Public Expenditure: 2019-2020 Provisional Out-turn, 2020-21 June Monitoring Round and COVID-19 Reprioritisation

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

The first point of order is, welcome back. Thank you for coming back, as well.

Standing Order 18A(3), states:

"The written copy, whether or not embargoed, shall not be given to members of the news media before it is made available to members".

At 10.45 am, I, as Chair of the Finance Committee, and other members of the Committee were given information about the Minister's statement. However, the news media, at 6.00 am, were reporting items of the statement verbatim. There seems now to be a habit among members of the Executive of leaking information to the press before the Assembly has had it. I would like you to ask the Speaker to make a ruling to inform Ministers of the correct procedures in following Standing Orders.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I thank the Member for his valid point. It can be construed as a discourtesy to the House. Statements should be made to the House before their contents are given to the press. I will ask the Speaker's Office to write to him to make clear that that is what is expected from Ministers.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I welcome that.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that in the light of social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members have to make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to ask a question or be called but they can do that by rising in their place as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Table directly. I again remind Members — yes, I have been away, but I will return to an old trope — to be concise in asking their question. This is not an opportunity for debate, and long introductions to questions will not be allowed.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I join with the Chair of the Finance Committee in welcoming you back. It is good to see you back in the Chair.

The monitoring round is usually the method by which Departments can return underspends for their reallocation, identify pressures and manage their budgets. The first monitoring round of 2020-21 has taken on a new significance as the Executive respond to the evolving COVID-19 situation.

Before turning to the current year, I want to update the Assembly on the 2019-2020 provisional out-turn position. The provisional out-turn position provides an indication of departmental budget management during the last financial year, and determines the amount of funding that the Executive can carry forward. The end of the 2019-2020 financial year saw the emergence of COVID-19. Excluding the pressures introduced as part of the COVID-19 response, underspends of £25 million resource DEL and £103·1 million capital DEL have been reported by Departments.

In resource DEL, an overspend has been reported by the Department of Education. While significantly less than reported last year, my officials continue to raise concerns with their Education counterparts. The Department for Infrastructure reported an overspend due to a shortfall in income as a result of COVID-19 and increased expenditure on PPE.

In capital DEL, the underspend reported comprises £102·9 million conventional and £0·2 million financial transactions capital (FTC). The most significant capital underspend is reported by the Department of Health — £48·1 million of that relates to the Encompass digital investment project. The contract for that large-scale digital investment programme was to be signed in 2019-2020. However, the Department carried out additional due diligence, delaying the signing until 2020-21.

The Department for Communities reported a significant underspend of £24 million, which relates to the new-build housing programme. That underspend, along with many other elements of underspend reported by Departments, is due to the impact of COVID-19 on capital programmes, with interrupted supply chains, site closures and planning or legal delays.

The devolved Administrations can access a limited amount of previous years' underspend through the Treasury's budget exchange scheme. The underspend that the Executive can access in the following year is calculated at block level, meaning that changes in regional rates, income and reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) interest payments compared to the level forecast must also be taken into account. Taken together, the total carried forward in resource DEL is £28·4 million. In conventional capital DEL, while the total underspend is £101·6 million, the limit on the amount that I can now plan to carry forward is £21·2 million. I am in discussion with the Treasury about additional flexibility that can apply to the exceptional level of underspend related to the impact of COVID-19.

Moving on to ring-fenced financial transactions capital, Members will recall that we finished last year with £91·8 million unallocated. Adding to the small departmental underspend of £0·2 million, that figure results in a total underspend of £92 million. The budget exchange scheme provides the potential to carry forward £20 million of the underspend to the 2020-21 financial year, meaning that £72 million will not be used. Work is ongoing with Departments and the Strategic Investment Board (SIB) to identify the barriers that currently prevent the Executive from fully utilising the financial transactions capital funding available.

Turning to the current year, the challenge of responding to COVID-19 has meant that the June monitoring round has operated differently from that in previous years. One fact that remains is that we face significant pressures with limited funding available to address them. The top-line figures are that £139·9 million resource DEL and £66·4 million capital DEL and £200·1 million financial transactions capital DEL are available to address the more routine pressures and those arising as a result of COVID-19.

I want to provide some details of the available funding, in addition to the budget exchange amounts already mentioned. Since I announced the Budget 2020-21 outcome in the Chamber, Barnett consequentials due to the Executive for non-COVID-19 measures have been increased by £3·4 million resource DEL, £6·4 million capital DEL and £0·2 million for FTC. Since the announcement of COVID-19 support measures, on 19 May, additional funding has been made available by the Treasury for COVID-19 measures, totalling £190·8 million and £3·1 million capital DEL. Adjustments to forecast regional rate income and RRI interest requirements has resulted in £10·8 million resource DEL becoming available for allocation.

The Treasury has now confirmed that funding for confidence and supply will be available in 2020-21, and, as a result, £15 million capital DEL funding that I set aside in the Budget is now available for allocation. I will continue to seek a commitment to the outstanding £195 million in confidence and supply funding.

Changes to a number of central items have had a minor impact on the funding available, reducing resource DEL by £0·1 million and capital DEL by £5·1 million.

Reduced requirements come to £2·9 million resource DEL, largely due to COVID-19 delaying the recruitment of staff, and £33·5 million capital DEL. Adjusting the capital DEL for the Irish Government's contribution to the A5 means that £25·8 million capital DEL is available for reallocation. Full details are included in the tables provided with this statement.

Members will recall that, in May, I announced a significant package of COVID-19 response measures, and, as a result, over £1 billion of resource DEL has been allocated to Departments. Those allocations included £4 million for substitute teachers. DE has reported that uptake of that initiative has been less than anticipated and can be managed from within its existing budget. DE has therefore returned the £4 million resource DEL for reallocation. The Department of Justice returned £0·75 million of the £1·6 million allocated for the temporary resting place.

When I announced the package of business rate support measures in the Executive's COVID-19 response, I highlighted that the cost exceeded the funding available. In this monitoring round, I am addressing that issue by providing the additional £97·7 million required to address that shortfall, as well as the latest cost assessment of that support.

