Supply Resolution for the Northern Ireland Estimates Further Vote on Account 2020-2021

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:45 am on 26th May 2020.

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Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 11:45 am, 26th May 2020

I beg to move

That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £8,225,189,000, 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 £9,050,940,000, 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 column 4 of table 1, and column 4 of table 2, in the Northern Ireland Estimates Further Vote on Account 2020-2021 that was laid before the Assembly on 20 May 2020.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Business Committee has allowed up to four hours for the debate. The Minister will have 30 minutes to allocate at his discretion between proposing and winding. The Chair of the Finance Committee will have 10 minutes to speak, and all other Members who wish to speak will have seven minutes.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

This debate covers the Supply resolution for a further Vote on Account for the 2020-21 financial year. The associated document was laid in the Assembly on 20 May. I would like to explain to the Assembly why I am taking the unusual step of laying a second Vote on Account. The Budget Act (NI) 2020, passed by the Assembly in the March, included a Vote on Account that allowed Departments to continue to spend until Main Estimates could be considered in June. However, the response to COVID-19 has meant that some Departments have had to spend more than anticipated. The Executive have allocated an additional £1·2 billion as part of our response to COVID-19. In addition, many Departments have been front-loading payments in an effort to support business and community groups that rely on government spending.

Our analysis suggests that at least five Departments may run out of cash before 31 July 2020, the date when a Budget Bill would normally be expected to receive Royal Assent. One Department may reach that limit as early as 19 June. If we were to follow the usual process, Departments would run out of cash before the Estimates document was approved. Having examined the options, I advise that the only viable solution is the Assembly's approval of a further Vote on Account. That will provide authority for Departments to continue to spend until the detailed Main Estimates can be debated later in the year. I plan to bring forward those Main Estimates in the autumn, when the financial position will hopefully be more stable.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Minister for his opening remarks and his explanation of why it is necessary for the House to consider, in these extraordinary circumstances, a further Vote on Account. One of the key priorities for the Committee since the resumption of normal business has been to engage regularly with the Department on the financial landscape in Northern Ireland, first, to effectively scrutinise the Department's own resource needs and, secondly, to consider the Department's wider strategic role in coordinating financial resources across government. We particularly welcome the Minister's approach and that of the Executive. We wait expectantly to hear of the economic recovery plan from the Minister for the Economy, which is now, I think, about two weeks overdue. That engagement, along with the responsiveness of the Department in supporting the Committee's approach, has been useful in helping the Committee to develop an effective working relationship. We look forward to nurturing that important and necessary relationship further so that the Committee can continue to provide advice and assistance to the Department effectively and scrutinise and challenge as required. By developing that approach, the Committee has been kept informed of the necessity for the business that we debate today. I express my thanks on behalf of the Committee to all the officials who have been in attendance or made use of teleconferencing facilities over recent weeks to facilitate the Committee's business by responding to the many and varied issues that have been raised with them not just by the Committee of Finance but by most of the Statutory Committees.

We are all acutely aware that much has changed in a very short time frame — in fact, change seems to be the only constant — but those changes have been necessary to keep us safe and support business and workers. We still have much to do to respond to the matters that are within our control by ensuring that Departments have the necessary resources available to them at the point of need. As has already been outlined, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in Departments incurring significant spending that was unforeseen at the time of the previous Vote on Account; indeed, some Departments are already reaching their limits. Therefore, in order to alleviate the risk of Departments running out of money, we in the House must use our judgement for the continued well-being of our society.

As I alluded to earlier, officials from the Department were in attendance at our meetings last week to brief the Committee on the resource requirements across all Departments. During the evidence session, the Committee examined the reconciliation between the required resource limits against the Budget document and the associated COVID-19 allocations to understand how those sums were calculated and how the allocations were made. Members sought and received assurances from officials that, as a result of this Vote on Account, Departments would be sufficiently resourced until the Main Estimates and the Budget (No. 2) Bill are produced. Those are expected in September.

The Committee also heard that many payments to suppliers, the voluntary and community sector and other organisations were being front-loaded to earlier in the financial year to provide necessary support to those sectors, which we welcome. However, I also urge a degree of caution and an element of control to safeguard and ensure that there is a balance between the support required and the risk of a supplier being unable to fulfil its contracted services or functions for the remainder of the financial year, when no further payments would be due.

Committee Members also explored with officials the opportunities that may exist for the Executive to use reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) borrowing to provide other means of reigniting our economy. In response, officials helpfully provided clarification that such borrowing is drawn from the National Loans Fund, may be used only for capital expenditure and allows borrowing of up to £200 million. Until the true effects of this chapter in our history are fully known, we must continue to explore every option and every available resource to help us achieve our goals. We need to be innovative in our approach and maximise every possible avenue to ensure that Northern Ireland is able to survive, revive and, ultimately, thrive. That also needs to include maximising resources, such as financial transactions capital (FTC), which could be an effective tool to kick-start our recovery, particularly through some of our vital infrastructure projects like the York Street interchange.

The further Vote on Account is a necessary means to enable Departments to continue building on their efforts to support our society. Whilst the £1·2 billion that we have received from the United Kingdom Exchequer is significant, the task at hand is equally significant, and we should not underestimate that. Therefore, we must ensure that the finite additional resources that have been made available to us are used efficiently and effectively to ensure that we achieve the best possible outcome and mitigate the longer-term impacts on our economy.

Finally, following an evidence session from the Department on 29 April, the Committee asked to be informed of any occasions on which a Department intends to make use of sole authority of the Budget Act to carry out a function; the so-called "black-box provisions". Full details of those provisions were included in the papers provided by the Department last week in relation to the Vote on Account. I thank the Minister and his officials for listening to the Committee and for the improved openness and transparency that is now being demonstrated.

As I will outline during the Second Stage debate on the Budget (No. 2) Bill, the Committee for Finance has approved accelerated passage for the Budget Bill to be introduced by the Minister later today. On behalf of the Committee for Finance and the Ulster Unionist Party, I support the motion.

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP 12:00 pm, 26th May 2020

When we were here during the last Vote on Account, I do not think that there were many of us who thought that we would be back again a couple of months later for a further Vote on Account. Despite the additional expenditure on COVID-19, the allocation of 45% of the 2019-2020 departmental provision would have been expected to have seen us through until consideration of the Main Estimates in June. However, following a briefing by departmental officials on the Budget, I remember referring in the House to the considerable uncertainty regarding the Department's finances that was a consistent theme in that briefing, also all as a result of COVID-19. The fast, evolving nature of the crisis and the consummate response by the Department seemed to overtake proposed expenditure before the ink was dry on any briefing papers.

The Department for Communities has been at the forefront of supporting vulnerable people, with a range of initiatives implemented at great pace. That has involved front-loading expenditure, sometimes without knowing how much it will cost. I must say that, while necessary, we have sometimes reflected on what this will mean for subsequent financing of departmental programmes whenever we get back to normal, whatever normal may look like.

It is extraordinary circumstances when, instead of Main Estimates in June, we have another Vote on Account. The idea that, technically, Departments are running out of cash is remarkable. I do not know whether the impact of that has quite sunk in. A couple of weeks ago, the Committee heard from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) about councils and how they could be close to collapse in the next few months. Last week, we heard about the dire straits that the voluntary and community sector is in. Tomorrow, it is the turn of the arts sector, and, next week, the sports sector.

While I applaud the actions of the Minister for Communities and, indeed, all Ministers, I cannot help but think of the fictional story of the little Dutch boy who put his finger in the leaking dam to prevent people from drowning in the hope that someone would come and fix the dam properly. This Vote on Account and the subsequent Bill for its approval are clearly necessary to get us through the next few months, but what assurance do we have that our finances will be in any more stable a position when we come to autumn?

The cash requirement in the Vote on Account for the Department for Communities is 80% of its 2019-2020 provision, which is what we are told should ensure that it is able to continue to provide services to the end of October. I note and welcome the additional COVID-19 allocation of just over £20·3 million from the Executive and the potential for a further £20 million. No doubt every penny of this will be spent.

I also note that £23·5 million will be spent on welfare reform mitigations under the sole authority of the Budget (No. 2) Bill. The Committee has asked about the legislation necessary to ensure that this expenditure is on a proper footing, but, despite briefings from the Minister, there is still no sign of this. We cannot go on pushing this down the pipeline. If we are to have a sound hold on our finances, we need to agree on big-ticket items like welfare mitigations.

These are difficult times. As we come through this crisis, we may have to face up to the prospect of a very different society. We may have to accept at some point that limited financial resources bring with them difficult choices. That time may not be now, and it may not even be in the autumn, but, when all is said and done, we have to be prepared for a possible reckoning, and that is going to take considerable will, effort and vision.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. As Members have outlined, we are faced with a unique situation, therefore the normal budgetary process cannot happen at this moment. The accelerated passage outlined is complex in nature, however, to be fair to the officials who came to the Committee, they did simplify it for us.

This Budget Bill is basically to avoid the Departments running out of cash before the Main Estimates are set out. It will give approval for cash and use of reserve to use funds during this public health crisis. We did not know the full impact of COVID back in March when the Budget Bill was passed. Since then, Departments have had to spend greater amounts of cash than anticipated. The priority became keeping people afloat, keeping wages paid and protecting livelihoods and businesses as best as possible.

When we discussed the Minister's request for accelerated passage through the Assembly, certain Standing Orders had to be suspended, and issues of transparency, accountability and the Main Estimates were discussed. However, there were few options, as some Departments could run out of cash. Indeed, the Minister said today that that could happen as early as June.

The COVID-19 crisis has necessitated unprecedented high public spending. The scale, timing and pace of the crisis mean that the legislation is required to ensure that all public services can continue to be delivered during the COVID-19 period to support the health service, businesses and vulnerable people.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

We are back today with a further Vote on Account, one that is, I agree, necessary. I should say upfront that we, as a party, will be supporting the further Vote on Account and the Budget No. 2 Bill, which we will be debating technically later today.

Not only are we giving the Bill accelerated passage, as Seán Lynch said, but we are debating and passing both the Budget No. 2 Bill and the further Vote on Account a month before we normally would in ordinary Budget times. Since the Assembly came back in January, Budget debates have been a little bit like London buses: we waited three years for one and we get half a dozen at once. The truth is that we have had quite a lot of debates, but we have not had that much scrutiny. While, as I said, my party will be supporting the further Vote on Account and the Budget No. 2 Bill, there are concerns about the specifics of the provisions and also about the continued lack of anything approaching a Programme for Government or a joined-up, long-term policy response to COVID-19. That is critical, because we are being asked to make the further Vote on Account specifically because of the unique and exceptional contingency of the COVID-19 crisis.

First, on the specifics of the further Vote on Account: we are, in effect, voting to give the Department of Finance permission to disburse virtually all, and, in some cases, more than all of the full-year's cash — more than 100% of it — for Departments in order to prevent them from running out of money in the next couple of months. That is a reflection of the extraordinary pressures created by COVID-19, including decisions by Departments to front-load spending to ensure that contractors and community groups get the benefit of planned spending now when they need support the most. That is welcome in principle, but there are significant questions about our capacity to scrutinise how that money is spent. It will put extreme pressure on the Main Estimates, which come later this year, and also on the in-year monitoring rounds. It will put an extreme onus on the Finance Committee, of which I am a member, and also on the whole Assembly, to give proper and detailed scrutiny to the monitoring rounds.

I also have questions about money that is being centrally held to deal with, as yet, unspecified priorities. I have a particular bee in my bonnet about centrally held items, given that I discovered, a couple of weeks ago, that we are still centrally holding £2 million a year to subsidise non-existent long-haul flights to North America at a time when we have no short-haul connectivity.

Anyway, back to those unspecified centrally held items. In a background paper given to the Finance Committee, the Department specified a particular category of allocation. In a summary document provided to the Finance Committee, the Department described some of the allocations that had been made as potential COVID-19 allocations, including the £95 million for the Infrastructure Department. The allocations were set out in some detail in the background paper, but they are not covered in the summary document that we have been provided with today, that is the further Vote on Account. The background paper made it clear that they are potential COVID-19 allocations, but, and I quote:

"This should not be taken as confirmation that this funding will ultimately be provided to this Department. Rather, it is simply a working assumption."

Now, the £95 million for the Department for Infrastructure — there are other Departments, including Health and Communities that have potential COVID-19 allocations — is particularly important, given what we have just heard from the Infrastructure Minister about the pressures facing her Department, Northern Ireland Water, and our transport network. If that £95 million is still a potential COVID-19 allocation, it would be helpful to have it confirmed, by the Finance Minister, that it will not be taken off the Department and reallocated elsewhere. Indeed, the Finance Minister's statement last week said that £59·5 million of the £95 million transport allocation remained unallocated. However, the background paper that the Finance Committee received indicated that it could be reallocated at a later date. It would be helpful to have clarity on that.

Moving on to the broader picture, it is somewhat discouraging and depressing, although I welcome the fact that his Department has moved fast on allocations, that we are having a major budgetary intervention in the absence of not just an agreed Programme for Government, but even a date for when we will debate a joined-up economic and fiscal response to the COVID-19 crisis. Much of the action by his Department and the Executive has been welcome, but we now need something that is longer-term and less based on pop-up policy. COVID-19 has placed an extreme exigency on the Department, but we are getting to the place where we need longer-term policy.

