Budget Bill: Second Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:15 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin 6:15 pm, 9th February 2016

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. As we have heard, the Budget Bill before us provides statutory authority for expenditure as set out in the spring Supplementary Estimates 2015-16. The Bill also includes the Vote on Account, which allows Departments to incur expenditure and use resources in the early part of 2016-17 until the Main Estimates are voted on by the House in June.

Standing Order 42(2) states that accelerated passage may be granted for a Budget Bill, provided that the Committee for Finance and Personnel is satisfied that it has been appropriately consulted on the public expenditure proposals in the Bill. At its meeting on 3 February, departmental officials briefed the Committee and answered questions on the Bill being debated today, including on issues relating to a range of Departments. In addition to that evidence, the Committee has scrutinised each of the monitoring rounds during the current financial year, which, in this case, took place in June and November 2015. In both instances, the Committee considered the overall outcome across Departments and the position for DFP as a Department. In view of this evidence-gathering exercise throughout the year, the Committee was content to grant accelerated passage to the Bill. I therefore wrote to the Speaker, informing him of the Committee's decision.

As I pointed out in yesterday's Supply resolution debate, the scale of the cumulative changes resulting from the normal reallocations through monitoring rounds, combined with the in-year technical changes, will, in some cases, have resulted in significant differences between the opening and closing resource and capital allocations of Departments.

As I have said, the Vote on Account is on the basis of the current structure of 12 Departments. However, the Main Estimates in June will reflect the new structure of the nine Departments agreed by the Executive. In this regard, the Committee noted that four Departments — DSD, DETI, DRD and DEL — will be allocated more resources under the Vote on Account than normal. This is to ensure allocations to cover their existing functions as well as the new functions that will be transferred when the restructuring takes full effect. This practice will, hopefully, minimise the financial risks as a result of the transfer of functions.

I have previously emphasised to DFP officials the importance of ensuring transparency in the restructuring process over the coming months in the budgets that will transfer along with functions.

Undoubtedly, the process will present challenges, but the Assembly and, in particular, the Committees in the new mandate will need to be provided with the information necessary to scrutinise the budgets associated with the transfer of functions as they occur.

There will also be a need for a clear and accessible reconciliation between the moneys allocated on the existing basis of 12 Departments, through the Vote on Account in this Bill, and those allocated on the new basis of nine Departments in the Main Estimates in June. In that regard, it will be important that the applicable statutory Committees engage with their respective Departments to ensure that the budgetary requirements of transferring functions have been identified and settled as applicable. Furthermore, at the meeting on 13 January, DFP officials pointed out to the Committee that Ministers would be given significant discretion in the June monitoring round to reallocate resource and capital budgets and:

"to take on board the representations that are made, for example, from the various Committees."

Therefore, this is an opportunity that the outgoing Committees may wish to pick up on in their legacy reports to the successor Committees in the new mandate.

I am hopeful that we will also see improvements to the overall Budget process in the next mandate. As I have reminded Members already, a solution to some of the difficulties and flaws in the current process could be found by the Assembly and Executive agreeing a memorandum of understanding on the Budget process. I have written to the Minister recently to reflect on the progress made in developing the MOU, and I am hopeful that the Department will work with the new Committee for Finance to see this brought to fruition. It would establish a framework for improved cooperation between the Executive and the Assembly in respect of budgetary matters and facilitate Members and Committees in fulfilling their scrutiny and advice functions, which, in turn, will assist in overseeing the effective and efficient delivery of the Executive's strategic priorities. Importantly, the MOU would help to front-end the Assembly's input to draft Budgets and afford scope to influence key issues in advance of future Budgets being agreed by the Executive. That in turn could provide scope to rationalise and streamline the latter stages of the financial process, in particular the duplication of effort that we face between yesterday’s Supply resolutions debate, today’s Second Stage debate and the subsequent stages of the Budget Bill. Given the need for greater oversight and closer scrutiny of our public expenditure, coupled with the recurring difficulties experienced by Committees in the time and information available for meaningful scrutiny of budgets, an agreed memorandum of understanding between the Assembly and the Executive is essential going forward.

On behalf of the Committee, I support the motion. I will now make a few comments as an individual Member and on behalf of Sinn Féin.

Recently, I went round local businesses. It is important to put some of the issues in a local context, because moneys in the Budget are used for rate relief. I welcome the work of the Department in consulting on the rate reliefs currently in place. There is certainly a need to put in place new reliefs and perhaps remove some of the old ones. I went door to door around businesses in Ballymena to discuss rates. The main issue that was raised was not rates; it was the roadworks on the main streets through Ballymena. We would make the suggestion — it was raised with me by my local councillor, Paul Maguire — that we introduce what they have in Wales for when there is flooding or serious roadworks. I do not know exactly how that is measured, but it is something that the Department should look at. Businesses showed us their turnover figures, and there is a clear correlation between major works in the town and a reduction in profits. Those businesses were under pressure as a result of the works carried out in the town.