax base isn’t strong enough to stand on its own."
At present, there is a fiscal deficit in Northern Ireland of approximately £9·2 billion, yet the written ministerial statement on the 2016-17 Budget does not mention any additional revenue-raising measures. Did the Executive consider that, and, if they did, what was their rationale for ruling out such measures?
Finally, I will return to the subject that has not been resolved. I refer to the review of the financial process that was agreed by the Committee and supported by the House. After several years, it has not been approved by the Executive. The Education Minister has held back that important issue, but it is necessary to move on and change the Budget process into one that provides direct read-across and accountability and that is a modern, logical approach to accounting. Several Ministers have failed to deliver on that. I hope, Minister, that you will be able to sort that out at long last.
In opening, I will say that I hope that the Minister, if he is still in place this time next year, will come up with something a bit more meaningful, well consulted on and better put together than what is before us today. It is hardly a surprise that I can confirm that the Alliance Party will oppose the Budget today on the grounds of process and substance, which are the same reasons why our Ministers opposed it. The Budget was circulated to Ministers at about 9.00 pm on 16 December in preparation for an Executive meeting at 11.00 am on 17 December. People need to sleep. Consultation was non-existent. As on previous occasions, the DUP and Sinn Féin have frankly displayed a disregard for the democratic process and contempt for the views of their nominal partners in government; namely, the three or four smaller parties. The resultant document cobbled together by two parties is not in any way strategic. We recognise that 2016-17 is a transitional year and is to be followed by a four-year Budget that will hopefully be properly consulted on and will relate to the Programme for Government. However, that is not an excuse for financial proposals that entirely miss the opportunity to begin to reform the health service budget, take necessary actions on education, address the cost of a divided society and invest in the economy.
The Minister in his opening remarks mentioned corporation tax, as just about everybody else did. The date for the devolution of corporation tax is set at 1 April 2018 and the rate is to be 12·5%. It remains to be seen how that will be financed, but is anyone listening to the explicit warnings, which others have referred to today, from our universities and further education colleges that, unless we produce graduates and output with the necessary skills, we will not be able to satisfy the demand for labour from the very companies that —
I thank the Member for giving way. I trust that he was listening, because he is a Member whom I hold in the highest regard, having worked with him for a number of years.
I have listened to the concerns expressed about further and higher education. My predecessor gave a commitment, approved by the Executive, of £5 million. Today, I have given an assurance that we will add £20 million to that. Is it enough? We could go round the Chamber, and people will always be looking for more, but I am listening to the concerns because it is a vital issue.
I thank the Minister for his intervention. I should not have let him in because I could just have read my next sentence, which is that I want to welcome formally what the Finance Minister said today —
— and his commitment to allocating an additional £20 million. I hold him in high regard, just as he appears to hold me in high regard.
It is a fact that we have disinvested in higher education for a number of years. The £16 million cut from last year's budget compounds an existing structural gap relative to the rest of the UK of approximately £40 million, so we are playing catch-up. Frankly, Minister, the experts in this field — the university chancellors and so on who have been talking about this recently — are not talking about £20 million; they are talking about five times that, but I acknowledge the start that you are making.
The Budget prioritises health and education at the expense of the economy, which is supposed to be the priority in the Programme for Government. The Executive — rather, the two-party grouping that makes the decisions offers no challenge to the reform of inefficient public services such as health and education. There is no attempt to address the cost of division. What happened to the commitments in Together: Building a United Community, which was two and a half years ago; the Stormont House Agreement, which was over a year ago; and the Audit Commission report, through the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre, which is presumably gathering dust somewhere?
Instead, we have political pet projects like the social investment fund duplicating what is already being done, or should be already being done, by other Departments. That includes neighbourhood renewal, the employment service, the Pathway to Success strategy for NEETs, the economic inactivity strategy and the European social fund, which seeks to bypass the normal procedures for decision-making based on bids and the assessment of merit. The result has been stalemate, and 95% of a nominal £80 million budget remains unspent after five years. It is probably time for the Minister to consider winding up that scheme and reallocating the money to something useful. He would not be short of suggestions on how to use it, that is for sure.
I can talk about other Departments; I will not major on just the Department for Employment and Learning. Under the Department of Education, there are 50,000 empty desks — the Minister will be familiar with this argument — and no meaningful approach that I can see to area-based planning, which might have some effect on that figure. A programme that has been much discussed today — replacing older teachers with new graduates — has merit, Minister, but I am sure that you can see the logic in not producing, year on year, an oversupply of new teachers. Perhaps you could persuade your ministerial colleague the Minister of Education to do something about that, given that he does not pay for it; you and the Department for Employment and Learning are paying for it.
I could comment on the provision for almost any Department, especially those controlled by DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers, but time does not permit. The House might reasonably ask what Alliance suggests, rather than being totally negative. We would not be starting from here, but, if we were, we would include a commitment to publish the independent audit of the cost of division, which is part of the Stormont House Agreement. We would abolish the social investment fund, which needlessly duplicates what other Departments can do, and reinvest that money in a myriad of other services. We would immediately halt any plans to relocate the DARD headquarters to Ballykelly. We think that that is a nonsense. We asked the Executive to make a commitment to legal aid reform, and I am told that a commitment was included in an earlier draft of the Budget paper. To go back to my main point, we would significantly increase investment in skills in order to better prepare for a lower rate of corporation tax.
I will end where I started. This corporation tax cut is coming over the horizon at a galloping pace and, if we are not ready for it, we will be totally embarrassed. The companies that already are having to go outside of Northern Ireland looking for skilled labour will find themselves in an impossible position.
Whilst, as the Minister said, he could go around every single Member in this Chamber and ask them for their wish list of things to spend the Budget on, we have to be realistic and realise that we have a certain amount of money to spend, and we can only spread it around as far as it goes. I think that this is a good Budget, and I commend the Minister, who has only been in place for a week, for bringing it forward.
I think that it has been lost on some Members that this is a one-year Budget. It is not dealing with all of the strategic priorities for Departments over the next five years. It is a one-year Budget to get us through to the election to allow the new Departments to set their strategic priorities and deal with the Programme for Government and things around that. I think that it is a good Budget in that there is not an overcommitment. The Minister said that this is the first time in years that there has not been an overcommitment in the Budget. It is unfortunate that there are Members who do not recognise that.
It is no surprise that Claire Hanna, who is not in her place, was against the Budget. Whilst she spoke well around how she thought that the Budget delivers nothing, she made no attempt whatsoever to speak positively around any aspect of it. There was not one word on how to do it any better or on which Department to take money from to pay for what she wants. Maybe the SDLP will stick with its policy of selling off the City of Derry Airport again to pay for its additional requests.
I believe that this Budget and the flagship projects show that the Executive have given a commitment to delivering projects across Northern Ireland. In my constituency, it is welcome news that the Minister for Regional Development recently announced the dualling of the A6 from Randalstown to Castledawson. I believe that that is a good-news project. The fact that it is not just an amount of money for one year but is a year-on-year commitment up to 2021 is good news; it is something that will be committed to and delivered.
The community safety college in Desertcreat is another flagship project, and the Budget provides evidence that the Executive have committed to that project. I am not going to try to pretend that a mess has not been made of this up to now. It has been long enough on the books to have been built twice or three times. How and ever, it is good that the Executive have committed to ensuring that something will be built on this site, and I look forward to see that happening, as no doubt will the others who represent that constituency.
It is unfortunate that there are Members who are making very little of these flagship projects, and I am truly surprised by that when I look at some of the other projects that are on the list. It includes the mother and children's hospital, Belfast rapid transport and the Belfast transport hub. Millions and millions of pounds have been allocated to deliver these projects, but that seems to be worthless, and no thinking has gone into this whatsoever.
I see that Mr Nesbitt is in his place. It would be wrong of me not to mention how wrong he was in making a sweeping statement prior to the Fresh Start Agreement in which he said that the deal would include half a billion pounds of borrowing and would "mortgage our children's future". Unless I have missed something, mortgages are not a bad thing.
I thank the Member for that information. However, anyone who believes that borrowing is a bad thing either is a fool or is kidding themselves. Borrowing is not a bad thing as long as you service the debt. It is important that people service the debt, and that is every bit the same for people in their home as it is for the Executive. It is shameful —
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I think that is an incredible statement. Yes, you could make an argument for borrowing to invest in capital projects but not for borrowing just to pay your way or, indeed, at times, to make people redundant. Mr Nesbitt's point was that it will cost £60 million to service the debt each year, and we are going to push up borrowing from £2·1 billion to £3 billion. That is an incredible figure when you look at the scale of Northern Ireland's finances.
I cannot disagree with you; it is an incredible figure. Again, if we look at the voluntary exit scheme, we see that £183 million was borrowed against it, but £160 million has been saved, and that will continue year-on-year. Is that a bad thing? I do not believe that it is.
Whilst I do not expect that we will get support from the whole way around the Chamber — it seems that that will be the case — I hope that we will consider Mr Nesbitt's getting it wrong in respect of the Budget: there was no additional borrowing in the Fresh Start Agreement that was not already built into the Stormont House Agreement. Again, maybe he will apologise for that like he apologised for the singing of our national anthem.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to address the House initially as the Chair of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and I thank the Minister for providing the chance for the debate.
Looking at the 2016-17 budget compared with that for 2015-16, we see that the Executive have allocated the Department of Health an additional £128 million. That is, indeed, welcome news. However, even with that increase, the Department will face a difficult year ahead because of budgetary pressures. Officials came before the Committee last week to provide us with some further information on what the financial picture for 2016-17 is looking like. The cost pressures facing the Department continue to increase each year and are roughly running at between 5% and 6% each year. They are typically linked to pay and non-pay inflation; the costs of meeting the healthcare needs of an ageing population; and continued developments in healthcare technologies and treatments. That trend is expected to continue into 2016-17 and beyond.
Of key concern to the Committee is how the Department will allocate its budget for 2016-17 across a range of spending areas. When the officials were before us last week, we asked them directly for information on the Minister's priorities. That information is crucial because, logically, spending decisions should be informed by ministerial priorities. However, officials were only able to provide us with a very broad brush picture of the Minister's priorities. They told us that the Minister’s — I quote —
“overall aim and vision is to build a world-class health and social care service” and that he wants to:
"drive up the quality of health and social care for patients, clients and carers, to improve outcomes, to safeguard the vulnerable, and to ensure that patients, clients and carers have the best possible experience in every aspect of their treatment, care and support".
Nobody would disagree with those high-level objectives. However, they provide us with no detail as to how the £4·88 billion will be spent in 2016-17. The officials advised that further information on the Minister’s priorities would be set out in the commissioning plan direction for 2016-17. However, that document will not be with the Committee for comment until late January or early February, which is obviously too late for the purposes of the debate today.
Members were keen to hear how the Department would approach the significant waiting times for elective care appointments. Again, officials could not advise how much money was going to be allocated to that issue. They said it would depend on what savings could be found in other areas. In the Committee’s eyes, the rationale behind this approach is not clear. Surely, if something is a priority, money should be allocated to it.
Committee members were also concerned that in the areas where savings would be made there may be a tendency to look at quick savings, rather than take a longer-term approach. For example, the Committee was firmly of the view that we would not want to see trusts cutting back on domiciliary care packages as a quick fix to balance the budget for 2016-17. We were also concerned that the Health and Social Care Board and the PHA are charged with scrutinising the trusts’ savings plans, rather than the Department itself, given the recent proposal to dismantle the board.
That then brought us to the issue of how moneys for voluntary exit were being dealt with in 2016-17. The Minister has announced a major reform of health and social care. Obviously, that will have an impact in relation to voluntary redundancy packages for some staff. However, there is no allocation for voluntary exit in the 2016-17 budget; instead, it appears that the issue will be dealt with through June monitoring. This seems unusual, given the scale of the reform agenda proposed by the Department of Health.
Key questions remain unanswered about the spending plans for 2016-17, questions that are of vital interest to Members, healthcare professionals and, indeed, the wider community. They are questions such as these: when will a pay award be found for nurses in the 2016-17 budget and when will additional training places for GPs be found in the 2016-17 budget?
While the Committee welcomes the additional money for Health, we are disappointed at the level of detail available on how the Department’s budget will be spent.
I would now like to make a few comments as a Sinn Féin MLA. Workforce planning has been and continues to be a mess. Three-plus years into the Transforming Your Care process, the Minister still cannot tell us the size of the workforce that we require. Nursing is in crisis. There are 784 vacancies — 3·8% of the workforce population — in the nursing workforce. If that pay situation is not resolved, these people will simply vote with their feet and leave.
I thank the Member for giving way. The Member has not seen my speech yet, but it is already clear that her concerns are reflected in what I am prepared to deliver to the House, and, in that context, I will vote against the Budget. Given your concerns, will Sinn Féin also vote against it?
I thank the Member for his intervention. Our position has been very clear — Mr McKinney knows that too well — in relation to alternative solutions to the austerity plan that is being driven elsewhere, external to the House, in moving forward.
I reiterate the point about the crisis in nursing pay. We were told — this is an important point — only last week that the 1% pay increase will cost £23 million. Four days previous to that, it was £38 million. The buck clearly stops with the Minister and the Department to find the money. It is not acceptable at a time when we see pressures on front-line staff that, over the last five years, almost £55 million has been paid out in bonuses to senior consultants. Before I hear the retort that that is a contractual arrangement, I remind the House that the court process around those clinical excellence schemes found that those bonuses are quite clearly at the Minister's discretion.
Mental health is a major issue. I suggest to the House today that spend on services —
— and I suggest to the House today that, if we are genuine about the implementation of Budget reform and, indeed, future Budgets, we should move to a genuine public health model that targets health inequalities to the core.
I must remind Members that we have a very long list and that if people eat into their time there will be less for other people. I call Mr Tom Buchanan, Chairperson of the Social Development Committee. Apologies, I have promoted you wrongly.
I am nearly there. First, I congratulate and commend my friend and colleague Mervyn Storey for taking on the role as Finance Minister and wish him well. As we come to our Budget debate today, many challenges lie ahead, not least in employment and learning, on which I want to focus my remarks today. However, while there are challenges that we must tackle, we also have an opportunity to build a solid foundation that supports economic growth, strengthens social inclusion, inspires people to achieve their aspirations and provides hope for future generations.
