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 thank the Minister for his intervention. I was going to come to that in my speech. Of course, I am not the expert who can tell you exactly what needs to be there, but I do know that an independent panel has been put in place, and I believe that there needs to be serious public political commitment to see through changes that may be brought forward by that panel. We cannot expect people to come forward with ideas and then respond with, "Not on my doorstep". We have seen that so many times before. I am calling for that political leadership from all parties, and I welcome the Health Minister's apparent commitment to reform and the fact that he has put a panel in place. I am just hoping that any necessary changes that are proposed by the panel will be realised.

On a previous occasion in the Chamber, I think that there was a mention of a transformation fund for some of the cost-saving initiatives that may come about. I ask the Finance Minister to confirm that he will be supportive of that type of investment being prioritised. I hope that there will be a focus on using improved IT solutions, as communication in the health sector really seems to be one of the biggest challenges and one of the biggest wastes of resources. Just yesterday, I had to make three separate phone calls to secondary care providers to find out one simple piece of information about an arm injury that I have. I was eventually told to phone my GP, who would be able to access the records and provide the information. That bounced the responsibility back to primary care, which is already under pressure. It is clear that there are processes crying out for reform in our health sector, so it is not just about closing services in different places. It is about really, really reforming those processes.

Even through high-level benchmarking of costs compared with other jurisdictions, we can see that efficiencies need to be made in education, yet the large degree of protection that has again been given to the Department of Education seems to create less incentive for that reform. The Alliance Party of course supports investing more resources directly in schools, but we believe that that can be achieved by better use of the Department's budget in the first place.

More money is already spent on education in Northern Ireland than in neighbouring jurisdictions, but less money is being invested directly in the pupils. Part of that is due to our divided system, and another part of it is to do with our high administrative costs. We therefore also need a more meaningful approach to area planning to reduce the number of empty desks and leadership — again, from all our political parties — so that, when difficult decisions have to be made about mergers, amalgamations or closures, people face up to them, are honest with the public and say, "This is what needs to be done". However, I welcome the budgetary allocation for capital expenditure, which Mr McCrea also mentioned. I am hopeful that, in this incoming year, capital resources will finally be allocated to Strandtown Primary School in my constituency of East Belfast for the badly needed modernisation of the accommodation.

I would like to make some comments on the budgetary allocation for economic development. We know that the new Department for the Economy will be established in this incoming financial year. That is good news, as it will bring together the further and higher education sectors alongside our business community and should help to strengthen the economy and drive it forward. However, Alliance has concerns that the 2016-17 Budget has prioritised Health and Education at the expense of the economy. It is a fact that we have disinvested in higher education for a number of years. The cynic in me might say that that is because it fell under an Alliance portfolio. Nevertheless, it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Reskilling and upskilling our people is essential to give everyone the opportunity to realise their full potential and to make a valuable contribution to society. It is one of the challenges that our Budget really needs to focus on and properly address if we want people to be ready for the devolution of corporation tax. If we need more resources in that area, perhaps we should reconsider the total allocation under the Delivering Social Change banner. That funding is being maintained as per previous allocations, but I am not confident on delivery given the previous failings of the social investment fund, which I know some have referred to as the "pet projects fund".

I apologise if I have come across as completely negative this evening; I genuinely have tried not to. Alliance will accept the democratic process that has agreed this Budget but, going forward, I urge the Minister to enter into full consultation and discussion on meaningful reforms, including considering some revenue-raising such as prescription charges, which could be taken forward quite quickly, and exploring some other medium-term options as well. I also ask him to include a commitment to publish the independent audit of the cost of division that was part of the Stormont House Agreement.

Our Budget process is difficult as we continue to live in difficult times for public services. Responsible leadership is therefore needed, and that means being honest with the public and taking the difficult strategic decisions that will ensure the best outcomes for Northern Ireland as a whole. We support the passage of the Bill.