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Budget 2016-17

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:15 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 6:15 pm, 19th January 2016

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.