The establishment of the new Department for the Economy, bringing together the further and higher education sectors alongside our business community, will, I believe, play a key role in continuing to strengthen the economy and to drive it forward. There is no doubt that, in the past few years, just like all other sectors of society, further and higher education felt the pain of the economic recession, which not only created many challenges for them but is still having an impact on them today as they continue to deliver for their students. However, as we all know, challenges always bring new opportunities and innovative ways of delivering.
Reskilling and upskilling our people is essential to give everyone the opportunity to realise their full potential and to make a valuable contribution to society. That is one of the challenges that must be properly addressed if we want people ready for the devolution of corporation tax.
I thank the Member for giving way. In the context of his recent remarks, will he explain how a £12 million cut in the training budget for undergraduates and a cut to graduate places is consistent with the ambition that he has just reflected?
If the Member had been listening, he would have realised that we said that many challenges have to be faced, but we will face up to those and we will move on. I was glad to hear the Finance Minister in his opening remarks today announce that not only is there the commitment of £5 million in this Budget for the skills agenda but that it is his intention to make available another £20 million at the June monitoring round.
One of the areas of concern has not only been the reskilling of our people but the upskilling of our 18- to 24-year-olds. If we fail to invest in them, we will be in danger of losing them to other parts of the UK or further afield. If we want to see continual growth and stability in our economy, we must continue to invest in our youth, who are tomorrow's workforce.
Investing in our skills is also a key element of the rebuilding and rebalancing of our economy. In order to exert the best value from the devolution of corporation tax, we must ensure that Northern Ireland has within its shores a skilled and talented pool of people who are ready to take advantage of employment opportunities as they arise, whether that is within the local business sector, through indigenous business growth or through foreign direct investment.
While the Department for Employment and Learning has a number of ongoing strategies, I believe that there will be a job of work to do within the new Department for the Economy to ensure that what is funded actually provides for and meets the needs of our employers and foreign direct investors. Far too often, in Committee, we hear from employers who are especially looking for electricians, plumbers and welders, yet the training experience that potential employees have received has failed to meet the criteria that those employers are after. As we move into the future within the constraints that exist, it will be more important than ever that what is funded actually meets the required needs of employers. That is the most important issue for the funding of reskilling and upskilling going forward. What is delivered must need the needs that employers have and require.
Despite all the challenges that we face and the hurdles that are sometimes put in the way, I believe that the extra £20 million that will come to the Department for the Economy in the June monitoring round is a good news story that will be welcomed by the further and higher education sectors. Mind you, I am not so sure that the SDLP will get a clap on the back for refusing to support the Budget and this extra money for the reskilling and upskilling of our people. There will also be road infrastructure programmes, one in my constituency and one in the neighbouring constituency, and, again, the SDLP appear to be denying the money for those programmes. I am not so sure that they will get a clap on the back for doing that either.
It has been clearly started that it is one-year Budget. I believe that it is good Budget and one that is worthy of support by the House.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle — a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá brón orm. I would like to say a few words as the Chair of the Social Development Committee. First, I welcome the Budget and congratulate the Minister, who, as Members are aware, was the Minister for Social Development until very recently. I am not sure that you would describe his new post as an elevation; you might even describe it as going from the frying pan into the fire. Nevertheless, members of the Social Development Committee who have grown accustomed to working with the Minister in his former capacity as Social Development Minister would hope, dream and like to think that he might perhaps bring some of his insights from the great and glorious work of his former Department to his decision-making in the new Department of Finance. That is not to say that we are looking for any type of favouritism, but we would like to think that his experience will enable him to be continually more progressive in respect of housing, disadvantage and working with the social sectors of the community and the voluntary sector.
All that having been said, I think that we are at an important stage. It is important to remind ourselves that, just a matter of weeks ago, we were in very great danger of not having an Assembly or the other political institutions, never mind a Budget. It is welcome that we are here today with a Budget.
On behalf of the Social Development Committee, I would say that a one-year Budget is appropriate enough, particularly as the Department for Social Development merges into the new Department for Communities. It will allow for the Department to be subsumed into a larger Department and to work its way through the various new responsibilities.
I ask the Minister for some clarification on the £1 million de minimis rule whereby, in the new Department, heads of service units, for example, may have to apply to the Department or the Executive for spends of £1 million-plus. That could lead to a lot of bureaucracy, and decision-making being slowed down.
I appreciate that the process will be dealt with more holistically, if you like, in the June monitoring round. Nevertheless, I ask the Minister to give some clarity to that.
The Department briefed the Committee on 10 December and highlighted the fact that the cuts that it could have been facing were been anywhere from 5% to 10%. I think I can safely say that Members will be relieved that the 5·7% cut announced in the Budget is at least at the lesser end of the scale. Even in his new capacity as Finance Minister, the Minister will be aware that the Committee has routinely scrutinised the spend and is particularly focused on the provision for social housing, the protection of regeneration, and neighbourhood renewal funding streams and other streams within the voluntary and community sector. The Minister will obviously be fully aware that the Committee is fully intent on working with the new Minister, Maurice Morrow, to try to see where we can minimise the impact of any cuts to service delivery, although we have no doubt that, as other Members said, there will be impacts on service delivery as these budgets are delivered.
That being said, it is important that we have a Budget. We accept that it is for one year. We appreciate that it will be ironed out in the June monitoring round and obviously thereafter. I suppose that is particularly helpful in the context of the elections coming up in May. Once the new Assembly and new Departments are established and the new Programme for Government is agreed to, the Departments and all the Ministers will have to work with their Committees and their members to do the best that they possibly can for the incoming year. More importantly, let us hope that, with the fresh start perspective, we can build for the future.
As a Member of Sinn Féin, I welcome the Budget and fully accept that there are difficult challenges within it. I have yet to hear from those who say they oppose the Budget. I put it on the record that some of those who say they will oppose this Budget have opposed every single Budget since 2007, so there is nothing new in that. More importantly, they continue to offer no alternative and nothing by way of saying, "Here's how we can do better". Yes, they can criticise and ask questions, but I really do question the integrity of a party that wants to sit in the Executive and then wants to question every other Minister about where their money is coming from or how they are spending it. Although I have said in previous debates that, if I had my way, there would not be an opposition provided for here because I think we are still coming out of conflict and all the parties have a responsibility to work together to tackle the big issues, if people are really so set on acting like an opposition, they should at least have the courage to join it, if there was one. They certainly have not provided any up to now.
I think that what is important for me, and certainly for my party, is that we have hopefully managed to stabilise the political situation here with the embedding of these institutions. What we now have to do, and I have welcomed the comments from the First Minister and deputy First Minister and other colleagues in the last while, is to build on that. It is not enough that we have rescued this institution; we need to make it work in the best interests of all the people we represent. Certainly in my capacity as Chair and member of the Social Development Committee, a lot of my focus in recent times has been on the need for the provision of social housing and tackling disadvantage at its core within hard-pressed communities. Communities need to see the benefit of the process that we are all involved in and are supposedly giving some leadership to. I encourage the Minister to make sure that, where cuts have to fall on Departments, we protect the most vulnerable.
In that context, I put on record my personal thanks and gratitude to the expert panel that today produced and published the welfare mitigation package. I have not read it in full but I understand that it does the job of determining where the allocation of £500 million —
I thank the Member for that intervention. I think the Member will know that a figure of over £500 million has been identified for mitigation for the cuts being imposed by the British Government and that there are other cuts. Obviously, that £500 million will not allay or assuage all the problems, but I firmly believe and am confident that it will go a considerable distance towards supporting those who are most vulnerable in our society. I look forward to hearing further details from Professor Evason and her colleagues when they are in a position to do that.
I welcome the fact that we have a Budget today that stabilises the political institutions, which now starts to give certainty to the Departments and, more importantly, the recipients of the Budget in the time ahead, at least for the next 12 months. It is important that we stabilise the situation with the Budget. The Budget was hard fought for but does not go anywhere far enough in addressing all the cuts imposed by London. I am satisfied, however, that, under the circumstances, the parties involved in the negotiations did as good a job as they possibly could.
The SDLP will not support this Budget, and I will be making a very critical speech about it. I will not, however, question the integrity of anybody in the Chamber. I do not believe that that is a good way to go about our business. I will begin by congratulating the Minister on his elevation; he has clearly shown himself to be a very competent and capable Minister, and I look forward to working with him in his new role.
It has to be said, however, that, if yesterday was Blue Monday, this is truly a Blue Tuesday Budget. As one of the final acts of Stormont's current leadership, this is a Budget that is depressingly familiar. There is no fresh start here. It is a Budget that is characterised by its lack of ambition, lack of creativity and lack of ideas. It is a Budget that has been cobbled together by two parties whose only interest seems to be staying in power.
No, I will not.
This is the height of their ambition — nothing more. Our new joint First Minister may well decry the fact that Stormont has become a watchword for stagnation. She is, of course, right, but she does not seem to understand that she must take some responsibility for that reality. The DUP and Sinn Féin have now been in charge of this place for nine years. By any standards, in any other job, that is time enough to take some responsibility and be held accountable. Some would say that it is time enough to be sacked.
As my colleague Claire Hanna said, this is a Budget that gives up and gives in. Instead of investing in people, it invests £700 million in redundancies. Instead of investing in the future, it cuts into services for our children and young people. Instead of fighting crime, it cuts the police and prisons budget further. That is welcome news for the criminals who attack our elderly people and burgle our homes. This is the Budget that is before us today.
I want to say something positive. In fairness, there is one stand-out area of ambition. They have identified moneys for seven major capital projects: part of the A5; part of the A6; the Belfast rapid transit system; the Belfast transport hub; the mother and children's hospital; Desertcreat; and regional and subregional stadia. According to today's Budget, those will cost £1·1 billion, yet this Budget tells us that these projects are to be funded from the £100 million of borrowing provided under the Stormont House Agreement. Getting £100 million to stretch to cover £1·1 billion of capital projects is some ambition indeed. It is an expression of optimism comparable only with the plenty provided by the biblical loaves and fishes. I fear, however, that there is a key difference here, in that there are no messiahs on either the Sinn Féin or DUP Benches. In reality, someone is either bad at maths or bad at lying.
With my limited time, I will focus in particular on education and skills. Forty-eight hours after the two vice chancellors of our two universities gave a warning on Radio Ulster that higher education faced dire choices, this Budget cuts a further £24 million from higher education and skills. Two thousand student places have already been cut, and this Budget ensures that that number will spiral further.
Not only does that mean that more and more of our young people are forced to leave this place in search of education and training, it leaves a huge hole in our economy. That continued exodus of our young people is hurting our economy, hurting our families, hurting our communities and hurting our ability to grow jobs. As Professor Patrick Johnston pointed out this week:
"We're bringing corporation tax in in 2018, we actually today don't have the graduates to fill those jobs".
The attack on education is particularly significant in Northern Ireland. Ever since the 1947 Act, education has played a massive role in the story of the North. History records its role in creating the civil rights generation. That is something that obviously runs deep in the hearts and minds of the nationalist community. We know the importance of access to education. We know the change it can bring to the lives of individuals and communities. For Sinn Féin to acquiesce today in stripping that progress away, piece by piece, student place by student place, for them to be helping to remove that access to education for this generation is nothing short of a disgrace. They are walking on very dangerous ground. Let them be warned: the Nationalist community in the North — this generation — will not forgive them for it.
No doubt they will say that the criticisms of the Budget by the SDLP are about the election. Well for once, they are right: it is about the election. It is about the choice that May's election will offer. This Budget exposes the personality behind the power. It seems their only belief, their only ambition is for themselves. They will accuse us —
No thank you. They will accuse us of negativity. They are not great at taking criticism; they get very annoyed. Despite their shouts of negativity, it is, in fact, they who have invested most in the currency of cynicism. They are cynical about what politics in this place can actually achieve. They believe that Stormont only has to exist, nothing more. Theirs is the ideology of keeping the show on the road, nothing more. They believe that that will be enough for the electorate. It is as crude a calculation as this Budget.
We do not think that people will be fooled. In the SDLP, we believe in more. There is £1·7 billion: £1 billion in the RRI, £600 million in the HS2 consequential and £100 million in the Northern Ireland investment fund that could be used to prioritise and to achieve more. We believe that the politics of this place can reach for more. We believe we can have different priorities — different priorities that invest in people and in the future. We believe that the North can do better than this. We believe that this place has to do better than this. That is the choice in May. That is the alternative on offer.
I will restrict my comments to the contents of the Budget 2016-17 document. It is a very interesting document. On the one hand, it is very light, particularly light on detail of how Minister Storey and his Executive colleagues intend to spend the £11 billion at their disposal in the next financial year. It is very, very light. On the other hand, it is heavier in terms of economic context and, indeed, the context for publishing this Budget at this stage.
The Fresh Start Agreement committed the Executive to having a Budget agreed before the end of this month, and that required the Budget to be expedited in a manner that is different from how it was done in previous years. Did it really? What do we mean by "different"? We mean with no consultation and little debate. The document represents the agreed Executive position on the 2016-17 Budget. Does it really? Surely it just represents the agreed position between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Actually, perhaps that is a more honest way of going forward with this devolved Government. The Executive are not a four-party Executive; they are a two-party Executive. The DUP and Sinn Féin have the votes, and they got them at the polls, so fair enough.
Let us look at the economic and social context. The growth forecast for Northern Ireland is 1·9%, although they are honest enough to say that the latest data suggests that the recovery is losing momentum. What they do not say is whether it is 1·9% or 1·8% or 1·7%. Fifty miles away, the people of the Republic of Ireland are enjoying 6% growth. How come the Government in Dublin can do 6% growth, yet the Executive cannot even do 2%? I look forward to the Minister's response to that.
Living standards are mentioned on page 7. This is great: I like gross value added (GVA) as a measure of living standards and prosperity. Ours increased — fair enough — by 2·5% between 2013 and 2014. However, the UK figure was 4·6%, the English figure was 4·6% and the Scottish figure was 4·6%. You would be better off in Scotland. GVA per head increased by 1·9%, but in the UK it increased by 3·6%, in England by 3·7% and in Scotland by 4·2%. Our people would be better off elsewhere. Northern Ireland's GVA per head — £18,682 — was 75·9% of the UK average. That is the prosperity gap. It states here:
"Northern Ireland's GVA per head has remained consistently at around 75 to 80 per cent of the UK average".
Here is the clincher: it peaked at 83·7% in 2007. Why is 2007 an important year in my mind?
No, it was not. The recession started in 2008, while 2007 was the year in which the DUP and Sinn Féin took charge. That was the peak, and, since then, for nine years, we have been slumping — a point already made by the leader of the SDLP.
