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 Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 8:45 pm, 9th February 2016

I begin by congratulating Mr McCrossan on his maiden speech, not just because it is the proper tradition to do so but because it was a particularly well-crafted and equally well-delivered speech, and he spoke with very tenacious affection for his constituency. I think that many of us recall the service of his predecessor, Mr Joe Byrne, in his unassuming way. I think that many of us would like to join in wishing him well in his retirement.

Turning to this Budget, when I pick up a Budget Bill and read through it and look for some of the headline figures, there are always some things that strike me. One of the figures that struck me again was in clause 2(2) of this Budget, where we read that, in this current financial year, Northern Ireland has the benefit of resources of over £17 billion. It always causes me to pause and to ask: where does that money come from? Of course, the answer to that question, that some would rather not hear or face up to, is that that £17 billion comes as a direct consequence of our membership of the United Kingdom. It is because we are an integral part of the United Kingdom, entitled to share in its burdens and its riches, that we have that quantity of money at our disposal. For those who chase various constitutional moonbeams about alternative constitutional arrangements, one fact that they never like to face is where the money would come from. It is patently obvious that the benefits to Northern Ireland of being part of the United Kingdom, as reflected in the monetary settlement year-on-year, are colossal. I think that all citizens in Northern Ireland should reflect on that and be grateful.

I carried out a little exercise by looking at last year's Budget Bill because I wanted to see just where the variations were; where the uplifts were; and whether there were any telltale signs of why the uplifts were in respect of different Departments. The one that particularly caught my eye was DRD. In schedule 3 of this Budget, we have the sums granted for the upcoming year, 2016-17. If we go back and compare that to the comparable figure in last year's schedule 3, we discover that the Department for Regional Development has had a whopping 33% increase — £134 million extra. If you go to schedule 4, you will discover that resources for this year are an extra £107 million. How, or why, would that be?

Is it the hand of politics in this Budget? Could it be that, now that courtesy of IRA murder the DRD is held by the DUP, the idea of starving another Minister of funding is no longer appropriate and that, suddenly, largesse is the order of the day? Could it be that an upcoming election could also be a contributor to that? I find it rather striking; when you compare last year's Bill with this year's, that is something that jumps out at one quite significantly.

Other things that are obvious in this Budget include the extra money poured into welfare and to attain the so-called Fresh Start Agreement. Yes, of course, it was indeed a very significant climbdown by Sinn Féin from its promise that no one, whether a new or existing claimant, would ever suffer under welfare, but also a very significant diversion of funds that would otherwise have been available for health, education and other necessary expenditures. It was a very significant diversion from other aspects of the block grant into supporting welfare supplements, so that the Minister could sing off the same hymn sheet as Sinn Féin on welfare. Not everyone will know this, but the Minister has some claim to accomplishment in the singing stakes himself. He is not unknown for his singing talents and, indeed, he has, I understand, an O level in music. That is more than I have, I have to say, but he is well equipped to sing off the same hymn sheet on this particular issue.

Where it really strikes me as bizarre is that there is money for that, but when you look at the issue of economic inactivity in Northern Ireland, as we heard earlier today — I think it was from Mr McCrea — we are the worst performing region. We have the highest level of economic inactivity. Last March, the Employment and Learning Minister, Dr Farry, brought forward a strategy to tackle economic inactivity. Here we are, 12 months on and looking forward to another 12 months, and that strategy remains unresourced in this Budget. So we are finding money to prop up, sustain and supplement welfare benefits, but when it comes to the idea of dealing with our high level of economic inactivity and encouraging more people from being economically inactive to being economically active, there is not a penny piece in this Budget for the strategy to address economic inactivity. That, I think, is a gross failing.