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Supply Resolution for the Spring Supplementary Estimates 2019-2020 and Supply Resolution for the Northern Ireland Estimates and Vote on Account 2020-21

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 24th February 2020.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 12:00 pm, 24th February 2020

The next two motions relate to the Supply resolutions, and, as usual, there will be a single debate on both motions. I shall ask the Clerk to read the first motion on the 2019-2020 spring Supplementary Estimates (SSEs) then call on the Minister to move it. The Minister will then commence the debate on both motions. When all who wish to speak have done so or when the time limit is reached, I shall put the Question on the first motion. The second motion, the 2020-21 Vote on Account, will then be read into the record, and I will call the Minister to move it. The Question will then be put on that motion. If that is clear, I shall proceed.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £17,519,166,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2020 and that resources, not exceeding £21,022,321,000, be authorised for use by the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2020 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 2(c) and 3(c) of table 1 in the volume of the Northern Ireland spring Supplementary Estimates 2019-2020 that was laid before the Assembly on 19 February 2020.

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £7,962,895,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2021 and that resources, not exceeding £9,054,440,000, be authorised for use by the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2021 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 4 and 6 of table 1 in the Northern Ireland Estimates and Vote on Account 2020-21 that was laid before the Assembly on 19 February 2020. — [Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance).]

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to four and a half hours for this debate. The Minister will have up to 60 minutes to allocate at his discretion between proposing and making his winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have 10 minutes. I call on the Minister to open the debate on the motion.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

As you have set out, Cheann Comhairle, this debate covers the Supply resolutions. The first resolution seeks the Assembly's approval of the 2019-2020 spending plans of Departments and other public bodies as set out in the spring Supplementary Estimates. The SSEs were laid in the Assembly on Wednesday 19 February 2020. Alongside the SSEs, the 2020-21 Vote on Account was also laid, and it will be the subject of the second Supply resolution. I will now speak to both of those.

The first resolution before the House relates to the supply of cash and the use of resources for the current year, 2019-2020, as set out in the spring Supplementary Estimates. In the absence of an Executive during 2019, the Secretary of State took the 2019-2020 Main Estimates through Westminster last October. Normally, the Main Estimates would be approved in June. However, because of delays in getting this timetabled at Westminster until October, that meant that, while the Main Estimates were based on the Budget, which the Secretary of State announced back in February 2019, they were updated to reflect the latest in-year position agreed by the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) at that time. Since the Main Estimates in October 2019 and prior to the restoration of the Executive, the Department of Finance continued to manage the public expenditure position, including the reallocation of resources when Departments declared reduced requirements and surrendered any funding no longer required.

Since the Executive were restored last month, I have announced an outcome of the January monitoring round, including allocations of £35·8 million resource and £5·8 million capital from the funding that the block has received as a result of an updated forecast of regional rate income, the impact of Barnett changes being finalised as part of the Westminster Supplementary Estimate process and funding previously set aside for particular purposes not being required and, therefore, being made available for allocation to Departments. These are the allocations being authorised through the spring Supplementary Estimates, which we are debating today. The focus of the January monitoring round was to ensure that all funds available from easements are allocated to Departments. It was not meant to address significant pressures, and I ensured that all available resource and capital was allocated to Departments.

Since then, Treasury has made some late adjustments through the Barnett formula, making some £18 million of resource available, and you will be aware from my written statement last week that I have allocated that. I have kept my commitment to the Infrastructure Minister to provide more funding for winter services, street lighting and other road maintenance, with the majority of the remaining available funding going to fund pressures in our schools.

Alongside the SSEs for 2019-2020, there is also a Vote on Account. The Vote on Account provides an initial allocation for 2020-21 in order to ensure that Departments can continue to deliver services until the Main Estimates are presented to the Assembly for approval in June. I emphasise that the Vote on Account does not represent the setting of a Budget for 2020-21. The amount for each Department in the Vote on Account is, in most cases, set at approximately 45% of the 2019-2020 provision, in order to authorise sufficient cash and resources to ensure that services can continue to be delivered through the summer. The Executive will set a 2020-21 Budget in the coming weeks, and I will bring that Budget to the Assembly, but neither today's debate nor tomorrow's debate on the Budget Bill are about that.

There are a number of procedural issues that I must also address. First, on behalf of the Executive, I request and recommend the levels of Supply set out in the two resolutions, under section 63 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Also, as is normally the case for a Budget Bill, accelerated passage is required for the legislation. Indeed, there is specific provision for that in Assembly Standing Orders, under Standing Order 42. I understand that the Finance Committee has already agreed to grant the Bill accelerated passage, and I place on record my appreciation of the Committee's vital role in agreeing that important step in the financial process.

I am sure that Members are aware that today's debate is time-limited, and I encourage Members to use their limited time to focus on the issues that relate specifically to the 2019-2020 Supply resolution before us. The Estimates are seen by many as complex and difficult to understand, and I agree with that assessment. However, it is imperative that we as an Assembly recognise that the Budget Bill, underpinned by the spring Supplementary Estimates, is the key legislation for delivering funding to vital public services, such as schools and hospitals. The public services that are underpinned by that legislation in turn support the wider economy, and it is vital that we debate the legislation and pass it expediently.

As we know, the public-expenditure environment will continue to be challenging, especially set against the background of Brexit and the effects of austerity policies, which continue to damage our public services. When I bring the Executive's 2020-21 Budget, Members will have every opportunity to debate the issues, not just when the Budget is announced but when I bring the 2020-21 Main Estimates and the Budget (No. 2) Bill to the Assembly later in the year.

I look forward to putting the Executive's final spending plans for 2019-2020 on a legal footing through the spring Supplementary Estimates before you today, together with the corresponding Budget Bill that we will debate tomorrow. I request Members' support for the resolution for 2019-2020 and also for the resolution for the Vote on Account to allow services to continue to be funded into the first few months of 2020-21.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 12:15 pm, 24th February 2020

I thank the Minister for his opening remarks and for his explanation of the spring Supplementary Estimates and, indeed, the Vote on Account. At its meeting on 19 February, the Committee for Finance took evidence from Department of Finance officials on the SSEs for 2019-2020 and the Vote on Account for 2020-21. Although those are typically considered routine requirements, they can, by necessity, be quite technical. I thank the departmental officials for their assistance to the Committee in that regard.

During the evidence session, the Committee examined the reconciliation between the departmental expenditure limit (DEL) figures in the Main Estimate Budget position and the SSE Budget position before us today. It was an exercise during which the Committee received clarification from departmental officials on the extent of the in-year changes to the resource and capital allocations for 2019-2020 for a number of Departments, particularly as those changes occurred while the Assembly was not sitting. In some instances, the figures involved were substantial. I shall not get into the specific figures for individual Departments on the in-year movement of money, suffice it to note that just over £150 million was made in resource allocations and almost £64 million in capital allocations.

It is important to place on the record that, under the prevailing extenuating circumstances, neither I nor the Committee considers the business being debated today to be routine in the traditional sense. The political instability that occurred over recent years meant, that in the absence of the Assembly and Committees, the process, as has already been mentioned by the Minister, was overseen by the Secretary of State. It was important for the Finance Committee to establish clarity on these significant adjustments as it exercises a cross-cutting scrutiny function in respect of Budget Bills. Moreover, the scale of these technical changes, combined with the cumulative changes resulting from the normal reallocation through monitoring rounds will, in some cases, have resulted in significant differences between the opening and closing resource and capital allocations of Departments.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Committee's discussions with departmental officials also covered a range of issues in respect of how future scrutiny will be facilitated by Departments for the forthcoming in-year monitoring rounds, as well as the departmental engagement that the Assembly and its Committees can expect in the formation of future draft Budgets.