When we debated the Budget a couple of weeks ago, there was some confusion. Some Departments were working to the draft 2016 Programme for Government, while others did not mention a Programme for Government at all. It would be helpful to know whether a new Programme for Government is in the offing and to what extent Departments are working from a draft Programme for Government in their budget planning. As the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance said, that would be helpful to know when we are debating a long-term economic and fiscal response.

There are many things that are unknown, as we come out of the crisis, but there are things that we do know. People treasure properly funded healthcare and the crisis has changed the way that we work and the way that we relate to places. <BR/>We have heard from the Infrastructure Minister about the long-term vision that she has for changing our towns and cities, and active travel. We know that our economy, and those around the world, will change fundamentally as a result of the crisis, but, in the short-term, there is also severe damage to sectors that are disproportionately important to our economy: hospitality and tourism, small independent retail and microbusiness in general. We do not just need an economic recovery plan, although we desperately need that, we also need a joined-up strategy that looks at our fiscal levers and the kind of society that we want in five-years' time.

To spell out what I mean, and as we have discussed many times in the Assembly, the sole fiscal lever that we have used and that has been politically acceptable to use by the Executive, is small business rates. Small business rates hit the sectors of the economy that are most uniquely damaged by COVID-19.

We will be going on to debate the Budget Bill later this afternoon and I will have time to expand further on some of my thoughts, and I hope that I will find some agreement with the Finance Minister. I will just leave with the thought that, while many of these allocations are welcome, we are over time for a joined-up economic and fiscal strategy. Friendly TV interviews are welcome, but I am afraid that they are not enough when it comes to a long-term strategy. We need joined-up economic and fiscal policies.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I will begin by speaking on behalf of the Committee for Education. This has been a challenging year, in budgetary terms, for the Executive and the Department of Education. The Department of Education is struggling to overcome a backlog of financial pressures of over £400 million and, like all Executive Departments, it is faced with the challenge of responding to COVID-19.

The Department of Education advised the Committee for Education at the end of April that lockdown has reduced some of the pressures, but that many more have increased and that new pressures have arisen. The Committee for Education noted the substantial additional budget that was allocated to provide free school meal payments, increase Sure Start, support childcare provision, increase the early years' pathway fund, provide a substitute teacher hardship fund and to procure a substantial number of devices to aid equal access to distance and blended learning. The Committee for Education welcomes that additional funding and the vital support that it provides during the emergency.

Many Committee members also wish to see additional funding to support tackling holiday hunger, extending counselling services and in further support for vulnerable children. The Committee members also require further rationale for the additional funding that the Education Minister is seeking for preparatory and boarding schools. Notwithstanding those comments, the Committee for Education supports the Supply resolution for the further Vote on Account, as it applies to the Department of Education.

I will now make a few comments as an Alliance MLA and the party's spokesperson on education. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and the focus of the Executive and the Department of Education must be on the emergency response to COVID-19. The Alliance Party supports the Supply resolution to allocate Executive funds, but the Executive, and in particular the Minister of Education, cannot forgo the action that is needed to address the financial crisis that is facing the education system, in addition to the challenge of COVID-19.

The former chief executive officer (CEO) of the Education Authority warned in 2017 that, without radical investment and reform, the education system would be unaffordable, socially immobile and unfit for 21st-century learning. Our education system has a crumbling school estate, excessive class sizes, a special educational needs (SEN) framework that fails children with SEN, the separation of children on the basis of community background at the age of five and an unfair and unnecessary approach to post-primary transfer. Despite the dedication and professionalism of our teaching and non-teaching staff, that is not the education system that we should want for our children and young people. Fundamental root-and-branch reform remains urgently necessary for education. It is concerning, therefore, that the Education Minister has suspended work towards the drafting of terms of reference for the independent review proposed by the Alliance Party and supported by the Assembly. It is also concerning that existing reports, such as Burns, Costello, Bain, Investigating Links in Achievement and Deprivation (ILIAD), Heenan and Sahlberg have not been implemented and that area-based planning has been so ineffective and sectorally based.

The focus on COVID-19 is, of course, understandable, and schools need urgent guidance on social distancing, curriculum content and blended learning now and to prepare for the proposed phased return to school in August. That focus, however, must not be used as cover to unduly delay the urgent action and reform needed to arrest the financial crisis in education, nor can investment and progress towards the childcare strategy, school budgets, the emotional health and well-being framework and the new SEN framework, including the SEN regulations and code of practice be shelved. The people of Northern Ireland demand better, and we must work together to deliver it. A well-resourced, innovative and integrated education system to deliver high-quality educational opportunity for all is needed now more than ever.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP 12:15 pm, 26th May 2020

I welcome the opportunity to again outline the Committee for Infrastructure's consideration and views in respect of today's debate. First, I will reiterate the size of the deficit facing the Department going into the pandemic, and then I will speak about the impact of COVID-19.

The Committee's scrutiny of the Department's finances has highlighted again and again the stark situation that it faces. In January, the Department for Infrastructure told the Committee that its budget had a recurring structural deficit of £61 million going into 2020-21, set to rise to £80 million in 2021-22 and to £90 million in 2022-23. That was before the COVID pressures that have since arisen. The Department's budget for 2020-21 has increased by 8·6%, which amounts to an additional £33 million on last year, but, despite that, it remains inadequate. The Department has warned again and again of the severe implications that that will have for critical infrastructure services.

The Minister told the Committee that she had yet to decide on the final distribution of allocations. However, given the issues already highlighted and the significant shortfall between available and required funds, we know that there will be pressures that the final allocations will struggle to address. The first is water and sewage. The Utility Regulator's determination on Northern Ireland Water funding is inescapable: it has not been funded to the recommended levels, meaning that it is unable to connect new housing developments and businesses to sewage networks at over 100 locations in Northern Ireland. The potential impact on the economy will only increase in the COVID recovery period and does not consider the funding requirements of the Living With Water programme over the next decade.

Water and waste water are, of course. just the first area of concern. Officials also told the Committee that, prior to the 2014-15 budget reductions, some £35 million would have been allocated to cover routine road maintenance and winter requirements. In recent years that budget has been cut to less than half that. The implications of that are stark but no less stark than the recent Barton and Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) reports on structural maintenance of the road network, which recommended that the Departments of Finance and Infrastructure work towards ensuring funding of £143 million per annum on a recurring basis to prevent further deterioration.

Turning to community transport, we are all aware of the important role that it plays in connecting our rural communities, so the Committee noted with concern a reduction in the Department's provision to a number of those organisations in 2019-2020 amounting to some 35% of the overall baseline since 2013-14. The Committee noted that community transport initiatives across Northern Ireland assisted access to and facilitation of services that are the remit of other Departments and has raised the question of whether other Departments should assist with funding. The Committee welcomed the announcement by DFI and DAERA that joined-up measures have been put in place to support people in rural areas who are isolated through COVID-19, but more of that could be done.

The list of pressures goes on: a contract to buy new carriages for the rail network; the procurement of new buses; funding for Waterways Ireland; and the design phase of York Street, to name but a few.

I have, of course, left the most notable shortfall until last. Translink has been forced to run its service at a deficit for a number of years and to use its reserves to supplement it. As the £19 million request for Translink in the monitoring round was unsuccessful, its reserves next year will be below the level of working capital that it needs, and we face the real possibility that it may cease to be deemed a going concern. The COVID-19 crisis has seen Translink's revenue streams dry up. As we gradually move out of lockdown and into our new normal, which will require social distancing, there will be an inevitable impact on our public transport service. Additional vehicles will be required to accommodate the safe transport of children to and from school and employees to and from their place of work. The question arises of how that will be funded. The money has to be found from somewhere, and the recent statement by the Minister of Finance was not encouraging. What impact will that extra requirement have on the budget, in particular, on green recovery schemes and on capital infrastructure projects?

The Committee is aware that there is a COVID fund designed to mitigate the challenges arising from the crisis. In a briefing on the COVID response and the budget, the Minister set out a departmental estimate of up to £181 million of COVID-related pressures: £90 million to £114 million from the loss of revenue to Translink; between £17·5 million and £32 million for Northern Ireland Water; and £8·6 million for three months, increasing to £19·4 million for six months and £30·7 million for nine months, for the DVA. Despite that and the pre-existing shortfalls, the Committee found itself writing to the Finance Minister to seek clarification of why the Department for Infrastructure was the only Department not to have received an allocation from the COVID fund at that stage. The Finance Minister announced additional funding allocations in his statement last week, namely the £30 million set aside to mitigate Translink's loss of income, but it is clear that that is still just a drop in the ocean. The Committee looks forward to hearing that additional funding from the remaining £59 million of the transport budget that is still to be allocated will be earmarked for the Department for Infrastructure. However, it is clear that, even with this, hard decisions about key priorities will need to be made, and that is without the Department's obligations under the New Decade, New Approach deal.

There is a strong argument that significant investment in infrastructure will not only mitigate existing risks but will be vital in kick-starting our recovery as we move out of lockdown. The Committee for Infrastructure will, of course, continue its scrutiny of the Department for Infrastructure's budget.

I would like to make some personal remarks on community transport. As a representative of a rural constituency, I am genuinely concerned, as we should be, about the impact of COVID-19 on the budgets of our local providers. Approximately 35% of their budgets comes from self-generated income. As a result of the lockdown and social distancing, opportunities to fill that gap have ceased. If we are to believe the deputy First Minister's assertion that social distancing is to remain in place for the next two years, many of those organisations will no longer exist. While I welcome the fact that DFI now assists those organisations to furlough staff, that will go only part of the way to easing their burden. If the Department for Infrastructure and the Department of Finance do not work together to uplift by some 20% to 30% the grant available to the organisations that need it, the service will be lost and very soon.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

The Committee is acutely aware that the Department for the Economy has been in the eye of the storm, so to speak, in responding to this devastating crisis. That, amongst other reasons, is why it is one of the five Departments likely to run out of funding by the end of June; hence the need for today's Vote on Account. As I have highlighted on a number of occasions, the Committee is extremely supportive of the response of the Department and, indeed, the Executive to COVID-19 so far. The Committee is advising on gaps and issues in that response as well as on strategies and solutions to recover and rebuild through our extensive stakeholder network. Members will acknowledge that, as a key driver of the COVID-19 response, the Department for the Economy must have its budgetary needs prioritised as much as possible. The Committee is aware that the Department is seeking to repurpose and reprioritise its budget and those of its arm's-length bodies as part of the June monitoring process to allow it to allocate further funding to its COVID-19 response. The Committee is very supportive of that proactivity on the part of the Department. Members also urge the Executive to consider making available any further funding that the Department may need to widen its COVID-19 response so that more businesses and sectors can be included and to fund the recover through the upcoming June monitoring round. The Committee appreciates that the crisis and the job of keeping this place running require considerable funding. However, the Department for the Economy has a unique role in not only responding to the crisis but leading our recovery and rebuilding following it.

The Department for the Economy continues to lead the response to Brexit and the impact of the protocol. It is dealing with the RHI inquiry response, and it is driving forward strategies across a range of policy areas, including energy, tourism, further and higher education, skills and others, that will be key to our recovery when the terrible human tragedy of the COVID-19 crisis abates. The Department also leads on a number of key actions coming from New Decade, New Approach that will assist our recovery.

The Committee will continue in its work of scrutinising the Department for the Economy's use of its budget and supports today's Vote on Account. Members are also being very proactive in collating the solutions to the crisis that our stakeholders bring to us, allowing us to provide the Economy Minister and the Executive with significant information to inform our recovery and the rebuilding not only of our economy but of our society. I remind Members that Statutory Committees have a key role in advising and supporting Ministers in the development of policy. That is a role that the Economy Committee fulfils and will continue to fulfil, regardless of any obstacles.

I will now make some brief remarks as Sinn Féin economy spokesperson. Obviously, COVID-19 has had a huge budgetary impact, and there are real challenges facing the economy and wider society as we respond. The necessary measures put in place to protect public health have forced many businesses to close and workers to stay at home. The funding that has been made available to support businesses — £410 million in grant support and over £300 million in rate relief — has been most welcome, but the Minister will likely agree that further support will be required to help businesses recover and to protect jobs and livelihoods in the time ahead. Some sectors have missed out on the business support grants, including sole traders, small manufacturers with NAV over £15,000, some businesses in the most impacted sectors with NAV over £51,000 — they will need specific support to recover in the longer term — social enterprises with charitable status and the newly self-employed. They are all entrepreneurs or SMEs that have invested their time, energy and money into their businesses, which are vital to our local economy and need support. The rates holiday, of course, has provided much-needed relief, but many of those businesses suffer from a lack of cash and are understandably reluctant to take out loans when they are unsure whether they will recover to repay them.

The Finance Minister has asked Departments to look closely at their budgets, and the Economy Minister must explore what further support is required and what funding in the Department can be redirected to support businesses to survive and to stimulate economic recovery, alongside what the Executive do in allocating funds to the COVID-19 response. The British Government will also need to step up with additional support in the form of financial and fiscal stimulus. The coronavirus job retention scheme has been vital, but its continuation and flexibility in the scheme will also be necessary in the time ahead.

It has become increasingly apparent that some businesses may only slowly come out of lockdown and some sectors will take much longer to reopen and longer still to become profitable again. It will be important that the Executive have a comprehensive plan for economic and societal recovery guided, of course, by the medical and scientific advice. I have been contacted individually and via the Economy Committee by businesses, representative organisations and others with innovative proposals on how they can reopen safely and possible support measures that will be required, not just financial but practical. It is vital that there be a collaborative approach to the recovery plan, and I welcome the continued work of the engagement forum, which has brought together businesses, trade unions and others. It must have a role in the longer term also. We must all — government, business, academia, community and voluntary — work together in the days, weeks and months ahead to come out of this. I support the Supply resolution.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP 12:30 pm, 26th May 2020

When I consider any aspect of our budgetary process, I always revert to the fact that we all stand on a platform of delivering the best possible public services and the best value to the taxpayer, and that is certainly what my party stands for. Regardless of the Department involved, that should be at the very heart of the budgetary process.

