The next two motions are to approve the Supply Resolution for the Main Estimates 2020-21 and the 2016-17 Statement of Excesses. There will be a single debate on both motions. I will ask the Clerk to read the first motion and then call on the Minister of Finance to move it. The Minister will then commence the debate on both motions. When all who wish to speak have done so, I shall put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record. I will call the Minister to move it, and the Question will be put on that motion. If that is clear, I shall proceed.
I beg to move
That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £4,757,631,000, 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 £4,791,050,000, be authorised for use by the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2021 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 3 (a) and 3 (b) of table 1.3 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Main Estimates 2020-21 that was laid before the Assembly on 13 October 2020.
The following motion stood in the Order Paper:
That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £112,618,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for the Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2017 and that resources, not exceeding £183,290,000, be authorised for use by the Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2017 as summarised for each Department or other public body in Part 1 of the Northern Ireland Estimates 2016-17 Statement of Excesses that was laid before the Assembly on 13 October 2020.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to four and a half hours for this debate. The Minister will have 30 minutes to allocate at his discretion between proposing and making his winding-up speech. The Chair of the Finance Committee will have 10 minutes to speak, and all other Members who wish to speak will have seven minutes. I call on the Minister to open the debate on the motion. Gabh ar aghaidh.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As you set out, the debate covers the Supply resolution for the Main Estimates 2020-21, which is the current financial year, and the Statement of Excesses for the 2016-2017 financial year. The Main Estimates and the Statement of Excesses were laid in the Assembly on Tuesday 13 October 2020.
I will take a few moments to remind the Assembly about the unusual steps that we took in May and June that have resulted in the Main Estimates being brought forward. The fast-evolving response to COVID-19 in the first months of this financial year meant that it was not possible to prepare and present the Main Estimates reflecting the Executive's up-to-date expenditure plans. The allocations that were made in response to the COVID-19 emergency vastly increased the planned expenditure of a number of Departments. Any Estimates document that was produced at that stage would have been obsolete before it could be brought to the Assembly. In addition, it could not have passed and received Royal Assent in time. Instead, I sought the Assembly's approval for a further Vote on Account in order to provide authority for Departments to continue to operate through the initial COVID-19 response period. That was passed by the Assembly as the Budget (No. 2) Act (NI) 2020, and it gave Departments the authority to access the cash that they would require to continue to deliver services and to respond to the developing COVID situation until the autumn.
Following the Executive's decision and allocations for economic recovery, which I announced on 24 September, the financial position has now stabilised sufficiently to allow my Department to produce the Main Estimates for the Assembly to consider together with the corresponding legislation in the form of the Budget (No. 3) Bill, which I will introduce following the debate. These Main Estimates represent the Executive's up-to-date expenditure plans and include all the allocations that I announced in response to the ongoing COVID situation. Since the COVID emergency began, the Executive have allocated over £1·7 billion in additional resources in capital. Those are unprecedented levels of allocations. The detail of those allocations are a matter of public record and are published on my Department's website.
As well as considering the Main Estimates for 2020-21, I am also able to bring the 2016-17 Statement of Excesses to the Assembly. Members may remember that it was not possible for the spring Supplementary Estimates (SSEs) to be passed by the Assembly in February and March 2017 following the collapse of the Assembly. One of the consequences of that was that those Departments that received in-year allocations during the 2016-2017 financial year were not able to receive legislative authority for that expenditure.
While the Department of Finance was able to use its contingency powers to ensure that the Departments were able to get access to the cash necessary for them to continue to deliver services, those powers do not remove the need for the expenditure to be regularised through a Budget Bill. With one exception, those Excesses would not have occurred had it been possible for the spring Supplementary Estimates to be passed that year. The one exception to that is an element of £2·22 million related to the health and social care pension scheme. That Excess came about due to an underestimation of current service costs because updated figures were not available at that time.
Normally, a Statement of Excesses would be brought to the Assembly the year after the expenditure was incurred, but, to do so, the matter first needs to be considered by the Assembly Public Accounts Committee, and that has been possible only this year. I am pleased to say that the Public Accounts Committee has now carried out its consideration of the 2016-2017 Excesses and has recommended that they should now be regularised through the Statement of Excesses and their inclusion in the Budget (No. 3) Bill.
This has been an unprecedented year, and we have had to adopt novel approaches to respond in an agile manner to the impact that COVID has had on our public finances. We are now in a position to bring the Budget legislation back to its normal footing. I request the support of Members for the resolution for the Main Estimates 2020-2021, which together with the Budget (No. 3) Bill — we will debate that tomorrow — will enable services to continue to be funded for the remainder of this financial year together with the resolution on the Statement of Excesses for 2016-17 in order to regularise these outstanding sums.