During the Second Stage debate tomorrow I will go into more detail on the assurances that we received, but I wish to inform the House that there would appear to be a genuine desire to engage productively and meaningfully with the Assembly in order to facilitate robust financial scrutiny. I have no doubt that, over the remainder of this mandate, we will be faced with many challenges, necessitating focused financial scrutiny that will require Committees to work collaboratively with Departments. However, this must be underpinned by the fostering of relationships and a recognition by all Departments that there needs to be a robust challenge function by the Assembly to ensure that, in discharging our duties, we maximise the limited resources available to us to focus on the best possible outcomes in delivering our public services.

To achieve that, statutory Committees must continue to ensure that they fulfil their Budget-related statutory roles and responsibilities. It is essential that all scrutiny Committees continue to satisfy themselves as to the reasons for, as well as the timing of, any significant levels of easement or returns of moneys during the in-year monitoring process, and that the necessary assurances have been received from Departments on any and all Committee concerns.

As I said earlier, in terms of the scrutiny of departmental input to the in-year monitoring rounds, the Assembly was not sitting during that time, and therefore has been unable to receive the associated departmental evidence sessions in advance of the June, October and January monitoring rounds. As we move into the new financial year, the Committee will take a keen interest not only in the Department's financial management of its own resources but in its coordination role in the in-year monitoring process.

The motion on the Vote on Account for 2020-21 is a practical measure that usually provides interim resources at approximately 45% of the 2019-2020 provisions until the Main Estimates and associated Budget Bill are agreed before the summer. As I will outline in tomorrow's debate on the Second Stage of the Budget Bill, the Committee for Finance has approved accelerated passage for the Bill, which will be introduced by the Minister later. In the meantime, on behalf of the Committee for Finance, I support the motions.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

As Chair of the Committee for Infrastructure, I will take this opportunity to outline the Committee's consideration and views in respect of today's motions.

The expenditure of the Department for Infrastructure is one of the Executive's largest, and scrutiny of its budget is a key role for the Committee. In the short time that the Assembly has been back, the Committee has received a number of briefings on the Department's financial situation. Minister Mallon was invited to the Committee on 5 February to discuss her priorities for the Department. She outlined the financial challenges, and departmental officials briefed the Committee on the details of the Department's finances on 28 January and 19 February.

The stark financial situation faced by the Department was made clear. It is evidently a Department that has reached breaking point after years of underfunding and it is hard, as Chair of the Committee, to point to priorities for additional spend when so much of the Department has been depleted. The Committee notes that in the January monitoring round the Department made bids for £28·5 million of resource funding and £14·5 million of capital, and received £1 million of resource and £3·8 million of capital. The Department's bid requested funding for the Belfast transport hub, street lighting and roads maintenance, winter services, water mains replacement and the digital transformation of the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA). The largest bid by far, however, was for £19 million to address Translink's operating deficit. The £4·8 million received from the Department of Finance went to the Belfast transport hub, street lighting and winter services. It is to be welcomed that the Executive found an additional £3 million, which was announced by the Minister of Finance last week, that will go towards street lighting, road maintenance and winter services.

During her briefing to the Committee, the Minister was pressed about the severity of underfunding of these recurrent services. She highlighted that the required annual budget for street lighting repairs was £3·2 million, but that the current allocation had been £1 million. To clear the backlog alone would require an estimated £710,000.

The additional funding has ignored water mains replacement, digital transformation of DVA and, of course, funding for Translink. There has been a trend over recent years to ignore Translink's deficit. In briefings by the Minister and her officials, the Committee was advised that there were no further identifiable savings. While additional money through the monitoring round is obviously welcome, it is only a sticking plaster.

The Department has become increasingly dependent on monitoring rounds to deliver basic core services. As other Departments utilise their budgets better and surrender less, there is less funding at the monitoring rounds for the Department to make up its increasing shortfall. According to the Minister, Treasury approved the moving of £130 million from the capital grant into the resource block to supplement the shortfall. This position looks set to continue, but it is unsustainable.

Understandably, the Minister has allocated additional moneys to those aspects of her remit that protect lives, such as street lighting and road maintenance. However, because these are the areas most critical to fund, large swathes of the Department continue to be depleted.

I want to outline what a Department in financial crisis looks like. The Department for Infrastructure budget has a recurring structural deficit of £61 million going into the next financial year and due to rise to £80 million in 2021-22 and £90 million in 2022-23.

Within the area of water alone, there is shortfall in resource of £7 million. According to the Department, it has not been possible to fund Northern Ireland Water to the levels recommended by the Utility Regulator. New housing developments and businesses are not able to connect to the sewerage network in over 100 towns and villages across Northern Ireland. This has the potential to stagnate development, with various knock-on effects. The Minister advised the Committee that she intended to discuss Northern Ireland Water's organisation, borrowing powers and funding model with her Executive colleagues.

I have talked about the severely needed money that has been spent on roads. Funding has been pared back to such an extent that only a limited maintenance service exists, with much-reduced pothole repairs and half the number of grass cutting and gully emptying operations. Prior to the 2014-15 departmental budget reductions, the Department would have regularly allocated some £35 million to cover routine maintenance and meet winter requirements. In recent years, this budget has been cut by more than half.

As an asset, the Northern Ireland roads system is worth an estimated £40 billion, and experts suggest that £400 million should be spent each year just to maintain it. At best, the Department has managed only £75 million over the past few years. Underspending on that level only stores up bigger problems, and officials noted that it takes four times more to repair than to maintain.

The Department has a statutory duty to promote road safety, and the budget for that has been significantly cut over the past number of years. The budget spend for 2010-11 was £1,703,256 and in 2011-12 was £2·5 million. The opening baseline budget for road safety advertising for 2018-19 was £700,000, and again for 2019-2020, representing a 30% reduction on the previous low allocation of £1 million in 2017-18.

The Department told the Committee of its ongoing support for community transport organisations. The Committee noted the Department's provision of £4·5 million to a number of them in 2019-2020 through the provisions of the rural transport fund and the transport programme for people with disabilities to deliver specialised and affordable transport. The Department made the point that, whilst this funding has remained the same as that in 2018-19, it is a reduction of almost 20% in the overall baseline since 2015-16.

The Department's capital budget for 2019-2020 was £471 million. However, the Department pointed out that the requirement for 2020-21 is £795 million, increasing to £1·4 billion by 2022-23. In response to the Committee's question on how the Department prioritises its spending, the officials outlined that funding flagship projects, such as the major road upgrades, are at the top and, if approved by the Executive, the city deals are next. The Department noted that the Utility Regulator's determination on what Northern Ireland Water should get is inescapable. Next, there is critical rail safety work required. There is a contractual commitment in place to buy new carriages for the rail network and for new buses. There is also a need to find money for Waterways Ireland and the continued funding of the design phase of York Street.

It is a Department with severe pressures, a Department struggling to keep the infrastructure that we all rely on from breaking down irrevocably. For Northern Ireland Water, there is a requirement for £1·45 billion identified under the Living With Water programme. That will bring hugely increased demands on the capital budget over the next decade. Northern Ireland Water also urgently requires assistance on a sustainable funding agreement. Officials warned that, if the constrained budget settlement for the current price control rolls forward, choices will have to be made that will lead to failed outcomes for our environment and more frequent prosecutions, including increasing fines for pollution events. Additionally, economic growth in many areas across Northern Ireland, particularly in Belfast, would need to be put on hold. On the road network, the recent Barton and Northern Ireland Audit Office reports on structural maintenance of the road network recommend that the Department of Finance and the Department for Infrastructure work towards ensuring funding of some £143 million per annum on a recurring basis to prevent further deterioration. Furthermore, additional funding is needed to address the £1·2 billion backlog of road maintenance. The Committee will, as always, do its best to scrutinise the work and budget of the Department, but, with such a depleted budget, it is difficult to critique a Department in such crisis.

