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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 Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green 6:00 pm, 19th January 2016

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 —