I thank the Minister for his statement so far. As the Minister highlighted, the Main Estimates and Budget Bill are traditionally brought forward much earlier in the financial year. However, given the unprecedented events arising from the pandemic and its impact on our associated spending, that was delayed to ensure that departmental positions are accurately reflected in the Estimates, with the most up-to-date position.
Senior departmental officials briefed the Committee for Finance at its meeting last Wednesday on the Main Estimates and the associated Budget (No. 3) Bill. In advance of the meeting, the Department of Finance provided the Committee with a briefing paper, together with advance copies of the Estimates and the Bill. In examining the Main Estimate position, the Committee questioned officials to establish whether specific business areas might be at increased risk of underspend, particularly as a result of the pandemic, including the scale of any underspend and how that may affect the overall agreed limits under the Budget exchange scheme. In response, officials clarified that the Department closely monitors the overall Budget position on a monthly basis to ensure that overall spending is within permitted limits and that Departments declare any reduced requirements as early as possible to enable those to be considered and, where necessary, reallocated in-year by the Executive. In addition, following the Minister's oral statement on 6 October that called for greater flexibility from Her Majesty's Treasury, the Committee sought an assurance from officials that any areas of underspend will be surrendered early in this financial year to safeguard against it being lost to Her Majesty's Treasury in the event that any additional flexibility is not provided.
Officials also highlighted the fact that additional flexibility could provide an option to see a more dynamic response to any last-minute changes late in the financial year and to respond to any emerging pressures. Given that the Budget exchange scheme has been operating for 10 years now, it would be helpful to hear the Minister's assessment of whether the scheme remains fit for purpose and whether there are any plans or proposals to review it.
As Members will also be aware, financial transactions capital (FTC) is an area of borrowing that, in the past, has been challenging, to say the least, for the Executive to utilise fully. The Committee noted that some £70 million of the 2020-21 FTC provision has not yet been allocated. It therefore questioned officials to ascertain how FTC could be best utilised in order to provide loans or equity to private-sector entities as a means of driving the economy forward. In response, officials acknowledged that the Department for the Economy is aware of the available provision of FTC. However, it is not clear what plans may be in development to identify how that may be made available to private entities as an alternative source of finance.
Furthermore, members explored whether consideration may be given to utilising reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) borrowing to supplement any transfer capital in the event of Her Majesty's Treasury allowing flexibility to transfer capital DEL to resource. In response, officials outlined the position for the 2020-21 financial year, where there has been no RRI borrowing. Officials conceded that that could be an area for consideration but that borrowing would need to be balanced to take account of the repayment element of resource spending. Again, it would be helpful if the Minister outlined what the current repayment element is on RRI borrowing and whether the cost is met centrally or by the responsible Department.
The Committee also explored in detail the provisions under sole authority where spending may be allocated. The Committee was previously informed that that black-box spending occurs when it is for relatively small levels of expenditure below £1·5 million, for a relatively short period of not more than two years or to allow an urgent service to be delivered pending the development of new legislation. The Committee noted that the Main Estimates contain black-box provisions on six areas of spend that total over £58 million and sought to ensure that the criteria are being adhered to. The Committee noted that, in some instances, that expenditure either exceeds the small levels of expenditure, as in the case of welfare reform mitigation, and/or exceeds the two-year short period, as seen for supporting the operations of HMS Caroline. In response to questions from members, officials acknowledged that that was due to the inability to bring forward legislation as the Assembly was not sitting. However, in the case of Northern Ireland Screen, members questioned officials on the continued use of that provision as contained in the Main Estimates in view of the Northern Ireland Screen Commission (Funding) Order (Northern Ireland) 2020, which provides for the Department for the Economy to make grants. In response, officials confirmed that, going forward, that funding would not use the black-box provisions.
However, for this financial year, a proportion will be contained under sole authority to take account of the period prior to the order coming into effect.
To gain a clearer understanding of how that process works and to satisfy itself that there are sufficient controls in place to ensure that spending under sole authority is used appropriately, the Committee requested further information from the Department on the conditions attached to each area of spend. I had hoped to have the information in time to inform today's debate. I ask the Minister to provide that information to the Committee's office as soon as possible, so that I can update the House tomorrow during debate on the Budget (No. 3) Bill.
Turning to the Statement of Excesses, at its meeting on 16 September, the Committee considered the recent report from the Public Accounts Committee and noted its recommendation that the necessary amounts are provided by the Assembly.
