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Budget 2016-17

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 3:45 pm, 19th January 2016

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 —