Before I turn to the allocations that I am making today, I want to update Members on the COVID-19 reprioritisation exercise that has been completed by all Departments. In response to the challenges of the pandemic, Departments have been able to reprioritise over £140 million of existing budgets to address COVID-19 pressures. I will keep that position under review and encourage Departments to continue to find ways of addressing their internal pressures.

When I announced the Executive's response to COVID-19 in May, I provided Members with an update on how the Executive are using the £95 million that was set aside to support the transport sector. Alongside support for ferry operators and airports, I allocated £30 million to the Department for Infrastructure for loss of income and particular pressures in Translink. From the remaining funding that was set aside, I am now allocating a further £30 million to the Department for Infrastructure to offset lost income, £20 million of which is for a second allocation to Translink, with the remaining £10 million to replace lost income across the transport sector. Last week, the Executive agreed to further support our three airports and, to that end, we will ask the Department for Transport and the Treasury to address the costs of air passenger duty and safety and security activities. We also want to continue to support City of Derry Airport until March 2021.

Allocations of ring-fenced financial transactions capital totalling £35 million have been made to the Department for the Economy in this round, £20 million of which will provide support to potential start-ups and continued investment in our tourist attractions. The other £15 million is for schemes that were agreed at the time of the Budget. Using financial transactions capital remains a challenge, but I encourage all Departments to seek ways of using that funding.

I will now deal with the allocation of £139·9 million resource DEL and £63·7 million capital DEL. It will come as no surprise that the majority of the resource DEL allocations will go towards helping to combat the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. I have allocated £22·7 million to the Department for Communities, which will provide £5 million to help process the increase in social security recipients, £4·5 million for the community support fund, £4 million for the cultural sector, £3·7 million for the homeless, £3·5 million to purchase PPE for staff who work in the Supporting People programme and £2 million for sport.

The Department for the Economy will receive £4·7 million to support higher education, Invest NI marketing and grants to small and medium enterprises.

The Department of Education will receive £39 million to fund free school meals over the summer months, for an increased child provision from 1 July and for summer activities to support children and learning.

The health service has been at the front line of the COVID crisis. I am providing a further £51·4 million to the Department of Health, which will not only provide for the continued response to COVID-19 but for service transformation, elective care and the mental health plan.

On top of the £30 million for transport-related pressures, I have allocated £5·5 million to the Department for Infrastructure for lost income to NI Water.

I have allocated £13·5 million to the Department of Justice for increased costs in the Prison Service and the PSNI, the cost of PPE and lost income in the Courts Service.

The Executive Office has incurred the cost of work with the press throughout the ongoing COVID-19 response, and I am allocating £500,000 to TEO for that purpose. In addition, I am allocating £2·5 million to the Executive Office for administrative costs in relation to victims' payments. In line with the Treasury's statement of funding policy, which makes it clear that the Department that makes policy will bear the cost of that policy, the NIO is responsible for funding that scheme.

Turning to capital DEL, I am allocating £38·7 million to the Department of Health for the purchase of essential equipment and for invest-to-save projects. The Department for the Economy will receive £25 million to provide grant funding for Ulster University's Belfast campus, which will replace £25 million of the planned financial transactions capital loan.

Departments need to respond as dynamically as possible to the fluctuating financial position. Therefore, I am extending the flexibility that Departments have had in this round to reallocate internal budgets until the October round. All the funding that is currently available has now been allocated. Those allocations help our public services, including the health service; they assist in economic recovery and they protect the most vulnerable in our society, including children who are entitled to free school meals and the homeless.

I commend the June monitoring outcome to the Assembly.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you, Minister. Before I call the Chair of the Economy Committee to speak, I remind Members that I have 19 Assembly Members on my list who are seeking to ask a question and one hour is allocated after a ministerial statement. If you do the maths, you will realise that we need to be short, sharp and focused. I call the Chair of the Economy Committee, Dr Steve Aiken.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I think that Caoimhe looks much better than I do, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, but, as Chair of the Finance Committee, thank you very much indeed.

The Finance Committee will take detailed evidence on the June monitoring round over the forthcoming weeks. Therefore, I will make these comments as the Ulster Unionist Party's finance spokesperson.

I thank the Finance Minister for meeting me earlier today and, at last, getting the much-delayed June monitoring round through to us. I wish to highlight some of the issues that have become apparent and are worthy of the Assembly's consideration. We welcome that, with the addition of £1·3 billion from our national Exchequer, we have managed to achieve an underspend of £25 million resource DEL and £103 million in respect of capital DEL — a total of £128 million.

The Minister mentioned the top-line figures of £140 million in resource DEL, £66 million in capital DEL and £200 million in financial transactions capital, which I will refer to later.

That, coupled with the existing COVID recovery and support mechanisms is —.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 3:45 pm, 30th June 2020

Dr Aiken, I know that there is a question just struggling to get out

[Laughter.]

Help it out. What is the question?

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I know. There is, indeed, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. You normally give the Chair of the Finance Committee a degree of latitude to respond.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I have

[Laughter.]

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I will then ask one particular question of the Minister of Finance. It is the question that we have all been waiting for. We are now close to three and half months on and we still have not heard of a fiscal council being set up, of the appropriateness of looking at proper management or of what we will do to ensure that all Committees are given appropriate financial information on time.

That question, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, probably deserves the extra minute to speak. Thank you.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I am not sure that it is the one that we have all been waiting for

[Laughter.]

There is no point in billing your question inappropriately.

The Member will understand that, as we moved into the response to the pandemic and the emergency that we were in, the Executive agreed to suspend normal business and focus all our energy on the pandemic. It is only in the last number of weeks that the Executive and Departments have started to turn their attention back to things like NDNA commitments and other measures that were priorities for all Departments and the Executive collectively in the few weeks that we had before the pandemic hit. We are turning our minds back to those. The idea that the fiscal council has been sitting for three and a half months with nothing happening is inaccurate. Those issues will be taken forward. They were interrupted for the last three months by the Executive's need to collectively face the emergency that we faced and respond appropriately to it. Thankfully, we are now moving out of that, although we are not, by any means, out of the woods with what might emerge from the COVID-19 experience, and are turning our minds to all the issues that have stacked up.