The Committee also noted that the Northern Ireland Audit Office is undertaking an examination of the budgetary process. We look forward to seeing the conclusion of that work, including any conclusions or recommendations from the Comptroller and Auditor General. I also look forward to hearing from the Minister how the report will be used to inform his Department's ongoing review of the financial process.
As the House is aware, the Committee for Finance has a specific function to play when considering whether a Budget Bill should proceed under the accelerated passage procedure. I place on record my appreciation, on behalf of the Committee, for the timely receipt of information to help us to determine whether the Committee would be content to grant accelerated passage to the Budget (No. 3) Bill that is due to be introduced later in today's business. I cannot overstate how important it is that relevant, complete and timely information is provided by government to the Assembly and its Committees to help to provide for a more comprehensive dialogue and a greater understanding of what is quite a convoluted process. In that regard, the Committee and the Department are on the same page. I urge all Departments and scrutiny Committees to actively engage throughout the year. It was on that basis and on the regular and timely engagement that the Committee agreed, at its meeting last week, that it is content to grant accelerated passage, as provided for in Standing Order 42(2).
I welcome the opportunity to outline the Committee for Infrastructure's consideration of and views on the motions before us today, specifically on how this impacts the Department for Infrastructure and its ability to carry out its responsibilities. Scrutiny of the budget for the Department for Infrastructure — one of the Executive's largest spenders — is taken seriously by the Committee. However, the Committee regrets that there are still so many unknowns, including the ongoing pressures caused by the pandemic.
The 2020-21 Main Estimates provides £1·027 billion net resource for the Department for Infrastructure and £1·139 billion net cash requirement. Those figures are up substantially, by 23%, from the previous year. As I have mentioned on similar occasions, the financial situation faced by the Department is stark and has been exacerbated by the pandemic's impact. That position was reiterated during the Committee's scrutiny of the departmental budget on 30 September and in ministerial briefings when budget pressures were also discussed.
The Department outlined that its 2020-21 resource budget allocation was £417·9 million, up by £33 million from the previous year, and capital was £558 million, up £89 million from 2019-2020. Officials have provided the Committee with a rationale for October monitoring bids. That excludes the Department's bids for the mitigation of the impact of COVID-19, which is through a separate process.
The October monitoring bids include £3 million to fund a winter service programme in this financial year. The £3 million includes salt, fuel, overtime and shift allowances and maintenance of the gritting fleet. The other £1·6 million is for staff carrying over more holidays than usual this year due to the pandemic. Departmental officials explained that, while that is an issue across government, the significant pressures that remain in the Department mean that it cannot meet the cost from its existing budget.
With respect to capital funding, the Department has outlined its bid for an additional £9·1 million across a range of capital projects. The Department for Infrastructure has advised the Committee that COVID has created a number of accounting challenges. For many of its capital projects, the projected spend for 2020-21 was estimated down as lockdown took hold and work on many projects stalled. However, work has recommenced and, to a large extent, caught up on initial expectations. That has led to the Department having to ask for money back that it had been quick to surrender going into lockdown.
The Belfast transport hub is one such project. At the budget briefing on 30 September, officials explained that, in early April, the estimated expenditure for the Belfast transport hub project was reported as being £19·8 million to £21·4 million on the basis of projected delays of four to six months respectively due to the impact of COVID-19. The project was delayed to a lesser extent than was predicted, however, and, as a result, the estimated spend has increased to £22 million. Translink has requested additional funding of £1·6 million to meet that requirement.
Also in the Department's £9·1 million capital bid is a request for £5·5 million for structural road maintenance and safety measures. As I have said in the House previously, the cost of annual maintenance of our road network in order to maintain its structural integrity has been estimated at £143 million. For this financial year, £75 million has been allocated, which is a reduced amount, given restrictions placed on carrying out work during the pandemic. Once more, however, the impact on work has not been as significant as was thought, and the Department has made a bid for £4·5 million for remedial works following Storm Francis. The remaining £1 million bid for road maintenance is for the Department to take forward some limited minor works; local transport and safety measures, including traffic-signal upgrades; some localised road-widening works and crash barriers; and bridge-strengthening schemes.
The Department also provided the Committee with details of its scheme to replace old street lighting, outlining how it is responsible for almost 300,000 street lights, 13% of which have passed their working life of 40 years. To address the backlog, the Department has calculated that it will require £74 million. Some £14 million has been allocated this year, which will maintain the current position but not address the backlog. The Department has a bid in for £1 million to allow it to replace some 500 street lights that are past their working life.
The Department has also outlined its COVID recovery bids, which were submitted separately under the COVID and economic recovery exercise. The Department has asked for £36·6 million to mitigate a range of lost revenue as a consequence of the pandemic, including Translink passenger revenue and parking charges.