Let us look at economic inactivity, which, the document states:
"remains stubbornly high at around 27 per cent".
Are you not ashamed? Some 27% of your people are economically inactive.
Pardon me, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I say that to Mr Nesbitt because none of us will disagree with what is in the book or the Bible, but could he move on to the solutions? I am really interested in them. I heard Mr Cree speak earlier, and I would love to hear some solutions from the UUP to the problems that we have.
Thank you very much. Some 27% of our people are economically inactive. Here is the solution, Mr Ó Muilleoir: it lies in mental health and well-being. We all know that many, many people woke up this morning with no sense of purpose in their life. They will go to bed tonight with no sense of achievement, and they long for that sense of achievement. They long for a more fulfilled life and they long for a job, but they cannot have that because of their poor mental health and well-being. Our per capita rates are among the worst in the world. They are certainly up there in the top three, with the likes of Lebanon and Israel. We have the same problems as everybody else, and we have the legacy issue of mental health and well-being. There is where the Ulster Unionist Party would start: by empowering people to stop them being economically inactive. Why have the Executive not done something about that? Yes, we have ideas.
Between the departmental expenditure limit (DEL) and annually managed expenditure (AME), there is £20 billion. AME is £9 billion, which you do not have discretion over, but it is there. There is £11 billion in the block grant — £11 billion that we need out of London. There was a time when we were net contributors to the Treasury. I am not saying that we will ever get back to that point, but should we not aspire to that? Should we not try to be less dependent on the block grant? Would that not generate jobs, wealth and well-being for our people? I believe that it would.
And on to the debt. Mr Ian McCrea obviously thinks that we should borrow more: I disagree. We currently have to find £60 million per annum just to service the debt. For Mr McCrea's benefit, I point out that the Department of Health's budget for paramedic services is £60 million. That is how big servicing the debt is. Sixty million pounds is twice what the Department of Justice has to spend on creating safer communities.
Let us not, therefore, be dismissive of or complacent about the level of debt.
That was a very smart comment from Mr Poots, but that was a long time ago, and the debt is not all RRI, as he knows.
If you think that it is a laughing matter, saddling our children and grandchildren with a level of debt that requires £60 million per annum in interest payments, smile away, Mr Poots; laugh away, Mr Deputy Speaker. The DUP does not seem to care.
The Budget is very light on the detail of how the Executive intend spending the £11 billion —
I have great pleasure in following the leaders of the two main opposition parties, one still mysteriously in the Government. I will perhaps remark on that later.
First, I congratulate my colleague Mervyn Storey and wish him well. I know that he is constrained to 34 minutes in his summation, but at least we can look forward to some very punchy comments then.
Before I move on to a couple of more general points in my capacity as a DUP MLA, I want to make a few remarks on behalf of the Committee for Education. During the previous debate of this kind, virtually a year ago, on 27 January 2015, my predecessor — I think that it was Mr Storey — was able to comment in rather more detail on the Department of Education’s budget than will be possible today. In about three weeks' time, the Committee is due to be briefed by officials on the detail of the budget, and that constrains some of the conclusions that I am able to make today.
I begin by looking at the overall picture of the Department of Education resource figure. DE has gained an allocation of around £40 million from the Executive. The Committee understands that a considerable sum — around £35 million — has been added to the 2016-17 baseline to meet substantial additional liabilities associated with teachers’ pensions. I should say, at this point, that clarification on this allocation is most welcome. My understanding is that the enhanced budget was then subject to about a 5% cut.
The resource budget was then boosted by a further £70 million to meet the costs of redundancy and, essentially, an early retirement scheme for teachers. I will say more about that in a moment. The money is effectively ring-fenced for those purposes. As the House is aware, DE undertook redundancies in schools in the current financial year and paid for some of them from its resource budget. Thus, the argument advanced by some DE officials that the Department is £70 million worse off in 2016-17 may not be entirely watertight. We will wish to explore that further when we see the detailed budget position.
Just when you think that things are complicated enough, there is a further complexity involving changes to employer rebates for National Insurance. We have been advised that that may amount to about £30 million in DE. The Committee has sought information on the breakdown of these costs and on the separate impact of related changes for low-paid workers.
I mentioned earlier a kind of early retirement scheme for teachers. The Investing in the Teaching Workforce scheme will cost about £33 million and, if fully taken up, apply to around 500 teachers, who will gain early reduced access to their pension. They are to be replaced by 500 relatively newly qualified teachers. It is no secret that the scheme attracted a great deal of public comment. It is the largest single allocation from the public sector transformation fund to any Department, and an additional £14 million will be used to fund about 300 separate redundancies. It is fair to say that there has been controversy around the scheme. Indeed, the Committee has put a question mark against the entry point and is still teasing out whether the Department has got that right. The Committee will also want to probe further whether this is good value for public money and whether those made redundant could simply have been replaced. We will want to tease that out. Given the short timescales, we will probably require further information.
The Department is also due to receive around £25 million for 600 non-teaching redundancies, both school- and non-school-based. The Committee has long been of the view that the administration of education is too expensive and that the budget would be better spent in the classroom. I think that the Committee still feels this way. However, I should note that the 300 or so redundancies in the Education Authority were not envisaged in the business case for that organisation. Members have expressed concerns that the teaching staff released may put additional pressure on support services such as CASS (Curriculum Advisory and Support Service).
It is also worth noting that, in recent years, the Department of Education's staffing levels have increased by around 6%, with a 10% increase in salary costs, so we are not starting from the position of the Department of Education already seeing redundancies. While there have been some cuts, the Committee will want to see the Department's plan continue into this process in 2016-17.
I mentioned spending in the classroom. I believe that the Committee will place much of its focus on the aggregated schools budget. The capital budget is to increase in 2016-17, which is, of course, welcomed by the Committee. Most Members will be aware of the schools enhancement programme and the minor works, and there is a lot that needs to be done. Again, we will see the progress on that. Finally, as a Committee we will be trying to take the views of stakeholders on what the broader direction of the Programme for Government should be in the future.
Is he, as Chairman of the Committee, not dismayed that, in the Budget line for Education, of all Departments, we get a global figure for schools of £1·9 billion with no breakdown or indication of where it will be spent, what sector it will be spent in or anything else? Is that not something that should exercise the Committee?
The lack of transparency from the Department of Education has certainly been a concern for some time. Given its failure to take part in savings delivery plans, for example, there has been a concern that there is a silo mentality in the Department. We will want to drill down into that when we have the officials with us very shortly. As I indicated at the start of the speech, that limits the amount that I can say in relation to the departmental budget. We will be getting that information in February. However, it is an ongoing concern and I do not disagree with the Member, for once, on that subject.
I will say briefly, as an MLA, that I have been here as Budgets have come and gone. I had the great pleasure and honour of listening to the last two speeches from the leaders of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists. To be fair, the Ulster Unionists are outside the Government, and, therefore, whatever criticism they make is at least based on that. However, if one came as an outsider to this place, one would be shocked to learn that the SDLP, for all its criticism, has consistently been a member of this Executive. This is not criticism from an opposition but from a party that is in the Government. A more honest position would be to follow what the Ulster Unionist Party has done. I listened with interest to the catalogue of figures from the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and the clichés from the leader of the SDLP. We heard a litany of figures. When my colleague —
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome this opportunity to speak. I know that my colleague Alex Maskey was hoping that the Minister's former role as Minister for Social Development would mean that he would look favourably on those requests. Given that he is a former Chair of the Education Committee, I hope that he will look favourably on Education requests.
Mike Nesbitt said that there is a need for greater context. I agree with that point, in that we really cannot ignore the devastating impact that Westminster-driven austerity continues to have on our local budgets. It would be remiss of us not to mention that here today. The relentless attack on the block grant has ensured that we, collectively, as an Executive and as an Assembly, are unable to deliver the level of public services that we would ideally like to.
There can be no doubt that Westminster promises nothing but more austerity in the years to come. Nowhere is that sharper than in the big Departments of Health and Education. There are going to be very challenging times ahead for those Departments, which manage such massive budgets and large estates. When we look at the process of area planning and our schools estate, we see massive challenges ahead. That is where innovation, creativity and a desire to lead will have to come to the fore. As has been stressed, it takes political leadership. It takes those on board to be on board, and, if you are opposed, you should stand outside and be opposed. We must not be opposed to ideas simply for political capital, such as we see happening with the investing in the teacher workforce scheme. That scheme is designed to give employment to 500 newly graduated teachers, who are the teachers who find it the hardest to find employment. It has been said that there are 500, 600 or 700 appointments a year for those beyond the three-year period, but teachers, in the first three years after coming out, find it very difficult indeed to get employment.
There are also big decisions to be made around school transport. Here is a budget that has spent millions of pounds. We are going to have to tackle it. I have no doubt that the next Education Minister will address that and it is something that the House —
I thank the Member for his intervention. I was in the Chamber earlier for this point as well. They are new posts. They are posts that were not filled by the 500 people who will be leaving through early retirement. If those posts were not created with this money, the 500 people would not go out, so they are new posts. I thank the Member for his intervention nonetheless.
As I said, area planning and school transport are just two issues where Education is going to have massive challenges. We are seeing a far greater need to utilise the block grant to its maximum effect. As we go forward over the next number of years, we are going to have to see that. We are going to have to see real, proper financial targeting and an outcomes-based approach that really demonstrates changes. All too often, we have not seen that. There has been some criticism around various programmes of late. We are going to have to see a vast improvement.
Another area, of course, is revenue raising. This institution is going to have to seriously look at revenue raising. I ask that we follow the principles of targeting revenue raising at those who can pay. It is not going to be enough to simply have a blanket approach and make everyone pay; we are going to have to be innovative and creative when it comes to revenue raising. At the end of the day, if austerity from Westminster is going to be the calling card, we are going to have to protect our own Budget and stand on our own feet.
Finally, it is about putting alternatives on paper. It is about standing over ideas. That is where we see a complete failure from the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists here today. Colum Eastwood said that it is about choices. Let us have the choices. We are not hearing the choices at all. I noticed that a large number of SDLP members managed to find their way to Dublin at the weekend for the Fianna Fáil ard-fheis. If it were a political party standing for election in the South, and they went into a TV studio and criticised the Budget, the first question that they would be asked is, "Where is your costed alternative?". Never once has the SDLP produced a costed alternative in document form and gone to the media to say, "There's our costed alternative. If you don't like what you're getting from the Executive, there's our costed alternative". The reason is that the SDLP is in the Executive.
Mike Nesbitt said that it is light on detail. Again, from what we have heard today, the Ulster Unionist Party is completely light on detail. We have heard absolutely no alternatives. Not one solution has been forwarded today. Not once has it been said, "X is wrong, so we offer you y". That simply does not come into the equation.
The Member makes an excellent point. Any opposition worth its salt, whether in the Government or out of the Government, or whether it does not know where it is at in regard to the Government, produces an alternative document when it comes to the Budget. We do it in the Dáil. The parties here have failed to produce a single page of an alternative to the Budget.
I thank the Member for his intervention. Perhaps the SDLP is still trying to finalise its prosperity plan. I am not sure. Maybe it has not got round to producing an alternative costed Budget, but that is exactly what has to happen. If you want to be considered as a serious party of Government, you have to produce costed alternatives. That is simply —
No. I want to finish on this point.
That is what you have to do. If you want to sit at the table with the big boys, let us have some real politics. Let us get away from the calling of names and little integrity. This is a Budget that we are discussing here today. If you do not like what you see in front of you, let us see some alternatives.
I rise on behalf of the Committee. The Committee noted the Department's intention to largely protect the Northern Ireland Prison Service, the Youth Justice Agency, the Probation Board, the range of policing bodies and the voluntary and community sector by subjecting them to a budget reduction of between 1·5% and 2·9%, rather than applying a 5·7% reduction across all areas. The Committee took the opportunity to explore a range of issues, including the likely impact of the further proposed 1·5% budget reductions on the voluntary and community organisations that provide services such as victim support and NIACRO, the ability of the Probation Board to continue to deliver its statutory services and the cost of legacy-related work to the Department and the PSNI.
I welcome the decision to limit the reduction in the PSNI's core budget to 2%. That will enable the Chief Constable to address the ongoing resilience challenges faced by the police and undertake recruitment to ensure that he has an appropriate number of officers and the necessary funding to deliver front-line policing, including community policing and the protection of public safety. The provision of an additional £32 million for security funding provided in the Fresh Start Agreement, whilst ring-fenced for specific purposes, will also help ease the PSNI budget position. However, given the ongoing budget pressures, there is a clear need for the PSNI to continue to examine all areas of its spending. Whilst there are, clearly, security considerations in some aspects of their work, I believe that there is, undoubtedly, an opportunity for shared services with other aspects of the public sector.
When considering the Justice budget last year, the Committee raised concerns regarding proposed cuts to funding for the voluntary and community organisations that provide front-line services, such as the drug arrest referrals, which the Minister will be well aware of in his constituency, harm-reduction services and rehabilitation and preventative programmes for offenders. The Committee highlighted at that time that the aim of those organisations is to help keep people out of prison and out of the criminal justice system. The Committee was of the view that the reduction or closure of such services would most likely result in increased costs for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the courts and, ultimately, the Prison Service. It advised the Department of Justice that a cost-benefit analysis and an analysis of the likely impact on, and cost to, other areas of the criminal justice system should be carried out before such decisions were taken and stated that, otherwise, it would result in a false economy and greater costs in the long run. Unfortunately, the Department did not provide evidence of such an analysis before proceeding with the budget reductions.
I and other Committee members met representatives from NIACRO and Extern, last week. Both organisations provide interventions to reduce the risk of reoffending and often work with offenders who have committed serious offences. They are concerned about the direction of travel of the partnership relationship between themselves and the Department of Justice and about how funding will peter out in years to come. Both organisations pointed out that, even though they are charities, they are providing core services with high-risk offenders and are essential to the overall delivery of services, rather than what could be classified as "add-on" services. However, no analysis of what funding is provided, how funding is used, what is delivered for the money and what the impact would be, if the service was not delivered, has been carried out, as far as we are aware. We must come to the recognition that, sometimes, there are services that government cannot deliver. I think that this is a clear example of a service that government could not deliver, but it is important that we have the right partners who can do that.
I think the Minister will be glad to hear that the Committee has looked at how we can operate in reduced climates. It is not just about asking for more money; it is about how we do more with the money we have. With that in mind, we looked at the budgetary pressures and difficult challenges, and we saw them as an opportunity to do things differently and adopt new and innovative ways of working and delivering services.