As Deputy Chair of the Health Committee, I have sat through much evidence about the Department's budgeting, its drive for savings and so on. Surely the consequence of COVD-19 will be simply to obliterate all financial planning done in our health service to date. Already, we are seeing in-year pressures that are a cost of COVID-19. It will be no different next year and for who knows how long after. This is a budget that will continue to face unprecedented challenges. Who on these Benches does not want to see a more interventionist approach taken by our Health Department when it comes to the welfare of our older people, particularly those in care homes? How much will personal protective equipment (PPE) cost the health service moving forward? In the context of social distancing, how will we invest in our health service to ensure that patients receive the best care for the smallest risk? How do we address the huge mental health problems in our society? All of that is going to cost huge sums of money. We can add to that the obesity crisis among our population and the pressures that that brings to our health service. We also have an increasingly older population. Indeed, we are leading more medically complicated lives, thanks to our incredible NHS and those involved in research and development.

There will be more pressures to come on the health budget. The urgent need to step up our care and support for those with autism is clear. That is something that our Health Department has as yet not taken seriously enough, even though just over one in every 20 schoolchildren is now being diagnosed with autism. We can no longer look the other way when all those people are in need of help.

Those are immediate issues that need to be addressed. There is an urgent need to reboot our health service in the areas of routine surgery, diagnostics and cancer care, to name but a few. With those pressures being faced, surely we cannot allow the Bengoa report to gather dust. The longer that it does, the longer that our health service will fail to deliver on the fundamental principle of being the best value to the taxpayer and the best possible service.

Once again, I urge the Minister to set out his road map for reform and to be bold. Let it be an ambitious timeline that equips our health service to meet each and every possible challenge that comes our way. We have the best possible asset in our world-class staff, but we must support them, not just with the right pay and recognition but with the right tools to do the job as best they can.

COVID-19 ought to have given each and every one of us food for thought as to what really matters in life. Our time on this planet is short, and that should shape how we prioritise the spending of the public's money. That is what really matters. It is a test for this place to be mature and grown-up in taking those spending decisions and not to prioritise spending on areas that ultimately matter less and to much fewer people over, say, spending on tackling suicide or helping children with speech and language therapy. I certainly know where my priority lies.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Éirím le heolas a roinnt libh ar mhachnamh an Choiste Sláinte faoi na brúnna airgeadais reatha. I will provide some information on the Health Committee's consideration of current financial pressures. No discrete briefing has taken place on the Department's assessment of when its resources would be exhausted without today's initiative, but the budget briefing last month provided some broad brushstrokes on additional costs associated with COVID-19. Officials were keen to underline how uncertain the picture was at that point.

Mar is eol dúinn, tá pleanáil, maoiniú agus cur i bhfeidhm seirbhísí ina gcíor thuathail de dheasca na géarchéime sláinte, agus is cinnte go mbeidh said amhlaidh amach anseo. As we know, the ongoing health crisis has caused massive upheaval in the planning, funding and delivering of services, and it is likely to continue to do so. With strong warnings about the fluidity of the situation, the Department advised the Committee last month of its assessment that the costs of COVID-19 could run to upwards of £500 million in resource expenditure, which is significantly more than it had received at that point. Officials also expressed a degree of hope that pandemic costs would be met, however.

Cuireadh na Meastacháin seo leanas faoi chomhairle an Choiste. The Committee was advised of the following estimates: £104 million required for workforce pressures, including the deployment of retirees and students to provide additional front-line support, as well as overtime, accommodation for staff and recruitment costs; £232 million required for equipment and supply, including PPE, the increased cost of drugs and the emergency supply of medicines to vulnerable patients; and around £200 million for additional service delivery costs, such as increased hospital admissions, including ICU, COVID-19 testing, emergency dental facilities and supporting key delivery partners in the pharmacy and dental sectors. The Department was also estimating a further £1 million to support digital health and communications as part of the COVID-19 response. Finally, a further £16·5 million capital expenditure was projected in relation to oxygen generators, IT requirements and COVID assessment centre facilities.

Officials advised us that it was not possible, at the time, to quantify a range of additional costs, such as additional ventilators being purchased, reconfiguration of hospitals, contracts with the independent hospitals for additional capacity, and ongoing requirements for PPE and testing as the pandemic progresses. More recently, costs have been incurred in relation to scaling up the contact-tracing operation. At that point, the Department had been allocated £205 million, with a further £150 million held in central reserves for PPE.

The Department acknowledged a number of financial knock-on effects of the pandemic. It forecast that, due to redeployments to deal with the crisis, there would be less capacity to conduct other routine services. The Committee has been advised of lower than usual attendance at GP practices and emergency departments, leading to concerns that patients could begin to present with cancers or heart conditions at a more advanced stage. Clearly, that is primarily a health concern, and people should be encouraged to come forward for their well-being, but it will also create greater pressure on the system as more advanced treatments or preventable surgeries are needed. We have been advised that, in deferring elective procedures, the already serious waiting list backlog is now worse, and, again, some people's conditions may have deteriorated to the point where they now need more serious interventions.

The Committee was advised, in April, that financial planning in health and social care (HSC) was likely to remain uncertain for the next three months at least, though additional costs, as I have outlined, are demonstrable. For all those reasons, though the Health Committee has not had a chance to come to a formal view on the Vote on Account, I am sure that Members will welcome extra resource going into the HSC at this time.

I will make a few additional remarks as the Sinn Féin spokesperson for health. The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 crisis has put us in a political space where we must take prompt, effective and necessary action to reduce the virus's impact across our communities. Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, we were faced with significant budgetary pressures brought on by 10 years of Tory austerity that has starved our public services across the board. Our block grant, which in real terms is £360 million below pre-austerity levels, has left us with health, education, infrastructure and other sectors starved of the resources that they so badly need.

The health service is a case in point. Staff shortages, record levels of waiting lists and unaddressed, significant and growing health inequalities across our communities are just some of the challenges that we faced when the Assembly resumed in 2020. As the COVID-19 crisis took hold in our society, it was clear that our health service was ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic. Shortages of the most basic equipment highlighted, in no uncertain terms, that austerity had left us exposed and vulnerable in any emergency. The 'New Decade, New Approach' document raised hopes that we, as a decision-making body, could begin to address the impact of Tory austerity. Sadly, the British Government reneged on many of the promises contained in that agreement, and we are left with public services and a health service that, quite frankly, operate on life support.

The impact of COVID-19 cannot be overstated. Sadly, we have lost loved ones, friends and neighbours. The economic crisis that we face will be significant and perhaps unlike anything that we have ever seen before. We know that the crisis will be exacerbated by the economic and political upheaval of Brexit; a reality brought to us by the worst instincts of British exceptionalism and one that we, as a society, did not vote for.

Thug COVID-19 dúshláin dúinn san am atá romhainn, ach léiríonn sé gur gá dúinn rudaí a dhéanamh ar bhealach difriúil. COVID-19 has presented us with many challenges for the time ahead but it has also shown us that we must do things differently going forward. We must choose a path of economic and social justice. We must build a health service that protects all our citizens from ill health and disease. We must build homes to address the housing crisis. We must address the inequalities that exist all across our society, in health, in education and in opportunity. We must invest in our communities, in our people and in our public services.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I accept the urgency with which the Supply resolution needs to proceed through the Assembly. It is driven by the critical need to secure access to cash for Departments to continue to deliver services in the face of the evolving COVID-19 situation. However, I believe that the challenge that we collectively face is the need to be strategic and coherent as we deal with the worst health and economic crisis that we have ever known. Sadly, I do not believe that the Executive have sufficiently shown the way out of the economic crisis. Yes, it is good that many businesses are being rescued, but we need a plan and I do not see one.

The Executive have gone back to the good old days of ministerial compromises without having a joint approach. The old ways of divvying up the money between the two largest parties have returned, but to what end? We are likely to be out of money very quickly and, perhaps, with limited lasting impact. What exactly are our priorities? Are we clear that there is no going back to normal? I will suggest some priorities. We have a generation of young people who are leaving school, college and university with no jobs to go to. We need a blended skills training and work-based programme that will enhance their skills instead of giving them their first taste of the labour market by being unemployed.

Next is the sustainable infrastructure that must be adapted to the needs of our changed economy and society. We need broadband to be rolled out across all of Northern Ireland. The Department for the Economy has told me that 89% of Northern Ireland has serviceable broadband, but that leaves 11% of properties without good enough broadband. For that 11%, that means the impossibility of working from home and, for many, the impossibility of keeping their job. It means the impossibility of studying from home; it means social isolation and vulnerable people being unable to do home shopping. It has an impact, especially on women who are isolated at home and who continue to take on the majority of caring and parenting roles. We need to ensure that the North has broadband that is fit for the 21st century. We need the fastest possible broadband, delivered at the fastest possible rate to the greatest number of properties and within a reasonable budget.

We also need to accelerate investment in water infrastructure. Reflecting on the Belfast and Derry city deals, that will help to drive our economy out of the deep recession that we are heading into. Without adequate water infrastructure, however, those developments, too, may be slow to provide the growth that we need. We also need to reflect on how our economy and society will be reshaped by coronavirus. The nine-to-five, Monday to Friday office routine has had its time, at least for the moment. That will change how we use our urban centres and our investment strategy.

We need to focus our support on the type of economy that we want to build for the future; that is, the green economy. We need the green new deal. That is the focus of the European Union as it seeks to build its way out of the crisis. It is the focus of many in the Democratic Party in the United States and it is a programme that has won support here from the trade unions, youth movements, employers and many political parties. We need to get on with creating jobs, improving our quality of life, reducing heating costs, improving air quality and cutting carbon emissions. That is our vision for the future.

While we will support the Vote on Account today, there needs to be a greater focus on developing a plan for Northern Ireland.

It is a shame that we have not seen a coherent vision from the Executive. That is now their challenge; that is now our challenge. It is a collective challenge.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP 12:45 pm, 26th May 2020

Whilst recognising that we are not in normal budgetary circumstances, it must be remembered that, under the 2020-21 Budget that was previously announced by the Finance Minister, our health service was left facing a shortfall of £71·6 million against forecast inescapable pressures. The Finance Minister will have been well aware that his Budget allocation of only a number of weeks ago would not have enabled the health service to maintain even existing services. Similarly, his Budget allocation had not granted the Health Department a single additional penny to deliver on the further priorities set out in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document, for which, it was estimated, an additional £169 million was required. Whilst delivering everything contained in New Decade, New Approach was always going to be a long shot, we need to remember what some of the more important pledges were. The requirement included much-needed investment in enhancing and developing services and covered vital funding for enhancing and reforming social care, growing the social care workforce and improving its pay levels, for example. That is something with which, I presume, the Finance Minister still agrees.

In addition, a further £50 million was sought to fund an elective care action plan in order to allow us, as a society, to get to grips with what were already truly abhorrent delays in our waiting times. I dread to think what the length of our waiting lists will have grown to post-COVID. I am aware that the Department of Health has already listed £30 million as an inescapable cost pressure to maintain existing services, specifically to control waiting times for red flag, urgent outpatient assessments and elective treatments that have a direct impact on patient safety and clinical outcomes when diagnosing and treating cancer and other time-critical conditions.

To be clear, the Finance Minister's previous allocation to the Health Department would not have allowed the Health Minister to make any progress on tackling waiting lists. Given the hugely destructive impact that COVID-19 has had on elective care services, can the Minister give a commitment that neither he nor his Department will be found wanting when the Department of Health inevitably seeks the necessary resources to try to repair some of the frightening damage that COVID-19 has inflicted on our already appalling waiting times?

I return to the recently announced mental health action plan, which recognised that there will be a surge in mental health issues post-COVID-19 as we continue to return to normality. Minister, will it be resourced? What will be the level of that financial support?

In the debate, there have been numerous mentions of Tory austerity. We need to place on record that we are grateful to the British Government for the financial help that they have given us as we fight the virus and try to mitigate the impact on our economy. We need to take our blinkers off and recognise that support.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The next Member to speak is Mr Paul Frew.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I was not expecting to be called so soon, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, but I will carry on.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I will have to wing it. Of course, I always wing it, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.

We find ourselves in a completely unique situation. One of the biggest worries that I have is that officials in the Department are out of sync with the normal practices that they have always gone through. We should not forget the fact that, for a long period, there was no Assembly or Executive. Circumstances were not normal to start with, which would have put officials at a disadvantage straightaway. Then the crisis happened; this emergency that we have to deal with. We have tried, since we cranked up the Assembly and Executive, to get into a normal situation where we have a Budget and a Vote on Account. Things were cranking up to normal, and then we were blasted by this emergency. We are left in a position where Departments will run out of money.

This is not normal. As an Executive and Assembly, we have to deal with this surreal problem. I give credit to the officials who have had to work and firefight through this emergency, with all these figures, facts and pressures. I give credit to the Executive, and the Minister, with regard to last week's decision on the rates. It is a game changer. The rates decision means that businesses that were contemplating going out of existence can now survive. It is massive weight off their shoulders. It has to be welcomed, and I take the opportunity to welcome it in this debate. It is a massive thing for businesses.

