Budget Bill: Second Stage

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

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Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 9:45 pm, 9th February 2016

Members should take note that the Education Minister and I started out as members of the Education Committee, so if you want to succeed in your political career, maybe you should go onto the Education Committee. Maybe Dolores Kelly, who is now on the Education Committee, can look forward to returning to the Executive if the SDLP decides that it does not want to go into isolation — sorry, opposition. Maybe those two things are one and the same; I do not know.

On a serious note, I believe passionately, as, I think, all Members do, in the importance of our education system, but let us be under no illusion that there will not be challenges ahead as we look at our school estate and at the way in which we continue to provide for education. We are all precious about our local schools and other areas in which education is being provided. We have to address certain pressures that are in the system at the moment, but the new Minister of Education, whoever it will be, will face particular challenges for a number of reasons, no less than the issue of our school estate. There will be somewhat more capital available. The situation with capital may not be in the best place, but there is more focus on capital than there is on resource.

Let me move on to dealing with the particular issue that the Chair raised about taking forward a number of the exit schemes. The Department of Education received and approved 195 teacher redundancy applications in 2015-16. The cost associated with those applications was £3·2 million, and the costs were met through funding accrued by the education and library boards — the employing authority — from the 2014-15 Budget. A further 127 applications were approved, at a cost of £5·2 million, which was funding that the Department of Education received from the public-sector transformation fund.

As at 6 January 2016, the Department of Education had received and approved 248 non-teaching, school-based redundancy applications, at a cost of £2·9 million, which was funded from the public-sector transformation fund. The Education Authority initiated its voluntary severance programme in May 2015, and it projects the number of redundancies before the end of the financial year to be 262. The Department of Education has allocated £14 million, which will be funded from the public-sector transformation fund.

The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) also initiated a voluntary exit scheme in 2015-16, and the Department of Education has allocated £1 million for it, which will be funded from the public-sector transformation fund. That, again, is an indication that an attempt is being made to try to address the issue. It has all come about as a result of the public-sector transformation fund, and the Budget document gives some detail on that.

I move on to an issue that was raised by the Chair of the Agriculture Committee, my colleague Mr William Irwin. He mentioned the 5·7% reduction in the budget of the new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. The overall level of funding available to the Executive means that it is inevitable that many of our Departments will face resource DEL reductions in 2016-17. I want to say something on that issue, because it is easy to forget why we are in the position of having to make reductions in the first place. I noticed in today's 'Belfast Telegraph' that we have been given some advice by Mr Johnny Andrews, who is the economy spokesman for the Northern Ireland Conservatives. He tells us all about the problems and challenges, but he never once mentions the fact that it is because of his party that we now have this situation in which there have been reductions. It is all very well to sit in splendid isolation as a member of the Northern Ireland Conservatives and tell us all about what we need to do and the difficulties that we are all going to have, but he makes no reference to the fact that it was his colleagues in Westminster who brought about the situation that created the challenges that we now face. However, we have had to deal with those challenges, and I accept that the budget outcome for the new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs means that some difficult decisions will need to be taken.

I welcome the steps that the Minister has already taken to generate efficiency savings across the Department, but Mr Irwin raised the matter of the £48·8 million capital budget that will be available to the new Department. I am pleased that the Executive were able to make that allocation, which will allow the Department to deliver on its key priorities, including the farm business improvement scheme.

We look forward to seeing that in the future.

He also raised concerns about the cost of bovine TB and the difficulty that that poses to our local economy. I am committed to the vision of a competitive and sustainable livestock sector in Northern Ireland, which, along with the rest of our agriculture sector, helps to support the resilience of the entire food chain. While we cannot lose sight of the negative impact that bovine TB has on our local farmers, we must be cognisant of the cost to the taxpayer, particularly given the current budgetary position. The total cost of TB compensation payments to the end of January 2016 was £13·4 million. There is a clear need to explore all means of eradicating bovine TB, including the modernisation of our compensation regime.

He also referred to Going for Growth, the farm business improvement scheme that I have referred to. In supporting the implementation of the Going for Growth strategy, the Executive have recognised the importance of the agrifood sector. That is a vital sector for the future of the Northern Ireland economy. We all know from our constituencies, and from Northern Ireland plc, the importance of that sector to our economy. The £48·8 million capital allocation provides funding for the Department to implement the farm business improvement scheme, as I have mentioned.

I turn to comments that were made by the Chair of the Health Committee about waiting times and elective care. As I said, my colleague the Health Minister has advised me that the £40 million that he secured in the November monitoring round is being directed at tackling waiting lists, which have been an issue of concern. No one in the House would in any way try to be dismissive of the concerns that we are all well aware of with the challenges in relation to waiting times and the health service. That £40 million was secured in November, and it will benefit some 60,000 or 70,000 patients who would otherwise be waiting. It covers a range of particular specialities including orthopaedics, neurology and ENT. Since November, significant efforts have been made across the health system within a very tight framework to secure additional outpatient clinics and treatments within the trusts and to put in place appropriate arrangements with independent-sector organisations to transfer suitable patients for assessment and treatment. It is not the case that that issue is being ignored. We are endeavouring to do what we can to help to deal with the particular challenge that we face.

Mr McKinney raised the issue of the health black hole and asked where the budget allocation for health will be spent. The Health Minister has clearly stated that the additional money for health in 2016-17 will be directed towards front-line health and social care services. Reform across health and social care is ongoing, and I remind Members — I have said it repeatedly — that Transforming Your Care is not about reducing our investment in health and social care services; it is about making the best use of the resources available. That is the point that the Member was encouraging us to make about the overall Budget in how we address that issue. The Member criticised the delivery of Transforming Your Care, but we need to be reminded that, of the 99 recommendations in TYC, 50 have been completed and 46 are ongoing. It is not a case of it being yet another document that is sitting around and nothing being done with it, which is a point that I will come to in a moment or two in relation to comments made by Mrs Kelly. Proactive action is being taken.

I want to respond to the issues that were made by Mrs Sandra Overend, a member of the Education Committee. She asked about the public-sector transformation fund, and I have given some detail on that in response to my colleague the Chair of the Committee. I can confirm that the Department of Education was allocated a total of £70·7 million for the exit schemes, broken down as £47·3 million for the teaching workforce and £23·4 million for the non-teaching staff. There is no further funding for these schemes, and, if the Minister wishes to fund any further schemes, he will need to find that money from his own baseline.

The Member also asked how pension and National Insurance pressures will be funded. I can confirm that the pension pressures were covered in the financial year through allocations in the June monitoring round. These allocations will be baselined to carry through to future years, so it is not a case of them being a one-off. The additional National Insurance pressure will have to be covered from within the departmental budget. There is no funding set aside at the centre to cover it. I trust that that gives some clarity

I want to comment now on an issue raised about funding for the environment. Again, I have to say to Members that, going through all these comments, it is clear that we have a wide variety of issues and significant demand on the public purse to try to cover as many as we find to be important. As a member of the Environment Committee, Pam Cameron expressed the importance of funding for that sector. With the exception of built heritage, the Environment function will transfer as one block to the new Department. The Member will remember that, at the start of the 2015-16 financial year, the Minister of the Environment slashed funding to a lot of environmental groups, unnecessarily as it turned out, only to reinstate it in the latter part of the year. Maybe we all need to learn that lesson on how not to deal with your budget. I believe that the consolidation of the environment function with other rural matters in the new Department will be good for Northern Ireland's environment.

In conclusion, I want to —