During the Committee's budget briefing, members queried why bids had not been submitted for Northern Ireland Water, given the continuing financial challenges that it faces. Officials noted that the £27 million that Northern Ireland Water received for COVID mitigation in September monitoring covered its resource pressures at that time.
Mr Speaker, I ask your indulgence to raise the issue of a financial package that is being considered for the taxi, coach and haulage sectors. The Department has said that it is still working through the possible costs of such a scheme. There is severe hardship and concern amongst those sectors, and some clarity would help assuage fears, particularly as we move through a period of tighter restrictions. I raise that only to request that arrangements for the scheme be expedited in order to be implemented as soon as possible.
The Committee for Infrastructure will continue its scrutiny of the Department for Infrastructure budget.
This is an unusual budgetary year. Tomorrow, we will debate our third Budget Bill, and today, in October, we are discussing the Main Estimates for the year. COVID-19 has had a huge impact on our society. First and foremost, it is a human tragedy with grave implications for public health. It has also created an evolving economic crisis that is likely to be greater than any experienced in recent times. The COVID crisis has meant, in budgetary terms, that we have had to react, react and react again, and that is unlikely to change soon. The economic impact and recession that we face will now be deeper and longer than what was hoped for back in March or April.
The second wave that was predicted by clinicians and scientists is now being felt across the world and here at home. The substantial interventions that came from the British Government early in the pandemic are beginning to be switched off at a time when cases of COVID-19 are rising at an alarming rate and restrictions are being reimposed. While some will ask," How will we pay for it?", I ask how we do anything other than try to protect businesses and jobs and workers' and families' incomes and livelihoods here and now. The ending of the furlough scheme is premature, and I know that the Minister agrees with me on that. Its replacement — the job support scheme — will not protect jobs, and, going on the numbers of people in the North who are still furloughed or partially furloughed, there will be thousands of redundancies.
The extended job support scheme announced for businesses ordered to close was a welcome intervention, but guaranteeing only 67% of the income of someone who is on minimum wage is not enough to ensure that families can put food on the table and pay their bills. The assertion from the British Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, that it can be topped up by universal credit may be technically correct but is absurd. That will put additional pressure on our social security system, which is already under pressure. It would be much better to ensure an adequate wage rather than additional administrative costs and burdens to the system.
I urge the Minister to keep the pressure on the British Treasury. I know that he has done so and will keep doing so because many businesses and families face very difficult circumstances, and, as we all know, our economy and the health of our people are interlinked. There is no trade-off: we need to do both.
The Main Estimates put DFE's budget at more than £462 million greater than last year. That is due, in part, to the huge amount that has been allocated by the Executive to date to business support and other COVID allocations. Those have been vital interventions to support business, protect jobs and support further and higher education institutes, students and research. Despite many having received support, many others have remained excluded. The Minister has previously outlined that he is open to considering any bids from Ministers to support those excluded groups, and he has urged Ministers to bring those forward. I hope that they will listen and respond to the need out there.
I want to ask the Minister about the flexibility available to Departments and Ministers in the distribution of the allocations. For example, if funding is allocated for business support for recovery and there is a need to respond to the situation that we are in now, is there flexibility to utilise that funding in a slightly different way to support businesses in meeting the immediate need that people face? When officials briefed the Committee for the Economy on Wednesday, they indicated that they had been engaging with Department of Finance officials around that and that that would be the case. I would like the Minister to address that point.
According to the Main Estimates, Invest NI, which usually has an annual budget of around £100 million, has been allocated £430 million this year. That is a huge allocation, and it is vital that we see real, effective results. Frankly, Minister, I have some concerns in that regard. Economic development needs to be about the whole economy and not just cater for a select few. I put it to Invest NI in Committee, a couple of weeks ago, that there is a lack of information forthcoming about what shapes the business supports that we have seen. There are numerous support schemes, but why do they target the ones that they do? Why have other groups been missed out? The sole traders, for example, had their hopes raised that they would be able to access the Invest NI-administered hardship fund, only to have those hopes dashed. To date, there has been no support forthcoming for that group.
Social enterprise is another category that did not pique the interest of Invest; instead, the Minister for Communities had to pick up that group, despite it not being her remit. Similarly, taxi drivers and coach operators are of no interest to Invest. One of the latest schemes, which was announced about a fortnight ago, will see consultants pick up about £8,000 to help businesses make financial plans. I can tell you, Minister, that I hear from businesses that they do not want support for consultants; they want cash support.