When I took up post, I initiated a range of work to look at new and innovative approaches that could be adopted, reforms that could be brought into justice and ways in which we could improve the delivery of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland in the context of reducing budgets. We identified a range of areas, including online dispute resolution, problem-solving courts, improving efficiency in the courts and identifying where we could save money but, crucially, improve outcomes for victims and offenders. When looking at reducing legal aid, in particular, we need to have something viable in its place. I think that the online dispute resolution system, as used in the Netherlands and Canada, is a clear example of where we can still get good outcomes for citizens but at reduced cost to the taxpayer. That is where innovation in justice can deliver real outcomes. Next month, the Justice Committee will be assessing the information gathered, identifying new initiatives and ways of working and looking at how they can be adopted in Northern Ireland. We will make a series of recommendations for the Justice Minister.
Finally, I do not think that you could ever expect a speech from a Chairman of the Committee for Justice with no reference to legal aid. The Committee has spent considerable time on legal aid, since the devolution of policing and justice in 2010. We have never lived within our means when it comes to legal aid. I have no doubt that the Committee for Justice in the new mandate will also have to spend considerable time looking at that issue.
The additional allocation of £15 million provided by the Executive for legal aid is of course welcome to meet the pressure and will help to address some of the forecast pressure. However, given the current budgetary climate and the funding pressure on all areas, the present position where the cost of legal aid continually exceeds the available budget, requiring resources to be diverted from other areas either in the Department of Justice or by the Executive, is not sustainable. Concerted efforts must be made to reach a satisfactory resolution. The Committee is disappointed with the current situation where members of both legal professions have come off record, resulting in a considerable backlog of cases in the Crown Courts and the Bar Council's recent decision to suspend dialogue with the Department of Justice. The Committee urges both professions and the Department to continue discussions with a view to reaching agreement regarding legal aid fees whilst recognising the budgetary constraints that apply to all areas. We run the real risk of, next year, having a huge backlog in the courts and a double hit with regard to pressures on the legal aid budget. That will leave either the Department or the Executive in a very difficult financial position.
It is clear that the Department of Justice continues to face a difficult budgetary climate in 2016-17. Funding will have to be carefully managed to ensure that key priorities and targets can be delivered to the required standard and front-line services protected. It is absolutely clear that new and innovative approaches will need to play a part in this, as doing the same is no longer an option.
I welcome the opportunity to outline briefly the discussions of the Committee for the Environment on the Budget for 2016-17. Departmental officials briefed the Committee at its meeting on 14 January. Officials discussed the in-year monitoring position, the transfer of functions from DOE to three new Departments and the budget for 2016-17.
The Committee is aware that the Budget for 2016-17 is based on the new nine-Department model. As current DOE functions are being split over three Departments, the Committee sought clarification on what funding would be available for current DOE functions following the transfer. Officials advised the Committee that a 5·7% reduction had been applied to the resource budget. That will present challenges to the new Departments as they seek to maintain the delivery of priority services.
The Committee is aware that approximately £16 million resource has been allocated for road safety and policy and strategic planning and policy in the Department for Infrastructure and approximately £28 million for the environment functions in Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA). Officials also advised that £56 million had been allocated to the Department for Communities for local government and the historic environment division, although that is not clear from the Executive's Budget document.
The Committee has sought to ensure that the current environment functions receive the appropriate budgetary and policy weight in their new Departments and that there is no diminution of planned programmes. The Committee has been advised that, following the May elections, the June monitoring round will provide new Ministers the opportunity to reallocate and realign budgets to reflect their priorities more closely.
There are so many priority areas in the current functions of DOE: local government, which recently underwent its own significant reform and has faced financial challenges; the natural environment fund, which provides important funding for projects that aim to protect our environment and our precious biodiversity; and road safety. The Committee has stressed the need for a communications strategy to raise public awareness of the provisions of the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill, which recently passed its legislative stages in the Assembly. However, that is certainly not an exhaustive list, and the Committee is concerned that those functions may be diluted in a larger Department. The Committee will reflect that in its legacy report. That concludes my comments as Chairperson of the Committee.
I now wish to say a few words on behalf of the Alliance Party. Our party recognises that the Budget is for just one year — 2016-17 — with a four-year Budget to follow. However, that does not change the fact that this Budget is not strategic and was not subject to public consultation. Although the figures balance, it does not have any mechanism for making public finances more sustainable. There is also no mention of revenue raising. This Budget is predicated on a 100% cuts-and-reallocation basis. We believe that there are missed opportunities to reform the health service and education, to address the costs of a divided society and to invest in the economy, especially with a decision now taken on the reduction of corporation tax from 1 April 2018. We know that corporation tax is important for economic growth, but it cannot deliver the outcomes that we want without investing in key economic drivers, especially skills, yet Northern Ireland is reducing investment in higher education.
The £60 million cut from last year's Budget compounds a pre-existing gap between us and the rest of the UK of about £40 million. I acknowledge the announcement today of an increase of £20 million in funding for DEL for this year. The Budget prioritises health and education at the expense of the economy, despite the Programme for Government stating that the economy should be the top priority. In fact, you could argue that the scale of protection of those budgets creates less incentive for reform of those two Departments. The Budget provides a 2% increase to Health, which has a major impact on all other departmental budgets. In fact, 2% is not really enough without reform and reconfiguration of the health service. Investment would need to be around 5% to keep up with demand. There is a case for some protection of the health budget, but there is significant scope for reform in the health sector, driven in part through benchmarking, market testing and reforms to the estate.
The Alliance Party accepts that Northern Ireland's financial situation is very serious. However, we do not believe that the Budget is sufficiently prudent. We therefore oppose the motion.
I have listened to the debate for the period I have been in the Chamber. My colleague referred to those in opposition today, and some of their comments are interesting. However, contrast that with the good news about the Budget and about the allocation for roads. Given that I am the Chairman of that Committee but speaking in a personal capacity, I think that we have to welcome the commitment from the Minister and the Executive parties about the money that has been released for the A6 project, the A5, Belfast rapid transit and the other projects that are referred to as flagship projects.
The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party may want to reflect on the middle of last year, when his Minister could not keep the street lights on, could not fill potholes and could not give certainty to the industry in relation to fixing or maintaining the roads. There have been announcements in recent weeks about capital investment for our roads.
That was a very meaningful interjection from the Member who gave us all his woes and glows earlier, as well as a history lesson, but when he was challenged about who introduced some of this stuff and was pointed back to his party, he had nothing to say — just like he has nothing to say now, and just like his Minister had nothing to offer last year. I have to say that, with the Executive and all the problems they have had over recent months, "fresh start" is a good description of where they are going and the direction of travel we are on.
I can hear him laugh. Maybe he wants to speak to the Quarry Products Association (QPA), which, when his Minister was in charge, was considering laying off its workforce. The QPA has welcomed the investment announced by the current Minister for the security and jobs that it is bringing.
That is not ideal. However, it is better than having a workforce — you know this, Mr Deputy Speaker, given that we met them through the Committee — where some of the organisations employing those individuals were suggesting a month's notice and were going to be getting rid of them. We also heard in the Committee that some were going to England to seek work because there was nothing in Northern Ireland. If the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party wants to criticise a Budget that is investing tens of millions of pounds in infrastructure in Northern Ireland, so be it.
I think a degree of certainty has been brought into the homes of those employed in that industry. He talked previously about mortgaging this place. There are people employed in that sector who have mortgages and are glad of the certainty that Fresh Start has brought. They are glad of the investment that has been brought to Northern Ireland and to its roads, securing their futures so that they can pay their mortgages. However, if the leader of the Ulster Unionists thinks that is a bad thing, shame on him, is all I have to say.
I welcome this Budget. I welcome the opportunity for officials to come to the Committee this week to get into more detail on it. I am sure it is not everything that we would want, but there is enough in it for us to get going and to bring certainty to some of those employed in that sector. I certainly will be voting in favour of the Budget.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will speak on behalf of our party and, indeed, of my Sinn Féin colleagues on the Committee for Regional Development. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Budget.
It is very important to point out from the outset that DRD is operating within a 9% cut, so it has taken its fair share of the cuts. Despite that, I think it is fair to say that we have a fair and balanced distribution of the funding allocation. Whilst there are a number of outstanding issues relating to the funding and that will have implications for the new Department for Infrastructure, most relate to functions that will be inherited by the new Department, like the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA), road safety and Rivers Agency. I look forward, as will other members, to teasing out many of those issues tomorrow when the Department for Infrastructure (DFI) project officials come before the Committee for Regional Development.
Whilst there is a wide range of issues that we could focus on, there are two that I want to look at. One relates to flagship projects and the other to structural maintenance. Those are two very important issues in the document.
We welcome the statement from the Minister on 17 December that recognised the importance of those flagship projects for the economy and, indeed, for providing funding certainty beyond this financial year. In my constituency of West Tyrone — Mr Buchanan referred to this — one of those flagship projects related to the £229 million allocated to the A5 over the next number of years. That is good news and absolutely vital to address the infrastructure deficit that we have west of the Bann. This has been long-awaited, especially by the business community and commuters. It will reduce journey times and increase road safety. It is also a very important economic driver.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)
When the business case for the A5 was being constructed, they identified that it would be worth £1 billion of an injection to the local economy not just in the construction but through the trickle-down effect from the wider development. The Budget document states that £229 million has been allocated, but I understand that £170 million is required to fund section 1. I anticipate that the remaining £59 million will be for the other sections, bearing in mind that we will continue the efforts, working with the Irish Government, to uplift their contribution from the current £75 million to the original £400 million. Indeed, the A5 is part of the Irish Government's national development plan, and this will no doubt become a topic of future questions in Committee and to the Minister.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as mo ligint isteach. I thank the Member for allowing me in. He mentioned the £229 million identified for the A5. I also recognise the relief and delight at the announcement of £258 million for the A6 and, in particular, that construction of the Randalstown-Castledawson section will commence this summer. That is also advancing the Dungiven bypass. Will the Member, who is a member of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, acknowledge the fact that the largest number of civil servants are moving to the new DARD headquarters at Ballykelly? I heard another Member describe that as nonsense. That, indeed, is welcomed right across the north and west.
Yes, indeed. As part of the wider north-west area, I also recognise those infrastructural developments.
My second topic relates to structural maintenance, to which this Budget allocates £66 million. Indeed, as an MLA who is a member of the Regional Development Committee, I have been heavily lobbied by the QPA, has have many others, about the impact of a reduction in the structural maintenance budget. Whilst the funding allocated is substantially short of the recommendation in the Snaith review, it is nevertheless an uplift of over £10 million from the allocations in 2012-13 and 2013-14. That increases road safety and jobs. Many subcontractors in west Tyrone and other areas are very appreciative of this contribution and the uplift to the structural maintenance budget. Industry experts have told us that reactive patching costs 10 times as much as planned works and does not address the underlying problems, so this investment is very welcome.
In conclusion, within the parameters of the budgetary settlement, we feel that a fair balance has been struck between investing in our existing network and planning the development of the strategic network that is so critical to the economic development and growth of the North. As I stated at the outset, we still have to tease out a number of key issues relating to the new DFI. We will start this tomorrow when the DFI project team comes before the Committee. I take this opportunity to say that, despite the issues that we have to tease out with officials, in the round, we support this Budget.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. As SDLP deputy leader and health spokesperson, I will focus on the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The SDLP has alternative approaches, and I will outline some of those in relation to health in my remarks. One thing that will definitely not be in those proposals is Chris Hazzard's wacky economics, which propose paying off everybody's credit card bills. That will not be anywhere near what our proposals will be.
Like others, I congratulate the new Finance Minister on his recent appointment. Like all of us, he is aware that there are many genuine pressures on the health service. Throughout the past number of years, I have been expressing, on behalf of the party, our concern about the financial allocation to the health service. Those fiscal shortfalls are provoking severe and intolerable pressures across Health and Social Care. It is important to recognise, as I do in every contribution, the pressures on nearly 65,000 dedicated and professional staff who work to the highest standards in often difficult situations. Their commitment, energy and compassion should receive the highest praise. Remember that the circumstances that they are working under are not of their making.
As we enter 2016, the public are feeling the cold from the health crisis, with seemingly insurmountable pressures around A&E, colossal queues for elective care, 300,000 people on waiting lists, and care home closures, followed by the stripping of home domiciliary care services. Against that backdrop, the latest round of winter hospital statistics are not surprising. As the SDLP has been pointing out for months, there is a real crisis here. What continues to shock the public and others is that the Minister and the Department have continually failed to implement a robust and coherent long-term strategy to deal with increasing demand on the system. To use a health image, it has been all sticking plaster and no strategy. Northern Ireland now has the worst record in the UK for 12- and four-hour waiting targets for emergency care, and that has been reflected all across Northern Ireland. In fact, patients' care is continually being put at risk, with hospitals continuing to breach those targets. Indeed, some of that is emerging now out of the new critical-care building; they are diverting people out of it now because the pressures are still there.
As already mentioned, we also have a massive crisis in elective care, caused by the Minister and the Department effectively redirecting funds away from elective care into those emergency departments. That was in an effort to try to solve the A&E crisis, but all they did was provoke another one in elective care. We have clearly seen that this short-term approach has failed, and we should not be surprised when we have no long-term strategy. We have many people, especially the elderly, who are waiting enormous lengths of time for treatment. In the 21st century, that is simply unforgivable. It was unforgivable when this crisis erupted late last year and we had no Minister in place to respond. That is an indictment of leadership.
The Minister will no doubt point to the November monitoring round, but that has done little to mitigate those pressures, and I do not see any significant additional funding in next year's budget. The extra £40 million given last year is a speck in the ocean, and there are question marks over how it can be spent and whether the Department has made any meaningful attempt to increase public-sector capacity. The resolution of the elective care crisis and future resolutions will not be mitigated until there is that proper strategic focus at the heart of our health service, followed by implementation.
Today's Budget should have been an important opportunity to signal a change. We have known for years the context of the problem, and this was an important opportunity to signal a change. However, the focus is not on older people's care, nor is it on the community side. Nor is there a major signal from the Executive that, once and for all, we will deal with these issues comprehensively. The SDLP has been consistent in that argument.
It is important to remember the context that pressure on the Health budget grows by around 6% annually. As this Budget is presented, there is a massive flaw. In the next year, health and social care will receive an extra 1% in real terms to deal with additional pressure, not to mention recurrent pressures from last year, and I will get to that in a moment. This question remains: where does the Minister intend to get the 5% savings, and what is his plan to mitigate demand for services and increasing spend?