We have a situation where a number of our critical Departments will run out of money. We have been left in a position where the Department has had to bring a further Vote on Account. We are in a surreal situation. We understand the mechanics of that, and why it is the case. We have no choice but to support this further Vote on Account. However, what really worries me, in this House of scrutiny, is how the money is going out. Out of necessity, it is flooding out the doors to get money on the ground to finance the emergency. Where is the scrutiny, the value for that money? Where is it going? Is it going to service providers and contractors that may not exist to fulfil contracts in the coming months? Is that something that we need to be careful of? What about value for money in purchasing some of the stuff that we have had to acquire? Is it the case that we have had to purchase at above inflationary prices, because the demand is there? How will that information get through to the scrutiny Committees so that informed decisions can be made as to how we move forward and learn lessons?

I do not for a moment suggest that, after this is all over, we look back with rose-tinted glasses, or blinkers, and be critical of Ministers who have had to make fast decisions. I am not saying that. However, I worry about value for money and how the public pound is spent. It is bound to be the case that, when we have excess flows of money in quick time, mistakes will be made. We have to make sure that those mistakes are kept to a minimum and, at the end of it, they do not happen again, if we go to another situation like this.

We should be thankful that we are in the United Kingdom, where we have the capacity to draw down Barnett formula money of £1·2 billion. That has helped and saved our people through this crisis. We would not have had that ability if we were in any other jurisdiction, or on our own. Being in the Union is invaluable. You cannot measure it. It is much more than £1·2 billion: every year, it is much more than that. It is not just about financial or monetary terms. It is about being in the place, the nation of the United Kingdom. This is just one illustration of the capacity and the strength of being in the Union.

Many Members said that we need to get to a point where we are not only fighting the crisis but have a strategy or plan to move forward and recover. I am yet to see that recovery plan. I am yet to see a Budget that is aligned with a Programme for Government that would help with most of those issues, because of the way in which it is written at present. I know that we are talking about another Programme for Government. However, the previous draft Budget was not far off the mark. It was all about making people's lives better and the sorts of things that will be needed in the recovery.

I will mention one thing about the details of the Vote on Account that has worried me since it first appeared. It seems to be the case that everyone — every Department, every arm's-length body and everything in between — will get finance, even when they are not running out of money. It worries me that the only body that will not get money is the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation. I know how it is funded and that it is not the same as the Department. I know that it is not the same as the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission or the Northern Ireland Audit Office. However, the principle remains because those three bodies — the Food Standards Agency, the Assembly Commission and the Audit Office — have all got higher Vote on Account allocations that are not related to the COVID-19 response but rather recognise that their 2020-21 Budget outcomes are higher than their 2019-2020 positions.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Can the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Those bodies have received funding that is not related to the COVID-19 response. Why is it the case that the Utility Regulator is working on 25% of its budget from the previous year and has received no money from the Vote on Account? It seems bizarre to me. I worry about that going forward.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

For someone who was winging it, the Member used plenty of time.

The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I, therefore, propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. When we return, we will continue with this item of business. The next Member to speak will be Ms Karen Mullan.

The debate stood suspended. The sitting was suspended at 12.57 pm.

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

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 2:00 pm, 26th May 2020

Members, we now return to the motion on the Supply Resolution for the Northern Ireland Estimates Further Vote on Account 2020-2021.

Photo of Karen Mullan Karen Mullan Sinn Féin

As has already been pointed out, this is an unusual measure that we are being asked to support today but, without doubt, we must do so. The unusual nature of this measure is reflective of the uncertainty that the COVID crisis has brought with it.

I will take this opportunity to commend the Finance Minister, and my party colleague, Conor Murphy. Since the outset of this crisis, the Minister has fought not only to save lives, but to protect livelihoods. He has also ensured that resources have been made available to assist those most in need. In my role as my party's education spokesperson, that has been entirely evident from his announcements since the return of the Assembly. The Minister increased the level of funding available to the Department of Education by 11% compared with last year. That increase made it possible to resolve the long-standing industrial action by teachers. Significant sums of money have been allocated to special educational needs, an area which has been underfunded in recent years, and which has impacted on some of the most vulnerable in our society. Last week's announcement by the Finance Minister of an additional £4 million made it possible to provide financial support to our substitute teachers who have been left without an income since schools closed.

All of that has been done in the context of a global health pandemic, which brings not only consequences for the health and well-being of our loved ones, but also very difficult economic consequences. I have said it before, but I will say it again: the difficulties we will face will require new and dynamic thinking. The cross-departmental cooperation that has been so successful throughout this crisis must continue. Where opportunities arise and common outcomes can be achieved, we must look at how Departments can share the costs of achieving them. I urge other Members to support today's Vote on Account to ensure that our public services continue to deliver and operate unhindered in what are truly difficult and unprecedented circumstances.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I welcome the opportunity to contribute on the matter before the House. Again, I thank everyone involved in the Assembly's administration throughout the crisis for continuing to provide the structures to allow Assembly business to continue at this time.

I speak as someone who has been a farmer for many years. My remarks today refer to the business of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. On behalf of the Department's staff who work behind the scenes and those who work in the agri-food industry and who rely on the various services offered by the Department, I pay tribute to my colleague the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Edwin Poots, for his efforts to date. The Minister has shown a knowledge and willingness to push forward, and he has been proactive in addressing the concerns of the farming public from a general agricultural perspective. He has also been a leading voice in setting out measures and responses to the current virus crisis in Northern Ireland.

The business before the House today is necessary to ensure that all the various departmental services across Northern Ireland — in some cases they have reduced, in others they have increased — have the necessary budget and authority to continue to operate in the current conditions. I support that determination and, given the new circumstances we find ourselves in, our Finance Department must maintain a very close watch on financial requirements across the structures and respond, as funds allow, to the very changeable environment that we now operate in due to COVID-19.

From both a DAERA and a farming perspective, it is clear that our agri-food industry is very much pushing on through this crisis and that it continues to meet the increasing needs of consumers in Northern Ireland and further afield. That attitude, as I have said previously, is commendable and shows the depth of commitment, purpose and resolve that exists within our agri-food industry, with everyone involved putting their shoulders to the wheel and ensuring the security of our food supplies during this crisis. It is also important that our Departments do likewise and continue to provide the necessary services to enable industries to function. I am pleased that that has been happening and it must continue. Whilst some services within Departments may be on a reduced footing, it is important that structure is maintained and that resources are redirected and best utilised. Where reduced requirements are evident in one element of service delivery, it is vital that resources are directed to where other requirements have increased due to the COVID-19 response.

The issue within DAERA is that, despite the pressure of Coronavirus, the agriculture sector has had to maintain a high output status. Speaking as someone who lives on a farm, operations have had to continue, for example, cows need to be milked, land tended to, crops harvested and so on. That is repeated on every outdoor land farm right across Northern Ireland. Therefore, the Department's backup has had to be in place in these difficult circumstances.

Agri-food production is a very heavily monitored industry with many checks and balances in place to maintain our very high food production standards and traceability. Despite the pandemic, the same level of monitoring must continue. In these difficult days, that will, of course, put a strain on the Department. I know that the Minister is aware of this reality and will respond to pressure proactively, as he has been doing to date.

With regard to the Department's backup, it has been good to see that online facilities made available to farmers have continued to be taken up and, by and large, successfully. That is important and enables payments to be checked and compiled in a structured manner. Staff must be credited for the behind-the-scenes efforts in administrating payments with such efficiency. For instance, with regard to single application forms, it is notable that applications received by this year's deadline exceeded those received last year, proving that, despite the current crisis, farmers were able to navigate the system and complete the applications on time. In a time of crisis, that is an example of farmers taking all reasonable steps to comply and assist the Department. Whilst there was some discussion around the potential need for a deadline extension, that was proven not to have been required, as the application numbers have clearly shown. I commend farmers and those in Northern Ireland who assist with filling in forms for their efforts.

Whilst our Committee business has been somewhat interrupted and made more difficult due to the pandemic and the response to it, I welcome a further opportunity, within the Committee, to debate and discuss the issues of departmental resources. As the demands on Departments are changing so dramatically and the situation remains so fluid, this will be a very challenging time for all Departments within our Administration. As the figures across all Departments show, the costs associated with government are not small and the assistance that has been offered to businesses and families to support people's income is welcome. However, there will be, as suggested by the Chancellor, a significant downside. Pressures in this Administration will, undoubtedly, greatly increase in the years ahead. We must prepare for that reality. In closing, I wish everyone involved in the fight against the virus my best wishes.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

The Supply resolution document shows that, for DAERA, there is an addition £1·5 million available for fisheries support. However, it does not mention the additional funding allocated, as a result of the Finance Minister's statement to the Assembly on 19 May. The statement referenced a further £25 million for the agri-food sector and market intervention and £3·8 million for waste. That was a very welcome allocation by the Minister in response to the challenges faced by our agri-food and horticulture sector as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Committee was aware that DAERA had made a bid for a much larger sum of money. That bid included £105 million for farming and animal welfare, £1 million for rural affairs, £16·7million for waste and £1·3 million for the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI). At the stage that the bid was made, the £1·5 million for fisheries had already been agreed.

The Committee had previously considered the planning assumptions behind the initial bid. We were in broad agreement with those assumptions and indicated our support of the Minister's position. We are aware that the request for agri-food was so big that the funding would probably need to come from London and/or Brussels, and the Committee wrote to the Executive, MPs and the European Commission to indicate our support for the £105 million for agri-food.

The Committee met Minister Poots on Friday 22 May to discuss his plans for the funding. We heard that, while he welcomed the £25 million, he felt that there was no magic bullet and that the funding would not go far given that there are almost 25,000 farmers in the North.

Following on from Mr Irwin's comment on single farm payments, I want to add my commendation to DAERA front-line workers and farm agents across the North. Some 24,494 single farm payment applications were processed by the deadline of 15 May, which is a mighty achievement at any time, never mind in the middle of a COVID pandemic, when farmers and others were isolating due to the crisis. I want to place on record our thanks and commendation for that.

Minister Poots indicated that he was minded, at this point, to allocate roughly £2·5 million to ornamental plant growers and that the remainder would be used to target sectors such as dairy and beef. However, he was clear that that was indicative and that no firm position has yet been taken.

Members of the Committee expressed concern that no funding had been referenced for the lamb and sheep sector. We listened to the Minister’s rationale for that, which was based on the fact that prices appeared to have recovered in that sector. He did, however, note that the entire farming sector is extremely volatile and unstable at the moment and that he has the option of going back to the Executive if further funding were required for any specific sector.

Committee members raised the issue that the funding could be used to compensate those farming businesses that had already successfully applied to other COVID-19 funding business schemes, such as the self-employment income support scheme (SEISS). That is a definite concern for some Committee members, who indicated that they would like to see some of the funding being used for businesses that are falling through the cracks of the other schemes, as they are either not eligible for other support mechanisms or receive so little from them that it is not worth talking about. Members gave the example of the beef and sheep sectors, which have had an average annual income of below £12,000 over the past number of years and would not benefit greatly, at all, from the SEISS. Minister Poots was aware of that issue and indicated that he wanted to ensure that he did not inadvertently overcompensate those who had already availed of COVID-19 business support mechanisms. He said that funding should be directed to those who need it most.

The Minister is hopeful that funding will be released in a matter of weeks and certainly by the summer. He asked the Committee to communicate to him what it considered to be the priorities. The Committee is considering that. We have written to a number of key stakeholders and will get back to the Minister in due course.

The Committee also asked what steps the Minister could take to ensure that the funding did not distort market prices. It is aware that a cash injection of around £25 million to the sectors could have the potential of driving down prices paid by processors to farmers. The Committee was pleased to note that the Minister had considered that matter. Indeed, he referred to previous schemes, such as a payment that is linked to numbers of cattle slaughtered, which had had that effect. Committee members also picked up on issues of how farmers would apply for the funding, how it would be distributed, the timescale for it being paid out and how DAERA might address the issue of fraudulent claims.

From our ongoing scrutiny of the food producers, we are aware that the aquaculture sector was also suffering, so we were pleased to hear that £368,000 had been secured for it, with 80% of that coming from European Maritime and Fisheries Fund.

In conclusion, a further issue that was raised by the Committee was equality screening. We all recognise that the funding should get out quickly to farmers; however, it is important that we do not forget to undertake equality screening to ensure equitable distribution.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

As my colleague has stated, the SDLP is broadly in support of the motion. I just want to make a point to Members across the House, who laud the benefits of the United Kingdom.

It is a political point. We, collectively, pay tax into that pot, and our people across Northern Ireland are entitled to those benefits. It is no handout. It is not given to us; it is an entitlement of all of us collectively. I just wanted to make that point, Mr Deputy Speaker, because, sometimes, it is hard to listen to the political points coming across when we are trying to have a serious debate.

I note the Minister's rationale for choosing 80% of the proportion of the 2020-21 financial position to authorise to this Vote on Account. How confident is the Minister, given that this is only meant to serve the Departments until the end of October, that we are not creating massive financial stress for Departments for the last five months of the financial year? Everyone in the Chamber is aware of the financial stresses that will arise from COVID-19. I am pleased that the Minister has announced the extension of the rates holiday. I am also keenly aware that that announcement means that we have spent more than we have been given in COVID-19 funding. As we know, there are still holes in our support during the crisis, particularly for sole traders and the self-employed, as well as the long process that will be required to allow our hospitality and retail sectors to rebound. How confident is the Minister that, as more funding is required to deal with the crisis, departmental funding approval in this Vote on Account will be enough to secure the budgets until the end of October? Early warnings of spending pressures will be vital to enable us to adapt to fast-moving problems. As the first in-year monitoring round is coming up in June, are there any early warning signs, Minister, that the Departments are concerned about?