There needs to be a real conversation about the role and remit of Invest NI as our economic development agency. If we look at the measure of effectiveness of Invest over the past decade, the fact that we have the lowest economic growth and productivity across these islands speaks for itself. If we want to shape a truly transformative economic recovery that will address the structural issues in our local economy, it needs to be about the whole economy, supporting our SMEs during these difficult times, developing local supply chains and supporting indigenous businesses to develop new and innovative ways to create a greener, fairer and more equal economy. It needs to do more than pay lip service to addressing regional imbalances and inequalities.
Finally, I want to touch briefly on Brexit. Most people across the North were utterly dismayed by the comments of the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on Friday, when he suggested that we were heading for a no-deal outcome to the future arrangements negotiations. You will agree — I am sure that most here will — that having no trade deal will be disastrous for individuals, businesses and communities across the North. The prospect that, in 73 days, businesses will be expected to operate in an as yet unknown trading environment, with assistance for VAT, labelling requirements, checks and tariffs having not yet been worked out, is deeply concerning.
Business representatives have consistently called for certainty and highlighted the need for a trade deal to minimise trade friction. The Minister has been in discussions with, and made representations on Brexit funding to, the British Government. However, if we are heading towards a no-deal outcome, it is important that additional support will be forthcoming from the Treasury to help our businesses and communities to prepare and respond to the immediate impact that will hit in January. People here did not choose Brexit and should not have to foot the bill for the Tories' disastrous, short-sighted folly.
In April, the Committee heard evidence from departmental officials on the pressures that the Executive Office had identified and the budget allocation made by the Executive. It also heard evidence from officials on the June and October monitoring rounds.
Budget scrutiny is one of the statutory responsibilities of a Committee, and we take it seriously. Throughout the budgetary process, we need to look in detail at the spend, the pressures and the easements. However, to do that, the Committee needs to be provided with the right information at the right time. The Committee experienced some issues in getting budgetary information on time. This matter was raised by the Finance Committee, and we welcome the commitment of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to endeavour to adhere to the Department of Finance's guidelines on providing timely financial responses in future.
The Committee appreciates that the budget process can throw up issues that require political engagement and take time to resolve. However, for the Committee's part, budget scrutiny must be robust and timely. We do not need a rerun of the renewable heat incentive (RHI) debacle. The Executive Office received an uplift in its 2020-21 budget of over 72% on the previous year, primarily due to the inclusion of ring-fenced funding of £37·5 million for historical institutional abuse payments. We now know that, due to a delay in getting the redress panels into full operation, an easement of £10 million has been identified in the October monitoring round. The Committee hopes that £1·5 million of that easement can be used to meet the non-ring-fenced COVID-19 pressures being faced by the Department.
Funding for the redress of victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse continues to be a priority for the Committee. The redress board has made excellent progress, and, by the end of September, determinations totalling £4·1 million had been made. We need to see similar progress being made to secure a commitment from the institutions and religious orders to contribute to the cost of compensation. Estimates of the cost of the scheme range from £149 million at the lower end to £668 million at the upper end. There simply is not scope to fund the scheme entirely from the block grant. Apart from that, these institutions and religious orders have a moral duty to help to compensate the victims and survivors, who have waited all this time to get redress for the dreadful abuse that they experienced and for their continued suffering. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister are to meet with the institutions and others, and I hope that we will see financial commitments being made very soon.
That leads me to another area where we do not have the means to meet the costs. In the June monitoring round, the Executive Office received £2·5 million for the administrative costs of victims' payments. That was welcomed, and it allowed work on the administration structures to commence. As we all know, the Department of Justice will administer the scheme. We cannot get away from the costs that might or might not lie ahead of us. The truth of the matter is that we do not know how much the victims' payment scheme will cost, and, even more worryingly, we do not know how the costs will be met.
The story of the victims' payment scheme is similar to that of the historical institutional abuse payments, in that there are wide-ranging cost estimates. The estimated cost in year 1 ranges from £25 million at the lower end to £60 million at the upper end, and the scheme is estimated to cost £109 million in its initial three-year period. The figures are staggering, but, no doubt, they will become even more staggering once the further financial modelling has been completed. Officials are working hard to try to estimate the likely costs, and the Committee appreciates that it is a tough job because of the many variables. Members are absolutely clear that Westminster should foot the bill. That is not a departure from normal practice; it is in line with the Treasury's policy that the Department that makes the policy should bear its cost. The Committee welcomes the dialogue between Ministers here and in Westminster to try to get the funding needed for the scheme. I sincerely hope that it is resolved sooner rather than later for the sake of the victims, who have already waited far too long.
