Budget Bill: Second Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:45 pm on 9th February 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP 6:45 pm, 9th February 2016

I hope that I can get a few laughs tonight, but I am not so sure. Again, I am pleased to be able to speak on the Second Stage of the Budget Bill. It is funny; we all seem to set off by putting out the main parameters. I noticed that the Minister did it and the Chair did it, and I see that I am doing it now as well. I will stick to convention.

The Bill covers the 2015-16 financial year and provides legal authority to spend for the early part of 2016-17. The Main Estimates will not be considered until June, but it remains crucial that Committees continue to monitor the spending of their respective Departments so that underspends are minimised and the return of funds to the Treasury is avoided.

We are told that the 2016-17 Budget is predicated on the full drawdown of available reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) borrowing. I understand the logic of capital projects which support economic growth, but in the same paragraph of the Budget, reference is made to the Executive's considering mechanisms for capping RRI borrowing. I am just wondering whether the Minister can develop that thinking so that the apparent contradiction may be explained. There is a figure of £8 million to be held centrally for distribution as a result of the joint investment with Atlantic Philanthropies. In 2014, £58 million was agreed. Can the Minister advise what balance of the fund is as yet unspent?

The Stormont House Agreement has provided for up to £350 million of additional borrowing to support important capital investment projects. Again, for clarification, will the Minister confirm that the first £100 million was used in the year 2015-16? What is envisaged for the £100 million in 2016-17? It would be interesting to know whether there is a strategy in place to cover that additional borrowing.

I will turn to European funds. I know that we can expect income from the various European programmes which are at closure stage. Do we know how much that is likely to be, and is the sum included in the Budget detail? If not, is it available for allocation? The change fund figure is reduced to £7·1 million and includes £1·5 million for estate rationalisation. How much resource has been released from the sale of assets, and how will these have been dealt with in the Budget?

I have to say that I am pleased to see that manufacturing rates will continue to apply a 30% liability for the next year. If we are serious about developing the economy, we need to support our manufacturers in a tangible way. It is also important to extend the small business rate relief scheme, the empty shops concession and the rural ATM exemptions for a further period. However, there are still issues with the recent non-domestic rate review. Is the Minister in a position to update us on the current situation? I know that, for many, there is concern from businesses and indeed clubs right across the Province. The Chair referred to that as well.

Much hope appears to be placed on the June monitoring round to make easement changes and redistribute resources. June is a long way off, but I ask the Minister what assurance he has, if any, that significant resources will be there as a result of the year-end movements, Barnett consequentials and underspends.

To finish, corporation tax has been touched on. Indeed, it was touched on last night as well. I remember speaking about it a month ago. It is very important that we publicise that availability because, as the Minister said last night, there is a gestation period for new businesses setting up and moving on to another country, so we need to get that message out now. I see some reference to the promotion of corporation tax. Maybe that sort of promotion is included in that, but we need to do that.

Air passenger duty (APD) is certainly a punitive tax. It started off as a green tax, but that is no longer the case. Several countries in Europe have just scrubbed APD because it worked directly against their interests. I certainly support that idea.

This evening, again, we have had the call to look at the devolution of further taxes. I hear that every so often, but in the Budget report we have a reference to the taxes that are generated in Northern Ireland and how they weigh against what comes from the Westminster Treasury.

I think that I trotted this one out about a month ago: the fiscal deficit is £9·2 billion. It says here that taxes generated in Northern Ireland are considerably less than that. I do not know whether it is fair to ask the Minister whether we have any idea of how close it is to that, but my feeling is that it is light years away from £9·2 billion. I will leave it at that.