Budget Bill: Second Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:30 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party 6:30 pm, 9th February 2016

I will try to be reasonably brief as well, as I know that people like to check in with their families a couple of times a week.

We outlined some of the concerns that we have at the first stage of the Budget and during the debate on the spring Estimates yesterday. I think it is worth pointing out that a symptom of the failures in the process, as I referred to yesterday, is that we have had two debates on the Budget in a couple of weeks but, at the same time, have had very little time for the Ministers to bring forward their estimates and there has been very little scrutiny of those estimates.

In response to my point about that flaw yesterday, Minister, you pointed out that this is a one-year Budget to reflect the stretching of the mandate, but we do not think that that negates the overarching need to reform the budgetary process. In the Opposition Bill, we suggested a budgetary Committee, which was, inexplicably, opposed.

Suffice to say, we are not confident that this Budget has either the imagination or the detail to respond to the very many challenges that we have here, including rebuilding the economy and giving confidence to investors, not just through a cut in corporation tax, and giving confidence to young people to stay. I am glad that the Member for North Antrim is also looking across to Scotland for ideas, but I am afraid that I do not see very many of them reflected in this Budget. I peek over the pond quite often to see how Scotland is using devolution to its best advantage, and it makes my heart sink a wee bit when I see the fiscal opportunities over there and the missed opportunities for using devolution here.

We do not think that the spirit of power-sharing and of possibility that gets and has got Northern Ireland through bigger problems than a few Budgets is evident in this Budget. We do not think that there is, as I said, the required level of accountability. In what other Parliament would one scrutiny session per Committee be justified for a Budget of £16 billion? I highlighted particularly the deficit in the scrutiny of the Education portion of the Budget in that regard.

Respectfully, I think that the response to our criticism has mainly been to deflect and talk about the lack of alternatives provided by the other parties, but without the detail, all we are able to look at are the bulges and the contractions in the numbers. We are not really able to fairly scrutinise the priorities and set out alternatives, and I am not sure whether that is done intentionally.

The life story of the Budget began with the disagreement over welfare and the failure, we think, to engage with reasonable proposals; you would not have agreed with all of them, but there was a failure to even engage with them. There was also the rejection of the ideas of other parties during the talks process, and then there was the presentation of the Fresh Start Agreement to parties like ours about half an hour before it was published. This Budget then followed. As I said, it is not about opposition to the money going to the various Departments. There is a lot of talk about mandates and the size and use of mandates, but it wipes out and ignores the mandates of all of the other parties.