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October Monitoring

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 25th October 2016.

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Business resumed.

Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement today. Last week, in the company of colleagues, I met the chief executive of Translink, who raised concerns over the impact that Brexit would have on the capital and resource budget, especially in relation to the purchase of new buses. The Minister's statement notes that £10 million is to be allocated for the purchase of new buses. Will the Minister outline how much of that will be spent on upgrading the rural bus fleet?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabhail leis an Chomhalta as an cheist. I thank Mr McPhillips for his question. He could have caught the chief executive of Translink at lunchtime. He was outside the Building with buses that did not look terribly new to me, and he was there for a photocall in the wake of the news that I gave today, which is that we have put money aside from our stimulus package to buy buses. Some of those buses will be bought locally, which will give a boost to the local economy. I do not have the exact details of how the money will be spent. I think that the Member will be pleased that it will lead to an enhancement of the fleet, and it will mean that we truly have a 21st-century fleet to serve our people. Like him, I hope that Translink goes from strength to strength and that rural services are not diminished in the time ahead but in fact are strengthened. This injection of funds into the fleet will be helpful towards that objective.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The social change fund was established to enable the Executive to quickly respond to more urgent ways to address social need, yet, surprisingly, in the Minister's statement, he has announced that £7·1 million has been returned unspent and yet another programme is being developed to distribute funding. With only five months remaining in this financial year, can the Minister advise how the community regeneration fund will run in a transparent manner and how it will be applied for? How can we be assured that it will neatly knit with the emerging community planning process that councils have been developing to get maximum value for the buck?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. He and I are on the same page when we say that we are disappointed that it took a long time to get social investment fund money out the door. Whatever the misgivings and discussions in the Chamber, I think that he will be pleased that, in recent months, we have started to see letters of offer issued, whatever the questions around some of those, and we are seeing that injection of funds that was envisaged from day 1. He can take it from me that the £5 million that we have set aside for community regeneration projects will be spent between now and April. It is different from the funds that he referenced in one key respect, which is that it is for capital expenditure only. I am confident because, when I meet Ministers, they always have key projects that are in a queue waiting. If Ministers had all the money that they requested from me, many more projects would be triggered and would be going ahead to start to receive the investment that they require. I am confident that we have projects ready and waiting.

The Member is exactly correct. If these projects cannot be delivered in a five-month period, they will not be delivered before the end of the financial year. That, therefore, precludes any project that would have to start from ground zero, as it were. We are talking about oven-ready projects, and I think that you will find in your constituency and certainly across Departments that Ministers have projects ready and waiting to come forward. However, I want to stress that this is a small intervention of peace-building projects, and I hope that, next year, if the Executive agree, we can bring forward a much larger stimulus package that would make a real impact in many more constituencies and be much greater in scale than what is envisaged here today.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I want to return to the renewable heat debacle. It appears that the Minister has had to find £20 million from central resource DEL that he does not really have because he is now substantially overcommitted by the need to bail out part of the £30 million deficit this year. Since this was a 20-year scheme, does that mean that the longevity of that for that period will affect a similar level of shortfall going forward?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I thank Mr Allister for his question. I am confident that it will not be repeated. I did not find money in this monitoring round, if you recall. I found it in June, when we placed £20 million in the centre as a sort of contingency because we did believe that that pressure would come this year. We estimated that perhaps there would be another £30 million. I am not sure, Mr Allister, whether you were in and caught the questions earlier. The Minister for the Economy, who has responsibility for this area, managed to make internal reallocations so that, thus far, at least we have not faced an additional £10 million pressure. I will repeat this because perhaps you were not in. He can be sure that it is my intention not to have this particular issue rolling on for 19 more years. In fact, I think that there is an imperative on us to make sure that that does not happen because every pound that we spend in dealing with the overspend on RHI is a pound that we take away from vital front-line services.

I said earlier, and I repeat, that I am pleased with the focus that the Economy Minister has brought to the issue. I am pleased with the strategies that his officials are working on. I look forward to the Economy Minister being in a position in the near future to come forward and give him, me and the House some comfort over how we are going to get to grips with the issue.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement. I ask him to clarify what appears to be a confusion, if not a contradiction, in his statement. In his opening remarks, he said:

"The approach now adopted by the Executive to the monitoring round process no longer requires the submission of bids by Departments."

