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Budget 2016-17

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:30 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 4:30 pm, 19th January 2016

I have great pleasure in following the leaders of the two main opposition parties, one still mysteriously in the Government. I will perhaps remark on that later.

First, I congratulate my colleague Mervyn Storey and wish him well. I know that he is constrained to 34 minutes in his summation, but at least we can look forward to some very punchy comments then.

Before I move on to a couple of more general points in my capacity as a DUP MLA, I want to make a few remarks on behalf of the Committee for Education. During the previous debate of this kind, virtually a year ago, on 27 January 2015, my predecessor — I think that it was Mr Storey — was able to comment in rather more detail on the Department of Education’s budget than will be possible today. In about three weeks' time, the Committee is due to be briefed by officials on the detail of the budget, and that constrains some of the conclusions that I am able to make today.

I begin by looking at the overall picture of the Department of Education resource figure. DE has gained an allocation of around £40 million from the Executive. The Committee understands that a considerable sum — around £35 million — has been added to the 2016-17 baseline to meet substantial additional liabilities associated with teachers’ pensions. I should say, at this point, that clarification on this allocation is most welcome. My understanding is that the enhanced budget was then subject to about a 5% cut.

The resource budget was then boosted by a further £70 million to meet the costs of redundancy and, essentially, an early retirement scheme for teachers. I will say more about that in a moment. The money is effectively ring-fenced for those purposes. As the House is aware, DE undertook redundancies in schools in the current financial year and paid for some of them from its resource budget. Thus, the argument advanced by some DE officials that the Department is £70 million worse off in 2016-17 may not be entirely watertight. We will wish to explore that further when we see the detailed budget position.

Just when you think that things are complicated enough, there is a further complexity involving changes to employer rebates for National Insurance. We have been advised that that may amount to about £30 million in DE. The Committee has sought information on the breakdown of these costs and on the separate impact of related changes for low-paid workers.

I mentioned earlier a kind of early retirement scheme for teachers. The Investing in the Teaching Workforce scheme will cost about £33 million and, if fully taken up, apply to around 500 teachers, who will gain early reduced access to their pension. They are to be replaced by 500 relatively newly qualified teachers. It is no secret that the scheme attracted a great deal of public comment. It is the largest single allocation from the public sector transformation fund to any Department, and an additional £14 million will be used to fund about 300 separate redundancies. It is fair to say that there has been controversy around the scheme. Indeed, the Committee has put a question mark against the entry point and is still teasing out whether the Department has got that right. The Committee will also want to probe further whether this is good value for public money and whether those made redundant could simply have been replaced. We will want to tease that out. Given the short timescales, we will probably require further information.

The Department is also due to receive around £25 million for 600 non-teaching redundancies, both school- and non-school-based. The Committee has long been of the view that the administration of education is too expensive and that the budget would be better spent in the classroom. I think that the Committee still feels this way. However, I should note that the 300 or so redundancies in the Education Authority were not envisaged in the business case for that organisation. Members have expressed concerns that the teaching staff released may put additional pressure on support services such as CASS (Curriculum Advisory and Support Service).

It is also worth noting that, in recent years, the Department of Education's staffing levels have increased by around 6%, with a 10% increase in salary costs, so we are not starting from the position of the Department of Education already seeing redundancies. While there have been some cuts, the Committee will want to see the Department's plan continue into this process in 2016-17.

I mentioned spending in the classroom. I believe that the Committee will place much of its focus on the aggregated schools budget. The capital budget is to increase in 2016-17, which is, of course, welcomed by the Committee. Most Members will be aware of the schools enhancement programme and the minor works, and there is a lot that needs to be done. Again, we will see the progress on that. Finally, as a Committee we will be trying to take the views of stakeholders on what the broader direction of the Programme for Government should be in the future.