I have left the matter of Translink and the now very real possibility that it will become insolvent to the end. That would be catastrophic for the transport infrastructure of Northern Ireland and would leave the Department in breach of its responsibilities. A number of reduced budgets for the Department have meant reduced budgets for Translink of around £13 million per year. Translink, therefore, ran its service at a deficit and used its reserves to supplement that. As the £19 million requested for Translink in the monitoring round was unsuccessful, its reserves next year will be below the level of working capital that it needs, and it may cease to be deemed a going concern, which is a critical issue facing the Department. Given our ageing population, officials noted that the concessionary fares scheme is becoming more expensive and has risen to almost £50 million. The Department gives Translink only £40 million for the scheme. The Committee has sought comparable tables on concessionary fares in Northern Ireland and other jurisdictions. The Committee has also asked the Department whether the Department's underfunding of Translink is a breach of its contract under the public service agreement.

The Committee for Infrastructure will continue its scrutiny of the Department for Infrastructure's budget and especially the Minister's efforts to mitigate the impact of cuts.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 12:30 pm, 24th February 2020

Before I call the next Member to speak, I advise Members that, as everybody is being given up to 10 minutes to speak, if any Member takes an intervention, they will not get an additional minute.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Fáiltím roimh an deis páirt a ghlacadh i ndíospóireacht an lae inniu mar Chathaoirleach an Choiste Sláinte. I welcome the opportunity to address and participate in today's debate as Chair of the Health Committee. I acknowledge, in the first instance, the positive start to consideration of the Heath and Social Care budget since the institutions were restored, in terms of early progress on addressing pay issues and a renewed commitment to the transformation agenda seen in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document. I particularly welcome the resolution of pay issues for a workforce that continues to bear an unreasonable burden as pressures increase, along with the commitment to address safe staffing issues in partnership with staff representative bodies. I thank the Minister of Health for inviting me, on the Floor of the Chamber, to join the strategic health partnership forum. I confirm that I have accepted his invitation and look forward to working with all concerned on that important issue. I also acknowledge that the HSC budget this year will have exceeded 50% of the block grant. On the one hand, that demonstrates a welcome response to need, but it also underscores the urgent need for radical reform, as we have all agreed.

In recent weeks, the Committee heard evidence from the Department and from stakeholders of significant inflationary pressures of around 6% and inescapable pressures estimated at around £345 million, and that is before the transformation budget and New Decade commitments are added. While in-year monitoring moneys helped to bridge the gap last year between the original allocation and cost pressures, those funds are mostly non-recurrent and do not, therefore, allow for long-term planning. Of course, some of the increasing costs derive in part from success such as longer life expectancy and better medicines, which are to be welcomed, but the substantial impact on existing services inevitably makes transformation more difficult. While there is cross-party acknowledgement of the need for double running to allow transformation, we have not yet seen evidence that that necessary step will be possible at the scale required, which is, of course, a serious concern.

In 2016, the previous Committee heard evidence that, without adequate investment in transformation, hospital waiting lists would rise and GP practices would close. Members will know that that is, indeed, what has been happening, despite a wide range of initiatives being undertaken and £100 million having been invested in transformation in each of the last two years. Last week, at the Health Committee, we heard that, without faster and further reform, patients could end up being bussed from Fermanagh and Tyrone to see GPs east of the Bann. Tá a fhios agam go rí-mhaith go bhfuil Comhaltaí ar gach taobh ag déanamh a ndíchill le cinnte a dhéanamh nach dtarlaíonn sin. I know that Members on all sides will want to do everything possible to prevent that from becoming a reality.

We know that it can be done, and we know how it can be done. We have cross-party agreement on the road map, including the roll-out of multidisciplinary teams with investment in primary and community care, as advised by countless reports over the years. Moreover, we know that, if done effectively, that investment will be repaid with early intervention, health promotion and prevention, which will ease pressure on acute care. Ní mór dúinn glacadh leis an riosca gur, gan maoiniú ceart, is deacair an t-athrú a mheas. We need to acknowledge the risk that, without sufficient funding, transformation becomes much more difficult. An example of that is the current substantial reliance on locum and agency staff. The Department is on record that, in the 12 months up to April 2019, the cost of temporary workers across Health and Social Care came to just over £200 million. That cost has more than trebled since 2014-15 and could clearly go some way towards achieving transformation, if workforce planning, recruitment and retention issues can be effectively addressed.

The Committee has asked questions about savings targets and the reliance on savings targets, which are acknowledged as unlikely to be achieved in some cases. Efficiency is clearly vital, but we will want to know that savings are achieved by strategic decision-making and not by opportunistic cuts where vacancies occur at random.

The new Committee is still at an early stage in its development, but we are already identifying issues that make it difficult to comment effectively on budget priorities. We cannot look at the papers supplied to the Committee thus far and identify, for example, how much, it is proposed, we spend on mental health and on cancer or the split between primary and acute care. Fantastic work may well be going on to address those balances and priorities, but previous Committees were not able to get clarity on that. We are, therefore, seeking further detail and enquiring about progress towards transparency and accessibility in our budgetary processes.

The move towards a three-year Budget has been widely supported and will be crucial for Health to move towards a process that will allow the long-term planning that is essential to reform. Go ceann píosa, is dúshlán ceart dár gcóras pleanáil fhad-téarmach a dhéanamh le buiséad aon bhliana. For now, though, proper long-term planning with a one-year Budget is a real challenge for our system.

I look forward to the coming year and to the chance to engage constructively on the spending plans for the reforms that we have. Ag deireadh an lae — at the end of the day — we have no choice but to deliver.

I now want to take a couple of moments to speak in my role as health spokesperson for Sinn Féin. Since the institutions were restored in January, progress has been made on addressing pay issues in the health sector. I welcome the resolution of pay issues for a workforce that continues to unselfishly bear the burdens in a health service that is starved through Tory austerity measures. I particularly welcome the commitment to victims of the blood contamination scandal, with an extra payment of £1 million being made available by the Minister to those affected. The money is ring-fenced and is intended to alleviate hardship for those infected with hepatitis and HIV in the contaminated blood scandal. However, we are concerned that £400,000 of that has been withheld. I urge the Minister of Health to release the entire £1 million, as allocated. Victims and those affected by the blood contamination scandal have waited and suffered long enough.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. I know that he is speaking in his capacity as the Sinn Féin spokesperson, but, as the Chair of the Committee, he has insight into what is going on with the contaminated blood situation. He referred to the £400,000 that the Minister or the Department is holding back: will he tell us whether any light has been shone on why that is the case or why that has been proposed?

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I will leave it to the Minister to explain to the House why that is the case. I urge him to prioritise that spending immediately.

While we have renewed our commitment to the transformation agenda proposed by Bengoa and the then Health Minister, Michelle O'Neill, it is difficult to see how we can achieve that when we cannot afford the double running required to transform our health service. Just last week, we heard that the rate of GP closures in Fermanagh and parts of Tyrone — a largely rural area — means that patients could end up being bussed to see GPs. Transformation of the health service is vital if it is to serve the needs of our entire population across rural and urban communities, particularly the more deprived communities that already suffer unequal health outcomes in important measures of physical and mental health and well-being.

The transformation of particular components of the healthcare system — for example, reduced waiting lists and the provision of IVF treatment according to NICE recommendations — are just some of the many promises made in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document. Not surprisingly, a Tory Government who have savaged public service funding for years may now also renege on many of the commitments they made in that agreement. We cannot be complacent when it comes to the health and well-being of our communities. Our responsibility as public servants is to come up with ideas that allow us to fulfil our duties to constituents. Tory austerity must be challenged through sound proposals that will allow us to address the pressures on the healthcare system and other public services. Increasing our suite of fiscal powers is one avenue that must be explored so that we, the public servants sitting in this institution, have the latitude to decide how we generate revenue and how best to spend that revenue so that the daily lives of our constituents are improved.

Our healthcare system has benefited from significant North/South cooperation in numerous and important ways, with our constituents feeling the benefits that come from the effective and efficient sharing of resources and the provision of health services across the entire island. We need to explore how we can generate further improvements for all our people in the time ahead. The work of the Health Minister in developing an all-Ireland paediatric pathology service is a fine example of how we can reach out to address key issues of concern in a way that meets the needs of our population most effectively. I wish the Minister well in dealing with the many and complex challenges that he faces at this time.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this important debate and thank the Minister of Finance for bringing it to the House.