We do not have, for example — I know that a point was made earlier about detail — statistics on trusts' savings plans. The approach taken by successive DUP Health Ministers has been to fundamentally ignore the underlying issues attributing to demand. To continue in this current direction of travel only means that, as we go forward in this short-term way, we will not address the issues as they emerge. Kicking the problems facing the health service down the line, beyond the election — I think there is a motivation there — does not resolve the problems, and the public here deserve better and more.
The Minister's most recent proposal to shut the Health and Social Care Board will not benefit patient outcomes. Of course it addresses a layer of bureaucracy, but there are no savings to be made from changing a name plaque on a building and diverting staff — some of them into the trust. I see the Minister shaking his head. We had figures last week at the Committee, Minister, that reflected that, of the 600 staff, maybe 10% would go. Most of them are going to the Department, and a load are going to the trust. The Minister has provided little detail on his transformation fund, aimed at encouraging reform and innovation. Has it even received any appropriation of funding in this Budget, and has he engaged with staff on that fund? Those are important questions. In the meantime, there is still a chance for change. At its core, Transforming Your Care saw the strain that there was on the health service, particularly on the expensive side, with a growing older population and longer-term health conditions, and the need to reach into communities with meaningful health interventions by bolstering primary care. In 2011, authors recognised and acknowledged that growing demand.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in today's Budget debate. At the outset, however, I express my disappointment that the Executive have again become even less transparent in the past 12 months. Last year, despite it clearly only being done for the optics, the Executive at least attempted to hold a public consultation, mainly over December 2014. There were more than 20,000 responses received, a fact that the then Finance Minister thought was of no importance, given that the Executive agreed the final Budget only two weeks later, long before a genuine synopsis of the responses could have been completed. This year, however, there has been no consultation at all. Once again, in the absence of the detailed spending plans, it is impossible to make an informed assessment of the proposals that the Assembly is being asked to nod through this evening.
I make the same point that my party has repeatedly made in the Chamber. Our entire Budget process is backwards. Setting aside the fact that the membership of this Assembly is setting the next Assembly's Budget, we continue to have the age-old problem that, instead of Departments identifying their costs and saying what they need, they are given a lump sum and told that it is up to them how to spend it. There is no deliberation and certainly no strategic thinking. Therefore, I share my party's concerns about the capacity of the Budget.
In my role as Ulster Unionist Party health spokesperson, that is where my main interest in the Budget lies. When the officials were briefing the Committee recently, we were told that the cost pressures are building each year, yet the true extent of those pressures is not yet known or, if it is, it is not being revealed. However, our constituents, often painfully, are experiencing that pressure in growing numbers every single day. We are all aware of the pressures faced, particularly by the health trusts. Those pressures are only being compounded by the pressures carried over year on year along with savings plans. Of course, when we ask the Health Minister how much the so-called emergency savings measures implemented in October 2014 have saved, he refuses to tell us. I remind him that there are other means than Assembly questions.
Although I welcome the protection that our health service has been given, the Budget and the discussions that preceded it have done nothing to address the elephant in the room that is the wider funding crisis. It is a crisis that is now increasingly compromising the safety of patients and the delivery of safe and sustainable services. Only last week, for instance, the true scale of the waiting times crisis in hospitals across the country was revealed to my party. In Craigavon Area Hospital in my constituency, the number of people waiting longer than the maximum 18 weeks jumped from 187 three years ago to 8,752 at the end of last year. Does the new Finance Minister really think that that is acceptable? I am sure that he does not, yet the Budget that he was handed by the now First Minister has done nothing to address it.
Outpatient waits are only one example of the current crisis. There are many more, not least in core services such as cancer diagnosis and treatments. I do not need to remind the House of the pressures facing the Fire and Rescue Service. Hopefully, yesterday will have come as the sharp call to action that Simon Hamilton clearly needed. Again, I call for the service to be considered a front-line service. We attempted to give it more money last year out of the surplus — unused and untouched — social investment fund (SIF) moneys, but the DUP and Sinn Féin did what they do best. They protected their own backs and their fiefdoms while leaving the Fire Service unprotected.
Only £4 million of the £80 million has been spent. Despite the crisis, the Department of Health has spent £200 million employing locum medical staff simply because of its failure to engage in workforce planning. Over the last three years, the number of health administrators earning over £100,000 has doubled. It is my sincere hope that, given that Simon Hamilton has no interest in addressing the current problems, aside from stunts and asking for further reports on what we already know, whoever is Minister in four months' time tries harder and has more authenticity.
Moving on —
The Member has outlined some of the existing problems in the health service. We know that the Health Department is a very challenging Department with a very challenging set of circumstances. She outlined some of the things that she would like to happen. She would like to put all the SIF money into health and get rid of administrators. Will she give us some figures? How much does she think is needed to address the problems in health? How much revenue can be raised from the issues that she raised?
I thank the Member for his intervention. Of course, all of that will become apparent in due course. Maybe when you have been here longer, you will be able to find that out.
Moving on, I would like to make a few brief comments on the DARD budget, specifically two aspects of it. The Finance Minister knows my concerns about the proposed Ballykelly headquarters. The Budget document proposes that £10·4 million will be spent on it next year. Given the absence of any real business plan, I am still alarmed by that. Again, I urge the Minister to at least consider the vacant DVA office in Coleraine as a possibly cheaper option rather than blindly considering only Ballykelly. I also continue to have major reservations about the projected cost of the Northern Ireland food animal information system, which will receive £2·7 million next year.
I would now like to make a few comments on behalf of the Audit Committee. The Committee was briefed by the Audit Office in December on its resource requirement for 2016-17. There was a discussion about what further cost reduction could be achieved without compromising the Audit Office's ability to carry out its statutory and value for money functions. The Committee wrote to the Finance Minister to highlight the savings that the Audit Office delivers in its value for money work. The Committee had concerns that cuts to the Audit Office budget would limit that work and the work on good practice that it undertakes. The Committee, therefore, welcomes the Budget allocation of £7·9 million, which will ensure that the Audit Office can continue the important role that it undertakes in providing us with an independent audit assurance in relation to the use of public funds.
In conclusion, I would like to express my disappointment at the growing cost of administration in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Since the end of 2011, it has increased by £4·9 million, or 12%, to £45·2 million. Given the failure of the Department to honour Programme for Government commitments to reduce bureaucracy and red tape for farmers, I am sure that the industry will be more frustrated and disappointed by those spiralling costs.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak in the Budget debate today. First, I congratulate Minister Storey on his new position. I am sure that he can think of nothing better to be doing on a Tuesday afternoon than being here for the Budget debate.
There is an old saying that my family quotes, and I have heard a few Members do so in the Chamber as well. Sometimes, when I get a wee bit above myself, my mother will say, "Don't forget where you come from". That is what I am telling you as I talk today about the Department for Communities and DSD, because I do not want you to forget where you have come from. When you were Minister for Social Development — the Chair of the Committee has already commented on it — you worked very well with the Committee and had a very good understanding of the needs in that Department.
I have to get away from saying "DSD", so I will address my comments today to the Department for Communities, which is a really exciting new Department that we in the Assembly have ahead of us. I said that my comments will be specific to the Department for Communities, but we know that many issues in that Department will have an adverse, knock-on effect on many other things. The Department for Communities encompasses so many social issues to do with housing, housing conditions, Supporting People, welfare reform, funding for advice, neighbourhood renewal and the social fund. We know that a lot of those have a knock-on effect on health, employment and education. That is why I would like to see an indication within the Budget that the Minister is most definitely supporting the most vulnerable within our community.
The first item that I turn to is housing. Much has been done in this mandate to look at what was a clear neglect of social and affordable housing in previous years. We have come some way, but we really have not come far enough. This morning, the Social Development Minister, Lord Morrow, made a statement to the House. He was asked a question about housing need by a Member who represents Strabane and, in his answer, he mentioned that there are 40,000 people on the waiting list, with half of those in housing stress. That is absolutely diabolical. I am an MLA for North Belfast, which is one of the areas that is in need of housing investment, and probably 70% of the work that comes through my office is from people who are looking for rehousing or who are homeless.
There is also the issue of housing conditions. That has been a major issue in many of our estates, especially in the estates beside me in Rathcoole and Queens Park. There has been neglect there, and those people are in need of input to make their houses fit to live in. I hope that the Minister will address that issue when we look at housing. The area that I grew up in, that I live in and that I represent in North Belfast has seen no affordable homes being built since 1972. That is such a long time for the people of Glengormley. They have had a waiting list for all those years, but that has not been addressed. I hope that the Minister will address and look at that.
The next issue that I want to talk about is Supporting People. From sitting on the Committee, I know that the Supporting People funding was protected up until now. Minister, when you came into the Department for Social Development — this is all getting very confusing, with you being our past Minister for Social Development — you made a commitment to the House to be a champion for Supporting People, and I have to say that you have fulfilled that.
You will remember that, just before Christmas, you and I attended an event in Belfast City Council that was run by the Patient Client Council and that looked at homelessness and access to health in homelessness, among other things. You and I both spoke at that event, and we heard the real-life, brutal truth of what it was like to be homeless in Northern Ireland and the effects that that has on many of our citizens. We heard about the neglect of health and about prostitution. There are so many facets when it comes to homelessness. I am glad that, in your position as Social Development Minister, you undertook to endeavour to make a difference with that. I hope that that will continue in your new position as Finance Minister.
I thank the Member for giving way. My point is a slight variation on the trend of Supporting People. It is about the women's centre childcare fund, which is another issue that the Minister was committed to in his previous life in DSD. I am very disappointed that there is no budget heading or commitment within the Budget in relation to that fund. I ask for the Member's support on that issue and to include it in her contribution.
I thank the Member very much. I think that she was mind reading as to what I was going to come on to next. For me and for many of us, that is an extremely important issue. I will just finish on the issue of homelessness.
The Committee for Social Development has had various briefings about homelessness and the issue of wet and dry hostels, with there being no bed availability. That happens on most occasions and on most evenings across all our hostels in Northern Ireland. That is another issue under Supporting People and housing.
I thank the Member across the way, Mrs Kelly, for bringing up the women's centre childcare fund. I know that the Minister looked at that very seriously when he was the Social Development Minister and applied to the Finance Minister for funding for that.
I know that this was emergency funding, established in 2008. Really, at this stage, we should not be looking at emergency funding, as more concrete funding should be put in place. We know that the absence of this funding will result in the loss of 88,000 two-hour childcare places and the loss of 33 full-time and 29 part-time jobs in the women's sector.
That is really hard to comprehend if you look at the Assembly and Executive Review Committee report that we did on women in public life and trying to encourage women to get involved in politics. We need to look at trying to encourage women to get involved in getting back into the workplace and training for the workplace. It is a little hypocritical of us to try to encourage women to come in and be part of this arena without looking at the needs of grass-roots women, so I make this comment again to the Minister: "Do not forget where you have come from on that one, because it is vital".
To finish, I want to look at neighbourhood renewal, which is another issue that addresses the most disadvantaged in our community. I heard Mr Nesbitt mention something about empowerment. I see the Committee for Social Development very much as being the Committee of empowerment. It has empowered so many people in our community to go out to find jobs. That is all part of the welfare reform mantra. I very much think that we need to put that money back into investment to empower our people to have a better life and to empower our economy as well.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Thank you for the opportunity to address the House on the important issue of the Budget 2016-17. I take the opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his new role. I speak here as an MLA.
As a proactive member of the Employment and Learning Committee with a keen interest in achieving long-term economic growth for our rural communities as well as the urban centres, I welcome the commitment in the Budget to meet challenges that have been identified as key issues and challenges. The challenges that need to be met by a new Department for the Economy include the championing of economic, social and personal development by providing relevant, high-quality learning, research and skills; increasing collaboration between business, higher education, further education and the public sector; addressing the widening higher education funding gap; the implementation of the new youth training strategy, 'Generating our Success'; the continued delivery of the higher education strategy, 'Graduating to Success'; the implementation of the new employer-led apprenticeship strategy; the implementation of a refresh strategy for the further education sector; and the continued delivery of the European social fund and secure investment for more world-class businesses.
Everyone will notice that most of the strategies I have mentioned contain the word "success". For our Executive and political institutions to be successful in delivering social change when dealing with the real needs of our community, the capital DEL allocation must support the Department's activities and projects across a number of investment measures. The allocation must provide funding for continual investment in higher and further education, and I welcome the new resources that are being made available for skills in the new Department for the Economy. The proposed new Department must utilise the skills barometer that was published last November to underpin all economic models. Our further and higher education sectors must be able to avail themselves of the skills barometer to plan for future provision, given tightened budgets.
At this point, I want to again address the need for expansion of the higher education offering at the Magee campus of the University of Ulster as an essential driver for social change in the north-west. This important issue needs to be properly addressed once and for all.
In relation to European Union funding, the renewed and concentrated focus on research and innovation, while enhancing the competitiveness of local SME businesses via the 2014-2020 Investment for Growth and Jobs programme, is much needed. Any new Department must have a fully functioning network of research experts to help businesses and researchers successfully compete for funding from Horizon 2020, the European Union's flagship research and innovation programme. Funding drawn down via the cross-border INTERREG programme in support of research and innovation activity must seek to facilitate growth in the number of SMEs across our region that engage in research and innovation activity on a collaborative basis, complemented with support that is focused on increased cross-border or, indeed, competence building with the life and health sciences and renewable energy sectors.
It is important that the strategic aim of the Youth Employment Scheme 2014-2020 to combat poverty and enhance social inclusion by reducing economic inactivity while increasing the skills of those currently in work and future potential participants in the workforce needs to be fully met. The Big Conversation is still being held at the behest of the Minister for Employment and Learning, Mr Stephen Farry, in an attempt to address the funding shortfalls in skills development and employment. We must ensure that a new funding model is developed that is not only sustainable but fair for everyone. Skills development must be central to any future economic model. As our region has a high proportion of low-skilled citizens, which, no doubt, has an impact on the strength of our labour market as well as the wider economy, and with the North having high levels of economic inactivity, the Fresh Start Agreement commitment to tackle economic inactivity is most welcome.
I will conclude by pledging to continue to keep an eye on the roll-out of the Department's policies. At all times, we must work to ensure equality for section 75 groupings. Given that the right-wing Tory Government in London have slashed our block grant, we must ensure that there is no differential impact on section 75 groups.