The issue of the financial accountability of each Department to their Committee will be a matter for all the Committees. We can lead by example — I hope that we do in the Department of Finance — but it will be a matter for Committees to hold their Departments to account. I will, as I have always undertaken to do, come here and explain how the Department of Finance is allocating money. I expect Committees and Committee Chairs to hold their Ministers to account on the spending of that money.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

The fact that we had £128 million of an underspend last year proves in some way that the monitoring rounds are important, going forward, so that we do not end up in a situation next year if something further was to happen.

I will go straight to my question. At a time when we should invest in skills and work for those skills in any recovery, why has the Minister refused bids from the Department for the Economy and the Department for Infrastructure? I think that the Minister stated that the current overcommitment in this year's Budget was £100 million: will he update the House on the present level of that overcommitment?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The figures for the overcommitment were included in my statement. The Member's point about the underspend is correct: we do not want to see underspends. They mean that money that we would otherwise have spent on services here is returned to the Treasury, which is never a good situation. We have had three years without an Assembly to hold Departments to account or Ministers to take decisions that they are held accountable for. We were moving into a scenario in which we expected that to improve, but we had the pandemic and all the spending plans were turned on their heads over the first quarter of the year. There will, no doubt, be a challenge with underspend at the end of the year, and we continue to engage with the Treasury to try to get the necessary flexibilities to deal with however our budgets end up as the year moves on.

On the bids for skills, I remind the Member that the Executive approves the bids; I make a recommendation to the Executive, and they decide. Other bids have been supported, and, if it wishes, the Department for the Economy has the flexibility to reprioritise within the Department and meet things that it considers to be of a more pressing need or priority.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

My question related to the £25 million agri-food intervention scheme that the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has announced. However, since the Finance Minister started making his statement here today, the AERA Minister has issued a written statement detailing how that should be allocated. As the Finance Minister is here, I will ask him this question: have his Department's officials been in contact with DAERA officials in relation to a business case for the allocation of that £25 million to an agri-food market intervention scheme?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Yes, my Department continues to engage with all Departments to assess the bids that they have made and to ensure that the money is spent appropriately. I have no doubt that the Department of Agriculture will make further bids relating to market interventions in the time ahead. Like all sectors, it will continue to struggle, and we have to continually reassess what the requirements are. The Executive have to try to prioritise where they see that finances are needed most immediately and allocate funds accordingly. Through my officials, we will continue to engage with all Departments, including DAERA, on what, they feel, are the pressures and urgent situations in their sectors and how we might best meet those.

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

I thank the Finance Minister for making the statement to the Assembly today, albeit that, as others have said, some of it was brought to certain media outlets beforehand. Does the Finance Minister agree that Northern Ireland faces two long-term problems, crises even? One is that we are the most underinvested and unproductive part of the UK or Ireland. The second is that our Government have a long-term structural challenge in getting capital spending out the door. Those two challenges are related, as we have seen today: we have a capital underspend of hundreds of millions of pounds, and I am afraid that today's monitoring round is another missed opportunity to set long-term priorities for investment. Does he agree that, later this summer and in the October monitoring round, his priority and the priority of the Executive should be setting long-term economic goals and ensuring that we have the proper capital spending to emerge from the COVID crisis and, finally, to get our economy working properly for our people?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I do not disagree with the Member's assessment of some of the challenges that we face. There is no doubt that the backdrop to people asking me to welcome spending is the long-term underinvestment here. We welcome any additional assistance, but we are not blind to the situation that we find ourselves in.

Yes, of course, bringing forward capital spend in a timely manner will be the most challenging aspect of our public spending this year. We have lost the first quarter. Construction is only beginning to ratchet up and get back to a position in which it can be fully active again, and, undoubtedly, supply chains will continue to be affected by the COVID crisis across the world. That will be a significant challenge. A number of months back, I asked Departments to bring forward capital programmes to make sure that schemes that may have been ready to go were brought to that state of readiness, rather than sitting back and starting to go through assessments, business cases and things like that. We have been engaging regularly with the construction sector. My Department has the responsibility to engage with that sector to make sure that we understand its state of readiness to come back and the type of works in which it can engage. All of that is geared towards ensuring that we can spend as best we can the capital that is available. Capital spend and ensuring that people are working will be one of the key areas in invigorating the economy. It will also be a key area in making sure that we get the money spent, and that is why, as well as trying to do all that is necessary, we have ongoing discussions with Treasury to ensure that we have flexibility at the end of the year, while recognising that it will be a challenge.

The Executive are having a broader discussion on the economic recovery. With issues like this, it is not simply about what money you get and where you allocate it, it is about how the system of government works to assist with doing things better to get more value from our spend and ensure that it contributes to a growing economy.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Other Members have outlined the significant underspend of capital moneys. Financial transaction capital moneys have proven difficult to spend. We have not been able to utilise our borrowing powers to make capital investment, the overall focus of which is to safeguard and create jobs. As part of the ongoing Executive discussions, will the Minister give serious consideration to whether we should have an infrastructure commission or panel, similar to those that other parts of the UK already have, to drive delivery and to safeguard and create jobs?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

We can look at any and all measures. The Strategic Investment Board already assists us and gives advice to Departments on big projects. Clearly, we want to get that capital money spent. There was an underutilisation of financial transactions capital last year, as you say. One of the issues was the loss of legislation on the housing sector. I understand that that legislation has its Final Stage this afternoon. I hope that that will bring about improvement in accessing that FTC. I agree with him: we need to do that. We need to access it better, spend it better and ensure that it is used to grow the economy. The measures are there for us. There are other resources, such as Peace Plus, the international fund and our investment fund. The Executive need to take a collective overview of those resources to ensure that they are used to support the priorities that they have set themselves for economic recovery.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I welcome the inclusion in the statement of the £2·5 million for administration costs in relation to victims' payments. Will the Minister engage with the Treasury to ensure that the funding of that scheme is delivered? Furthermore, will he assist in ensuring that the Department of Justice is the designated Department and that any hurdles being created around capacity and support from the wider Civil Service will be overcome? Is his party now fully supportive of the scheme being fully implemented and victims receiving the payment that they deserve?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The Member is correct: it is the Treasury's responsibility to fund the scheme under its funding payment process. The Department that devises the scheme and legislates for it is responsible for its delivery and for the finances for its delivery. We have not, as yet, got an assessment from the NIO or the Treasury of what the cost of the scheme might be, while they try to offload responsibility for it. The Member will be aware that the scheme and the processes to which all of the parties agreed in the Stormont House Agreement a number of years back are not replicated in the victims' pension scheme that is being delivered to us by the British Government. It clearly departs from the agreement that the five parties and both Governments came to. In that regard, it is a different scheme, and we have no costs or estimations of the costs for it. Those are issues that we as an Executive, collectively, have to continue to fight with the Government and the Treasury.