At the outset, it is important to acknowledge the specific challenges in this year's budget process. The absence of a fully functioning Government for three years has resulted in a compressed budget planning timetable, and, although unavoidable, it has had an impact on the time for engagement between Departments and Committees on budget planning. Nonetheless, it is important that Committees conduct their scrutiny in as thorough a manner as possible and despite the challenging circumstances.

Against that backdrop, the Committee received briefings on budget matters from departmental officials on 12 February and 19 February. Normally, the Committee is briefed in advance of the Department making monitoring returns, but that did not happen in 2019-2020.

In the January 2020 monitoring round, the Executive Office was awarded just short of £1 million resource funding for preparation costs involved in taking forward the recommendations of the historical institutional abuse (HIA) inquiry and victims' payment service scoping study. It also received £0·3 million for the capital costs incurred in taking forward the HIA recommendations. It is widely accepted that the HIA redress scheme will have a sizeable long-term financial impact, and it is not surprising that the exact costs are hard to predict at this stage. However, the Department has estimated that the cost could be between £25 million and £60 million for the 2020-21 period. Given the scale of those costs, it is not possible for them to be absorbed within the Department's existing budget, and the source of funding for the scheme must be clarified as a matter of urgency. The Committee resolutely believes that funding for the scheme should be met centrally from the block grant. Notwithstanding that, it also believes that robust efforts should be made to secure funds from those institutions that were involved in the abuse. It is only right that they should share the costs with the public sector. Officials advised the Committee during the briefings that there has been contact with the institutions on a number of occasions but that it is expected that Ministers will now become involved. This is an area that the Committee will follow closely.

Members heard that the Department's key objectives will be to address its statutory obligations; meet any contractual obligations; take forward the Programme for Government commitments; protect the victims and survivors' service budget; mitigate the impact of services delivered through arm's-length bodies (ALBs); and protect programme spend. The Department is managing a resource funding deficit of nearly £3 million. That is a result of budget cuts over the past five years and some new and additional work that the Department has taken forward for which baseline funding has not yet been received. The funding situation has been made even more difficult because of the work on implementing the HIA inquiry legislation, which I alluded to, and the victims' payments, which I will talk a bit more about. To cover the payments to victims of Troubles-related incidents, the Department has estimated costs of £25 million to £60 million for the coming year and, over a three-year budget period, costs of £109 million. Reflecting on the experience of the PSNI hearing-loss claims, the Committee questioned officials about the estimates. While acknowledging the difficulties around estimating costs, there was a sense that those estimates should be treated with caution and, indeed, viewed as conservative. There is absolutely no question in the mind of the Committee that additional resource to fund victims' payments should come into the block grant. Westminster designed the scheme, Westminster put it in to law, so Westminster should foot the bill.

The Committee puts down a marker at this stage about the need to properly fund work to strengthen international relations. Given the UK's exit from the European Union, it is more important now than ever that the North's voice is heard loud and clear on the world stage. The importance of strong international relations in marketing and promoting our region as an attractive investment and tourist opportunity and in creating economic, technological and cultural partnerships cannot be overstated.

I will now move to capital funding. Officials confirmed that there is a £7·5 million pressure for Urban Villages. To spread the positive outcome of the Urban Villages programme to a wider geographical base, the Department is requesting additional resources to support the establishment of more Urban Villages areas. If agreed, that will also require additional resource funding in 2020-21 to develop appropriate projects and start the delivery of revenue projects, with the aim of commencing the delivery of capital investments in 2021-22. For Ebrington, there is a degree of uncertainty about when the site will be transferred to Derry City and Strabane District Council. However, the Department is working on the basis that it will complete the required capital works on the site by 2021-22, so the capital requirement includes £2·3 million to develop infrastructure and for external repairs. Some £760,000 has been identified as being needed for essential or legislative health and safety works at the Maze/Long Kesh site, although it should be noted that the capital requirement will increase significantly if agreement is reached on the way forward with the site.

A number of funds will be held centrally for allocation in-year to ensure key Executive commitments are funded and delivered, and we will be keeping an eye on those programmes. They include £7·8 of capital and £2·5 million of resource for Delivering Social Change, which is a key programme that we want to see delivered, and the social investment fund.

Officials have advised that resource amounts close to £6·35 million are required for the commitments that arise from NDNA. That money will cover costs associated with the Office for Identity and Cultural Expression, an Irish-language commissioner, an Ulster-Scots/Ulster-British commissioner, a commissioner for ministerial standards, a compact civic advisory panel and bill of rights experts. The overall figure is set to rise to just under £12 million in 2021-22, before reducing the year after.

The Department has a significant number of budget lines that it needs to keep an eye on. We have received only the initial briefings, and it is our intention to receive more briefings. We wish to see the appropriate funding set aside for any of the commitments that have been made so that all the initiatives can be delivered.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance 12:45 pm, 24th February 2020

The absence of an Executive and Assembly Committees has made monitoring in-year allocations and savings delivery plans and determining how effectively the Department of Education is using its £2 billion budget almost impossible for 2019-2020. That is an unacceptable democratic deficit and an inadequate budgetary process under any circumstances, but particularly so during a time of a financial crisis in public services. Despite that, the restored Education Committee has worked diligently in recent weeks to examine the financial information provided by the Department of Education for 2019-2020 and beyond.

The Department of Education received nearly £90 million of monitoring round allocations in 2019-2020. Despite that, the Department expects to overspend on its budget for 2019-2020 by around £28 million. There are two key contributors, it seems, to that financial crisis: an Education Authority (EA) overspend; and particularly acute demands on our special educational needs (SEN) provision. Special schools, for example, have seen their numbers increase by a staggering 20% in about five years. The Education Committee recently learned how that and the increasing complexity of pupil need is presenting significant challenges to special educational needs provision. The demand for SEN support in mainstream schools for non-statemented and statemented pupils has also increased significantly, and the system is failing to respond adequately. The Education Committee is agreed that responding to that crisis will require not only the significant investment requested but radical reform.

Some of the other key challenges include our school budgets. A significant number of our schools are in deficit. One contributing factor to the situation is the HM Treasury requirement in recent years on teachers' employers to increase their pension and National Insurance contributions. Between 80% and 90% of school spending goes on salaries, and that has had a significant impact, forcing many stable and growing schools into financial deficit. The Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) has indicated that we have more schools in deficit and that we have a system that is at tipping point financially.

Teachers' pay and conditions require urgent investment to deliver the fair outcomes that our teachers need. We may also see a potentially significant increase in rates bills for many schools across Northern Ireland. The figure is imagined to be approximately £11 million. Add to that investment needed for childcare, nurture, tackling underachievement and emotional health and well-being, and those costs are projected to be £50 million to £60 million.

During our deliberations on the Supply vote, the Committee also took evidence from BookTrust Northern Ireland on its early intervention programmes. The Committee felt strongly that this kind of low-cost intervention merited support. Members had no hesitation in supporting the BookTrust's bid for the very reasonable sum of £50,000. I am glad to make this known to the Assembly, and I hope that other Members may also refer their support to the BookTrust early intervention reading programme in Northern Ireland.

To address the multi-million-pound pressures on education, radical reform is absolutely vital. In addition to the ongoing education transformation programme, the Committee looks forward to urgent implementation of the review of education proposed in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document. If we are to avoid a cycle of deficit followed by bailout followed by deficit, a new, radical approach is absolutely required.