I speak today as Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and will represent the views of that Committee. The Committee has had only a very short preliminary briefing from Department of Agriculture and Rural Development officials prior to Christmas. At that stage, the Budget details had not been agreed, so we were presented with a best case scenario by the officials. Our next briefing on the details of the DARD budget is not until Tuesday 26 January, so I am limited in what I can say today.
I begin by pointing out a few concerns around procedures. The timescales and the opportunity for real influence by the Committee are very limited, which may be of concern to some members. I understand that the Finance and Personnel Committee raised this as an issue at one of its recent meetings and was informed by DFP officials that there would be scope in the June monitoring round for the new Ministers to take account of Committee representations.
The budget that the Agriculture Committee will consider next week is that which is being presented for the new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. However, the Committee as it is today does not have a scrutiny remit for the environmental aspects. I understand that DARD officials will not cover the detail of that part of the budget. Although aspects of that budget area were covered by the Environment Committee in its recent consideration of the budget, I am concerned that there is a gap. Scrutiny of the budget is falling between two stools, and that can mean that details will be missed. However, that aside, the concerns of the Committee with regard to the budget and the departmental finances are as they were last year. The Committee's view is that the number one priority for DARD and the new Department should be the payment of grants to farmers and rural communities.
First and most important, the Committee has always been adamant that front-line services to farmers and the wider rural community should not be affected by cuts. This is with particular but not exclusive reference to the new basic payment under CAP reform. There should be, at least, a continuation of the current level of service for payments to farmers as the main priority. The Committee noted that 95% of eligible farm businesses received their basic payments in December 2015 and that more than 1,700 cases that had been inspected were included in that number. I cannot emphasise enough how important those payments are to the farming and rural communities. Members will be aware that all sectors face hardships from falling farm gate prices, but dairy farmers and fresh produce farmers are being particularly badly hit. The payments are essential and are much needed by all farmers.
While I cannot speak for any incoming Minister or Committee, I can say that I firmly believe that this needs to be the number-one priority for the new Department in the new mandate.
The next point that I want to raise is how DARD and the new Department deal with the challenges of staff reductions, and the loss of their expertise, yet ensure that essential business continues as normal. This is with particular reference to the added challenge of bringing together two very distinct work areas: agriculture and environment. These have very distinctive cultures and viewpoints, and we have to make sure that they are integrated and work together. For example, the process of inspections that happens in both sectors will provide an opportunity for joint working and cooperation. Farm inspections are an important aspect of the work of DARD and other agencies to ensure compliance with EU legislation. The Committee is of the opinion that further work could be done to drive efficiencies in this area. We would like to see inspecting officials coordinate their efforts to create, where possible, a scenario whereby the farmer has one visit in which all his inspections are done.
The Committee has also heard on a number of occasions that DARD intends to put more of its services and interactions with consumers online to release staff posts in the future. We have heard about how this work uses a single application form. We have now heard how the big issue this year with the single application forms was a lot of duplicate fields and that, in the future, it is hoped that online applications will help to identify and assess duplicate fields early, thus giving farmers a chance to rectify that.
Finally, the Committee has always expressed an interest in the budget allocation to the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), as the Committee is aware of the pressures that AFBI is under, both in its resources and in coping with an ageing estate. It has buildings and equipment that urgently need repairs and replacement and has had to reduce its staff complement and either stop or reduce research. The Committee is fully supportive of the need to retain adequate research and development bases in Northern Ireland, and we will be examining the AFBI budget in some detail.
I thank the Member for giving way. Is it not ironic that in a year when we were told repeatedly by the Minister that there was no funding to spend on research — Scotland for example is putting more money into research, as is the Republic of Ireland — our Department could not find money to put into research? Over the past three years when nearly every other Department was cutting its administration costs, the Department of Agriculture was spending £5 million more on administration.
I thank the Member for his intervention. I totally agree with the Member that research and development is vital to the future of our industry in Northern Ireland, and every effort must be made to find more finance and support for it. As has already been said, in Scotland and Wales, the mainland, and even the Republic of Ireland, extra funding is being put into research and development. That is vital for the future of the industry.
Go raibh maith agat. First of all, I congratulate the Minister on his new role and wish him well. I am speaking on the Budget today as the party's spokesperson on agriculture. Having looked through the Budget and the papers, I want to commend the Agriculture Minister, Michelle O'Neill. She has, in this mandate, been unafraid to meet head-on the problems that needed to be tackled. One of the first projects that the Minister took on was the decentralisation of DARD's headquarters to Ballykelly. Phase one will be in 2017, with the rest in 2020. She was the first Minister to relocate an entire Department. We will also see the relocation of the fisheries department to south Down, the Forest Service to Fermanagh, and the Rivers Agency to the Loughry Campus.
Single farm payments, as has already been said by the Chair of the Committee, are the lifeblood of the farming industry, and without them farm businesses and, indeed, community businesses that supply farms, would simply cease trading. The Minister inaugurated public meetings across the Six Counties in order to listen to farmers; she went out and listened to the farming industry and their families, and she promised them that she would speed up payments. Now, we have seen 95% of farmers paid their single farm payment by Christmas. The payments were in their banks, including, as the Chair said, nearly 1,700 cases where there had been inspections. This is all part of the Minister's campaign to have more applications completed online. It was recognised that a lot of the applications done by hand contained quite a lot of mistakes such as dual fields etc. Online applications help to do away with a lot of those mistakes.
During negotiations on the new CAP programme, Minister O'Neill once again listened to the farming industry. She secured recognition for the hill farmer and has ensured that, in future, there will be equality between the hill farmer and the lowland farmer. There will be no two-tier system in farming.
The recent crisis in the dairy industry saw the Minister stand with the industry. She took representatives of the industry with her to London and Brussels. Over there, she was the only Minister who got an audience with the Commissioner. She has shown that she has an open-door policy. The industry was accommodated when it looked for a meeting, and she secured some sort of recognition for them. She got £5 million for them.
No, I will not. Your party did not give way to anybody. She secured over £600 million for the rural development programme. I have to say that, within the Budget, I recognise that the A5 and A6 road schemes represent major infrastructure that will help to grow the economy and the farming industry. This could all lead to an all-Ireland economy. Indeed, I have to mention the A8, which Minister McIlveen opened recently. That will be a big help too because of the volume of agricultural exports that leaves Larne harbour.
One of the major things that the Minister did was to introduce, through her Department and as part of the Programme for Government, the tackling rural poverty and social isolation (TRPSI) programme. That was also mentioned in the rural White Paper, and it was a big thing for rural areas. It involved quite a lot of the community groups in rural areas and showed up a lot of the things that were missing from rural areas. While in his previous post, I spoke to the Minister about social housing. That was one of the things that came up through the maximising access in rural areas (MARA) project in the TRPSI programme. One of the good things was that, for the first time, we had local people doing local work. Those are the people who identified the programmes. The whole programme levered down something like £3 million. There was recognition of fuel poverty, the boiler replacement scheme, welfare etc. Within that as well, we had £10 million set aside for rural tourism. Some £5 million went into forestry in my own area.
In finishing, I say to the Minister that, within my area of east Antrim, we have the lowest per capita investment from Invest NI in any of the programmes for small to medium-sized enterprises, some of which are aligned to the farming industry. That needs to be worked at. We are short of social housing. A lot of initiatives were taken through the TRPSI programme. If anybody needs any information on rural deprivation, the MARA project has it sitting there. I ask the Minister to ask his Department to look at that because it could save money in the long run. The information on how we can regenerate the rural economy is sitting there.
Once again, I congratulate Minister O'Neill. When the mandate is over, she will be recognised as a Minister who listened to the agriculture community and got things done.
I congratulate the Minister on the Budget that he has brought to the House. However, I feel that I should give not just him all the congratulations and plaudits; obviously, the First Minister played a big role. The Minister is familiar with scripture. In scripture it says, "One sows and another reaps". Perhaps that is what we have in front of us today, but the sower and the reaper rejoice together.
I think that we have a very good Budget here. I will speak to a few things that have been said by other Members. The first came from Ms Claire Hanna, a Member for South Belfast. She had a bit of an issue with the Budget. She said that it was not balanced, and she took great exception to the fact that there was borrowing in it. She is getting up on her hind legs; I will certainly give her the opportunity to come back on that.
Is it in order to quote from a conversation that happened in the canteen, rather than in the Chamber? I stand by what I said: it is not balanced but is based almost entirely on borrowing. It stretches the term. In case anybody checks Hansard, let me say that that was a conversation over the cauliflower cheese.
I certainly was not referring to that conversation — you gave yourself away there. I was referring to what you said in the Chamber when you said that there was a lot of borrowing in the Budget. When we look at how the Budget balances, we see that there is no overcommitment for the first time in seven years. That is the first reason why I do not think the Budget is unbalanced.
The second issue is borrowing. That is what the Member was referring to and what I was talking about when she made her comments. Yes, there is borrowing in this, but there has been borrowing in every single year since it was allowed under this initiative in 2003. As my colleague said, that was brought in by the SDLP. The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, who is not here any longer, said, "That was a long time ago". Yes, it was a long time ago, but either you realise that there needs to be investment and that we need borrowing or you do not. Borrowing is important when you are using it to invest in public services and want to invest in capital projects.
Mr Nesbitt said that our debt costs us £60 million a year to service out of an £11·5 billion Budget. Does the Member accept that that is wholly manageable and that any other £11·5 billion organisation or Government would be very comfortable to have debt that requires £60 million a year to service?
That was the point I was about to come to. When you look at the figures, you see that we have always had borrowing. That is important for investment. The costs are all laid out. So, yes, there is more borrowing this year, but a large part of it is because of the voluntary exit scheme. We heard the figures for that already. There will be a cost of £183 million, but in the first year we will save £160 million and £160 million the year after that and so on. In 14 months we will have it repaid. I think that is a good investment.
I regularly hear people in the Chamber saying that we have underinvestment in Northern Ireland and that we need investment here, there and everywhere. So, when we have this investment, it should be welcomed. I want to ask all those Members who are opposed to the borrowing and to the investment to put up their hand. Put up your hand if you are against investing in a hospital for mothers and children or if you are against investing in the Belfast transport hub. Are any Members going to put up their hand and say that they are opposed to investment in regional stadia or in the A6? No Members are prepared or willing to say, "I am against the investment", but it is very easy to say, "I am against borrowing. I don't like that." We need a little bit of realism.
It is interesting to hear lectures on fiscal responsibility from Mr Nesbitt, given that his party held one Department in the Executive before it ran away. That Department managed to run up an overspend of £11·8 million on around £350 million of resource. If that were extrapolated across the entire Budget that we are spending, it would be an overspend of £350 million, which makes the £60 million that he is referring to pale into insignificance. Fiscal responsibility is not an area on which Mr Nesbitt and his party can speak well.
I agree with what the Member says. I should move on because time is running out, and I still have a lot to say.
Another criticism — I think that this came from Ms Hanna again, but apologies if it did not — was that the Budget is not strategic enough. Obviously, there is a difference with capital spend, whereby you can allow for some of the strategic projects that you want. However, a lot of the money that we will be spending is resource, and you are talking about a very different issue there when you come to strategic spend.
This is a one-year Budget. If we had produced a four-year Budget, Members would be complaining that we were tying the hands of the next Executive. In fact, Mrs Dobson was even upset by the fact that we are doing a one-year Budget. She thinks that that should be left up to the next Assembly. She wants a three-month Budget to cover the period up to the election. This Assembly is setting the next Assembly's Budget, and she has a problem with that.
A lot of Members talked about the cuts that we are facing, but we have to be realistic. The worst-case scenario outlined to us was a 10% cut, and, thankfully, that has not materialised. It is a 5·7% cut that a lot of Departments are facing, but we have to face up to the economic reality that we find ourselves in. Unless you are prepared to raise revenue — I heard comments from Mr Hazzard of Sinn Féin about raising revenue, and I do not want to go down that path — savings have to be made elsewhere. I challenged Mrs Dobson to outline where she would cut in order to pay for some of the things that she wants. Her response was that I had not been here long enough, and that, if I had been here a little longer, I would be better informed. That is not much of an answer.
We have helped to protect health. We have helped to protect education. We have helped to protect the police budget, which is not facing the same reductions as elsewhere. If Members are going to come to this place and say that we need to spend more and have more investment, they better come and tell us how they will spend it. This Budget provides for additional flexibilities and more monitoring rounds, which will help as a result of the departmental changes. However, I support the Budget because, overall, it is good.
This Budget protects the things that we are concerned about. Its priorities are our priorities, and those priorities are the priorities of the people whom we represent. I support the Budget.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. The 2016-17 Budget document states:
"The establishment of the new Department for the Economy presents an excellent opportunity to deliver key economic development policies in a collaborative, cohesive and targeted manner."
The PwC economic outlook report of 2015 states that our local economy has been characterised traditionally as a job creation economy rather an economy driven by productivity. That suggests that we have been able to create jobs despite productivity levels being low. Educational underachievement is ever-present. The OECD international comparison study of last year shows that, in the North, academic ability among 16- and 17-year-olds is among the lowest in the United Kingdom and that wealth generation options are relatively low due to the size of our private sector. Our private sector accounts for only one third of our total economic output. As a result, as we are all aware, a heavy burden is placed on the public sector. Given that the financial outlook in the United Kingdom is gradually getting worse, the North's low-wage and low-skill economy is not best equipped to perform well and create prosperity. That is a major challenge for us.
The projected 5·7% maximum cuts, as outlined by Minister Foster last December, will not impact on the Department for the Economy (DFE) in the same way as other Departments. That is not to say that it will not suffer from financial losses; there is a 3% cut to non-ring-fenced resource DEL. On inspection, it appears that that large cut may be reflective of the fact that the employment services provided by the old Department for Employment and Learning will not be within the remit of DFE. Employment services provided to those who struggle to obtain work will be transferred, as we know, to the Department for Communities. That may have been the reason for the cuts.
The budget for higher education has been cut by just under £12 million. That is significant and substantial. This excerpt is lifted directly from the 2016-17 Budget document:
"Over the last number of years, a clear funding gap has emerged and widened between our own universities and those in other parts of these islands. With tuition fees frozen and grant funding reducing, we have been overseeing a reduction in the unit funding provided per student. The challenge for Northern Ireland universities is to compete in a very competitive global higher education marketplace. If we cannot maintain competitive funding levels, the quality of provision in Northern Ireland will diminish in relation to other parts of the UK and we will end up with a second rate higher education system."