Since we got up and running, we have been chasing our tails in the Budget process. We are now about to put a second Bill through by accelerated passage, with the hope of a further Bill being brought to the House in the autumn. How confident is the Minister that we can get ahead of the process to allow the important, high level of scrutiny that needs to take place in the Budget process?

Finally, I will mention the crisis that no one seems to want to mention any more: Brexit. I read a distressing document from the EU Commission that stated that the UK Government — all right, they have moved slightly — are yet to produce even a timescale for delivering the structures necessary to implement the Northern Ireland protocol. I know that there is ring-fenced funding to deal with the EU exit, but, given that we are fast running out of time, can the Minister assure us that that is not another black hole in our Budget that we will need to scramble to deal with in the autumn or wintertime?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance 2:15 pm, 26th May 2020

When I spoke in support of the last Vote on Account on 24 February, I said the following with regard to the forthcoming financial year:

"the challenges in the next financial year ... are going to be significant and should not be underplayed by anyone." — [Official Report (Hansard), 24 February 2020, p38, col 2].

I think we all knew that the challenges would, indeed, be significant. Nobody was predicting that the Departments would require a further Vote on Account just three months on, and nobody was predicting that Northern Ireland would have over 50,000 people unemployed by the end of April and be facing the worst economic downturn in history. In the whole of our sitting on that day, there was not a single reference to the coronavirus that would take and utterly transform so many lives.

My party will support the motion today because those unprecedented circumstances have led to Departments urgently needing additional funding. It is, of course, the right thing to do to ensure that our vital public services can continue to operate. However, it is also extremely concerning that some Departments will effectively have spent around 45% of their budget when we are barely one fifth of the way through the financial year. While we could not have reasonably assumed back in February that there would be a further Vote on Account just three months later, this time around nobody can be unaware of the sheer scale of the financial challenges facing our Departments. A number of Ministers, including the Minister for Infrastructure this morning, have explicitly outlined additional resource pressures to get through this year. At this point, I declare that I was previously an employee of Translink and a member of Ards and North Down Borough Council. I agree with the Chair of the Infrastructure Committee, who talked earlier about the need to ensure that the capital funding that has been allocated to those Departments will flow. However, across Departments, revenue-raising activities have fallen off a cliff, while costs often remain fixed in order to maintain vital services, and furloughing is possible only in a relatively small number of cases.

The additional money allocated by the Finance Minister for COVID-19 from Barnett consequentials has gone some way towards alleviating some of the most urgent front-line pressures, but it will not be enough to cover the gaping structural hole that has opened in some Departments. On that basis, there are two questions that need to be answered before the Assembly votes for the motion. First, we need the Minister of Finance to outline when he expects to get a complete view of the potential financial requirements from all Departments and the assumptions used to get those figures. Some have submitted detailed bids, but others have not. As the Chair of the Finance Committee outlined, we still wait to see a detailed recovery plan. Secondly and, perhaps, even more importantly, we need to know where the money to meet those bids will come from. The UK Chancellor has spoken about devolved Administrations having access to the UK reserve for additional funding. Access to funding from that reserve is a useful tool, but it comes with a repayment requirement and, hence, should not be considered without exhausting all other avenues.

With more spending most definitely required across the UK to deliver the recovery of our economy and public services, especially our health and social care system, future Barnett consequentials are likely but are not guaranteed and nor is the size of those future Barnett consequentials known. Collective representations from the Northern Ireland Executive to Her Majesty's Treasury should, therefore, be a matter of priority to ascertain the scale and timing of any future economic stimulus and support for public services. I worry that we continue under the promise of jam tomorrow. Furthermore, I understand that the Assembly has the ability to borrow up to £200 million a year from the National Loans Fund for non-capital-related purposes. We need clarification of whether that is the case, whether it will be utilised and what strategic benefit will be realised from any borrowing undertaken.

It is the job of the Assembly not only to grant the Executive the legal authority to spend so that Departments can carry out their core functions, particularly in these unprecedented circumstances, but to safeguard the overall finances of Northern Ireland. By voting for the motion, we are doing the former; it is only by getting answers to our questions that we will achieve the latter.

I have two other points to cover. Mr Frew talked about the rate relief announcement that was made last week, and I, too, welcome that. However, we also need to recognise that rate relief on its own will not help businesses get through the forthcoming recession. Much more is required in terms of a more detailed and comprehensive recovery package. Touching on the comments on support for hauliers that were debated earlier today and last week, we understand that the Department for Transport has decided not to proceed with that package. I seek clarification from the Minister of whether the moneys that are already allotted in Northern Ireland can be used to support local hauliers, even though the Department for Transport is not proceeding with that. A number of them are on their knees and are very worried about their future. If we have that money allocated in Northern Ireland, we should be able to use it to help them.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I will revisit issues that are pertinent to us all. As the Member reminded us, we are taxpayers as members of the United Kingdom. However, we also need to remember — there are many in the House who would like to forget — that what we bring in is not sufficient to run all the services that we have in Northern Ireland. If you read the document, you see that 85% of the total spend is as a result of the block grant.

Sometimes it is like going back to primary school: we need to be reminded of the law of first principles.

I declare an interest as a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, because I want to revisit the way in which the finances have been distributed, via the Finance Minister, to the Justice Minister. We find ourselves in a situation where, yet again, we are playing ping-pong. I thought that we had a collective, five-party mandatory coalition and that we were all towing together to work to whatever agreements we came to in order to see them fulfilled. The Minister will recall that I raised with him on the last occasion the funding of additional police officers in 'New Decade, New Approach'. The Minister, on that occasion, said that there were processes and that he had had a discussion with the Justice Minister. Thankfully, I had written to the Justice Minister before I asked the question in the House. I got a reply that was very enlightening for a number of reasons. One, it seems that the Minister of Justice is not really giving priority to the New Decade, New Approach agreement because, in the letter, she said that she had made it clear to the Finance Minister in a meeting that her priority would be the inescapable pressures in the first instance as they related to just standing still and that only once those pressures were met could she consider allocating funding to New Decade, New Approach-related costs. The letter also informs us that the Finance Minister is in receipt of the money that is needed to fulfil the promise made in 'New Decade, New Approach': £40 million per annum. It is not a case of just going out and getting additional police officers and paying them for the first year but not every other year. There are recurring costs that have to be met, and somebody has to pay the bill.

Of course, we notice that money was allocated to the new medical facility in Londonderry: only £15 million. When anyone looks at the current estimates for the running — the capital and the resource — of that project, the cost will be in excess of £30 million. Some people are hanging their hats on the Belfast city deal providing the additional money, but there is no doubt that it will have recurring costs that have to come back to the Executive.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am extremely grateful to the Member for giving way. He was talking about the ongoing costs of the Magee medical school. Does he agree that it would have been great to have the £2 million a year that is being spent on subsidising non-existent flights to north America, something that, I believe, was agreed by a previous Finance Minister who was a member of his party? I presume that he would agree that it would have been much better had we not put that in legislation and were not handing over that money every year.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for the question. I am delighted that he asked it, because his party wanted to sell an asset in relation to planes — the city of Londonderry's airport — and they did not even own it.

A Member:

And the forests.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

And the forests. When it comes to dealing with public finances, the Member and his party have to take into consideration that the faults are not always on somebody else's side.

I come back to this point: I want the Minister to give a clear indication today — not, as the Alliance Member mentioned, jam tomorrow — that money will be allocated to fulfil the promises made and the commitments entered into on additional police officers. There are those who would like the Police Service of Northern Ireland to be run into the ground and be so constrained that would be incapable of dealing with public order and the many challenges that it faces.

Let us remember that for some of those pressures, the shortfall is somewhere in the region of £53 million for issues such as holiday pay, injury awards, estates, body armour, human resources, technology, district policing, custody healthcare and cybercrime. The list goes on. Members will come through the doors of the Chamber and say that these things are very necessary, but then their Finance Minister is not prepared to put up the money to ensure that those are delivered.

In conclusion, I want to raise another area of responsibility that the Minister has. I have raised this with him previously, and I want him to take it away today and look seriously at the operations of CPD. I am not convinced that the Central Procurement Directorate is giving the public sector in Northern Ireland value for money. I declare an interest as a member of the board of governors of two schools in my constituency, Ballymoney High School and William Pinkerton Memorial Primary School in Dervock. Those two schools are subject to rules and regulations that cost them money four times more than if they had the ability to go out and procure in another means. Yet, seemingly, in the world of CPD, you are better spending £10 to be able to justify how you have spent £1. I think that it is long past time that CPD was brought under some financial scrutiny. Are we getting value for money? We are talking about a Budget here. Of course, when it is not your own money, some people seem to think that you can spend it whatever way you like and then give accountability to others to make it very onerous and very challenging. Now that we have, thankfully, set aside some of the procurement rules from Europe, which were nonsensical and, I hope, will never come back, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us how he will deal with the issue of procurement and that it will not be as he dealt with it in regard to the procurement of PPE from China, which never actually transpired.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin 2:30 pm, 26th May 2020

I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of this motion. We are facing an unprecedented health crisis that has affected and will continue to affect all parts of our society. The crisis brings with it massive ramifications that we will be dealing with for the foreseeable future. Of course, before this pandemic, we were already facing considerable financial challenges. Our block grant is £360 million in real terms below pre-austerity levels, and many's the Member across the Floor is denying that there was an austerity period, that there continues to be an austerity period and that we are and have been short of finances. We have had money taken out of this for long and many's the day, and that is why we are in the position that we are in.

I will use the example of Translink, which I know from my role as a member of the Committee for Infrastructure. Before COVID, the Committee had a briefing from Translink, and I also had a private briefing with one of my policy advisers. Translink said that, for the past four years, it has had to dip into its reserves to try to keep it going. If it did not have to dip into its reserves, we would not have had to look at the £30 million package for Translink that the Minister announced last week. I welcome that package, but the fact that that was necessary is part and parcel of some of the denial of some Members.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I do not live in denial: I live in the real world. Going back to this point, if it was your own money, would you spend more than what you had or would you realise that there are some things that you could not do? It seems that the Members opposite have an endless list of things that they want to do until it is something that they agree to and are uncomfortable with, like the additional officers for the PSNI. Then, they are not so keen to find money. It is only when it suits, and maybe the Member needs to realise that we have to cut our cloth accordingly because that is one of the realities that COVID-19 is teaching us all.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

The Member has been here a long time, he is a member of a scrutiny Committee, and he was also a Minister and had to prioritise his own moneys, so he should know better. If the Member is on a Committee, he has an opportunity to scrutinise a Minister properly. The Member keeps saying austerity, austerity, austerity and dismissing it as if it had not happened. We have been cut down for long many a day. The last day that the Member spoke on the Budget, he said exactly the same thing. However, I gave the Member the opportunity to come in.

In the light of the constrained financial position and the austerity measures that I mentioned, I commend the move by the Minister of Finance to allocate an £8·6 million increase in resource funding, as well as a capital allocation of £558 million to DFI. That reflects the flagship status of a number of DFI's capital projects and the priority afforded to infrastructure by the Executive. It is vital that we see progress on those fundamental schemes. I see that Mr Muir has left the Chamber, but he will have a chance, as a member of the Committee for Infrastructure, to scrutinise the Minister and the capital spend. The Deputy Speaker, who is in the Chamber in a different role today, will have a similar opportunity.

As regards COVID-19 funding, I welcome the Finance Minister's announcement of £30 million for public transport. That is on top of the £20 million that was allocated a few weeks ago. That announcement will be welcomed by Translink, as it demonstrates the Minister's recognition of the importance of public transport. Earlier, Mr Allister mentioned the sum of £59 million or £60 million being held centrally for transport issues. I would like to ask the Minister whether concrete proposals have been brought forward to the Executive or whether there have been any enquiries as to how that money will be spent, in the light of conversations that have taken place. It seems to me that the Minister has been getting letters by pigeon, messages in bottles and electronic messages. Recently, instead of Ministers sitting round the ministerial table and having proper discussions with other Ministers, every MLA can write to every Minister. That is the role of MLAs. However, it seems to me that some Ministers take it upon themselves to write letters rather than engage with other Ministers round the ministerial table.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

The Member is speaking in code. I do not have the code book. If the Member is referring to a Minister, could he advise the House and those watching exactly who he is talking about? I have no idea.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

I have asked, on a number of occasions, three or four Ministers on the Floor of the House about funding and support for the taxi industry. What I am saying is that Ministers in the Executive have been communicating through letters. If Ministers want to engage properly in the Executive, they should be in there having conversations. It is up to us as MLAs. We can write to any Minister to request a meeting with any Minister. That is the point that I am making.

Believe it or not, I agree with Mr Allister that the freight industry has been left out of all this. I know that there were conversations with the Treasury in support of the freight industry, but they seem to have fallen through. I know that the sum of £90 million or £95 million was mentioned, although £59 million or £60 million is still being held centrally. Can the Minister comment on those figures?

With that, I support the Vote on Account. I will comment later on the Second Stage.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I want to say a few words about health. It should be emphasised, however, that one thing that the current crisis has shown us is that health is all-encompassing. The impact of the public health emergency is felt across every walk of life and every public service. Never has it been more important to look across the silos and base our spending on outcomes.

