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 Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 7:00 pm, 9th February 2016

I will be speaking as Chair of the Education Committee, so obviously it would be totally wrong and remiss of me to mention that, in terms of any budgetary allocations particularly to Education, priority should be given to the Holywood schools project in my constituency, which would impact on Priory College, Holywood Primary School and Holywood Nursery School. It would be equally remiss of me to indicate the need for new school builds at St Columbanus' College and Bangor Central Integrated Primary School, given the high pressures there and the fact that both are in dire need of long overdue capital investment. So, I will not mention those in the speech.

Although speaking as Chair of the Education Committee, I must admit that I have some sympathy with what Mrs Cochrane, Ms Hanna and others have mentioned. There is always a slight sense of déjà vu with finance debates, particularly those on the Budget, because we quite often have the Budget debate on the back of the debate on the Supply resolution. As somebody who spent many years in different guises on the Finance Committee, probably as punishment in the first mandate and possibly as closer to a reward in latter days, I totally empathise with the sometimes frustrating difficulty when you are effectively dealing with the same subject for the second or third time but are trying to find a new and novel spin on it. I congratulate Members on doing that.

On a broader level, one of the challenges of this Budget is the readjustment of Departments, which makes any degree of read-across difficult. Therefore, it is very difficult to compare like with like. To be fair, there is at least some opportunity for that in Education and Justice, because the changes to those Departments are very minimal. There is a de minimis type approach to Education, so you can look at a degree of read-across there. There is clearly some difficulty in going too much into the detail of the Education budget because, as with other Departments, we are awaiting the detail. I think that there will be key issues for the Minister to look at in terms of the prioritisation within that budget.

As such, all we can really do is look at the overall Budget position. What some others would see as a criticism of partial protection of Education would be seen by the Education Committee as having at least some level of virtue.

When we look at the Education budget or, indeed, any of the other departmental budgets, we have to realise the constrained circumstances that we are in. Looking around the House, I do not see anybody who has been here since 1998, but I am one of the few people who, as if in some sort of latter-day Canaan, lived through the days of milk, honey and plenty in the early days of the Assembly under the high level expenditure under Gordon Brown, where revenue budgets went up each year by a considerable amount. In many ways, it was a relatively easy job for any Assembly to decide how to spend that money if you were looking at a 5% rise in real terms. The task of dividing up that revenue is perhaps easier than when you are looking at what are effectively real-terms reductions. It is in that context that we need to look at the overall Education budget. Undoubtedly, there will be pressures in that budget. I suggest that they may not be quite of the nature that, at times, has been suggested by the Department, but, undoubtedly, there are pressures on the budget. One looks, for instance, at the pressures of an additional £30 million for National Insurance changes, which will impact on the departmental budget.

In actual figures, the revenue budget for Education sits now at just under £2 billion. One of the things that needs to be welcomed within that is that at least we have seen a small overall increase in the budget in actual terms but possibly not in real terms. The budget compared with last year is up £40 million. A lot of that is due to the fact that problems arose last year when money had to be found to meet additional teacher pensions. It was welcomed at that stage that not only was the £35 million found for that but that has now been put in the baseline of the Department. That, at least, relieves a degree of pressure in the Department.

In addition to the money that has been made available, it should be noted that, when some of the redundancies, particularly teacher redundancies, were met last year in the Department of Education, some of that effectively had to be found from the pre-existing Department of Education budget. The fact that that is not having to be found this year creates a degree of relief of pressure because you are not necessarily comparing like for like. There is the removal of a certain level of pressure, which gives a little headroom to the Department.

With regard to the transformation fund, the Department of Education, through a number of schemes, is the largest single beneficiary, with three schemes totalling around £72 million. Part of that — probably been the most controversial aspect — has been the proposal from the Minister of a £33 million scheme for teachers who are over the age of 55 on the condition that schools employ someone who has under three years' experience. At the bottom end of that, there has been a level of controversy about that. It is true to say that there is some concern in the Education Committee about whether the balance on that has been got right, but, undoubtedly, in respect of the £33 million, there are also figures that suggest that that will generate a certain level of savings for schools. That also needs to be taken into account, but I think that the Committee will want to hear more on that scheme. Hopefully, we will soon have the opportunity to quiz the Minister on that. The Committee will want to assure itself as to whether the detail of that has been got right.

The focus at times has, therefore, been so heavily on the £33 million that what has been ignored is the other £39 million in the budget for changes in redundancy. Some £14 million of that is directly for the potential redundancies of 300 teachers, and £25 million has been set aside for non-teaching staff. In certain respects, that will ease some of the pressures in the overall Education budget. Before Mrs Cochrane left, she referred to efficiencies. We should look at the non-teaching side of the Department of Education, where there is an opportunity for a level of reduction. In recent years, there has been a 6% increase in staff and a 10% increase in savings, so perhaps we are not starting from a position of the highest efficiency.

Last year, the Committee expressed concern about cuts made to the Curriculum Advisory and Support Service (CASS), the promotion of STEM and home literacy programmes such as the Book Trust. We wait with interest to see what the Minister prioritises in his budget. Perhaps it would be wrong to comment in too much detail at this stage. Suffice it to say that the desire is that there will be as much protection as possible for the aggregated schools budget to ensure that the money is spent on the front line. That would find resonance across the Chamber.

Finally, I want to touch on capital spend, and there is, potentially, a good news story, particularly in education. I will explain why. The capital budget reduced from £182 million in 2014-15 to £145 million this year, but it will move up to £193·7 million next year, which is very welcome. Mr McCrea and others referred to schools in their areas, and I suspect that we could all have a long list of schools, as is often the case with a capital budget. I suspect that the Minister will want to announce prior to dissolution how that money will be allocated among schools, and work on that is ongoing in the Education Authority. We all hope that the money will be spent in the best possible fashion, in the right place and in an equitable and equality-proofed way.

I sound a small note of caution. Mention was made of the very good work done on minor works, but we should put that into context. During this Assembly term, 56 major works have been announced. For a variety of reasons, including planning and procurement issues, work on the ground has started on only 21. The Committee will want to ensure that, when capital builds are announced, there is a quicker follow-up. Some minor works, which are welcome in and of themselves, arose because the capital budget could not be spent in-year. That money was diverted, so there was a shift. Nevertheless, with those caveats, we should all welcome an increase of about £48 million or £49 million for capital works. We look forward to drilling down with the Minister and his officials, hopefully in a relatively short time, on what the priorities and allocations are in the Education budget, and the Committee will very much take a watching brief.

Speaking as a DUP Member, I welcome the Budget, which comes before us in the difficult circumstances of wider financial pressures. I believe that the Minister and the Executive have done the best that is possible with the resources that they have. Therefore, I commend the Budget to the House.