The money that I have allocated is to set up the administrative side of the scheme. It does not lend itself to the matter of which Department might be responsible for it. It is a matter for the Executive Office to make a call on that in the first instance. The allocation is simply about providing a resource to set up the mechanics of the facilities needed to deliver such a scheme. Decisions then have to be taken around how it works, who funds it and what Department leads it. Those are decisions for the future.

Photo of Maolíosa McHugh Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin

Thank you for your statement. In many respects, it is not surprising to hear that education and health take the greater part of the Budget. I appreciate the continuing support for the City of Derry Airport, which is located in my area. We know that it is important for connectivity. Another element of connectivity that concerns me — internet connectivity for the rural community — relates to our young people and businesses. It will be more vital in the future for distance learning and the like of that.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I am pleased that we have managed to deliver so much funding across a variety of Departments. Of course, connectivity is vital. The Member mentioned the airport. All of the airports have a huge role to play in our connectivity, not just in connecting people to places but in connecting economies. Following on from our last discussion about funding that was to be made available by the British Government, some of the confidence and supply money that we managed to secure and some of the NDNA funding is to be put into connectivity, particularly in rural areas, through the Project Stratum broadband connection scheme. While we were prepared to look at supporting the Department for the Economy on that, we did not give up on the struggle to get the money that had been committed by the British Government. We got that, and I hope that the scheme will roll out as quickly as possible.

Connectivity will continue to be a challenge, for airports, roads and the rail network, but particularly for broadband. We have seen, over the course of the last three months, that broadband connectivity is more vital than ever, for the connection of families, businesses, and the ability of people to work from home and have more flexible working arrangements. It will be hugely important, and the sooner that we get all those connectivity issues addressed, the better for us.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP 4:00 pm, 30th June 2020

While I welcome the broad allocation, I direct my question towards the further financial allocations for Translink. Surely, the Minister shares my deep concerns regarding the management and oversight of Translink throughout the COVID-19 period. It did not furlough staff, costing the NI block grant budget £3 million per month. It ran trains with, supposedly, only four passengers on board, at a cost of £4,000 per journey. Bad behaviour and mismanagement seems to have merited further budget allocations. Surely, that deserves further scrutiny.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The public transport network is vital to us. If we are to talk about returning to economic activity, and the return of pupils to school, public transportation is a key part of it. We need a properly functioning public transportation system. It needs to be resourced by the Executive, because such systems rarely pay for themselves. They will always need subsidy by the Executive. They need to connect rural areas, which are very unprofitable routes. All that said, we need to make sure that we do it in a way that stands up to scrutiny. Clearly, concerns have been expressed about the ongoing costs of Translink to the Executive.

I have asked the Infrastructure Minister to bring a paper about Translink to the Executive, so that we can have a discussion, look behind the scenes and see how we can improve it. Effectively, the cost of keeping the company afloat is about £10 million per month to the Executive. While the Executive have expressed a very firm view that we want to keep a public transportation system working — it is vital to all those areas of recovery and society — we need to ensure that it functions efficiently. Therefore, I have asked the Infrastructure Minister to bring us a paper about that.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome you back, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, and wish you a speedy recovery.

I welcome the fact that the Minister is looking into the barriers to the allocation of FTC. However, that has been long looked at by different Finance Ministers. I hope that you are the Minister who can deliver this. The allocation has been an issue for the Assembly for a long time. Some £92 million unspent is a lot of money.

In the Minister's speech, I saw that there was no help for single-person businesses and sole traders. These businesses received no COVID support. It has been indicated to me that the monitoring round could address that gap. I have already asked about help with VAT. Will the Minister keep these businesses in his mind? They are crying out for help, as I said earlier. They need any help or support. Keep in mind that they are the backbone of our small rural and urban Northern Ireland economy.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I outlined that, last year, a significant amount of FTC was returned, and one of the issues was that the necessary legislation was not passed for the housing sector. Hopefully, that is nearing completion. However, we face the challenge of having lost the first quarter of construction activity, which would normally utilise capital budgets. It has been effectively brought to a halt, for a quarter of the year at least, and perhaps it will only gradually reopen over the next quarter. That will be a challenge.

Nonetheless, we are talking to all the Departments about how to access FTC. Additional support and advice is available from the Strategic Investment Board. We want to utilise this, and it is available to us. We want Departments to be able to spend it. We know that it is an important part of trying to assist economic recovery.

In relation to the support, we have not as yet allocated the £53 million that was surrendered by the Department for the Economy, but we have had a discussion on it and we want to try to find ways to support those businesses that did not qualify for the business support grants. It will be more challenging than the first tranche of money, because the cases are more complex and there are more uncertainties around them, but we have to find arrangements to do that. We engage with those sectors on a regular basis. I am sure that the Department for the Economy is engaging with them as well.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I am sorry to say that I feel huge caution about welcoming the start-up money for the victims' payment scheme or pension, as it is more commonly known, because I am not confident that Sinn Féin accepts the qualifying criteria. I am sure that the House would agree that it would be beyond cruel to offer victims hope today and, then, dash that hope tomorrow.

My question to the Minister is this: do you consider yourself a victim?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

No, I do not. I may have qualified under the terms of the scheme, but I do not personally consider myself a victim. The Member knows that we did reach an agreement. I am not sure whether he was part of the Stormont House negotiations. The mists of time have started to cloud my brain at this stage. The five parties reached an agreement. It was a very complex, complicated and challenging agreement. We tried to reach an agreement, if he remembers back — I am sure that other Members do — because the toxicity of the legacy issues was impacting on the work of the institution. The parties sat down determinedly to try to agree a range of legacy mechanisms on which we could all come to agreement; not just those which everybody wanted, but those which we could all stand over. Both Governments stood over that. It was handed over to the British Government to legislate for it, and they changed the terms of reference for the victims' pension. They also decided that, rather than making a contribution or being responsible for it, they would hand the costs of it over to the Executive, uncosted, under the terms that they have now set for it. The Executive have no idea what the costs of that will be.