Despite identifying pressures, the Executive Office did not receive an allocation for COVID in the budget. However, it received £0·5 million in the June monitoring round to cover the cost of work with the press. Following the June monitoring round, the residual COVID pressure stood at £2·2 million, but, in October, that had increased to £3·4 million because of consultancy costs for data analytics. Whilst we appreciate that data analytics are crucial in the fight against the pandemic, there is a concern that consultants are being paid huge amounts of money because there is not the capacity in the Civil Service to deliver that work, and that is something that should be addressed going forward.
I will now make a few remarks in my capacity as an SDLP MLA. I wish to highlight that lots of the spending in Northern Ireland in the past period has been focused on coronavirus, and rightly so, but much of the spending through COVID has been bits and pieces and could be characterised as reactionary, haphazard and devoid of a strategy. That needs to be addressed, especially with the Minister's Executive colleague the Economy Minister. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that there are many other priorities that need to be addressed as well. We have the impending doom of Brexit and the almighty harm that it will unleash on businesses here in the North. That will be a double-edged sword if there is no deal, and, from the soundings over the weekend, that looks altogether more likely. However, I note that we really are the experts on elongated negotiations and pushing matters to the wire.
Many of the budget lines and commentaries in these Estimates reference pressures due to Brexit and income loss as a result. Many communities and organisations across the North urgently require clarification and guidance. There is a real task ahead of us rebuilding our economy after COVID and Brexit and shaping it into the type of economy that delivers for local businesses in the context of the global neighbourhood and utilises our excellent natural resources as well as our skills base.
The Department for the Economy needs to be strategic and planned in its interventions, not just reactionary. To set that in context, we now have, at long last, the commitment to the Magee school of medicine in Derry. I hope that it will be delivered soon, with fewer young people leaving our shores for their degree pathway and more medics staying here and having greater opportunities for advancement in their careers here at home. That work must begin with the Executive Office delivering a strategy. It is the Department that is supposed to drive the institutions of government here and ensure genuine cohesion of purpose.
I look forward to hearing the contributions from other Members, but let us not lose sight of putting the people of the North at the heart of our discussions. A firm resolve to work in unity for all our people is our primary objective and, ultimately, our role in this Chamber.
I speak today in my position as finance spokesperson for the Alliance Party. I am conscious that we have the Budget (No. 3) Bill tomorrow, so I will try not to be repetitive about issues that will be raised tomorrow. I thank the Minister for bringing the motions before the Assembly today. I also thank and pay tribute to the officials across all the Departments who have worked to produce the Main Estimates. I appreciate the amount of work that has gone into the process this year more than ever.
I recognise the context behind the 2016-17 excesses, and the Chair of the Finance Committee mentioned some key issues pertaining to those. The reasons why these institutions collapsed have often been debated, and I do not intend to add to that debate today.
In respect of the 2020-21 Main Estimates, it is vital that Northern Ireland Departments have the legal authority to spend. They must spend to support our health service, the economy and wider public services that continue to be battered by COVID-19. The Main Estimates cover the period to the end of March next year. It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions are likely to be with us throughout that time, pending the successful roll-out of an approved vaccine. The majority of the £2·4 billion that Northern Ireland has thus far received from Westminster in response to COVID-19 has already been spent. Much of what the Executive have distributed thus far has been a lifeline to businesses and individuals across Northern Ireland, as well as maintaining vital public services. Spending by Departments must be targeted so that support gets to where it needs to go.
I welcome the assistance announced for businesses that are experiencing loss of trade due to the latest set of restrictions, funded from additional Barnett consequentials. I am, however, deeply concerned that the same group that was excluded from support in the spring could be excluded once again. The Minister for the Economy must urgently bring forward measures to assist those who are excluded from the Land and Property Services (LPS) scheme announced last week. That includes sole traders and businesses that pay domestic rates or do not operate out of rateable premises. Those firms have been failed once already; it would be utterly unacceptable if they were failed again. We heard this morning from private coach operators about the support that they require. They belong to one of many different sectors that need that assistance. I agree with the Chair of the Economy Committee that businesses need assistance — not consultants to tell them how bad it is.
Secondly, Ministers must pick up the pace when it comes to rolling out support schemes. We appreciate the speed with which the LPS scheme was brought forward last week. However, I am deeply concerned that Northern Ireland still does not have a Kickstart scheme to support young people, given that such schemes were announced over three months ago in England, with the resultant Barnett consequentials. Talking of Barnett consequentials, my party and I are increasingly concerned that we could end up surrendering some of the additional Barnett consequentials at the end of the financial year, as a result of Departments' inability to bring forward bids and to spend the money allocated.
