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Budget 2016-17

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:00 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 6:00 pm, 19th January 2016

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.