Of course, I want to offer victims some comfort. I recognise that there has been an attempt to play off what is clearly a point of political difference in the departure that the British Government have taken us on. Regardless of how the five parties reached an agreement, or the Dublin Government's involvement in that, they have taken us off in their own direction and are now trying to play off the fact that we disagree with it against those who are most deserving and need very quick access, as I fully understand, to the support that may come from the victims' pension. The quickest way in which to resolve it is for the British Government to come back to the type of process that we agreed. Let us do the thing fairly and get it resourced properly by those who are responsible for resourcing it, and let us get it out to victims.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. The Committee was disappointed when it received the briefing that £2·5 million has been taken away from the £4·7 million that was allocated to the Department for the Economy. What message does that send, particularly to those who are involved in skills and how we move forward at this difficult economic time?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

First, I want to say that the monitoring round paper is agreed by the Executive as a whole. I make propositions, and the Executive can agree, disagree or amend as they see fit. Therefore, the decision on the allocation or reallocation of various sums of money is taken by the Executive as a whole. Of course, there is flexibility in the Department for the Economy to consider that skills area to be a higher priority than other areas and to reprioritise that money itself in order to meet the skills issue. Of course, I indicated to the Economy Minister that I am happy to continue the dialogue and discussion with her and others. We are coming back to the idea of economic recovery, and skills will, undoubtedly, play an important part in all that. The Executive will have further allocations to make in the time ahead.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-Leas-Cheann Comhairle, agus tá fáilte romhat ar ais. You are very welcome back, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.

I appreciate that the Department of Health will receive a degree of support for which other Departments would, no doubt, be glad. However, just £14 million has been allocated of the £69 million that was estimated for New Decade, New Approach commitments on transformation. How do the Executive plan to address that shortfall and the shortfall for surge planning, given the financial pressures on the Budget?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

There will continue to be pressures on the Budget. As I said, while the COVID-19 allocations have been very welcome and, quite clearly, were needed to ensure that the health system could cope with the additional pressures that it would face from the pandemic, we were, nonetheless, dealing with huge pressures in health, particularly with regard to transformation, before COVID-19 arrived. The most frustrating aspect of the British Government's reneging on their commitment under NDNA is that quite a bit of that funding was going to be allocated to health transformation. I have undertaken the job on behalf of the Executive to continue to press the British Government to live up to and honour the commitments that they made under NDNA, which were to assist us in those matters. If it is the case that they continue to hold out, the Executive will have to find money to meet all those priorities from their own limited resources. That means that other priorities will, undoubtedly, slip as a consequence.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker. It is good to see you back.

The Finance Minister expressed concern for the Department of Education overspend in 2019-2020. By how much did the Department of Education overspend? What explanation did the Finance Minister receive for that overspend? Does he agree that the Education Minister should lift his suspension of work on the independent review of education as one way to attempt to address this financial crisis in education?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

It is really not for me to prescribe what the Department of Education does with its allocation. It has a budget allocation, which was an increase this year, and, then, it brings forward bids, and we expect it to bring forward reprioritisation and surrender some money that it considers is not needed in the time ahead.

In relation to the overspend last year, it is concerning and it is reduced. I do not have the detail of exactly where that overspend occurred, but we will continue to work with the Department to try and address that issue. I know that the Education Minister is committed to doing that. It will be a matter for the Committee to provide ongoing scrutiny with the Department in that regard. Clearly, we will want to assist it in doing that because while we are trying to manage the spending of the budget, we cannot allow ourselves to run into overspend situations where those can be avoided.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

Welcome back to the Chamber, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.

I thank the Minister for his statement and very much welcome the extra moneys that have been made available to the Department of Health at this critical time as we emerge from the first wave of COVID-19. On PPE provision, what role will the Department of Finance play in working towards Northern Ireland being self-sufficient in manufacturing its own PPE supplies?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

One of the lessons that we have learned from the pandemic is around critical health supplies being procured from the far side of the world because they happen to be cheaper, and we need to re-evaluate how we do our own procurement. We have a very strong, efficient and innovative manufacturing base here, and it clearly showed that when sections of that manufacturing base stepped up, reprofiled their manufacturing and were very quickly able to turn out critical supplies for the Department.

I wrote to the Health Minister earlier this week to say that when the Department is looking at future supply, it should not simply look at price — and I know that it does not look at that alone — but security of supply and assisting the local economy have to come up the procurement evaluation list.

There is a sector here that is willing to step up. We will not have the experience of trying to compete with other larger international players on the other side of the world, trying to navigate our way through very complex systems to get very necessary and vital medical supply. Thankfully, we have now secured a supply from China. From the Health Department's own assessment, it will be enough to carry us through the possibility — and we have to plan for the possibility and, indeed, the probability — of a resurgence of COVID-19. If that coincides with winter pressures, that will put significant pressure on healthcare staff. So, we are in a position now where that early critical issue in the COVID pandemic outbreak is now in a much better place, and that has been through the good work of the Health Department, the Finance Department and TEO officials in securing that. That was such a big, big challenge. One of the lessons that we have to learn is how we have more security of supply, and security of supply means that it is made on this island, or on these islands, and, therefore, it is much more accessible to us.

Photo of Karen Mullan Karen Mullan Sinn Féin

I also welcome you back, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.

Like my party colleague, I welcome the funding for the City of Derry Airport. I particularly welcome the funding to extend free school meal payments over the summer. Minister, do you agree that now that we have a mechanism in place to make such payments, Departments should work together to continue to tackle holiday hunger and food poverty?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

From my witnessing of it, there has been, I would suggest, much greater cross-departmental cooperation in the response to the pandemic. It is another one of the lessons that needs to be carried forward from the experience of COVID-19. I know that there has been quite a lot of collaboration between the Department for Communities, the Department of Education and the Department of Health in relation to some of those. The earlier scheme in relation to childcare support that came out of the Department of Health and the Department of Education was not administered satisfactorily, and there was a significant amount of underspend. It was an unnecessarily complicated scheme.