That is a key element of the Budget and the main focus for cuts within the budgetary remit of DFE. Much has been made today of the opportunities that exist through additional corporation tax powers. If we do not have the skills to match the FDIs that are coming here, or those that potentially might come here, we have a significant and substantial problem. If we are not investing in those —
None of us is happy with any cut at all to third-level education. Does the Member agree with me that it would be wrong to increase tuition fees as some of those who are loudest in their condemnation of the challenges that we face in asking for more money for universities suggest. That has been put forward as one of the solutions at this time. We need to freeze tuition fees while trying to get more money for our universities.
The last thing that you want to do is penalise people and make it more difficult for them to access education. Fundamentally, from the SDLP's point of view, education is a liberator. It frees things up. It allows people to advance themselves, their families and their communities. Historically, that has been the case, so we certainly do not want to leave people feeling that they are less able to access education and the form of economic and social liberation that education brings with it. Go raibh maith agat as sin, a Mháirtín.
There are key issues and elements. A significant reduction in non-ring-fenced resource DEL is apparent in the Invest NI and tourism bracket of the Budget; there is a £10 million reduction. Will that reduction in non-ring-fenced DEL be appropriately supplemented by capital and additional allocations, as mentioned in the Stormont House Agreement? The figures and facts have to be returned to us. We spoke with officials today at the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee. They did not have access to the level of detail as to what the budgetary commitments were for Invest NI or Tourism NI, specifically around job creation. How much has been committed? How much leverage is left? How much financial elbow room is left for job creation? That is a key element that we need to know. Tied in with corporation tax, and any potential that arises from it, will be the capacity of Invest NI to respond to requirements of FDIs and the capacity to have an economic environment and skill set here that matches the requirements of those FDIs. That is crucial in the context of corporation tax. Nobody has ever said that it is a silver bullet. We want to make sure that, whatever type of bullet it is, the other aspects of what can make it work will be there through the appropriate investment.
A very key aspect that has not been looked at or mentioned is Brexit. What do I mean by that? From 2007 to 2013, we have had investment here of £2·4 billion. I have just caught up on some figures. In the 2014-2020 programme of EU funding, there is the potential to realise €229 million under one of the EU programmes. Under INTERREG, there is another €240 million.
With that comes the potential to realise €40 million and €42 million respectively in match funding. Has any consideration been given to or any assessment made at departmental level of the potential impact of the loss of that funding? Mr McMullan referred to the number of people who avail themselves of such payments for the success of their farming business. I had an Assembly question for written answer responded to today. The number of people who availed themselves of the basic farm payment or whose farms are eligible for the payment as businesses is 22,213.
The output of the Northern Ireland economy is estimated to be £33 billion per annum. Research shows that a Brexit —
Thank you. Is it not a commentary in itself that the Minister and his partners trumpet as a success the fact that they have been able to produce a Budget? That is supposed to be the work of government. It is standard. If, last year, they were playing with fantasy budgets, I suppose that where we have got to this year might seem to them like success,. However, it is a commentary on the situation.
We are fast approaching the end of this period of the current Executive. It is therefore an appropriate time to reflect on some of the promises that they made and some of the things that they said at the start of their period in office in 2011. Then, they made the economy the top priority. They pledged to rebuild and rebalance the Northern Ireland economy. Now is an apt time to ask, "How's it been going?". After five years, our GDP growth is the lowest in the United Kingdom. In 2015, it was1·6%, against a 2·4% UK average. We have less than half the percentage growth in gross value added of Scotland. In fact, since 2012, our gross value added per head of population has fallen. In productivity, we have underachieved compared with the UK average. The Executive have presided over a Northern Ireland that is the least productive part of the whole of the United Kingdom, at only 82% of the UK average. Of course, it is by investing in infrastructure and skills, as, I think, Professor Johnston had the temerity to observe, that we can address those issues.
Maybe the biggest indictment of all is the ignominy of having the highest level of economic inactivity in the United Kingdom. A staggering 27·7% of the working-age population were inactive in 2015 — that under an Executive whose priority was to rebuild and rebalance the economy and despite a specific Programme for Government commitment to reduce economic inactivity. Yes, a strategy to address economic inactivity was announced by Dr Farry in, I think, April last year, but it seems to be unfunded. Where is the money for it in the Budget? It is in that context that, this year, we will take £100 million out of the block grant to meet the demands of some of those on welfare. Welfare reform might have had the edge of incentivising more people into work, but what we will do here in Northern Ireland is blunt that incentivisation by propping up benefit levels above those of the rest of the United Kingdom.
Then we come to the level of debt. The unelected Member for East Antrim might be very blasé about the level of debt in this part of the United Kingdom, but, just before the Executive took office in 2011, our National Loans Fund borrowing was £36·9 million. In this Budget, it is projected to be £357 million — an almost tenfold multiplication. Borrowing by this small country is to be £2·1 billion, giving us the highest level of borrowing per head of the population in all the devolved regions. That is on top of our part of the national borrowing. That £2·1 billion is up from £1·9 billion last year, and we are paying interest. Mr Ó Muilleoir tells us that that is a good thing. I will take no lectures from the party of squander, which has every interest in bankrupting Northern Ireland, about how it is a good thing to be in that amount of debt. It is a burden for this and future generations that has been imposed by the failing Executive.
There are parts of the Budget that totally defy any attempt at transparency. I raised one of them with Mr Weir. Is it not a marvel that we can produce a budget line of £1·9 billion for education and even the Finance Minister does not know what the breakdown is, never mind the House? We are not told the composition of the £1·9 billion budget that is going into schools. How much is going into the primary sector, the post-primary sector, the controlled sector, the maintained sector, the Irish-medium sector and so on? No one knows. No one is allowed to know.
No one is allowed to know, and the Education Minister gets away with a blanket budget line of £1·9 billion.
Mr McGlone is worried about Brexit. He is worried about our getting back some of our own money. Brexit would be a liberation for this part of the United Kingdom, like the rest.
When U2 played in Belfast recently, Radio Ulster replayed its documentary on the gig that U2 did with Ash in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement. I was interviewed for that programme. It was before I was a politician, and I was one of the young people in the crowd, thanks, I have to say, to tickets I got courtesy of the SDLP — thank you very much for that, guys. I listened again to that interview, in which I talked of my excitement both at the gig and at the chance of a peace agreement for Northern Ireland. I look at where I am now and look back to that 18-year-old and wonder, "Well, what would he make of it?".
I cannot speak for all the other young people who were there that day, but I can speak for myself. There were two hopes. There was the hope of peace. We have a relatively strong peace. It is not perfect — we still have paramilitaries attacking people, including in my community — but it is relatively strong. The other hope was for good governance and that we could have something better for Northern Ireland and would not have Ministers flying back and forth from England who knew little about the place. I remember one being made Minister with responsibility for young people in Northern Ireland, and he said, "I am an old man, so I am not young, and this is my first time in Northern Ireland". That just about summed up the old situation. That hope and that opportunity have been wasted, and that waste can be seen in this Budget. For all the talk of not implementing Tory cuts, this is the implementation of DUP/Sinn Féin cuts. These are cuts made in Northern Ireland. It is a 100%-cuts Budget. I criticise the Tories as much as anyone and look forward to the day when they are out of government, but even they recognise that you have to raise revenue in places. They do not go as far as I would like, but they recognise that revenue raising is half of the equation of balancing the books. There is no mention or consideration of revenue raising in this Budget. Groups as diverse as the CBI and NICVA have lobbied for the Government to consider revenue-raising measures, yet, again, the opportunity to do that has been wasted.
Take a look at something like welfare mitigation. Much has been said about the Minister not forgetting where he came from, and he will know my views on welfare well. We had a £585 million fund agreed as part of — I always forget the name — the Fresh Start Agreement, and we are raiding £30 million from it. We are raiding £30 million from the fund that we set up to protect the most vulnerable in our society — those on the lowest incomes. Today, we hear reports on the Evason proposals, and I have yet to see the detail of that. It has been reported, incorrectly in my view, that she has underspent, but, if the proposal is, as it appears to be, to raid £30 million per year from the mitigation fund, Evason's proposals will be unaffordable. We will be £40 million short. I will be interested to hear from the Minister what that will look like. Does that mean that the Evason proposals are unaffordable? By my calculations, that seems to be the case.
At the same time as we are raiding welfare and even in the straitened financial times when we hear about the difficulties in the health service and everything else, we maintain the cap on rates, meaning that those in modest houses continue to subsidise those in million-pound mansions. In my constituency, that means that those in Kilcooley estate subsidise the rates of those who own an estate in Cultra. You could make that argument about any part of my constituency. That is unfair and unjust, and it is a disgrace that, at a time when we have limited public funds, we do not lift the cap on rates and use the one real lever that we have to raise revenue, make it progressive and make sure that those who can afford to pay more when times are difficult actually pay more. The rates have effectively been frozen, and it would be irresponsible to put them up while we maintain a system whereby those in smaller homes subsidise those in larger properties. It is a waste of our devolution, a waste of the limited powers that we have and a waste of the goodwill that we built up in 1998, which has been gradually dissipating as people become disillusioned with some of the decisions being made by the Executive.
Effectively, Northern Ireland is like a child being given an allowance. We are half a Government. Government is about tax and spend, but we just spend for fear of being unpopular, the irony being that I do not think that this Assembly and Executive have ever been more unpopular. So, in our attempts to please everybody, we are pleasing nobody.
It is time that we step up and mature. Reference was made to Scotland, where we can see —
— the potential of devolution. We need to be a mature, responsible Government and look at ways that we can raise income so that we can invest in this society instead of wasting the potential of devolution.
It has been an interesting debate. I have been able to enjoy quite long periods of it. It is interesting from the point of view that what we are seeing around the Chamber from a series of parties is playground politics. The SDLP is in but does not really want to be in, so it is going to oppose from within. The Ulster Unionists were in and then, after four and a half years, decided to go into opposition. Really, that is just a hypocritical stance.
In fairness to Mr Allister, he has been in opposition from the start, so we are used to his carping and so forth. At least he has been consistent, I grant him that, albeit he is often wrong. Nonetheless, he is consistent with it.
The Ulster Unionists in particular today, in my view, are only letting themselves down and demonstrating that, when they go to the country in three months' time, they are not fit for governance. They do not know whether they want to be in the Government or not, but they certainly demonstrated today that they are not fit for government.
Mr Nesbitt, for example, compares our growth to that of the Republic of Ireland. Does he want us to be in the same circumstances as the Republic of Ireland, where unemployment is almost 10% as against just over 6% in Northern Ireland? That is a reasonable question to ask of the Ulster Unionists. If you want to compare us with our neighbours and say, "Oh, how much better the Government are in the Republic of Ireland than they are here", their unemployment is considerably higher than here. Northern Ireland has benefited from growth in employment month after month after month because investment has been made in it.
We have come through one of the most difficult periods of politics in Northern Ireland as a result of the stand-off over welfare. When I hear parties like the SDLP criticising, for example, spending on health, I think of when the SDLP was joined with Sinn Féin, the Green Party and others in blocking welfare reform and handing £10 million a month back to the Westminster Government —
I thank the Member for giving way, and I appreciate the point that he is making — as ever, very openly. That is one thing. However, will the Member accept that to condemn the Tories for awful and catastrophic welfare reform and then to hand the power right back to those Tories over welfare reform really goes from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous?
Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.
As the Member well knows, we brought the legislation before this House to deal with it in this House. It was his party that signed a petition of concern, along with Sinn Féin and others, to block it going through. Had the SDLP decided not to sign, there may well not have been enough people for the petition of concern and that would have allowed us to debate the matter and have a majority vote in this House. However, a petition of concern was chosen to block those decisions from taking place.
I heard Mr Allister criticise what we did here. I make no apology whatsoever for not introducing the bedroom tax. I make no apology for refining the proposals that came from Westminster and not adopting them carte blanche, because there are many aspects of welfare that did need refinement and many aspects that would not have made fiscal sense, particularly in Northern Ireland, where we do not have the housing available to have one-bedroom units for so many people. It would have been a false economy to move forward on that.
I thank the Member for giving way. The Member Mr McGlone mentions what he thinks is ridiculous. Will the Member agree that what is actually ridiculous is the SDLP calling for £600 million of Barnett consequentials to be spent, when that is, maybe, not even going to be available to us for the next four years? Is it not ridiculous for the SDLP to say that the numbers do not add up for the flagship projects, when that comes out of capital spend as well as the money that has been borrowed? Is it not ridiculous for Mrs Dobson of the Ulster Unionist Party to say that she cannot add up the sums and that when I challenge her about adding up the sums for all of the extra spending she says that it is simply because I have not been in this place for long enough to understand?
Last year, we had the accusation of a fantasy Budget, and, today, we have had a series of fantasy Budgets. I am thankful that it is Mr Storey who is the Finance Minister and not the people who have been up and passing comment on the Budget that is being presented to the House, because what they have been saying is the stuff of fantasy.
The Ulster Unionists and the SDLP in particular today have produced all sorts of figures without any basis. They have been saying, "We will grab a few pounds from SIF". I know that in my constituency we are about to spend around £2 million of SIF money. That will be money well spent because we have engaged with the local community. We are working extensively with the local community on addressing educational underachievement, on tackling the problems in early years and going to the heart of those core problems. Those are problems that will exist in 20 years' time if we do not tackle them now. There are children who are being born now who will be destined for unemployment and all sorts of problems if we do not address those issues. That is what we are doing through SIF funding. That is not money that is wasted. That is not money on pet projects. That is money that is well spent and invested in our future.
I believe that our universities need to be getting more support than is currently the case, and I think that there are issues that need to be addressed. If we blindly look at the circumstances we are putting our universities in at this time without addressing the fundamentals, then we are going to send lots of young people across to England to pay high tuition fees, and we will potentially lose them from Northern Ireland. There is an issue that needs to be challenged and an issue that we all need to get our heads around and address.
I congratulate the Minister on giving additional money to Health. I congratulate him on finding additional money for policing on core front-line services, and I commend the Budget to the House. I commend the Minister and, indeed, his predecessor, for the hard work that they have done in bringing it forward.
I thank the Members and the Committee Chairs for their participation in the debate. I thank the Members who were supportive of the Budget proposals for their input. However, I am not surprised that there are those who are still politically confused in relation to what their real place is in the House, given that we have the SDLP adopting the position it has adopted. It will vote against the Budget, and we have the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party doing the same. I will come on to some of those issues in a moment.
