Budget Bill: Second Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 8:45 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party 8:45 pm, 9th February 2016

I welcome the opportunity to make my maiden speech in the Assembly. I am proud to do so as MLA for West Tyrone and in my new role as SDLP spokesperson on infrastructure.

Before I turn to the Budget for 2016-17, I pay tribute to Joe Byrne, the man whom I have replaced. Joe steadfastly served the constituency of West Tyrone since his re-election in 2011, having previously been a Member of the House from 2003 to 2007. A man of great party standing, Joe served in a multitude of roles in the SDLP and remains the party treasurer. During his time in the Assembly, he served as agriculture spokesperson and tirelessly stood up for the rural constituency of West Tyrone and its people. Mr Byrne has given me the opportunity to carry on the great work that he has conducted over a long number of years for the people of that area, both when elected and unelected. I can only hope that I can serve West Tyrone with the dignity and diligence that Mr Byrne showed. He is, truly, a great loss to the House.

The Budget for 2016-17, as outlined to the House in January, is unique as a one-year budget that has been put together in the aftermath of the Stormont House Agreement. This Budget has left no time for my colleagues and me or, for that matter, anyone else in the House to properly scrutinise the amounts contained for each Department. There is no doubt that the infrastructure budget faces serious challenges, and coming from West Tyrone, I can speak very clearly on that. There is a serious need for major investment in that part of Northern Ireland.

The average spend on our roads over the previous mandate has been roughly £70 million per annum. What is it this year? Twenty million pounds. I do not see this as a forward-looking Budget. I can only imagine that rural constituencies such as my own will be the first to fall foul of that budget decrease. Furthermore, we were promised real progress on the A5 and A6 in this Budget, which is laughable, given the allocation of a mere £100 million. That is a significant shortfall on what it is expected will be needed to complete the overall project.

The people of West Tyrone are not filled with optimism by this allocation. They are very depressed and have lost faith in the parties and politicians of West Tyrone and Northern Ireland, because they have failed to deliver time and again. All that have been delivered are false and broken promises about these major flagship projects. I sincerely hope that this is not — I repeat not — another empty promise about the A5.

The theme of empty promises is not alien to the people of West Tyrone. Last year, 17·7% of my constituents were in receipt of at least one disability-related benefit. A higher proportion of people who live in West Tyrone were in receipt of at least one disability-related benefit when compared to the Northern Ireland average of 13·7%. West Tyrone has the third highest proportion of disability-related benefit recipients. Last year, around 2,800 people in West Tyrone were claiming income support, of whom around 2,680 were of working age. That equates to 4·6% of working-age people claiming that benefit.

My home town of Strabane has fallen foul of chronic unemployment and underinvestment for decades. The people whom I meet each day in my constituency office relay their struggles to find work. Young people are desperate for opportunities and for a direction from the House on how they can better their lives, improve their lives, and survive and sustain themselves in their own home area. Some are stuck in a cycle of poverty and others are leaving to avoid it. Strabane is consistently highlighted as an area where deprivation is rife and little has been done to rectify that fact. This Budget will not rectify that fact.

Our young people are leaving in droves to find greater economic opportunities. It is often highlighted that they go to England or Australia; I know many of them, and many are family members. Often in West Tyrone, the reality is that younger people are migrating to Belfast. This is a glaring indicator of the extent of regional disparities in the North. We were told last year that Ministers here were taking responsibility for the generational neglect of the north-west by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The ministerial subgroup on economic inactivity in the north-west has met twice since then; the second meeting was called only 24 hours before it took place. That does not inspire much confidence.

It is not just job opportunities that are lacking in the west. One of the big disappointments in many rural areas across Northern Ireland is the vexed question of no, or poor, broadband services. We heard a significant debate in the House today about that. West Tyrone has terrible broadband services. Some areas are completely cut off and isolated, and businesses are suffering from poor connections. This greatly impedes existing small- and medium-sized enterprises from developing, and it discourages start-ups and enterprising activity. Many people who are trying to run small rural businesses in places such as Gortin, Greencastle in mid-Tyrone, Castlederg, the Glenelly valley and even in the glens of Antrim, Fermanagh, south Armagh and the Mournes have not seen broadband improvement in many years. I have come to understand that DETI has been spending a significant amount of money to rectify this problem, but it has not reached West Tyrone, or at least not in a tangible way just yet.

This Budget has within it many more problems than infrastructure. There is no breakdown of the education budget of £1·9 billion, of which some state they are very proud. There are cuts to student support, library services, museums and public services across the North. The west will ultimately feel the brunt, once again, of these cuts. In West Tyrone, the past 10 years have ushered in the closure of rural schools, urban schools, post offices, and rural banks and businesses — the shutdown and isolation of rural communities.

In health, social care services have been dwindling to such an extent that 15 care packages for the elderly have become the norm. People are concerned about this gradual erosion of services and neglect of the west.

Therefore, returning to the Budget, it is important that those services are given appropriate consideration by the Executive because it is clear that, so far, they have not. The Budget before us today does not offer that support. It adds to the depressing reality in my constituency, and although there is the promise of this big flagship project of the A5, which my party is in total support of, will it really happen beyond this election? Is it another election promise by some parties? That is the question on the doorsteps. People have lost faith in this House. It is a one-year Budget not properly scrutinised and passed; it has been passed by accelerated passage. This is not the budgetary system that will restore economic balance between the west and the rest of the North.