The health crisis has enveloped us all. It is well established that the Health and Social Care Board and the Department of Health workforce were already working hard to prepare for the pandemic. As we address the Supplementary Estimates, we may be thankful for their planning and foresight.

The crisis has been shattering enough for us all, but without the pre-existing contingency plans and their dedicated work, it could have been much worse. Our key workers and volunteers who are working across the whole community, with the support of the whole community, have shown a spirit and a determination that has been rightly applauded.

We may note, therefore, that an extra allocation exists to ensure that nurses who had to go on strike, not just for fair pay but, vitally, for safe staffing levels to ensure the welfare of patients, will not be penalised for having done so. Like many in the Chamber, I joined the nurses on the picket lines: not a single one of them wanted to be there, nor should they have needed to be there. In the general scheme of things, the sum of money to achieve that is dwarfed by other mammoth allocations to deal with COVID-19, but it says a lot about what and who we value.

Of course, I am aware that Health accounts for over half of the resource allocation from the block grant. At this moment, we may be thankful that it does. We may also be thankful that another £205 million was allocated to the Department to manage the emerging pressures, with money for vital PPE and, more so, for the workforce. That was alongside nearly £7 million for hospices, the need for which is obvious.

There are also allocations to other Departments, which, in many instances, are no less health-related, in their broadest sense. I await further information about the £15·5 million for charities through the Charities' Fund and how it will be allocated. Inevitably, much of that will fall within the health and well-being sector. There are other vital areas, such as childcare and shielding packages, which may not nominally fall within Health, but are vital to it.

Away from Health, I commend the funding allocation for supply teachers, who had fallen through the cracks in the original plans. Like many others here, my inbox was jam-packed with messages from substitute teachers who were in dire straits, so I very much welcome that allocation.

That takes us on to an area of the pandemic that I feel is often overlooked in the commentary: the implications of lockdown, including grief and suffering due to the scale of loss and the loss of livelihood, about which my colleague Andrew Muir and others have spoken. The implications are vast and have a particular impact on the collective mental well-being. They include the direct psychiatric issues emerging from the separation of family and friends, or even the lack of physical contact, right through to the rising rates of domestic violence and child abuse. Not only will we need to allocate funds to the mental health action plan and champion going forward, but we will need to mainstream mental well-being into everything that we do, including planning Budgets.

I am concerned that, going forward, we will have to seriously consider where we can find extra money to take us through the rest of the financial year and beyond. Do we have borrowing options? Do we need to look at revenue raising? Are there emergency funds that we can access? Should we get serious about cutting the cost of segregation? Most importantly, should we speed up the health transformation process? Those are challenging questions that we cannot shirk as we move through the pandemic.

To conclude, our job here today is to safeguard the finances of Northern Ireland and, most of all, the people of Northern Ireland. We trust that, in voting through the allocations, we are very much helping to do the latter, and that is why we must give them the benefit of the doubt. We will need more detail before we are sure that we are doing the former.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Here we are again, discussing a further Vote on Account. I confess to the House that I do not fully understand why we have not simply moved to Main Estimates. I know that there is fluidity in the situation and that there are lots of unforeseens, but, at the beginning of the month, the Westminster Parliament put through its Main Estimates. It is living in the same fluid environment, so although I have asked the officials at the Committee as to why we too are not proceeding in the regular fashion with Main Estimates, I am frankly not convinced that there is a good answer to that. Perhaps the Minister, when he makes his winding-up speech, can explain why it is that we are drip-feeding, again, through an extension to more interim Estimates.

That brings me to one of my main concerns. We allocated up to 45% of last year's Budget to last to the end of July. It has not lasted. We are now allocating in some cases up to 85% — let us say 80% — of resources to last to the end of October. To the end of October is only seven months of the twelve-month financial year. If we are giving authority to spend 80% of the Budget in the first seven months of the year, what on earth is going to happen in the last five months? Where are we going, in that regard? There is a limit to the size of begging bowl that you can produce.

I really would like to understand why we think that it is rational and right to take what equates to around 80%, in round figures, of our resources and effectively say to Departments that that is their budget just to the end of October. It does not leave much thereafter, and that has to be a major concern, certainly as far as I am concerned.

There are a couple of individual issues that I would like to take the Minister to. One of them has been referred to already in this debate. When I asked him last week about the haulage industry, he said:

I know that part of the transportation money that we had been holding back was in anticipation of a request in that area. That did not emerge, and we went ahead, then, with the allocation to Translink. — [Official Report (Hansard), 19 May 2020, p28, col 2].

This morning, the Infrastructure Minister, when asked about that, talked much about the Department of Transport etc but she then suggested that there was still £59 million of transport money at the centre. Is that correct? Is there is a pot of £59 million labelled "transportation"? If that is so, is there any reason why the local Departments for the Economy and Infrastructure could not come forward with a proposal for the haulage industry to be supported to spend all or a substantial portion of that money? In other words, is that pot of money available? Leaving out the Department of Transport, leaving out the Treasury, is that pot of money available to help the haulage sector, because at this moment in time it seems to be the forgotten key component of our economy? I would like the Minister to elaborate further on that, if he can, because that seems to me to be a very critical issue.

On the Estimates, here we are, for the second time, effectively approving 80% of the spend with very little detail and just with global figures for each Department. There are no spending lines in this. The critical thing about any legislature is that it is the ultimate authority to spend money. The norm would be that you can see where you are spending the money. All that we can see are global figures for each Department. I do not think that that lends itself to either the transparency or the accountability that we should have. If we are going to produce these and a further Budget Bill, could we not at least have spending lines for each Department, so that we could see where the money is going?

Will the Minister confirm to me that by reason of the absence of Main Estimates, no Department legally can spend its own resources that it accumulates? Until the Main Estimates are approved, is it not the case that Departments' own accruing resources cannot be spent? I would like clarification on that.

A final point has been troubling me. As we go through this economic and financial year, there is, by reason of coronavirus, huge demand, but, there must, surely, also be relevant savings in some Departments. There must be some Departments that, because of COVID, are not able to spend all that they anticipated spending. Yet these Estimates, the Budget Bill, will not reflect that at all. The Committee was told, "We will not know that until June monitoring". Would it not be more logical to ascertain that now to see where the savings are that could be redistributed, rather than going forward blindly as to whether there are savings — I do not know whether there are, but I suspect that, across Departments, there must be — and utilise that money so that we do not allocate as much —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 2:45 pm, 26th May 2020

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

— as 80% to 85% for the first seven months? Maybe the Minister will explain that as well.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

Who pays for this crisis will soon be a key dividing line in politics. The Tories and others are already pushing the burden of payment on to ordinary people. The current crisis, broadly speaking, has two ends: the first can be categorised as the immediate health crisis; the second is the deep economic crisis that demands a whole new economic outlook, one that prioritises the interests of working people over those of rich corporations and the wealthy. The period ahead is full of massive uncertainty, but one thing is clear: we cannot return to normal, economically or politically.

The current Vote on Account is a crucial starting point for considering the Assembly's financial position, as is the upcoming Budget. The sentiment that we cannot return to normal has been reiterated around the world. There can be no return to our nurses standing in the freezing cold for months to get the pay that they deserve. There must be an end to the systemic underfunding of the health service to the point at which it is perpetually on the brink and unprepared for whatever crisis is round the corner. There must be an end to bottom-level welfare and the precarious employment contracts that leave too many on the cusp of poverty.

That was the position of my party and socialists before this crisis, but the response in this Chamber and in political chambers around the world has always been that the money is not there. If this crisis has exposed one myth, it is that the magic money tree exists. Suddenly, when big businesses need bailed out, there is a forest of magic money trees. When the likes of Richard Branson needs a bailout, that magic money tree is a whole island. The money has been there all along, and one way that we can get it is through taxation.

It is worth remembering that the two biggest parties in the last Stormont Executive spent the last 10 years begging Westminster for tax powers to give big business a break. For almost a decade, it was a major cornerstone in the economic policy of Sinn Féin and the DUP to ensure that the wealthy paid less in tax contributions. It epitomised the neoliberal economics that helped to bring the current ruin upon us. We have to ask why, as we sit on the brink of another economic crisis, the cornerstone of this Executive's economic policy is not to raise taxes for the rich and fight for an urgent, radical redistribution of wealth across our society, thus ensuring that those who cannot afford to pay are not forced deeper and deeper into poverty. The DUP and Sinn Féin unashamedly begged for tax powers to give the wealthy a break. Why are those in charge here not willing to stick their neck out to give working people a break? Why are the Executive not even considering the use of powers that they have already to lift the caps on rates for the wealthy and high earners, drawing in more money to pay for parts of this crisis, at least?

In reference to earlier comments about the need for us to be thankful to the British Government, public funding is not the British Government's money; it belongs to the taxpayer. It is a result of the labour of the workers who create the wealth in our society. We need much more public funding, and we need wealth to be redistributed generally.

This emergency demands emergency action, but neither this Vote on Account nor the Budget provides that. There is no ambition for a different kind of economic agenda. In my role as one of very few opposition MLAs, I will do my best to scrutinise and to continue to hold to account those who bring this legislation forward.

Take the health service. The big parties in the Executive have spent years implementing Tory cuts to our NHS. This had a very real impact during the crisis, with too few ventilators and intensive care beds, too little personal protective equipment and, with it, no capacity to properly test. Austerity was never an economic necessity, as even right-wing economists will now admit. It was always a political choice and, too often, the big parties in this Chamber went along with that political choice. Because of that, we entered this health crisis with an underfunded NHS and healthcare provision, which undoubtedly impacted negatively on the force of the crisis.

One might hope that there was a lesson here, but, when we look at the projected costs and how they play out in the new Budget to be proposed later today, it is clear that nothing has been learned. In the Budget, for example, much is made of a 6% increase for the Department of Health, which certainly would be promising if it were not for inflation and the fact that we are all living longer, adding to the costs of the health service generally. That means that this is not really an increase in real terms. If anything, it is a repeat of similar baseline austerity budgets. Indeed, as I pointed out in the Health Committee, these projections are predicated on a cut of at least £50 million to health trusts across this region: £50 million from our health service at a time when people are out every Thursday clapping for the NHS. It would be unbelievable if it were not so true to form.

It runs even deeper. It means the Bengoa report, which, behind the doublespeak, is predicated on efficiency savings. It means the continued underfunding of mental health provision at a time when mental health support should be at least doubled to meet the demand that is out there. It means a transport system like Translink continues to be threatened with going to the wall. It means millions for new roads, which will damage our environment through the use of cars, such as £75 million for the A5, and nothing to seriously tackle air pollution or invest properly in public transport. <BR/>Behind the tables and figures of these accounts and the buzzwords contained in the Minister's Budget document, this is the reality of the situation.

The economic model that favours a for-profit system is having a crippling effect on our society. In my constituency, the use of food banks has soared, and unemployment and welfare reform are killing people. Where is the ambition to do better after this crisis? Where is the leadership? Sinn Féin and the DUP spent the guts of 10 years, as I said, begging Westminster to let them cut corporation tax for the wealthy, but not a peep about raising taxes for those who can afford to pay more so that we can provide a better future for our communities.

Finally, I take this opportunity to reiterate my deep concerns about the lack of scrutiny throughout this budgetary process and, indeed, this Vote on Account. I will not labour the point; I only want to say that, in this scenario with a five-party Executive, I do not think it is healthy for all MLAs to endorse the Executive's actions. I will continue to challenge the Executive. Obviously we welcome new moneys and increased spending, but the point is that this Budget does not go far enough to tackle the needs across our society. As a member of the opposition, as a socialist and as someone who has witnessed the very real impact of cuts and callous austerity Budgets on people in my community and across this island, I will continue to oppose what looks set to be another austerity Budget, both in its financial projections and its form. I will continue to use my role to hold the Executive to account.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

As we know, and as many have said in this Chamber, these are extraordinary times, and that is reflected in the Vote on Account proposals before us today. We were due to get the main Budget Estimates for the 2020-21 financial year. It was in my calendar, in fact, until last week. I was looking forward to offering some scrutiny on Budget proposals and departmental priorities, which we have not actually had the chance to do so far. However, because of the spending pressures relating to COVID-19 and the inevitable reallocations between Departments, the Minister and Department of Finance are telling us that it is not possible, and will not be so for another couple of months.

We are told that we will not get the Main Estimates until the autumn, halfway through the financial year. If today's votes are successful, Departments will have already had access to over 80% of the allocations, based on last year's allocations, as well as their COVID resources. What happens then? What happens after the autumn and for the remainder of the financial year? Clearly, the June and September monitoring rounds will be extremely important to monitor what is going on with departmental spending, and I hope that Committees and Members will be given the full details of what we need to scrutinise the spend.

Listening to the Finance Committee last week, I noted that questions were asked about the announcements of rates holidays for certain sectors and from where they were going to be funded. Is there a reliance on the June monitoring round for this business support?

I also wonder whether the Minister can address the fact that the Assembly will not have an opportunity to debate and scrutinise properly the budget allocations for this financial year until we are already halfway through it. Is that a good way of spending public money?

We have not been able to make a proper assessment of departmental pressures, some of which relate to the New Decade, New Approach commitments, because the information supplied prior to the Budget vote on 5 May included so many "TBCs" and "not applicables". We still do not have any clarity on what that means, let alone any clarity on Brexit, which is equally unclear and for which details of what is going on are required. Is this a case of "Spend now and ask questions later", or are the Executive acknowledging here that Departments' spending might be in a mess but they intend to clean it up later on? It would be good to hear from the Minister directly on that point. If, after an unprecedented health crisis, spurring an economic recession, we are in a mess, how will we get our questions answered?

