Budget Bill: Second Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 9:15 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 9:15 pm, 9th February 2016

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I have just checked with you and your staff about the time that I have to speak and have been informed that there is no limit. So, Members, you are in for a longer sit. However, I will try to be brief.

I want to make one point as I commence. I have heard a lot of criticism about there not being an opportunity to scrutinise. There are Members who could scrutinise it from now until the end of this year, and it would not matter: they would still come up with no solutions or ideas on what they would do differently. They do themselves a disservice. We are in the House for this debate, we were here yesterday and we will be back again as the Bill progresses: that is the process of scrutiny. It is not perfect — I see that the Member is perturbed by that comment — given the circumstances, but Members have been able to raise their concerns in relation to the Budget over the last number of hours.

I want to try to make some progress with responses to those issues that, I trust, will give some clarity to Members. I will not dispel all their concerns, worries and fears, but, as Minister of Finance and Personnel for the Northern Ireland Executive, I am glad that we are in this position as we progress the Budget, compared with where we could have been a number of months ago. We all need to take some cognisance of the fact that we are in a better place. However, there is much more to be done.

As I said last night, it will be interesting for the electorate and the voters who are watching this debate and the debates in the days to come to see what happens with the parties that have said we should have spent the money on this or that issue. We will see whether those parties are in government or in opposition. I have to say, however, that I read some of the comments that were made in the document that was published yesterday by the Ulster Unionist Party. They still have not made up their mind about whether they will be in government or in opposition, and they say that good government does not mean that everyone has to be part of the Government. I am sure that that will go down well when they go to canvass at the doors in the next number of weeks and months.

Let me move on to what the Members have raised, beginning with the Chair of the Committee. Again, I thank the Committee for the help that it has given in the process. I welcome the positive contributions that it has made to the Budget process. I am aware of the correspondence that the Member, rightly, raised — the memorandum of understanding between the Assembly and the Executive on the Budget process. I want to make it very clear that we are making progress. I am keen to ensure that that progress is continued so that we have something of substance, even before the end of this mandate. That is a commitment that I want to honour. I want to get to a place where we have a satisfactory conclusion to the matter. It has gone on for a period, and I would like to see some progress being made on it.

The Member also raised the business rates review. The review has concluded, and we are now considering what is to be the way forward. I will comment further on that when I meet representatives from the CBI later this week. I want to ensure that we begin to have a debate around the best way in which we can move the process forward. I will listen to the concerns. In my previous role as Minister for Social Development, I was always very conscious that a consultation should not merely be a process of going out to hear having already agreed a predetermined outcome, and I reiterate that as the Minister of Finance. If a consultation is to mean anything, it will genuinely take on board the issues that are raised on the matter that is being consulted on, and the issues will be listened to and responded to in a positive way. I look forward to trying to bring some clarity to that issue in the next number of days and in the weeks ahead.

The Chair also raised the issue of wider fiscal powers. Of course, the Executive's top priority has been to seek an agreement, which we have secured, on the transfer and use of rate-setting powers for corporation tax. That remains the Executive's top priority in relation to the devolution of additional fiscal powers. In that regard, the Executive's intentions are clear. They are committed to introducing to Northern Ireland the corporation tax regime from April 2018 at a rate of 12·5%.

Of course, Members will also be aware that we are considering the case for devolving other fiscal powers where doing so would deliver a clear economic or social benefit for Northern Ireland. The impact that devolution would have on the Executive Budget and, therefore, the provision of public services is also a key factor there. You will recall that we recently sent correspondence to the Finance Committee about the issue. I reiterate the comments of my predecessor, Mr Hamilton, that preface that document. He set out two key conditions in considering whether the devolution of additional taxation powers should be sought by the Executive. The first was affordability: the devolution of a tax or duty and the change from the UK policy must not impose a disproportionate burden on the funding available for public services. Secondly, the devolution of a tax or duty and a change from UK policy should be expected to result in a defined economic and social benefit to the people of Northern Ireland.

Those remain the issues for me on how to address wider fiscal powers.

That, of course, covers a point that was made by a Member, which is that we need to preface all this by saying, "Let us, as Members of the House, remember where our funding comes from". There are Members who want to cut off any association with Her Majesty's Treasury. When it comes to convincing the people of Northern Ireland, since its creation in 1921 until the present day, that we should move anywhere other than the United Kingdom, they have failed to do so. That money comes from the Treasury. That needs to be a reality check for all of us because the amount of money that would come from any other source is not available and is certainly not forthcoming within the current arrangements.

The Member also raised the issue — rightly so — of our constituency of North Antrim and the ongoing employment challenge with the loss of Michelin and JTI. Those are concerns for us as local representatives, for me as the Finance Minister and also, I trust, for the Executive. They remain a challenge and issue not only for Ballymena but for other areas across Northern Ireland. We outlined that we are always aware of the impact of job losses on individuals. It is very clear. It is very easy to come to the House and just repeat words. We always need to remember that, behind every announcement of job losses, there are individuals, families and communities who suffer.

As far as corporation tax is concerned, research suggests that the potential benefit to the economy of Northern Ireland would be the creation of well in excess of 30,000 additional jobs and economic growth of an additional 10% over 15 years. Those figures cannot be ignored or just set aside. That is why our attention should focus on this tool to ensure that we put Northern Ireland in the best place to be the beneficiary of the introduction of corporation tax.