Finally, £2·4 billion is a colossal sum of money, but it is a drop in the ocean in comparison with the damage being wreaked by COVID-19. I continue to support the Minister of Finance in calling on the UK Government to give the Northern Ireland Executive the additional financial firepower required to enable us to fund further COVID-19 interventions. Allowing the Executive to borrow would enable additional financial flexibilities to provide the much-needed support to our NHS, the economy and vital public services. The devolved Administrations must be given the tools to respond to what has already been a tough autumn and what is likely to be an even more difficult winter.
I ask the Minister of Finance to provide an update on his conversations with Her Majesty's Treasury regarding borrowing powers for the Northern Ireland Executive. Furthermore, can he confirm whether, in addition to working with the Finance Ministers of the devolved Administrations, he has been in contact with regional leaders in England, who are also calling for further support from Westminster?
In conclusion, my party supports the motions today. Future spending by the Executive needs to be quick, targeted and sufficient to meet the scale of the challenges that we are presented with. The public in Northern Ireland need to feel confident that their Government have the tools and the willingness to do everything in their power to see us through these unprecedented times.
Mr Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to speak on this matter today. Indeed, I had hoped that, since the last discussions about expenditure, the economic outlook for the Departments, not least DAERA, would be discussed in a new era where restrictions around the COVID-19 virus were a little less stringent. However, that is not the case, and we in the Chamber and in the wider community must redouble our efforts to suppress the virus and allow a degree of normality to return within the shortest possible time frame, while, of course, having every regard to the health of people, in particular the health of our most vulnerable.
These are difficult times; we all recognise that. Once again, we find ourselves in the middle of a four-week restricted period. With that, come further significant financial pressures on our economy and, indeed, on Stormont budgets. These are unprecedented times, and they call for unprecedented measures. There certainly have been unprecedented measures delivered over the past few months through the furlough scheme, the various well-received COVID-19 grant schemes, be those the rating grants or sports grants, and the various measures for the provision of welfare benefits. That assistance has been absolutely crucial, and many, many hundreds of businesses are operating today because of it. I thank the Westminster Treasury and our Departments for that support.
The unknown factor is the length of time for which any such measures will be required, and that makes the issue of looking to the future and budgeting very difficult at this time. That having been said, it is vital that our government services continue and that we ensure that the process of governing continues across all Departments.
With regard to DAERA, I want to say that I am very proud of the agri-food industry and how it has operated under immense pressure throughout the pandemic. The resilience and energy shown by everyone involved in agriculture, both on the ground and in the industry and the Department, have meant that the Province's food requirements have been met and more.
I thank and pay tribute to the AERA Minister, Edwin Poots MLA, who has shown an acute understanding of the industry and its needs throughout his tenure and, more importantly, throughout the current pandemic. There was significant pressure on him and his officials to come up with support schemes for agriculture, and those have been delivered and well received across the sectors. It is welcome that the ornamental horticulture grant scheme is up and running, and I know that that will be of further assistance to the industry.
As I highlighted in a contribution earlier in the year, the House is clear that our agri-food industry has shown tremendous resilience throughout the pandemic. I salute all those in the industry who have kept the wheels of food production turning in difficult circumstances. That has been noted and appreciated.
DAERA staff also continue to work hard and have done so throughout the pandemic. The processing of basic farm payments has been another important and significant job of work. Something that is worthy of note is that the basic farm payments will, for the first time, be made in full this month. That is a significant achievement, especially in these days. Also important is that over 94% of payments, totalling £265·7 million, had been made by Friday past. I know that administration costs have always been a focus for DAERA, and I believe that important progress has been made in streamlining processing payments and the use of online systems, which have had tremendous uptake in the farming community. It certainly has assisted with this drive.
As I said, the future remains unclear, especially in the shorter term. On Brexit, the ongoing discussions regarding our Department and the European Union provide an element of uncertainty; however, I believe that brighter days are ahead and that farming outside the EU will bring opportunity. I have made my views well known at the Committee about the need for the legislation that will help to maintain and operate agriculture post Brexit to be dealt with in a timely and positive manner. I hope that Members who still harbour a dislike for the democratic result of the referendum will work for the good of the industry rather than against it. I support the motion.
The Committee has been considering the DAERA budget on and off for the past eight or nine months. When we started our consideration, we could never have imagined something like COVID-19 and the impact that it would have on all parts of our society. That includes the impact on our agri-food industry and how DAERA has used its budget to respond to and deal with it.
