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Budget 2016-17

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:15 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP 5:15 pm, 19th January 2016

I welcome the opportunity to speak in today's Budget debate. At the outset, however, I express my disappointment that the Executive have again become even less transparent in the past 12 months. Last year, despite it clearly only being done for the optics, the Executive at least attempted to hold a public consultation, mainly over December 2014. There were more than 20,000 responses received, a fact that the then Finance Minister thought was of no importance, given that the Executive agreed the final Budget only two weeks later, long before a genuine synopsis of the responses could have been completed. This year, however, there has been no consultation at all. Once again, in the absence of the detailed spending plans, it is impossible to make an informed assessment of the proposals that the Assembly is being asked to nod through this evening.

I make the same point that my party has repeatedly made in the Chamber. Our entire Budget process is backwards. Setting aside the fact that the membership of this Assembly is setting the next Assembly's Budget, we continue to have the age-old problem that, instead of Departments identifying their costs and saying what they need, they are given a lump sum and told that it is up to them how to spend it. There is no deliberation and certainly no strategic thinking. Therefore, I share my party's concerns about the capacity of the Budget.

In my role as Ulster Unionist Party health spokesperson, that is where my main interest in the Budget lies. When the officials were briefing the Committee recently, we were told that the cost pressures are building each year, yet the true extent of those pressures is not yet known or, if it is, it is not being revealed. However, our constituents, often painfully, are experiencing that pressure in growing numbers every single day. We are all aware of the pressures faced, particularly by the health trusts. Those pressures are only being compounded by the pressures carried over year on year along with savings plans. Of course, when we ask the Health Minister how much the so-called emergency savings measures implemented in October 2014 have saved, he refuses to tell us. I remind him that there are other means than Assembly questions.

Although I welcome the protection that our health service has been given, the Budget and the discussions that preceded it have done nothing to address the elephant in the room that is the wider funding crisis. It is a crisis that is now increasingly compromising the safety of patients and the delivery of safe and sustainable services. Only last week, for instance, the true scale of the waiting times crisis in hospitals across the country was revealed to my party. In Craigavon Area Hospital in my constituency, the number of people waiting longer than the maximum 18 weeks jumped from 187 three years ago to 8,752 at the end of last year. Does the new Finance Minister really think that that is acceptable? I am sure that he does not, yet the Budget that he was handed by the now First Minister has done nothing to address it.

Outpatient waits are only one example of the current crisis. There are many more, not least in core services such as cancer diagnosis and treatments. I do not need to remind the House of the pressures facing the Fire and Rescue Service. Hopefully, yesterday will have come as the sharp call to action that Simon Hamilton clearly needed. Again, I call for the service to be considered a front-line service. We attempted to give it more money last year out of the surplus — unused and untouched — social investment fund (SIF) moneys, but the DUP and Sinn Féin did what they do best. They protected their own backs and their fiefdoms while leaving the Fire Service unprotected.

Only £4 million of the £80 million has been spent. Despite the crisis, the Department of Health has spent £200 million employing locum medical staff simply because of its failure to engage in workforce planning. Over the last three years, the number of health administrators earning over £100,000 has doubled. It is my sincere hope that, given that Simon Hamilton has no interest in addressing the current problems, aside from stunts and asking for further reports on what we already know, whoever is Minister in four months' time tries harder and has more authenticity.

Moving on —