I understand the need to get resources urgently to cash-strapped Departments that are under serious pressure arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. We are in unprecedented times. I understand that many of the budgetary allocations that might have been in place for the start of the year may not be a priority now or come the autumn and that Departments need cash now. We will not stand in the way of that.

We welcome the support granted so far to our businesses, communities and vulnerable individuals, but we know that gaps remain. Many businesses and people in our communities are falling through the very nets that are designed to support them. We need to do more. As the Minister will be aware, we need to support those not eligible for any current fund supplied by Westminster or by the Department for the Economy. Otherwise, many businesses will not reopen after this. We must also be very aware of the continuation of the furlough scheme. Any changes to it must be carefully considered. For example, if the hospitality business — one that I have acute knowledge of — cannot reopen safely, adhering to current social-distancing guidelines and the furlough scheme stops or is significantly altered, we will see mass redundancies, unemployment and closures. That is a fact. I am more than happy to explain to any Members from great personal experience how working in a kitchen, a restaurant or a bar cannot be done safely under the current social-distancing requirements. It is not possible.

Our councils, too, face huge financial pressures and will continue to do so. Much more will need to be done. Many other sectors — those dealing with mental health and support for addiction problems, the community and voluntary sector and so on — required huge resources and financing regardless of COVID, but their situation has now been compounded by it . We are yet to see a comprehensive economic recovery plan. As the Chair of the Finance Committee stated, it is somewhat overdue. I would welcome the Economy Minister attending the Chamber to outline her plan. We will need to know what it is so that funding can be allocated, but we also need to know what the document looks like. Will we get to see it, let alone scrutinise it? I reiterate: the economic recovery must be a green recovery. It must be a just transition for our people, our economy and our society. I am glad to hear the need for a green new deal being raised in the Chamber again today. It was stated, however, that many political parties supported it. All the Executive parties supported a green new deal in 2011, but, despite commitments, no strategy was adopted and no resource allocated. Those are the same Executive parties as are in office today.

Higher government borrowing is also spurring public fears of a new age of austerity in which public services suffer as a result of fiscal restraint that is justified by the COVID response. What assurances can the Minister provide to the House and to the general public that that will not be the case in Northern Ireland? Some in Westminster may have given assurances that austerity is off the table, but how much austerity can be avoided is uncertain without a plan. The Minister, after being asked on the radio this morning about the pending recession, stated that it would be severe for Northern Ireland, but how do we know that the Executive's approach to the problems is the best one? We do not have any of the details here. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister what other options were considered and what his expectations are come the autumn.

I look forward to the debate on the second Budget Bill, during which there may be greater opportunities to discuss the allocations, the allocations to other budgets and what is missing. I know that the Minister appreciates Members' feedback, but there needs to be a plan, with ideas and solutions for moving forward behind it, and that plan should be to build back better through a green, just recovery.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP 3:00 pm, 26th May 2020

First, I apologise for my late entry to the Chamber. It was not my intention to speak, but I was listening and watching upstairs in my room, and I was struck by remarks made by my good friend Mr Catney. He talked about how it does not matter whether you are a loyalist, a unionist, a republican, a nationalist or none of the above: if you are earning, you are paying tax and are therefore entitled to have access to our public services, and benefits are an entitlement. I get that very much. Indeed, I agree with him, but I hope that he would also agree with me that, traditionally, a weakness in our economy is that we contribute less to the Treasury than the Treasury gives us by way of the annual subvention that we call the block grant. In the same way, we were net beneficiaries of European Union moneys, and we have come out of the European Union with no guarantee that those moneys will be matched by the UK Treasury, never mind that we will be better off.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. The debate goes back and forth, but, just as a point of clarity, the block grant does not represent the subvention for Northern Ireland — i.e. the gap between revenue raised in Northern Ireland and expenditure here. That is not what the block grant is. That is a different calculation, as it were. That is the amount of resource that the Executive have to spend every year.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I take the Member's point, but he will agree that the broad principle is that we contribute less than we get back. I will come to that again in a moment.

In terms of what the Minister does with the Budget, in my 10 years in the House and particularly in my five years leading the Ulster Unionist Party into repeated negotiations with the UK Government, it seemed to me that we were focused entirely on a dependency culture where we saying, "We need more", whereas I would like to see us switching to a prosperity agenda where we say, "Give us the tools for us to generate more". I am old enough to remember Harold Wilson, as Prime Minister — I think that it was in 1974 — calling us "spongers". On my wall upstairs, where I was watching the debate, I have a copy of a speech that the late Harold McCusker made in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. He talks about spongers:

"I have heard variations on the sponger theme."

As he goes on to say, we received £1·5 billion from the Treasury, 35 years ago. Today, it is £12 billion. The question has to be this: has our tax take gone up eightfold in the last 35 years? If it has not, what are we doing to generate more wealth, more prosperity and, therefore, more tax?

I just wanted to make briefly this point: yes, we have to protect our vulnerable; yes, we need to look after those who are dependent; and, yes, the welfare state is an entitlement. I prefer the term "entitlement" to "benefit". As well as that, surely, we must have a focus on reforming our public services in education and in health. Let us think about the many people who woke up today with poor mental health, with no sense of purpose in their life, unable to go to work and taking entitlements not because they want to but because they do not have the capacity to do anything else. Yes, we need money to transform our public services, but I also urge the Minister to have a focus on using money to create a prosperity agenda so that we become less dependent on the Treasury and more self-sufficient.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. I listen to the tone of the debate, and we are all in this together. That means those of us who were more fortunate and were able to make a good living out of the economy here through the Troubles. We need to realign our economy as well. When we come out of the pandemic, there will be opportunities to reboot the economy. I agree with the Member who talked about the hospitality sector. That sector is not stand-alone; it is key to the economy of the whole of the North of Ireland. If it goes down, tourism is down, hotels are down and thousands of jobs go with them. The point for Mr Nesbitt is that we are all in this together, and we need to shoulder the responsibility. Some of us are lucky. We are lucky that we can play —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I remind Members that interventions should be brief.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I agree with the Member. I remember him famously saying in the House that, as a publican, all he was concerned about at the end of the day was what was in the till. We should be concerned, metaphorically, about what, at the end of the day, is in the till for our citizens when it comes to their prosperity, their physical and mental health and whether we have created a society that is fair and equitable and in which, they feel, they have a fair shot. To do that, I firmly believe, we need a prosperity agenda, and I recommend it to the Minister.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Minister will have up to 28 minutes to make his winding-up speech on the motion.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I know that Supply resolution debates can often cover many aspects that do not always relate to the Bill that is being considered. On this occasion, however, for all of us, the background of the COVID-19 emergency has helped to focus most, if not all, minds on the importance of the public expenditure decisions that have to be taken in this place. A range of points have been made in the debate, and I remind Members that this could be considered in broad terms to be the third Budget debate in which I have spoken in the last number of months.

I continue to recognise that what we are doing here is not ideal. We started with the ability to produce a proper Budget, given the fact that we were only back into the place in mid-January, with the difficulties that that presented. The area that we wished to get to, in broader budgetary terms, was a multi-annual Budget, given the spending review that is due to take place — that remains to be seen in Westminster over the course of this year with the possibility of a second Budget there in the autumn — with the ability to get to a broader, longer-term budgetary position. That would give people much more scrutiny and advance sight of spending down the line and an ability to assist in shaping that coalescence with our Programme for Government and the priorities that are set by the Executive and the Assembly.

On top of all that, the COVID issue has created huge uncertainty around how staff will be able to work and the additional spend that came our way, which had to be put together very quickly to get a response out on the ground. That had to be undertaken at a pace and a frequency to which, perhaps, the Civil Service and, certainly, the Assembly, were not used. That was done with only a small number of civil servants being readily available to us, with others working remotely, and that has proved to be a significant challenge.

Nonetheless, I accept readily that what we are doing here, given that the main function of most Members is scrutiny as well as involving themselves in legislation and all of the other work that MLAs do, is not ideal. It is my strong desire to get back to a more normal budgetary cycle in which we can have advance sight and debate and full and proper scrutiny of all of the spending lines that Departments produce, with a chance to vote on those and to democratically decide how the Budget goes.

I thank the Committee Chairs for their contribution. They have, in the main, outlined the pressures and issues facing their Committees. I thank the Chair of the Finance Committee for his recognition of the need to extend the Vote on Account. I accept that we must also look to funding opportunities to support economic recovery. I can advise the Chair that the Department is looking at all the available options for resource and capital funding. As the Chair mentioned, the capital options include the use of the RRI borrowing and investment fund. The issue of borrowing was mentioned by others including, I think, Andrew Muir. Of course, the Executive have borrowed in the past and are paying off borrowing, which does not come without a cost attached to it. Therefore, in the uncertain financial circumstances in which we find ourselves, that is something that needs to be very carefully considered indeed.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for giving way. He is right that that comes at a cost, but will he acknowledge that borrowing costs for the UK Government — indeed, for all Governments at the moment — are at historic lows? For the first time, the UK bond yield has passed into negative territory, which implies that we should give it a good, hard look. It is cheaper now than ever to borrow to invest.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 3:15 pm, 26th May 2020

Yes, I accept that, and that is why I outlined that we will look at all options in relation to that. That is the case, but we are paying off loans that were secured at a higher rate and so we have to look at the ongoing cost to the Executive's finances as a consequence of that.

There were a number of questions on my opening remarks about the risk of Departments running out of cash. That does not mean that Departments have spent a full year's budget. To be clear, Departments are continuing to operate within the budgets that the Executive have agreed for them, but it means that some Departments are getting close to spending 45% of the Vote on Account that the Assembly approved in the Budget Act in March. That Vote on Account was intended to last Departments until the end of July, but, because of the extra expenditure that the Executive agreed in response to COVID-19, for some Departments, the 45% Vote on Account will not be sufficient to last until the end of July hence the need for a further Vote on Account now.

There were a number of questions about transportation money for COVID-19. This crosses a number of Members' questions and I will try to answer them all in the same response. Somewhere in the region of £95 million was allocated as a consequence of transportation money spent in Britain. Most Members will know that that comes across as a Barnett consequential, although we are not restricted to using Barnett consequentials in the same area for which they are allocated to us. They are not hypothecated in that way, and so it is a matter for the Executive to decide whether to spend it in that regard. Nonetheless, the Executive agreed to set aside that COVID money to consider transportation needs, and, under that package, we considered the needs of the airports and the ports and we will consider the needs of the freight industry and the haulage industry, which others have mentioned. There was a delay in allocating that money until we heard the conclusion of the discussion between the Department of Transport, the Treasury, the Department for Infrastructure here and, I think, the Department for the Economy. As I correctly advised the Assembly last week, I was informed that there was no case for that and, therefore, funding would not be allocated under that area, so I then went ahead with the allocation to Translink. I remind Members that that £30 million allocation comes on the back of a £20 million allocation as part of the Budget in March. Within two months, Translink has been allocated £50 million. I appreciate very much the difficulties that it and all our public services are facing.

Mr Allister asked whether there is a possibility that the Department for Infrastructure and the Department for the Economy locally could bring together a plan to support the haulage industry. There is no reason why they cannot come forward to the Executive with a proposition. As my colleague across the way will know, the Department of Finance can only deal — I will get on to his matters in relation to the PSNI and the Justice Department — with propositions that are brought to it. I cannot reach into a Department and decide, "You need money and here is how it shall be spent". If Departments wish to engage with any sectoral interest that they individually — or, perhaps, collectively in the case of a number of Departments — have, bring forward a costed proposition to the Executive and make a bid for allocation from the Executive, they can do that. Bear in mind that, in the last allocation, we went substantially to the end of the COVID money that was available, but that does not stop a Department or Departments coming forward collectively with a bid. The Executive will then decide whether that bid is worthy of support. The same rationale applies to other issues, which, as I say, I will come back to.

We are very much aware of the situation with Translink. As I say, in relation to broader issues of ongoing support for various sectoral interests, be they Economy, Infrastructure or a crossover between the two, it is, of course, up to those Ministers to either work together or allocate the responsibility to one or other Department and take forward a proposition. I assure you that such a proposition will get a fair hearing in the Department of Finance, but it will then become a matter for the Executive to decide whether to support such an allocation.


I will give way to the Member.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

To be absolutely clear, is the Minister saying that there is still a £59 million pot for transportation that is not earmarked for anything else at the moment, so if Economy and Infrastructure get their act together, there is no reason why the haulage industry could not be helped?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Almost £60 million remains of the £95 million that was being held centrally. When I made the first statement, I said that that was unhypothecated — the Executive do not have to use that for transport. They could choose to use it for something else that they consider to be a bigger pressure at the time. Our recent allocations by way of rates relief interventions to broadly support businesses have had a significant cost to the Executive and, of course, we will have to assess what is left, if anything, from the money that is coming through the business support grants. The Executive have to take those considerations in the round rather than allocating support to Departments in a piecemeal manner. We try to do it in stages. We assess a range of allocations together so that we can have some kind of oversight and a more strategic approach to all of that. He is correct in that £59 million of that £95 million has not gone to transportation issues. It is possible for Ministers to bring forward bids for that, but it is also possible for the Executive to decide to allocate that to another area.