The Department of Education has a capital budget of around £167 million for 2019. The Committee's current expectation is that the Department will continue a good record of having capital money spent before the year-end. However, there are significant challenges, particularly in relation to the Strule shared education project, which is now tens of millions of pounds over budget and several years late. The Fresh Start capital programme has also seen only around £29 million spent to date, with around £470 million to be spent in a relatively short period of five years. Fresh Start will fund a substantial new-build programme, from which six shared education projects and 17 integrated schools will benefit, but this does appear to be dependent on HM Treasury agreement to re-profile Fresh Start expenditure over the coming years.

I would also like to point out that the Department's completion rates for school enhancement programmes are good and running at around 90%. Members will also no doubt wish to refer to the minor works expenditure being extremely welcome across a number of schools and the budget for that needing significant increase. Notwithstanding the above, there is still concern with regard to business case development and approval for new school bids and the speed at which that is delivered. To be clear, over half of the new school builds announced in the period 2012-16 have yet to have construction started, and the problems appear to relate to both planning and area planning and continue to be a concern to the Education Committee.

I would like to say a few words as an Alliance MLA. The previous Education Authority CEO stated clearly over two years ago that without radical investment and radical reform our education system would be unaffordable, socially immobile and unfit for the 21st century — a stark warning. Two years later, the Education Department faces pressures of up to £427 million, rising closer to £1 billion in three years, a £400 million backlog in maintenance and a £150 million gap to deliver the basic standards of fair teacher pay and conditions to end the industrial action that is damaging the well-being of our workforce across our schools in Northern Ireland and limiting the ability of our schools to deliver.

We also know that the cost of division in Northern Ireland with regard to education is estimated to be up to £100 million a year, yet area planning and the rationalisation of our education system are moving at snail's pace. As with health, investment alone will not resolve this financial crisis in education, and an independent review of education must be an urgent priority for the Education Minister to set out the radical reform that we need to deliver a more integrated, affordable, socially mobile and fit-for-purpose 21st century system. Most importantly, we must deliver quality education opportunities and outcomes for all children and young people in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP 1:00 pm, 24th February 2020

I welcome the opportunity to make some remarks as Committee Chairperson. The spring Supplementary Estimates show significant increases in departmental net resource requirement of almost £288 million and an increase in the net cash requirement of almost £202 million. That estimate reflects changes to the budget position for 2019-2020 in monitoring rounds and annually managed expenditure forecasts (AME).

The Department has advised the Committee that the main reasons for the differences between the Main Estimates and the spring Supplementary Estimates are due to increases in demand-led benefits and provisions for annually managed expenditure. The Committee noted that there is a significant increase in AME of £116 million relating to the necessity to increase funding to the financial assistance scheme in order to protect the pensions of people whose employer has become insolvent; or where the pension scheme could not afford the benefits promised to members upon winding up; or where the pension scheme started to wind up between 1 January 1997 and 5 April 2005.

The Committee recognises that that is a precautionary step, given that the actual amount required rests on a judgement of the Court of Justice of the European Union that has yet to be delivered. This is an estimate of potential future requirements and the reason why the net cash requirement is lower than the net resource requirement. However, it may, in fact, ultimately result in an underspend if pension members are not required to receive 100% protection.

That increase in AME was partially offset by reduced requirements that the Department gave up in the September 2019 and January 2020 monitoring rounds. The Department surrendered £38·8 million of DEL resource and £36·4 million of DEL capital. While the Committee never likes to see resources surrendered, the vast majority of the reduced requirements in DEL capital is due to the need to surrender financial transactions capital (FTC) of £36·2 million. That is due to the current Office of National Statistics (ONS) classification of housing associations. While there is an ongoing derogation from Treasury, the rules still will not allow us to use FTC to build social housing until the reclassification of registered housing associations is dealt with on a legislative basis in the Assembly. The Committee acknowledges that that issue is a key priority for the Minister, and we hope that it can be resolved in the very near future.

The majority of reduced resource requirements relate to Fresh Start mitigation measures not being required due to successful PIP appeals and a lower uptake in discretionary support grants. The Committee was also informed that some welfare reform protections were not taken forward and PIP contract volumes were less than expected.

The Committee notes that less funding was also required for the rates rebate programme, a reduced requirement of around £8·7 million. That issue was raised at last week's Committee meeting and members made the point that often those people who could benefit from this programme are not aware of it. The Committee has praised the Make the Call programme and we would like to see the Department put a similar effort into raising awareness about the rates rebate programme.

The issue of departmental budgets has rarely been out of the news of late, and everything seems to be a priority. We all have a duty to ensure ongoing public service delivery, but, in doing so, we collectively will have to make some unpopular decisions. The Committee looks forward to engaging with the Minister and our stakeholders to ensure that she receives the advice and support required to make those decisions.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to outline the views of the Committee. The Committee received an oral briefing from the Department on the spring Supplementary Estimates and the budget 2019-2020 and proposals for 2020-21 on 13 February.

Officials advised the Committee that the budget for 2019-2020 had an allocation of £312·4 million, alongside £13·9 million for Brexit, for staff salaries, which was additional money. That additional money for staff to work on Brexit was initially to help with preparations for a possible EU exit with no deal. There is a separate bid for Brexit staff in the 2020-21 budget proposal. Therefore, in the budget, we are already seeing clear signs that Brexit preparations are and will be a priority for the Department.

Members queried the number of staff allocated to deal with Brexit and the proposal to increase staff costs to £23·6 million in the 2020-21 budget. Officials advised that, due to the number of specialist posts required and the unavailability of staff in the Department to fill those posts, they have secured, externally, a process that is ongoing. The Department advised the Committee that it considers a staff complement of 454 to be a more accurate figure for the number of staff that it will require to deliver Brexit successfully.

Salaries and wages still accounts for the biggest cost in the Department at £125 million. After that, only some £46·6 million is allocated to programmes, of which £34·5 million is funding for the three NDPBs: the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), the Loughs Agency and the Livestock and Meat Commission. In terms of programme funding for 2019-2020, the Committee heard that, of the £46·6 million of expenditure, the single largest programme was the £18·9 million spent on compensation for TB. A further £8·8 million was spent on the fees for private vets testing for TB, and a considerable sum is spent on TB testing by in-house vets.

The Department advised that the January monitoring round had concluded with reduced requirements, including £12 million of resource, £1·6 million of resource depreciation impairment and £4 million in capital. The Committee sought clarification on the surrender of the £12 million resource, which it considered to be a large amount. Officials advised that it was a mix of money from no-deal preparations of £2·9 million, reduced requirements for TB compensation of £2·6 million, and a number of one-off easements. The Department had also generated additional income over and above what had been forecast. That came from Forest Service — £0·9 million — and the regulatory aspect of the NI Environment Agency.

On the resource and capital budgets, the Department advised the Committee that the spring Supplementary Estimates provides for a total net resource of £330·2 million and a net cash requirement of £300·2 million. Members noted that the biggest NDPB is AFBI. It has the largest budget totalling £32·4 million. One of the Committee's members expressed concern about the issue of royalty income to AFBI and focused on how collection of that had been problematic. The Committee recognised that that is now subject to legal proceedings, and we await with interest to see how that unfolds.

The Committee recognises the impact that Brexit will have on the Department’s budget in terms of replacement funding and was keen to find out how the Department will manage that, particularly in relation to CAP funding, which is currently worth £293 million. The Committee was pleased to hear that that has been secured, for this year, from British Treasury funding, but we are concerned about what may happen after this time. Such EU replacement funding will come directly from the Treasury, and there are big questions over how much we will get as a percentage share and whether it will be ring-fenced. There are further questions on the UK prosperity fund and its role in the replacement of rural development funding. Indeed, that point was raised at the Committee meeting on Thursday, when we heard evidence from representatives from the LAGs: Rural Action, Rural Women's Network and Rural Community Network (RCN). Looking forward to the Budget 2020-21, the Committee heard that the Department will bid for EU replacement funding within its resource bids, which total £310·6 million.

