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Budget 2016-17

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:15 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:15 pm, 19th January 2016

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 —