I hope that the money now given, which is between the Department of Health and the Department of Education, for childcare is administered in a much more efficient way that sees it getting out onto the ground where it is needed. The other schemes, where there has been collaboration between Communities, Health and Education at varying times, are hugely important. I think that, as you correctly point out, the issue of holiday hunger is not just a consequence of the COVID pandemic. It is an ongoing issue, and I would like to see more collaboration in that regard. When you do that, it makes a much better case to the Executive, through the Department of Finance, for the funds and resources necessary for these very worthy schemes.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:15 pm, 30th June 2020

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, we welcome you back in your role here today, and also look forward to seeing you at Committee again tomorrow.

I thank the Minister for his very comprehensive statement, most of which I read this morning online. It includes £2·5 million for the victims' scheme that has not started and does not have a budget. We are led to believe that we do not know the full list of who will be entitled to it, never mind it not having a lead Department to deliver it.

My question relates to transparency. When was the return made from the Executive Office to the Department of Finance? I am not speaking today as Chair of the Committee for the Executive Office, because we did not get that return until last Friday, when it was too late for us to be able to give it consideration and come back to you here today. Do you think that that is acceptable, given that we have a new era of openness and transparency?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Well, the way monitoring round papers are done is that an initial paper is produced, and then there is an ongoing exchange between the Departments in relation to it. For instance, I had a meeting subsequent to that with your own party colleague in relation to her allocation. Some Departments write back to us; some Departments speak to us. They are either satisfied or not satisfied, or they feel that a bid that they made was less important to them than another one which was not secured, or not recommended to be secured. That is an ongoing process. It comes back, eventually, to the Executive, and the Executive have an opportunity to have their say in relation to that.

The Member will know, through his particular role, that the issue of the victims' pensions is a very thorny issue. While he expresses dissatisfaction that it has not been moved on, he will know where the problems have been created in relation to it. The £2·5 million is to help get the apparatus in place so that, when agreement is reached, the system is ready to go, but the Member will understand that there are very significant problems in relation to the British Government's handling of all this — their attempt to rewrite the agreement that was made at Stormont House and their attempt to pass on an, as yet, uncosted bill to the Executive for our resourcing of that particular issue.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, it is good to see you back in the Chair.

I thank the Minister for his statement. The Minister has outlined a number of departmental bids received and accepted or surrendered. In light of safety concerns for employees returning to work this week, notably in the hospitality sector, some businesses are introducing COVID training. Have the Minister or his Department, through the June monitoring round, received any bids from the Department for the Economy to fund this training, or other similar training? If so, does the Department for the Economy intend to spend it? Who is to deliver it? Has he any information on that?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I have to say that I am not aware whether a bid was received. I can certainly ask the officials to come back to you, just to be clear about that. I do not want to say that there was none received; there may well have been one. In relation to tourism and hospitality, in particular, I very much recognise the difficulty that it is facing. We have always said that it was not just a matter of rates relief, which we obviously targeted towards that as one of the principal sectors, to the end of the year. There was also going to be a cost attached to re-entering into business in terms of training and whatever physical infrastructure had to be put in place to allow tourism and hospitality — and also retail. I ventured out into the retail world at a shopping centre last Saturday, and you could see very clearly how people have begun to try to make sure that their staff are protected and the systems within shops are operating correctly, which is entirely the right thing to do.

Partly, the £10k and £25k support grants were intended to try and allow businesses to invest in restart when they had the rates break, although I know that there were other bills that had to be paid. I hope that it did go some way towards that. The furlough scheme obviously took care of staff salaries up to 80%, and many businesses topped that up to 100% from their own resources. They can be commended for doing that.

I am not certain whether a bid was made in relation to that. It is recognised that there is a cost attached to it. The primary issues I was on the receiving end of tourism industry lobbying about were the date for restarting and the how people could not make it work in relation to 2 metres versus 1 metre distancing and how they would operate in those circumstances. Those were the primary things that we are hearing from them. If there is additional cost, I am very happy to talk to the Department for the Economy if it identifies that as a particular need that is unmet.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I want to return to the £2·5 million that is labelled "victims". Is it just window dressing, so long as Sinn Féin maintain its despicable veto, blocking innocent victims from receiving a pension? As long as that continues can the £2·5 million even be spent? If it is not spent, what happens to it?

I note that the Executive Office is getting half a million pounds for press work, something that it is not in the bids. It did not ask for it. It is not in the bids on page 24, but it is in the allocations on page 29. What is the half a million pounds for press work for?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

TEO bid for the £2·5 million for victims payments to do administrative work, and it would have to justify how it intends to spend the money from that bid. If for some reason it decided not spend it, it would be surrendered at the next monitoring round, but the Executive Office has bid for money to spend on setting up the administrative structure necessary to deal with that.

It is not simply Sinn Féin that has a disagreement about victims. The entire Executive disagree with the idea that they should pick up the cost for that, which is as yet not costed, from the British Government. I think that a substantial number of people from outside Sinn Féin and in other parties have issue with the fact that the British Government rewrote the Stormont House Agreement, changed the nature of victims' payments and decided to change the criteria on that. That was an agreement that was worked out between five parties and two Governments. If the British Government decide under their own funding policy statement to bring a different policy forward to legislate for something different to which the parties agreed, the British Government are responsible for that.