Other areas that Committee members are concerned with include elements in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document. The Committee was encouraged to hear that climate change features and noted the bid of £2 million for additional staff to take forward new legislation, policies and strategies. That also includes the scoping study for the creation of an independent environmental protection agency. There is considerable interest in those policy matters. The Committee looks forward to engaging further with the Department on the policy progress and final allocations in the 2020-2021 Budget. The funding bid for climate change also covers a bid for a LIDAR survey of our coastline.

One major area of concern for the Committee is the replacement of the animal and public health information service (APHIS). Many Members will know that that system allows farmers to register cattle movements and other matters. It is a vital component in ensuring compliance with animal health and traceability matters, and it is of great importance in our international trade of agri-food, particularly at this time. In 2016, the Department commenced a project to introduce a new system known as NIFAIS — the NI food animal information system — with an expected completion date of 2018.

Due to issues with the contractor, including a high level of defects with the software, it has missed the deadline and has to date cost £10·9 million. The Committee noted that a further £2·3 million has been requested in the Department's capital bids for the 2020-21 budget, and we will watch with interest how that unfolds. We have asked for further information and expect to be kept up to date by the Department as time allows.

The Committee is also interested in the Department's funding allocation to Project Stratum and rural broadband. Many rural areas and districts have appalling connectivity issues. In this day and age, that is not acceptable, especially as we encourage farmers to move online to fill in their forms and for the use of APHIS. This is important right across the rural spectrum, for SMEs, wider connectivity, education and even for reducing social isolation, which is a key factor in mental ill health.

The Committee raised the issue of the budget allocated to remedial action at Mobuoy, of which most Members are aware. The Committee will keep an eye on that matter.

The Committee values the opportunity to scrutinise the Department’s planned expenditure and delivery of associated projects. I am optimistic that the Department will continue to update the Committee on all aspects of budgetary information to assist us in undertaking that function. I conclude my remarks as Cathaoirleach of the AERA Committee.

I want to raise a couple of points as spokesperson for agriculture and rural affairs for my party. Last Thursday, we had a marathon session of the AERA Committee and took evidence on the Agriculture Bill. Brexit is a toxic issue that permeates absolutely everything. That is compounded by the announcement last week by the British Home Office of the points-based immigration system.

We have information from the 2017 DAERA migrant labour survey and from DAERA's migrant labour and trade inquiry the same year. We found that 10,000 new nationals are employed in the agri-food industry in the North and another 1,400 are so-called seasonal migrant workers. Horticulture will be particularly impacted should this points-based system come in.

We heard compelling evidence from the Meat Exporters' Association, which made the point that 60% of employees in the meat industry are new nationals from outside Ireland, and it would be devastating to place barriers in their way. It was said very pointedly that the Tory Government talk about different types of labour — skilled and low-skilled — but it was made clear that we need labour here. The meat industry brings in workers and trains them; those workers learn the local language and make a big contribution to the economy and society. However, that is completely ignored by the British Home Office in its plan to introduce a points-based system to the North. We have the Irish protocol, which guarantees unfettered trade across the island, which is so important for the likes of dairy processing. However, the points-based immigration system has the potential to place a hard border on labour, which is totally unacceptable. Obviously, it may happen that capital will follow labour, and that will have a huge impact not only on those people but on the wider economy and industry.

Brexit is a huge issue. I will pick up on it again tomorrow when the Budget is debated. Brexit permeates the whole debate around the agri-food industry as we try to map out a future policy for agri-food in the North.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, for your indulgence.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

At the Audit Committee's first meeting on 13 February, it took evidence from Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) officials, including the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), and officials from the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO), including the acting ombudsman. The Committee has not yet had an opportunity to take evidence from the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission. My comments, therefore, will cover only issues about the Audit Office and the Public Services Ombudsman.

During the briefing on 13 February, members had an opportunity to question officials from both organisations about changes to their budget position for 2019-2020. First, the NIPSO had a £756,000 reduction in its net provision from Main Estimates to Supplementary Estimates. That was due to a combination of two main factors, plus a number of miscellaneous cash flow adjustments. The main factors were, first, a reduced requirement of £248,000 declared in the January monitoring round in respect of maladministration complaints handling and, secondly, a transfer of unspent moneys, amounting to £250,000, to the Department for Communities in respect of NIPSO's local government ethical standards function. A cash flow adjustment of £250,000 related to the technical treatment of the landlord contribution to refurbishment work in NIPSO's office. During last week's evidence session with NIPSO officials, I questioned them further on the detail of the reduced requirements from 2019-2020. Officials explained that the reduced requirement from the January monitoring round related to moneys allocated, not all of which could be spent effectively in-year due to the non-recurrent nature and mid-year timing of receipt.

The other reduced requirement related to, as I mentioned, NIPSO's local government ethical standards function. That has arisen primarily from the suspension of adjudication activity owing to the post of commissioner being vacant since July 2019. As Members may be aware, the Ombudsman also holds the role of Northern Ireland Local Government Commissioner for Standards, which includes the function of investigating complaints of alleged breaches of the local government code of conduct. Although investigations into alleged breaches of that code have gone ahead in the absence of a commissioner, there has been an enforced pause of the adjudication aspect of the role as it could not be delegated to the deputy ombudsman. Additional funding for that function could not be spent as adjudications could not be taken forward.

Given that and other implications of the commissioner vacancy, the Audit Committee wrote to the Assembly Commission asking for a recruitment timetable. The Committee, in its evidence session with the Audit Office officials and C&AG, noted that, as a result of the changes to the NIAO budget position in 2019-2020, there was a resource saving of £981,000. Officials explained that this was due to the continuing significant reduction in staff costs following staff leaving through the voluntary exit scheme and natural wastage over recent years.

The Committee has sought further information on the Audit Office's contribution to in-year monitoring. The Committee noted that further recruitment will be required over the next two years to ensure that the Audit Office is adequately staffed to meet its strategic objectives going forward, including staff resources to address the needs of the Assembly.

The Audit Office also had a reduced capital requirement of £290,000 due to adjustments to the timetable associated with the refurbishment project and costs associated with the procurement of a design team. At the meeting last week, Committee members probed the NIAO officials on the financial implications of the Audit Office's refurbishment project, given the anticipated increased costs to the capital budget. In the case of the Audit Office, members were assured that appropriate use is being made of NICS shared services. Similarly, we have asked the Public Services Ombudsman to what extent it makes use of those services. The Audit Office also makes use of the Strategic Investment Board and construction and procurement delivery to assist in its accommodation project in order to ensure that the necessary expertise is utilised in such a key project for the organisation's future.

The Audit Committee has sought assurances from the NIAO and NIPSO and, in due course, will do likewise with the Assembly Commission to ensure that, once that meeting takes place, effective financial management processes are in place to avoid overspend and minimise underspend going forward. The Committee looks forward to fulfilling its important statutory function.

I will now address the debate as the SDLP's spokesperson for education and as the MLA for West Tyrone. As Members have clearly articulated, our public services are crumbling. They are falling apart. They are on their knees and, in many areas, on life support. The pressures facing health, education, housing and our welfare system reached crisis point long ago. We in the Chamber must offer more. We must deliver on the mandate that we have been given, and we must ensure that our public sector delivers effectively and efficiently for anyone who needs it.

In education, our teachers, as already mentioned, schools and children are being failed. We have had a perfect storm bubbling for the past 10 years due to inadequate funding and real-term cuts that were worsened by the absence of these institutions for three very long and challenging years — a time when teachers and principals had to struggle along without any proper funding support for their schools.

It is deeply concerning that over £400 million is needed to tackle immediate pressures in the education system. That figure was provided to the Committee by the Education Minister the week before last. While demand and costs have increased, our education budget has flatlined. Our schools cannot continue to, or be expected to, deliver increasingly better results against what are decreasing real-term budget cuts.