As I am just in post, it was worthwhile to hear the variety of issues that Members raised. Some have been raised over the last few hours with sincerity and with genuineness, but I have to say that there are others who have only been taking part in cheap political point-scoring. There has been little of substance to some of the comments that have been made. It is very easy to be in a place when you have no decisions to make. It is easy to walk out and to carp from the sides when you do not have decisions to make.
This party has ensured that we have taken hard decisions. We have ensured that we have moved from the position that we were in a few months ago when these institutions were ready to collapse and we were ready to see the end of devolution. There are some in the House who think that that is what they would like, but they have changed their position because now they are quite happy to be here and to take their place in the Chamber. In fact, they are even encouraging candidates to stand for election to this House. That is an easy and simple position to adopt.
Let us go to the substance — if, in some cases, there was any substance — of some of the things that Members said. I want to make this point as I commence: let us remember where we started with the financial position and the Budget. We started with a shortfall of some £175 million. It was not an easy task to move away from that position to a place where, as one of my colleagues reminded us, we have a Budget that does not have an overcommitment. That is a changed position over the last seven years.
Let me turn to Members' comments. I will endeavour to go through some of them but I will not answer them all. Some are, I think, best left to Hansard rather than being given an answer. I will give answers to those where, I believe, genuine issues were raised.
Let me turn first to the Committee Chair. He referred to the memorandum of understanding on the Budget. I understand that my officials have been working with the Committee on that, and I welcome that progress has been made. I also welcome any work that provides realistic improvements to the Budget process and look forward to the development of a memorandum of understanding that can adapt the Budget process and the circumstances that are outside the control of the Executive.
The Chair also referred to getting a fair deal on corporation tax and air passenger duty. In working towards an agreement with Her Majesty's Treasury on air passenger duty and corporation tax, it is vital that any arrangements represent a fair deal for Northern Ireland. On the issue of air passenger duty, I have made it very clear that we should not be in the business of creating a sun subsidy. It has to be on the basis of ensuring that we identify strategic economic routes that will be of benefit to Northern Ireland, and we have to keep that issue to the fore. My officials will continue to liaise closely with Her Majesty's Treasury on those issues to ensure that any agreement represents the best outcome for Northern Ireland.
The Member also raised the issue of the spending review's timing. Indeed, he was correct to say that my predecessor, along with her devolved colleagues, expressed serious reservations to the Chief Secretary of the Treasury about the matter. I will continue to press for a more realistic time frame for subsequent spending reviews for any other person who holds this post after the May elections.
Let me turn to the comments made by Claire Hanna and Colum Eastwood. It is sad that, yet again, the SDLP comes to the House and is inaccurate in what it says about the impact on policing. We all value and need our Police Service. What the Members said about the policing budget is simply not the case. This Budget sees a reduction to the policing budget limited to 2%, compared with the 5·7% reductions facing unprotected baselines. The reduction to the police budget equates to some £13·8 million. That is based on the opening 2015-16 position. So, when compared to the PSNI's in-year easement of some £26 million, it is clear that that should be achievable. In addition — the Chair of the Justice Committee referred to this — the PSNI has received some £32 million of additional funding in relation to national security issues. Therefore, rather than ignoring the pressures, we have endeavoured, in challenging circumstances, to address them.
They also raised the issue of the RRI borrowing. A number of Members raised that particular issue. From accusations of maxing out RRI borrowing to criticism for using it for voluntary exit schemes, there have also been a number of inaccurate figures quoted, and not for the first time, I have to say, when it comes to dealing with Budget issues. The Budget document provides significant detail on RRI borrowing, so the figures should be clear. We are not approaching £3 billion of debt. The projected figure for 2016-17 is £2·1 billion. Although significant, that reflects the infrastructure deficit that the Executive have had to address.
Sometimes, Members in the House seem to forget where we came from in relation to the infrastructure deficit that we face. The use of borrowing for the voluntary exit scheme allows for significant reform of the public sector. It also represents value for money. Let us remember that we were all told by Members how we have to rebalance the economy because we have an overdependence on the public sector. Then, when you bring about a scheme and a means whereby we can achieve that, we are criticised and it is not the right thing to do.
No, I am not going to give way because I want to make this point. Some have questioned my qualification to hold this post. I see that some comments were made in relation to that. Let us have a lesson in mathematics. One hundred million pounds of RRI borrowing costs £3 million to £4 million per annum to service, yet that amount spent on the voluntary exit scheme releases over £50 million per annum, meaning the schemes will pay for themselves over a short period of time. Indeed, in 2015-16, the £183 million invested in the scheme will release £149 million in annual savings going forward. So, it is clear to see that those schemes quickly pay for themselves. But, no, some Members just want to say that it is a bad idea. They should tell those in their constituencies who have been able to access the scheme that it was a bad idea.
No, I am not going to give way because there are still things that I want to say, and I have only 30 minutes.
There was also criticism of the impact that it would have on capital investment. However, it must be remembered that the Stormont Agreement and the implementation plan provided for an additional £100 million for capital projects as well as an additional £50 million for shared education and housing initiatives. Furthermore, the Executive have made the decision to use £25 million of their RRI borrowing for capital projects. So, for borrowing, I think we have clearly seen what the benefit of that particular process is.
Let us come to Mr Nesbitt, who is not here. He has already been wrong on the issue of borrowing. He claimed that we had a fantasy Budget for 2015-16, and he was wrong. What is his alternative? Well, he wants to compare us to the Republic of Ireland. In fact, my colleague Mr Poots stole my thunder on the issue —
He is not here, so I can quote him anyway. I kept looking and could not find him.
The unemployment rate in the Irish Republic is 9·7%. In Northern Ireland, it is just 6%. Here we have someone who also overlooks the fact that, at the end of December 2015, we had created 39,000 new jobs. Are we going to dismiss that? Are we going to say that it is not important and is something that you can just set aside? I do not think that is the case. Let us then remember, of course, what Mr Nesbitt said when he said that he feared that the rumours are true and that there will be anything from £500 million to £800 million of additional borrowing. I think those comments stand in stark contrast to the reality of the situation.
Let me turn to the list of questions that Mr Cree had. He gave us a list that I think he deserves answers to because he asked questions that were relevant and pertinent to the issue. He mentioned financial transactions capital. He should have known from the Finance Committee that all FTC to date has been spent, with no funds being returned to Her Majesty's Treasury. Indeed, when I was the Minister for Social Development, I was pleased to be able to allocate a considerable amount of money to co-ownership. I think that co-ownership has been the beneficiary of FTC, and that has helped to deliver affordable housing. I was interested in seeing that we made progress on that.
In addition, I can confirm that the Northern Ireland investment fund is expected to become operational this year, and the funding previously allocated to it in 2015-16 has been redistributed to other projects.
On the June monitoring round flexibilities, I am glad that Mr Cree has recognised the difficulties surrounding the Budget. It is because of that that the Executive have agreed that incoming Ministers will have additional flexibility in the June monitoring round. That will allow them to reallocate funding to their priorities within the overall funding envelope set for their Department as part of the Budget. The availability or otherwise of additional funding in the June monitoring round will not affect that flexibility. However, it means that there is still the opportunity for Committees to influence the spending of Departments. I think that that is a point that the Member wanted an assurance on.
In addition, the announcement by Professor Evason today means that it is clear that there will be additional funding for the Executive to consider as part of the June monitoring round process. That will be an issue that, undoubtedly, the Executive will come back to.
Mr Lunn came to an issue that is one of concern to his party and that it has raised on numerous occasions. That issue is the cost of division. My Department has commissioned the Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy to undertake a review of the cost of division. The study will seek to revisit the previous Deloitte work and will update the methodology and provide a contemporary assessment. The work is well advanced, and my officials have received a draft. I hope to present the final report to the Executive in the coming weeks. So, I thought that it was only right that the Member was made aware of that.
Turning to another issue that Mr Cree raised, depreciation, I assure him that I am not expecting any nasty surprises with the ring-fenced resource DEL budget. The Executive have a significant Budget allocation for non-cash depreciation and impairment costs that is more than adequate to cover departmental requirements.
Mr Lunn referred to the social investment fund. He queried the use of the social investment fund to provide training for young people. The Budget for 2016-17 has maintained the level of funding available to the Executive Office to take forward the central funds, which includes the social investment fund and the childcare strategy. Some £14 million resource DEL and £15 million capital DEL are available in 2016-17 under the Delivering Social Change banner. OFMDFM's social investment fund has made significant progress, with commitments in the region of £58 million and delivery of 25 projects now well under way. Seven projects are now operational, with others expected to follow in the coming months. It is a point that was made by one of my colleagues: go to those organisations and locations where they have identified issues such as educational underachievement and social problems in their community and tell them that SIF was a bad idea.
Tell them that it was not the right thing to do. I think that you will find, even in your constituency, Mr Lunn, that it was the right thing to do and was constructed in a way that was meant to deliver for communities. I accept his point about the time that it has taken. However, I think that he will also appreciate that there were particular challenges in bringing all the projects forward.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
The Chair of the Health Committee raised a number of issues on the detail of the Health budget. While I will not attempt to respond to all the issues that were raised, I assure Members that my colleague the Health Minister and I agree that health service staff are our greatest asset in delivering health and social care. As someone who, unfortunately, has had to spend much time with my dad in hospital over the last eight months, I know well the service provided by staff in the health service, their dedication and the extreme lengths that they go to. The debt of gratitude that we owe to all those who work in our health service is a given for us all in the House. Whilst the Health Minister fully recognises the hard work of all the staff in health and social care and the contribution that they make, his priority — his first priority — is to protect front-line services and ensure that they are properly staffed to secure the provision of safe and effective services.
The Health Minister made a statement on 8 January that set out the 2015-16 pay award for Health and Social Care staff. That will allow for a 1% non-consolidated payment for staff who are at the top of their pay band and an average spine point rise of 3·7% for those who are not at the top of their pay band. Salaried doctors and dentists at the top of their pay band will also receive a 1% payment. The Health Minister is aware of the RCN's decision to ballot its members in Northern Ireland on industrial action and is disappointed by that decision. While members have a right to take industrial action, it is fully recognised that any such action is regrettable. Reform is ongoing across the health and social care service, and I remind Members that Transforming Your Care is not about reducing our investment in health and social care services; it is about making the best use of the resources that are available to us.
Mr Maskey raised a technical point about the de minimis rule. He referred to the potential difficulties with Departments having to seek Executive agreement to move funds between spending areas in excess of the de minimis level of £1 million. That requirement has been in place for some time and is designed to ensure that funding allocations reflect the priorities of the Executive as a whole rather than those of individual Ministers. However, in light of the complexities of departmental restructuring and the fact that new Ministers will have their priorities, the Executive have agreed that the rule will be suspended for the first monitoring round of the year. I trust that that deals with the issue that the Member raised.
I turn to Mr Eastwood's comments about higher education funding. I fully recognise the need to ensure that our universities remain competitive in a national and, indeed, international context and that the skills needs of our economy continue to be met. A greater level of STEM skills will be required in future years, particularly when the lower rate of corporation tax is introduced from April 2018. It is, therefore, important that our universities adapt to that challenge and prioritise those skills. The Executive allocated an additional £5 million to the Department for the Economy in 2016-17 for skills development, and Members will be aware of the commitment that I gave to increase that funding to the £20 million that we have said needs to be brought forward. That gives an indication that there is a commitment from my party and from the Executive to deal with those issues.
Anna Lo and a number of other Members referred to the strategic nature of the Budget. The Members did not highlight the difficult time frame that the Executive faced or the difficulties involved in restructuring Executive Departments. Members did not highlight the flagship projects and the certainty that it brings to the construction industry, although I am glad that there were Members who referred to the positive comments that have come from organisations such as the Quarry Products Association. But then, of course, there are Members of the House who would like to dispense with that and almost deny that that was said. However, when it is a reality, we have to face up to it. The Members also did not provide any detail of how their parties would have done things differently and still adhered to the limited budget. It is true that the Budget will not provide funding for everything, but I have not heard any credible plans from others on how they would do things differently.
I conclude by saying that we simply need to realise that we face difficult and challenging times. It is undoubtedly a challenge for me and for the Executive to ensure that we manage our finances in a way that delivers and continues to deliver our public services. The public demand nothing better from us than to ensure that we keep our focus on those issues. It is my responsibility as Finance Minister to bring to the House a balanced and sustainable Budget. That is what I believe we have done with this Budget. However, I would like Members of the House who have been critical of the Budget this evening to say whether it is wrong that, today, we vote for an additional £133 million to the health service. Is it wrong that we vote for an additional £40 million to the Department of Education? Is it wrong that we vote for an additional £20 million to the Department for Infrastructure for road structural maintenance, given that that issue was pathetically dealt with or not dealt with by the previous Minister? Is it wrong that, since 2012, 525 new businesses have benefited from the introduction of the empty premises rate relief? Is it wrong that, since 2008, almost 27,000 older people have received around £35 million in rate relief through the lone pensioner allowance scheme?
I know that there are those who have talked about other tax-raising powers. This party is a low taxation party. Let us put the record straight on how we have provided for our community. In Scotland the rate of taxation is £1,337 per person; in England it is £1,465 per person: and in Wales it is £1,550. In Northern Ireland it is £842 per person. If those who want to criticise the Budget have any alternatives for how to best provide for the people of Northern Ireland, it is time they brought them to the House.
This Budget protects and provides, and it prepares Northern Ireland so that it can to continue to make progress in 2016 and beyond. I commend the Budget to the Assembly.
Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the vote on the motion requires cross-community support.
Question put. The Assembly divided:
Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Hazzard, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan
Mr Anderson, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Mr Middleton, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mrs Pengelly, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Storey, Mr Weir
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McQuillan, Mr G Robinson
Mr Attwood, Mr Diver, Mr Eastwood, Ms Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McKinney, Mr A Maginness, Mr Rogers
Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mr Beggs, Mr Cochrane-Watson, Mrs Dobson, Mr Hussey, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr B McCrea, Mr McGimpsey, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann
Mr Agnew, Mr Dickson, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCarthy
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Lunn, Mr McCrossan
|Nationalist Votes||39||Nationalist Ayes||28||[71.8%]|
|Unionist Votes||48||Unionist Ayes||34||[70.8%]|
|Other Votes||5||Other Ayes||0||[0.0%]|
Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved (with cross-community support):
That this Assembly approves the programme of expenditure proposals for 2016-17 as announced by the Minister of Finance and Personnel on 17 December 2015 and set out in the Budget document laid before the Assembly on 13 January 2016.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Motion made: That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Speaker.]