To address the issue of the half a million pounds allocation, one of the key issues of keeping businesses alive has been the advertising that has come from the Executive Office on COVID-19. That has been a lifeline to many small newspapers and to radio stations. I recently had a discussion with one of the radio stations, and it told us that that effectively had kept the doors open. So, it is not simply a matter of spending on spin doctors and putting out statements. There has been an advertising campaign that has been a vital lifeline to much of our small and independent media.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Under the more loose arrangements that we have because of COVID-19, there are 21 minutes left. If anyone wishes to ask an additional question of the Minister, they should rise in their place. Poor Robin Swann got this a fortnight ago. Members, if you rise in your place, I will put your name on the list, and I will try to get as many Members in as possible.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I think that the Minister said that there was £2 million for sport. Can he provide the detail?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Unfortunately, I cannot because I do not have the detail. It is a question for the Department for Communities. The Department bid for more than £2 million, and £2 million was all that we were able to afford, with £4 million for the arts for resilience in the arts sector. I am sure that that will be welcome. I think that the £2 million is for resilience in the sports sector. I am getting the nod from my officials, so, yes, it is for resilience. It is for people to try to keep the doors open, not for specific schemes. We can get you some detail, or I am sure that the Department for Communities will get you some detail on that.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I too welcome you back and hope that you are feeling better, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement, and I welcome the allocation to business and skills in the June monitoring round. Obviously, there is an underspend on some of the business support grants, and we hope to see that reallocated to further support for businesses. Looking forward, as the economy begins to reopen and looking at the experience of other countries and, obviously, that of England, where Leicester is going into a lockdown of its own, we may potentially see similar things here. The Minister will know the concern that was raised last Friday in a meeting that we attended with hospitality businesses in Causeway Coast and Glens that there might be a need for specific support for businesses in those areas or some further flexibility around the job retention scheme. Does the Minister intend to make the case for that with the Treasury?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The Member is correct; that was raised at a meeting that she attended. It is something that the Executive will want to consider that, if we end up in lockdown in a certain sector, what we do to support the staff. Not just in the hospitality sector, it could be a factory or a school. Medical discussions and advice, in the last number of weeks, have looked at what future resurgences of COVID might look like and the experiences in some other countries around clusters, not a widespread resurgence of the pandemic. Those issues, and what things would look like if there was a specific geographical or sectoral lockdown, need to be considered.

When the First and deputy First Minister announced last week some of the sectors opening up, it was on the basis of partnership. The Executive have provided what support we can but everyone has to play their part in making sure that the guidance, as best as can be, is being followed. Where it is difficult to maintain two metres, people put in whatever mitigating measures that they can to make sure that there is no resurgence of the virus. It is in the hospitality and tourism industries' interest to ensure that we do not go back to a sectoral or geographical lockdown. That would have a very damaging impact on the economy generally, but particularly in those sectors. This is a partnership; it is not just a matter of handing down guidelines and hoping. It is in all of the sectors and the economy's interests that we all, collectively, do all that we can to continue to suppress the virus, as we have been doing. The behaviour, by and large, has been exemplary.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

The Minister talked about, and has dedicated a page to, the transport sector. We know that there is money held in the centre for transport support. I am not blaming the Minister, because I do not believe that it is his problem, but I do not see anywhere in his statement a bid to support the haulage industry. What is the Minister's take on it and why will the Infrastructure Minister not bring forward a bid to support haulage companies?

In my previous question, I asked about the overcommitment currently standing. The Minister said it was in his statement but I cannot find that answer. I ask, again, what is the Executive's current overcommitment for this Budget year?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

One of the things that this pandemic has thrown up, in stark relief, is the sheer complexity of all the sectors that we are dealing with, the overlaps and the way that they fall between Departments. For example, someone has responsibility for regulations and others have responsibility for some economic aspect; the cross-departmental nature of all that has been brought to the fore.

Whether it is haulage, private coaches, taxis, various other sectors or airports, that fell between three Departments. The Department of Finance took the lead on it with the support of the Department for the Economy, and Infrastructure. Some of these issues fall between departmental responsibilities and, to be quite honest, as Finance Minister, I am not overly worried about who takes responsibility. Whether two departments or one, somebody needs to bring forward a policy proposal to say, "Here is a sector, here is the impact, here is what is needed to fix it. Can the Executive allocate the support? Here is how it would be distributed in that sector". We need to see that and we have not seen it yet in a range of issues. That is why the pot that we had held aside for transport is shrinking because we have made further allocations to Translink and the Department for Infrastructure, as part of this statement and monitoring round. That pot is now down to £29·5 million. There was a discussion at the Executive, albeit briefly as these things are challenging when operating remotely, between the Departments for Infrastructure and Economy around getting their heads together on some of these issues. I look forward to propositions coming.

You asked about overcommitment and I did not answer. There is none in the Budget this year. After all the allocations and the DEL resource money is allocated, £2·7 million capital and £180 million financial transaction capital is unallocated, but there is no overcommitment.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement and, in particular, the £20 million that he has allocated to Translink, but that is considerably less than its needs. Will the Minister advise what discussion he is having with the Infrastructure Minister and Translink to ensure that the directors can meet their requirements under company law, and that we can continue to have a public transport service provided in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 4:30 pm, 30th June 2020

I assure the Member that I am meeting the Minister for Infrastructure. I know that he was doing his Chair duties and out of the Chamber at the time, but the question was asked earlier, perhaps from a less supportive position than his and more critical of the company and its ongoing financial requirements. I said that it was about £10 million a month, which is a significant level of support from the Executive. Nonetheless, as the Infrastructure Minister knows, there is a commitment to make sure that the company does not fail. A public transport system is a vital part of our society, of our economy, of connectivity and getting schools functioning again. We want to make it work, but we want to make sure that the company is run in the most efficient way possible and that it is not continuously seen as a cash drain, as some Members undoubtedly see it, and that we get a good-value public transport system that works for us.

I have had discussions with the Infrastructure Minister, and, as part of the paper to the Executive, I have asked her to bring forward a discussion document on that so that we can have a look at what Translink's requirements are. You are right that we have not met those, but we could not have met what they have identified as their requirements for this year under this allocation. It would have used up more than was available to us for that one company alone.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Mr Jonathan Buckley.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

No, I withdrew my question, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Mr Matthew O'Toole.

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

I go back, briefly, to the question of press support. I welcome that, and I have spoken to the Finance Minister about the need to support our local media. Will he give a little more detail on the intention to support local, regional, community media through advertising? May we have some more detail on whether he is looking at rates support? It looks like that they will struggle far beyond the initial COVID wave.

There is also an allocation in here for culture and resilience. I and other Members have been talking to our arts sector, which has been on its knees. Will he work urgently with the Communities Minister to make sure that that money gets out to our artists, who disparately need it?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

On the first issue, the Member has raised the issue of the local media on a number of occasions. Undoubtedly, the small regional papers and the regional radio stations rely very much on commercial advertising to keep them afloat. My local newspaper — 'The Newry Reporter' — went out of print for maybe two months before it came back. That, undoubtedly, was a huge burden for a small local paper to deal with. The advertising revenue from the Executive has been important.