Teachers have also been left out in the cold in terms of receiving a fair pay increase for the work that they do. That is an unforgivable situation given that, when you look at teacher pay in Wales, England and Scotland, you see that teachers here receive way below what they should be receiving. They deserve a pay increase, and I would like the Minister to ensure that that happens as swiftly as possible. We should not be in this situation. It is important for the Chamber to understand that teachers not only do their own job but almost act as parents to many pupils in their role as a role model. They are almost like nurses and doctors in the classroom. They are like counsellors to the young people who need the necessary support, and they ensure that children receive a proper meal in the day. It is teachers who identify those serious issues.

Teachers in schools are also struggling to deal with special educational needs, with massive investment needed to ensure that vulnerable children receive the proper support and care that they need. Although I welcome the Minister's additional £10 million investment in special educational needs services, there is a long way to go to ensure that no child with special educational needs loses out, but we are at a starting point at last. There is greater demand, but that demand has not been met with greater resources in recent years. I hope that the Minister, who is back in place, leaves no stone unturned to ensure that those services are properly and adequately financed.

There are also funding pressures surrounding mental health services in our schools and pressures in tackling a range of issues surrounding deprivation and its impact on our children's education. It is absolutely shocking that, since 2017, there have been 25 critical instances where schools have been impacted by suicide. That is the number that has been documented. That has far-reaching consequences for the school, for the community but, in particular, for the other pupils. We need to have a fundamental look at how we fund mental health services in our schools, as we continue to face a suicide pandemic across the North. In West Tyrone, we are no strangers to that. I have sat at the funeral of many young people who have taken their life, and I have seen the ripple effect and consequences of that across the entire school and the community that is there to support the family and grieve for that loss. We have not seen proper investment in mental health services, with many people forced to attend hospitals due to the lack of services in our communities. We see that in particular places, and I will talk about Strabane, where an out-of-hours GP service does not exist. People are forced in difficult situations to attend the A&E at Altnagelvin Hospital, which is already under huge pressure.

We have also seen very little done to tackle deprivation and poverty, which are crushing families locally. Many children never realise their dreams and ambitions or utilise their full potential. I know that more and more families are struggling. Benefits cuts have forced people into poverty. In my constituency, families have been forced to use food banks. Is that the society that the House wants to see, or are we going to do something about it?

West Tyrone has also long suffered from an infrastructure deficit, and I am well on record in talking about the A5 and the huge issue that it presents to the health and safety of my constituents and those travelling across my constituency. The A5 needs to be delivered. It has been an issue for a long number of years, and people's lives have been lost as a consequence of the dangerous road that is there.

The House, with proper leadership and political will, can deliver on the many issues that we face, but our children, who are the children of today, should not be the generation that loses out because of a political failure of the House. We have a responsibility to those children and to the people whom we represent to deliver more for all who support those children and for our teachers.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 1:15 pm, 24th February 2020

It is a pleasure to follow the Member from West Tyrone. I believe that public-service reform will be the defining issue of the next 10 years. It is incumbent upon all Members to have the courage to do what needs to be done. Whether it is in health, in education or in any of our other public services, we need to be brave and to accept that controversial and sometimes unpopular decisions will need to be made.

I welcome the fact that this process is now back in local hands. The scrutiny of departmental monitoring rounds and of Budgets etc should never have been out of the hands of these institutions. Devolution is about setting local priorities. It is about having power in local hands, in order to deliver for local communities. The Finance Minister's approach — to wait until after the national Budget is handed down at Westminster in order to allow us a more accurate picture, whereby we can set priorities for the coming period — is absolutely correct.

When we are talking in the context of the Budget at Westminster and its implications for us, it is important to note that the previous Secretary of State, Julian Smith, presided over a talks process that produced an agreement that contained spending commitments. Those were commitments given by the Government at Westminster, and it is essential that Julian Smith's successor, Brandon Lewis, honour the commitments that were given.

I will now go over areas in Departments that are of particular interest to me as an individual. I have some concerns about reductions in net provision for urban regeneration, sports, and employability and skills for the Department for Communities. As a representative of communities such as Sandy Row, Donegall Pass, the bottom of Ravenhill Road and the Market, I know about the need for investment in urban regeneration in those inner-city communities.

I welcome the fact that there has been a reduction in the costs associated with the Department of Education's overheads, but we need to press on with the devolution of powers to schools and, in particular, to head teachers, so that they can have greater control over their own budgets. I welcome the allocation that has been made for special educational needs. We are in the middle of a massive explosion in diagnoses of autism and ADHD, and it is important that every child gets the best start in life, particularly children with special educational needs. I welcome the announcement in that regard.

The problems in the Department for Infrastructure have already been mentioned by Miss McIlveen, the Chairperson of the Infrastructure Committee. The reductions that we have seen in road safety provision and for roads maintenance will have a knock-on effect. For the Department of Justice, I am concerned about the reduction in funding for the Police Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust, but I welcome the increase in additional resources for the PSNI. The police work hard to keep us all safe, and a well-funded police service is essential.

I associate myself with the remarks made by Mr McGrath, the Chairperson of the Executive Office Committee, on which I serve, on the issue of historical institutional abuse. The estimate that has been given is that the recompense scheme is going to cost anywhere between £25 million and £60 million per annum. It is essential, and it is only right, that the institutions that had a hand in the systematic abuse of children should be made to pay financially towards that compensation scheme. The state handed children over to rapists and paedophiles, and it is essential that those institutions, which those rapists and paedophiles used as a cloak to carry out their despicable actions, be made to pay towards compensating their victims. I therefore associate myself with what the Chairperson of the Committee said. I welcome the increase in funding for the Victims and Survivors Service, because I think that we have a moral obligation in that area.

I turn now to the Department of Health. The comments made by the Chairperson of the Health Committee are astonishing. The statistic that he mentioned is staggering: more than 50% of our block grant allocation is going to a single Department. If that does not demonstrate the need for serious and far-reaching reform, I do not know what does.

Courage is needed around the Chamber to see that issue through. It would be the easiest thing in the world for the Health Minister, as previous Health Ministers have done, to simply stamp his feet and say, "I need more money", and it would be the easiest thing in the world for the Finance Minister to say, "You can't have more money. You need to do the reform". One side will make their point, the other side will make theirs, and, at the end of it, nothing will have got better. Nothing will have improved. I am happy to put it on record and have it recorded in Hansard that I believe that Robin Swann should be given the political cover to see through essential health reform, because, if we continue like this, within a short time, that one Department will gobble up not 50% of the block grant but 100% of it. We need to be prepared to do the difficult things that need to be done there.

I will conclude where I began. The Secretary of State and the Government have obligations towards all of us who entered into the New Decade, New Approach agreement. The Secretary of State may have changed, but the commitments that were made have not. We all have a job now to do to hold Her Majesty's Government to those commitments.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP 1:30 pm, 24th February 2020

It is a pleasure to follow the Member for South Belfast, although, to pick up on his last point and to put it on record, not all parties that are now in the Executive bought into every commitment of the New Decade, New Approach deal.

Let us look at the pressures coming to the Executive Office's budget. The Committee was given a briefing last week, and we were told that there were pressures for this financial year and, indeed, that the baseline's pressures were explained by a combination of budget cuts in each of the past five years: 12·8% in the 2015-16 financial year; 5·7% in 2016-17; 4% in 2017-18 and 2018-19; and 3·6% in 2019-2020. If we are to be accurate, open and transparent in our government, we have to acknowledge that that does not tell the whole story. When the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) became the Executive Office, functions were transferred to other Departments, and with those functions went the budgets. Inevitably, there was a decrease in the Executive Office's budget, but it was not a pressure, because they no longer had to deliver the services that had been transferred. I want to put it on record that I think that the officials of the Executive Office could have made that point and they could be accused of trying to spin by saying that it was all pressure because the budget was reduced.

