Budget Bill: Second Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 7:00 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Judith Cochrane Judith Cochrane Alliance 7:00 pm, 9th February 2016

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Budget Bill. I will endeavour not to do the parrot impression that I did last night and cover the points that everybody else had covered.

Members will be aware that the Alliance Party opposed the Budget at the Executive and when the Budget resolution came before the Assembly in January. That was the time when there was still an opportunity for an alternative to be agreed. However, now that these democratic decisions have been taken for better or worse, we have a duty to support the measures to put in place the finance for our Departments and public agencies.

We recognise that 2016-17 is a transitional year and is to be followed by a four-year Budget. Therefore, I still have some hope that, when the rationalised Departments are in place and a new Programme for Government agreed, we will see a more strategic approach. No more circulating a Budget the night before an Executive meeting with the two largest parties displaying a disregard for the views of other parties represented on the Executive but a properly consulted-on Budget that effectively aligns with the strategic priorities for all our Departments across the period to 2021.

Whilst I still have hope, it does not mean that we should simply brush over the 2016-17 proposals that, I believe, missed the opportunity to begin to lay any groundwork for the radical reform needed to deliver better outcomes for everyone in Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister how the proposed spending in front of us will begin that process of making our public finances more sustainable? Perhaps I missed it.

Does he believe that the Budget will assist in reforming the health sector? Will it ensure that necessary action is taken on education? Will it feed into addressing the cost of a divided society and investing in the economy?

Looking at the Department of Health. Yes, the 2016-17 Budget, compared with that for 2015-16, has allocated an extra £128 million, and, of course, that is welcome news. However, even with that increase, the cost pressures facing the Department are extremely worrying. Our population is increasing in size and getting older, and more people are living with chronic conditions. Unhealthy lifestyles are creating more demand for services, and new developments in medical technologies and drugs are increasing demand and adding to the cost pressures. The focus of the Department of Health therefore needs to be on reform, not simply on using the resources to cover gaps here and there by way of a sticking-plaster approach. We need to rationalise the way in which services are provided and invest in further prevention measures.