I am actively looking the issue of rates for them. As he knows, there are different sectors. There are small, independent, family-owned businesses, there are there are larger conglomerates, and there are some international players in our local media. We at actively looking at giving them support.

In relation to the arts, undoubtedly, that sector has suffered. This £4 million is probably not as much as they would have wanted, but we had to try to disperse the limited resources available to us across a range of priority interests. I will be happy to talk to the Communities Minister to make sure that it is distributed as quickly as it can be. It is hugely important to keep the arts functioning. With the lockdown, they have lost the ability to generate income, and we have to recognise that too.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I think that the figure for free school meals over the summer is around £12 million. It that precedent now set for succeeding years, or is that a one-off situation?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

It is a one-off payment, but I hope that the idea of the policy that has emerged is a precedent. I sincerely hope that, but, of course, that will be a matter for the Departments responsible to bring forward. This bid was for a scheme this summer, but the issue of holiday hunger has long been identified, and no steps have been taken to address it. If the pandemic forces us into a situation where it is being addressed, I sincerely hope, speaking from a political perspective, that that is a precedent and that we do get into looking after those children over the summer as well.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

Will the Minister detail the purpose of the additional £10 million allocated to transport?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

From memory, the additional £10 million is to cover the lost income for transport. There is £20 million allocated to the Department for Infrastructure in relation to transport issues, and some was allocated to Northern Ireland Water. I will get the Member the detail, but I think that £10 million of that was to do with lost income. Translink has been projecting the cost to them of lost income for the rest of the year, which is well over £100 million, and the Executive have been able to allocate on a periodic basis money to keep it afloat from month to month. Bigger questions arise in relation to Translink that need to be looked at.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I note that there is £6 million for paramedic services. Will the Minister assure us that, whilst a monitoring round allocation is often a one-off payment, that money will help the Ambulance Service, going forward, given that in rural constituencies such as mine and his, many people are left for far too long to wait for ambulances because they are trapped in urban areas?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I hope that that is the longer-term outcome, obviously, from a constituency interest point of view. Generally, bids are made in monitoring rounds for particular pressures that a Department faces, so I do not necessarily have the detail on the pressures that prompted that bid. Of course, I am happy to support the health service generally. It has been under enormous strain. It is under enormous strain on a continuous basis, but, obviously, it has been under significant additional strain as a consequence of responding to the pandemic.

Clearly, the Ambulance Service is an important part of rural health provision, and we rely on it very much in the areas that we represent. The bid would have been for a particular pressure. What the Health Department spends into the future will be a matter for you, the Health Committee Chair and others to interrogate.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I echo the words of other Members and welcome you back. It is good to see you in your place.

The Belfast campus of Ulster University was seen as one of the ways of utilising financial transactions capital funding, but we are now told that that will not happen and that £25 million will have to be replaced from capital funding. Why is that? Why are we not able to use financial transactions capital for that project?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

We would have been able to use financial transactions capital, but the Department for the Economy made a bid to transfer it into capital money because there was capital money available. That is to do with ensuring that Ulster University has the financial resilience to carry forward that significant project and look forward to other projects that it will be involved in. Perhaps an explanation of some the rationale behind that approach would be better asked of the Department for the Economy. It was not that they could not avail of the financial transactions capital; there was a request to give them a grant of capital rather than a loan, which we did.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, on your way home, if you take the country road out towards Lisburn, there is a beautiful little bar called Robin Stewart's — it used to be owned by Jackie, who is now retired. The point that I am trying to make is

[Laughter]

that there is a new owner of that establishment who is spending great money and has great ideas for the bar. It was founded in 1610, and it was a spirit grocer's. Contrary to what people say about me, I would be willing to step up to the bar first and buy a pint if you would find the time to get out there. My only "Get out of jail" card is that that might be contrary to the ministerial code of conduct.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

We will all drink to that.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I think that the price of a pint comes in underneath the threshold for bribery. Generally, when I go home, I go on the motorway, so I do not pass too many pubs.

I am aware that, particularly in the hospitality industry, people continue to struggle. Those people are being very innovative and are investing their own money in their businesses, into which they have put their life and soul over many years. We need to assist them in whatever way we can. As I said in response to previous questions, part of that is the financial assistance that we give them, but it is also about things like planning, licensing laws and other measures to make sure that our hospitality sector, which is a key part of our economic product, is supported in every way possible.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you. No other Member has indicated that they would like to ask a question.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

On a point of order, during the Finance Minister's statement, the AERA Minister released a written statement on the allocation of the £25 million agri-food market intervention scheme. Given that this is a sitting day, perhaps it would have been appropriate for the Minister to come to the Chamber to release that statement and leave himself open to questions from Members given the seriousness of and the huge public interest in the issue.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Standing Orders are clear: when a Minister is due to deliver an oral ministerial statement, that Minister:

"shall make a written copy of the statement available to members".

It will not be delivered to the media first. It should not be. It has been established practice and convention in the House that Ministers deliver statements to the House rather than issuing them as press releases and then coming and reading them out in the House. I will have the Speaker's Office write to the Chair of the Committee outlining the behaviour that is expected from Executive Ministers in issuing statements. I hope that that satisfies the Member.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

Earlier today, I raised a point of order with Deputy Speaker Beggs regarding deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill's attendance at the funeral of Bobby Storey, where we witnessed breaches of social distancing. I asked that her conduct be reviewed by the Speaker's Office and referred to the Members' code of conduct. Further to that point of order, it has now come to my attention that the Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, was also in attendance. I ask that the Speaker's Office also rule on Mr Murphy's conduct via the code of conduct. This may well be a breach of the Pledge of Office, which states:

"to support, and act in accordance with, all decisions of the Executive Committee and Assembly".

This blatant breach of COVID-19 regulations will be seen as a total insult to the many families who have buried loved ones in isolation. The House must prove that no one is above the law, especially Ministers who collectively brought forward such regulations.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Similar issues were raised with me before in the Chair about the conduct of Ministers. It is important, and I will have the Speaker's Office write to the Member about that. Part of the points of order process is about conduct inside the Chamber and dealing with conduct inside the Chamber, but there are elements of it that reflect conduct outside the Chamber. If the Member wishes to raise his issue in writing with the Speaker's Office, I am sure that he will be furnished with a written reply.