Looking at the past year and the narrative that is attached within the spring Supplementary Estimates booklet, I see that the first thing to be mentioned is the North/South Ministerial Council. Over the past three years, it was not just this Chamber that was not sitting; there was no political meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, yet it still cost nearly £1·5 million in this financial year — £1,434,000. Is that not a bit like buying an expensive car that you cannot afford, taxing it, insuring it and leaving it in the driveway with the engine idling, topping it up every now and then with petrol or diesel at £1·25 a litre? We simply cannot say that there was value for money in that expenditure or, indeed, for the Maze/Long Kesh Development Corporation, because nothing has happened in this financial year beyond the RUAS and the Balmoral show. Yet it has cost us over £1·5 million — £1.688 million, to be exact. Is it not the case that the failure to move on from the fact that the peace-building and conflict resolution centre is not to be built on that site — by the way, the development corporation has moved on from that; its business plan no longer has the peace-building centre — not just another sign of our shocking failure to deliver on big-ticket projects? Desertcreat never happened for the blue-light services. The A5, as the honourable Member pointed out earlier, has yet to be completed as intended.

I note that, in the last year, money was spent on the Executive's good relations strategy, called Together: Building a United Community. Now, T:BUC has seven headline objectives, and, under scrutiny last week, Executive Office officials made it clear that two were in danger and would come up as red in a red/amber/green (RAG) analysis. One of those objectives is removing peace walls. T:BUC said that we would remove every peace wall by 2023. It is already clear that that will not happen. We must be aware that that will have implications for future budgets. We have to consult, and removing a peace wall does not come at a negligible cost.

Talking of implications for future budgets, what about the social investment fund? Again, for the record, the Executive agreed the social investment fund on 22 March 2011. There would be £80 million to tackle deprivation and dereliction. It was a four-year programme that should have ended in 2016. We now know that it will not end until 2023. We are being asked to Vote on Account roughly 45% of next year's budget, and we know that, in next year's budget, the Executive Office has capital DEL for SIF projects of £7 million — actually £7·8 million, I think. That is a stress on our budgets. That money will not be spent for our citizens in the way that we might like because we have spectacularly failed to deliver the social investment fund as intended, i.e. £80 million over four years starting in 2011.

I note also that money has been spent on the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition. I believe that the total cost to date is some £0·75 million and that individual members earn £300 per day by sitting on a body that is yet to report or make a recommendation. Can we afford to go on with that, particularly as we have now determined, through the New Decade, New Approach deal, that we will have an alternative body — an office of identity — with two commissioners? It appears that we have set aside some £5 million for that new office with its commissioners — £5·833 million next year, which, perhaps, this Vote on Account will help kick-start — in fact, over the next three years, the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression with the two associated commissioners is scheduled to spend £28·25 million. When the Executive Office officials were asked what that would be spent on, they were unable to say, because Ministers have yet to decide on a work programme or aims and objectives for that office and the two commissioners. Can the Minister of Finance really tolerate budgets being allocated with no business plan, no vision, no aims and no objectives? That £28·25 million over three years is a lot of money: Robin Swann could use it in Health; Peter Weir could use it in Education; Nichola Mallon could use it in Infrastructure.

A final thought is with regard to AME, annually managed expenditure. That is the money that is not part of the block grant; it is the money that pays for welfare benefits, pensions and student loans. It is by far the lion's share of what we are talking about in these Estimates, as AME will flow through the Executive Office to the tune of around £540 million this year. AME is, of course, the money that the public learnt about during the inquiry into the renewable heat incentive scandal. We learnt that there were those in this Building, in Stormont Castle and in our Administration who said that, because it was not part of the block grant, it was free money and the attitude should be, "Fill your boots". I suspect that there is more than one copy of Sam McBride's 'Burned' floating around Her Majesty's Treasury these days. I am sure that eyebrows have been raised at the attitude that you can fill your boots because it is not part of the block grant and, therefore, it is free dosh and you can take what you want. With the rise of English nationalism, we should be very aware of the damage that that has done to our position in the United Kingdom.

I know that the Minister will head to the Treasury this week, looking to cut a deal. I wish him well with that, because we need it for the people of Northern Ireland. As a corporate body, we really need to move away from where we are, which is a perception that we have a dependency culture and we just put our hand out for more and more, again and again. Let us switch that to a prosperity agenda, and let us ask the Treasury for the tools to strengthen our economy and to concentrate on the welfare and prosperity of our people.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I will speak on the spring Supplementary Estimates 2019-2020 as a member of the Education Committee. I note that what we are required to do is to Vote on Account and provide finance to allow existing services to continue in the early months of 2020-21, pending consideration of appropriate legislation to provide the funds. That is what we are debating today.

I agree with much of what the Chair of the Committee said and, indeed, much of what Mr Daniel McCrossan said. There appears to be a fairly cohesive approach by the Committee on what is the most important feature for our future well-being in the sense that we start to think about education not as a cost to the Minister but as an investment by the Minister in the future of the children and young people of Northern Ireland. We are now looking at every aspect of life in Northern Ireland through the New Decade, New Approach agreement that was reached by the five main parties.

When the Department officials came last week to speak to the Committee, that was after the Minister had been there the week before. The Minister made his case and indicated to the Committee members what, he thought, was required to make sure that we have an education system that is recognised internationally for the quality of its teaching and learning, for the achievements of young people and for the focus on meeting their needs. The Minister addressed the Committee on his perceptions and thoughts and the approach that he would use. He indicated that he would require between £300 million and £400 million, and, indeed, the Department has confirmed that it is a figure in that region.

I pay tribute to the Department of Education officials for how they approached the situation and for how they conducted themselves and performed during the time when we were not performing in the Assembly.

They have been diligent in presenting their papers to the Committee, and their clarity of thinking and prioritisation of issues are to be admired. They have displayed those skills in a very difficult situation for officials, when no Minister was available. Their task was to create a successful educational environment, but it was short of finance.

We will maybe get the opportunity to spend a bit more time on each of the areas tomorrow, but, in making that bid for £354 million, I do not think that anyone in the Chamber would disagree — at least, I hope that they would not disagree — that we need to spend money on some areas. I will mention a few of those areas. I think that we would all agree that the teachers' industrial dispute has to be solved and that, in recompense to them, their standard of payment is made comparable to those in other parts of the UK. The Department has included a total of £148 million for the estimated 2020-21 pressures to address the teaching and non-teaching pay disputes. Of that, it is estimated, circa £68 million is required to implement the current proposed deal for teachers, which covers the 2017-18 period. I do not think that anyone would not be supportive of teachers being sufficiently rewarded.

I will also mention briefly another area that has a great deal of sympathy and empathy: teachers who provide a service to children with special educational needs. The Committee had the privilege of meeting, in an informal way, a leadership group from special educational needs teachers. We did so to try to understand the pressures that they are and will be under, as was referred to earlier, with a growing number of pupils with special educational needs needing to receive an appropriate education. We should, perhaps, think not just of the teaching aspect of that but of where those teachers are required to provide a care aspect, even to the extent of spending time on pupils' medical needs. The Department indicated that it is estimated that another £30 million will be needed annually to cover the implementation of the new SEN framework. I do not think that there would be any disagreement — I hope that there would not be — across the Chamber or the Departments in addressing those needs.

Mr Speaker, you will be aware that we have debated another area of education, which is referred to as "educational underachievement"; I wish that we could get away from using the term "underachievement" and, perhaps, look at that aspect of education in a more positive way. There is probably much more of a need in areas where there are young Protestant boys or males who have not, perhaps, embraced education in the way that many other parts of the community have. We are looking at addressing the links between persistent educational underachievement and the socio-economic background that, perhaps, creates that. The Department is looking for an additional £10 million for that in 2020-21, increasing to £30 million annually.

Under New Decade, New Approach, we all need to think that we are investing in our children and young people. This is not a cost. However, if it is perceived to be a cost, the failure to meet it and the future ramifications of not meeting it, will be borne by every other Department. The Department has already identified an estimated cost of £426 million. I hope that, when the Minister comes to make the allocations, we will see that education is one of the mainstays of his Budget.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 1:45 pm, 24th February 2020

As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the House take its ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Philip McGuigan.

The debate stood suspended.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair) —