Flip one page over, under "Internal Reallocations". There he stated:

"It is good practice that Departments seek to manage any emerging pressures internally before bringing forward bids for additional allocations."

Which is it? Are there bids or are there not? If there are bids, as is stated on page 3 of his statement, why do he and his ministerial colleagues refuse to share them with the relevant Committees and the House?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I thank the Member. I am going to bring a little bit of illumination into your life. You are absolutely right: the system has changed. The system that you and your colleagues would have been used to was a system in which people immediately drew up bids, usually as long as their arm and usually chancing their arm, and every Department said that it really could not do without moneys to meet these pressures. What we have come up with is an entirely different system. It is an Executive united in common purpose, where, every day, there are engagements with other Departments. In fact, in some of those Departments, we now have working groups that are trying to look into the future and predict problems coming down the tracks so that we can budget efficiently and effectively. We tell every Department to try to make allocations, as the Economy Minister did for the renewable heat incentive (RHI), in their own Department and that, if it is going to come forward with a bid, it has to be really serious, thought-out and value for money. The key point is that we do not want shopping lists or wish lists. If a Minister comes to me with a real pressure, we can discuss in concert with other Executive colleagues how that is met.

The system that we have today is evidence of that working. We now have a situation in which the key pressures facing the Executive in toto — the Executive across the board and not just one silo of education, agriculture or health — have been dealt with in an efficient and timely manner that exhibits value for money. I know that the Opposition fret about the process and how the process has changed, but the most important issue of all is that this system delivers for ordinary people, as it has today. As I said, Chris Conway of Translink is outside the door, because it has delivered for him. It has also delivered for roads maintenance, which I know will bring cheer to many of those who are still concerned that we do not budget adequately for roads maintenance at the start of the year. I know that that is a point that you have brought up, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It will bring some succour and comfort to those people that we are delivering. I am happy to focus on the minutiae and on process, but, ultimately, I want my focus to be on delivery, and that is what we are doing today.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

May I ask the same question, please?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I refer the Member to Hansard to read the same answer.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

You do not want me taking a fit of the giggles in the middle of this, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for answering the questions with his usual honesty, clarity and a few other things. How important has the input been of the Welsh and Scottish Secretaries and the Basque Finance Department — I know that he has had discussions with them recently — on the work that he is doing?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for controlling her giggles and for that question. The support that we have received from the Scottish Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay, and the Welsh Finance Secretary, Mark Drakeford, has been very refreshing. As I have said previously, when we speak with one voice, we represent 10 million people. More than that, it is true that when we speak together, the Treasury listens.

I have no doubt that yesterday in London we got a more sympathetic hearing to requests that we made around our individual Budgets and the need to call a halt to austerity and have a fiscal stimulus. We received a more receptive ear to that message because we spoke together, so I thank the Ministers for forming a coalition — a Celtic coalition — on that matter.

It is also important to thank the chair of Newry, Mourne and Down Council, Councillor Fitzpatrick, because her council hosted the pre-meeting of the three Finance Ministers in Newry, in the heart of the area that will be affected most by a Brexit, if it happens. That shows that councils are working with the Executive to deliver.

In terms of the Basque autonomous region, we saw today the fruits of that work. All parties here have supported Professor Bengoa's work in trying to make sure that we manage change in the health service rather than manage crisis. Three officials came from the Basque Country, including the deputy Finance Minister, who, for what it is worth, ended up singing with the Belfast Community Gospel Choir and the former Minister of Justice on Friday night. They bring a really fresh perspective to matters fiscal, because the Basques raise all their finances and then pay Madrid. As you know, we have a different system, whereby the block grant comes here. In the Basque Country, that system engenders and nurtures a very entrepreneurial society. We have a memorandum of understanding with the Basques in other areas, including health. We have started a discussion with them, which will be of benefit to all of us.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker 3:45 pm, 25th October 2016

Sin é mar dheireadh leis na ceisteanna ar an ráiteas. That concludes the questions on the statement.