There were questions in relation to the shortfall of the capital budget, generally. Again, I think it was the Chair of the Infrastructure Committee who raised that. In the most recent Budget, aside from the COVID allocations, the Infrastructure Department received over £500 million to prioritise its capital programme. That is almost 40% of the entire capital allocation available to all Departments. With that allocation, the Executive have prioritised funding for such flagship schemes as the A5, the A6 and the Belfast transport hub. There is, therefore, no shortfall of funding in those schemes.

I will go through some of the other points that were made. There is a general theme in all of this which I find amusing, and I refer back to Mr Storey's comments about us all being in the five-party Executive together: when people are disappointed with their bids, it is either me on my own, or me and the Minister responsible who are found to be responsible for those things not happening. I know that there are new Members here, but everybody here knows how the Executive work. Bids are brought forward as part of a package. When Ministers support those bids, it means they reject other bids as part of the package. Therefore five parties agree these things. The Chair of the Infrastructure Committee made reference to community transport as if it was purely the responsibility of the Department for Infrastructure and the Department of Finance. It is not. If there is a bid under COVID money, or anything else, for funding for community transport, or any other area, it is an Executive bid, and, collectively, the Executive will decide how it is done.

In that regard, I was disappointed and slightly surprised by Sinead McLaughlin's remarks that the Executive are back to divvying up money between the two big parties. It is patently untrue, even on a cursory examination, that the Executive are divvying up COVID money in relation to the two big parties. The Department of Health got the second largest allocation of all of the COVID money that we received. The Department of Health belongs to the Ulster Unionist Party, not to the DUP or Sinn Féin. There is no divvying up between the two big parties. I go back to my point: the propositions are brought to the Executive. Only one Minister — it was not hers — objected to some of the allocations. The Executive have agreed every other allocation of funding that has been made to date. In agreeing the allocation of funding, they also agree to reject the bids that are unmet. I am not sure if that narrative is about playing at being in the Executive and in the opposition at the same time, or if it is some kind of scene-setting for an exit strategy at some stage, but it is transparently untrue. Regardless of the reason, it should be done on the basis of honesty. It is not right to throw out a cliché about the two big parties divvying up the money between them. Even a cursory examination of the allocations that have been made to date shows that to be untrue.

There is also the idea that we do not have any joined-up plans. The five parties of the Executive worked for some time, and there were disagreements on how we would manage this crisis; that was evident. However, we worked through and reached an eventual agreement on a recovery plan to move us out of the lockdown. I am sure that I am not mistaken, but my sense is that that plan has got widespread approval from the public. Most people have commented that it is a sensible plan. That is a joined-up plan.

A number of Members mentioned the economic recovery plan. The economic recovery plan was sent to the Executive last, I think, Wednesday evening. The Executive meeting was to happen on Thursday morning. The plan was detailed and lengthy. In order to give Ministers, including Ministers from the smaller parties, a chance to properly study that recovery plan and provide commentary on it, rather than receiving it maybe less than 12 hours before the Executive meeting, we decided to put it off until the next available Executive meeting, which happens to be this Thursday.

The conspiracy theories around these things do not stack up. If the economic recovery plan had arrived on Wednesday evening, and been adopted by the Executive on Thursday morning, I am sure that that approach would have been correctly criticised. Therefore, the economic recovery plan will be discussed at Thursday's Executive, and we will attempt to reach an agreement on it. The characterisation of "divvying up by the two large parties" uses all the clichés of a number of years ago. I am not sure what the point is of trying to revisit that at this stage. I assure you that the money is being given out in a fair way, because the priorities that the Executive set themselves are being met. The central priority of the COVID money was to assist the health and economic crises and to protect vulnerable people. If Members look across the range of allocations for that COVID money, they will find that, by and large, that is how it was met. It did not matter which party owned the Department or what the responsibility was: that is what the Executive agreed, and that is how the money has been allocated.

Alan Chambers went on to criticise the fact that the Health Department did not have enough money to begin with. That is quite true. We have had nine years of austerity, brought in by the David Cameron-led Government. He may remember the position that his party adopted to secure a David Cameron-led Government, which was to offer its full support. These issues are the consequence of that. In a remarkable act of self-denial, he asked us to "take our blinkers off" and recognise that we got all this money from the British Government. We have had nine years of austerity, and that is why we needed a lockdown. It is because we have a Health Department that is not able to cope with a significant health crisis. It has been underfunded for years.

Mr Chambers then asked about the projects that did not materialise from the NDNA money. Again, we negotiated that in good faith with the British Government, and the first act that they did, when we reached agreement on the 'New Decade, New Approach' document and put the Executive back in place, was to withdraw the financial offer that they had made. That is why we are facing these financial difficulties.

On the one hand, you cannot laud the behaviour of such a Government, which you are quite entitled to do, then berate us for the place in which we find ourselves.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I accept that he makes those points about the Cameron Government. Does he not accept that, in the health service's ability to handle the crisis, there is an issue regarding a former Health Minister, who sits on those Benches, who did not do all that she could, and was advised to do, in preparing for a pandemic?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

It does not get away from the central point that the Health Department has been underfunded for a significant number of years and austerity has had its impact on that. On the one hand, you cannot support parties in Westminster, be it the previous Conservative Government or the last and current Conservative Governments, and then bemoan the outcome of those policies.

I will take some of the specific questions that were asked. Paul Frew asked about the Utility Regulator. The previous Vote on Account, already provided by the Budget Act 2020, provides the Utility Regulator with 90% of the total funding that it is due to receive from Government. No further pressure has been identified by the Utility Regulator. The Utility Regulator receives only a small proportion of its funding from Government. The majority of the funds that it needs to carry out its work are obtained through the fees that it charges to the electricity, gas and water industries that it regulates. If there are any pressures facing the Utility Regulator, there will be an opportunity to bid for them in the June monitoring round, and those can be considered by the Executive. However, we are not aware of any pressures that have been raised to date by the Utility Regulator.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I am puzzled by that percentage. I might well be wrong but, looking at the figures in front of me, I want to know how the Minister gets to 90% with the information to hand. It seems to be that, last year, it was sitting at 25%. How does that go from 25% last year to 90% this year? I know that there is a difference between resource and cash. Can the Minister enlighten me?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The Member raised that question at Committee, and officials gave him an explanation.

If he wishes, I can ask officials to write to him to reiterate the explanation that was given to him previously.

Members raised a number of other issues. I have tried to address them in a general sense with regard to funding for Infrastructure and other issues. Mervyn Storey raised, once again, the issue of PSNI funding. Having been a Finance Minister, he knows all too well that I can respond only to bids that are made to me. If no bid is made, I cannot respond. As far as I am concerned, no bid has been made in relation to increased recruitment. As he mentioned, I had a conversation with the Justice Minister, as I did with all Executive colleagues individually in the run-up to setting the Budget. I have not dealt with any bid in relation to that.

Of course, with regard to the setting the Budget, he also knows that the Executive approve it, and so does the Assembly. That is where that lies. I know that he likes a bit of cut and thrust backwards and forwards across the Chamber with some of my colleagues, but to try to dress that up in some way as political opposition to the outcome of that spend is unfair because I have no issue with an increase. It was an NDNA commitment to which we signed up. I have no difficulty, and Sinn Féin has no difficulty, with standing over the commitments to which we signed up. Therefore, I assure the Member that support for the funding of that issue is not a matter of any political disagreement or reticence.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 3:30 pm, 26th May 2020

I thank the Minister for giving way. It goes back to that territory of, "It is not my responsibility: I am waiting on those bids to come in". It is clear from what the Minister of Justice has said that she is not prioritising the additional police officers. She is working on other pressures. There are strategic outline cases. Some of them are, now, moving to business cases, which is some progress. My central point is this: a deal is a deal. If it said that there would be a medical school, and, on the opposite page, said that there would be additional police officers to bring the total to 7,500, that, to me, is a deal. It is not about waiting for a business case. It leads to the question: what was the process to remove the medical school from the Department for the Economy and the Department of Health and move it to the Executive Office? Why did that happen, given the fact that responsibility for the delivery of that project lay primarily in those two Departments?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

First, in relation to the PSNI bid and the Member's view that it was part of a deal — I am conscious that this is my clock here, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I will endeavour to be quick — if it was part of a deal, it is not the responsibility of the Finance Minister to go in and demand that the Justice Minister brings forward a proposition. There is a party leaders' forum, which, I think, was set up as a consequence of NDNA in order to discuss issues that might be outside the day-to-day workings of Departments. If there is an argument that that commitment is not being met, I suggest to the Member that that is the area in which to raise it and, hopefully, then secure an agreement. I am more than happy to play my part in that.

With regard to the Magee campus and Ulster University situation, there was a time pressure on agreements that needed to be made about matched funding of the inclusive future fund and also about the intake for the graduate-entry medical school. There was a lack of agreement between both Departments on which one would have lead responsibility for that. In those circumstances, correctly, the Executive Office and the offices of the First Minister and deputy First Minister stepped in to try to arbitrate and find a way through that. That is how it ended up in that Department.

I will try to conclude as quickly as I can. The issue of taxis was raised in the general sense with regard to the freight industry and haulage. Again, I want to say that I have had no proposition or costed case put to me at all. Executive colleagues raise the difficulties that their various sectors have at every single meeting. Sometimes, they write to each other about the difficulties that their various sectors have. However, when somebody wants an issue to be addressed, they bring forward a costed proposition to do so. That is how the sub-teachers' issue was dealt with. The issue with the agriculture industry was dealt with because the Agriculture Minister brought forward a proposition. That is how the charities issue was dealt with by the Communities Minister.

I am not precious about who decides that it is their policy area, but it is certainly not the policy area of the Department of Finance. Whether it is Infrastructure, Economy or a combination of both, no one has yet brought forward a proposition on how to deal with taxi drivers. I have seen plenty written and said about it, but I have not had any proposition, nor have the Executive the ability to consider anything. As I say, letters and emails come into the Executive all the time saying, "We have problems with this and problems with that", but that does not amount to a solution or a proposition for how to deal with it. If people want it dealt with, Executive colleagues know how to bring forward such a proposition.

Briefly, Jim Allister raised a couple of points about the Main Estimates. I explained at the beginning of the debate that it was impossible to produce a Main Estimates document of the Executive's up-to-date expenditure plans because the Executive have been constantly reacting to the emerging COVID-19 situation. I announced the most recent allocations last Tuesday. If we had tried to write a document of the Executive's expenditure plans, it would have been out of date before it could be produced, and that is also why the Vote on Account cannot contain the level of detail that would be in a Main Estimates document. Clearly, I have committed to taking a Main Estimates document early in the autumn.

He also asked about what happens when we reach October and we have accessed up to 80% of our Vote on Account. As I said, we will bring the Main Estimates and an associated Budget Bill to the Assembly by the early autumn, and that will allow access to all available cash and to receipts accruing resources that are not available at the present time. I remind the Member that we have further spring Supplementary Estimates before the end of the final year to allow for further monitoring rounds that will take place throughout the year.

A number of other points were made. Mr Carroll raised the issue of taxes, and I remind him that we do not have the sort of taxation powers that he berates us for not using. When he refers to this as a new Budget, it clearly is not a new Budget; it is just an extension of an existing Vote on Account. I heard the litany of grievances that he raised, and I agree with many of the grievances that people find themselves talking about, but simply rehearsing those in every speech that he makes here does not provide any solutions. If he wants to hold us to account and to assist us in trying to provide solutions, which we are doing on a daily basis, for people who need them most, perhaps his contributions could be more constructive than simply rehearsing them, otherwise it is simply rhetoric.

Rachel Woods asked some questions about the furlough scheme in the hospitality sector. Clearly, we understand the issues that the hospitality sector is going through. The furlough scheme is extended to October, which is welcome, but we have no certainty from August through to October at what level the employer contribution will be, and that will have a real impact, particularly for those people who work in that sector, which is largely low paid and casual. That is why we included the hospitality sector for the rates extension till the end of the year.

To conclude, I completely agree with Mike Nesbitt about a prosperity agenda as opposed to a dependency culture. The argument about the subvention is the extent of it. Some people would have told us a few years ago that it was £10 billion, and in a recent answer that I was given by the Department, I was told that it was closer to £3 billion. Nonetheless, that tells us about the gap that we have to close, and I would prefer that we closed that gap through our own efforts.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank you and the Finance Committee for the agreement to take the legislation, which will follow by accelerated passage. I will draw my remarks to a conclusion. I commend the further Vote on Account for 2020-21 and ask Members to support the motion.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that this motion requires cross-community support.

Question put.

Some Members:


Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I think the Ayes have it. As I am hearing Ayes from all sides of the House and no dissenting Noes, I am satisfied that the necessary cross-community support has been demonstrated. If Members wish to disagree, please repeat your opposition.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

If that is still a No, for information, Members, you should continue to dissent if you wish to have a vote, and I will respect that on this occasion, as I should, so clear the Lobbies. The Question will be put in three minutes. I remind Members that they should continue to uphold social distancing and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 3:45 pm, 26th May 2020

Order, Members. Will Members resume their seats?

Before I put the Question, I again remind Members that, if possible, it would be preferable if we did not have a Division. Previously, Mr Carroll indicated his opposition, but I will put the Question again.

Question put a second time and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £8,225,189,000, 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 £9,050,940,000, 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 column 4 of table 1, and column 4 of table 2, in the Northern Ireland Estimates Further Vote on Account 2020-2021 that was laid before the Assembly on 20 May 2020.