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Budget 2016-17

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance 3:30 pm, 19th January 2016

I thank the Minister for his intervention. I should not have let him in because I could just have read my next sentence, which is that I want to welcome formally what the Finance Minister said today —

[Laughter.]

— and his commitment to allocating an additional £20 million. I hold him in high regard, just as he appears to hold me in high regard.

It is a fact that we have disinvested in higher education for a number of years. The £16 million cut from last year's budget compounds an existing structural gap relative to the rest of the UK of approximately £40 million, so we are playing catch-up. Frankly, Minister, the experts in this field — the university chancellors and so on who have been talking about this recently — are not talking about £20 million; they are talking about five times that, but I acknowledge the start that you are making.

The Budget prioritises health and education at the expense of the economy, which is supposed to be the priority in the Programme for Government. The Executive — rather, the two-party grouping that makes the decisions offers no challenge to the reform of inefficient public services such as health and education. There is no attempt to address the cost of division. What happened to the commitments in Together: Building a United Community, which was two and a half years ago; the Stormont House Agreement, which was over a year ago; and the Audit Commission report, through the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre, which is presumably gathering dust somewhere?

Instead, we have political pet projects like the social investment fund duplicating what is already being done, or should be already being done, by other Departments. That includes neighbourhood renewal, the employment service, the Pathway to Success strategy for NEETs, the economic inactivity strategy and the European social fund, which seeks to bypass the normal procedures for decision-making based on bids and the assessment of merit. The result has been stalemate, and 95% of a nominal £80 million budget remains unspent after five years. It is probably time for the Minister to consider winding up that scheme and reallocating the money to something useful. He would not be short of suggestions on how to use it, that is for sure.

I can talk about other Departments; I will not major on just the Department for Employment and Learning. Under the Department of Education, there are 50,000 empty desks — the Minister will be familiar with this argument — and no meaningful approach that I can see to area-based planning, which might have some effect on that figure. A programme that has been much discussed today — replacing older teachers with new graduates — has merit, Minister, but I am sure that you can see the logic in not producing, year on year, an oversupply of new teachers. Perhaps you could persuade your ministerial colleague the Minister of Education to do something about that, given that he does not pay for it; you and the Department for Employment and Learning are paying for it.

I could comment on the provision for almost any Department, especially those controlled by DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers, but time does not permit. The House might reasonably ask what Alliance suggests, rather than being totally negative. We would not be starting from here, but, if we were, we would include a commitment to publish the independent audit of the cost of division, which is part of the Stormont House Agreement. We would abolish the social investment fund, which needlessly duplicates what other Departments can do, and reinvest that money in a myriad of other services. We would immediately halt any plans to relocate the DARD headquarters to Ballykelly. We think that that is a nonsense. We asked the Executive to make a commitment to legal aid reform, and I am told that a commitment was included in an earlier draft of the Budget paper. To go back to my main point, we would significantly increase investment in skills in order to better prepare for a lower rate of corporation tax.

I will end where I started. This corporation tax cut is coming over the horizon at a galloping pace and, if we are not ready for it, we will be totally embarrassed. The companies that already are having to go outside of Northern Ireland looking for skilled labour will find themselves in an impossible position.