I will start by referring to the additional agri-food COVID-19 funding that DAERA bid for and was successful in obtaining. We have every reason to be proud of our agri-food industry. It has kept operating and kept the food supply chain running seamlessly during the worst of the lockdown and into this new phase, and we have every confidence that it will continue to do so in the coming months. For some, however, particularly the farmers, it has not been easy. We have an industry here that produces high-quality food that is exported all over the world. It has also been supplying the hospitality and catering industries, and it is that aspect that has taken a direct hit. Be it seafood, our grass-fed cattle and hill sheep or our local potatoes, the farmers have taken a body blow as the markets for their produce — the export and the home markets — have just disappeared. The AERA Minister made a bid for and received an additional £25 million for the agri-food sector. As I indicated, that was with the full support of the Committee. We, as a Committee, also took a specific interest in that funding and have helped to shape how it is distributed. We made a quick call for evidence and heard in writing from a large number of farmers and stakeholder groups about what was happening on the ground and what support was needed.
There are two schemes for the distribution of the £25 million support. The first, with the bulk of the money, is for the dairy, beef, sheep and potato farmers and accounts for £21·4 million. The dairy sector gets up to £11 million, while the beef sector gets £7 million. That scheme is now closed. The Committee was clear with the Department that the funding should be targeted at those who were most in need and had suffered most loss and that it should be equitable in its distribution. Some members still have concerns about the funding for beef cattle and whether enough was given to sheep farmers. However, we are all aware that we are not out of the woods when it comes to the financial impact on farmers. Further support may yet be needed in this financial year.
The second scheme is aimed at the ornamental horticulture sector and accounts for £1·6 million. That is the sector from which many of our vegetables, soft fruits and garden plants come. When the secondary legislation to provide authority to the Department to spend that money came to the Agriculture Committee, it had concerns with the requirement for those businesses to be VAT-registered. The ornamental horticulture sector has lots of small businesses, many of which are not VAT-registered and would not, therefore, be eligible to apply. I am glad to say that we, as a Committee, made strong representation to DAERA on that aspect and that the requirement for VAT registration has now been removed. That funding scheme opened recently, and applications are now being received by DAERA.
An additional £1·5 million is being made available to the fisheries sector. Recently, the Committee wrote to the Department to get an update on that funding.
The Main Estimates and Supply resolution will also show that some £3·8 million of COVID-19 funding has been allocated towards waste. Most of that was to help local authorities to cope with the closure of public amenity sites during lockdown and the resultant increase in fly-tipping.
The Committee was aware that the aquaculture sector was also suffering, so it was pleased to hear that £368,000 had been secured for it, with 80% of that coming from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund.
I will move on to the next major area of financial concern for the Committee and one to which we have recently turned our attention: the financial impact on DAERA of preparing for and delivering EU exit at the end of the transition period. In written briefings to the Committee, DAERA noted that it needed an additional 456 staff to support the wider delivery of Brexit and was actively working to fill those posts. However, there is no baseline funding for those staff. The Department, therefore, has flagged up to the Department of Finance a requirement of £25·6 million resource DEL to cover the full-year costs of those staff in 2021-22. Additional staffing may be required depending on the need for contingency arrangements.
Under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and the protocol, DAERA is required to implement the EU Official Controls Regulation. That includes sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on regulated goods arriving at points of entry into the jurisdiction. The preparedness work includes physical facilities as well as IT systems and trained staff. It also requires reprioritising DAERA work programmes and the staff resource required to deliver post-transition official controls. DAERA had submitted a business case to the Treasury. In August, its business case to procure facilities for physical checks, with the aim of reducing the need for documentary and ID checks of goods to be carried out at points of entry, was successful. The costs for its preferred option are approximately £45 million, with £38 million required for upfront capital expenditure. Around £6 million of revenue will be required for recruiting, employing and training additional personnel and programme implementation costs.
Yet another major issue with EU exit is the future funding to replace current EU funding. As Members are aware, the bulk of EU funding that comes to DAERA is paid out as direct payments to farmers. While the Committee welcomes the fact that funding of £293 million has been secured for 2020-21, it still has concerns about what will happen beyond that date. Recently, payments began to be issued to farmers, and DAERA was able to get some 94% of payments, totalling £265·7million, out on the first day. The payments will include a 4·3% linear increase on basic payment entitlements.
I also note that Penny Mordaunt MP, the Paymaster General, wrote to the devolved Administrations on 13 July 2020 confirming the British Government's manifesto commitment to maintain the current annual budgets for farming and fishing for the duration of the Parliament. That confirmation is welcomed as a starting point. However, the Committee recently received a letter, which it will consider this week, from the Minister of Finance to the Chair of the Finance Committee on EU funding. In that letter, the Finance Minister notes with regard to replacements for agriculture funding that, while the guarantee has been received from the British Government, there are concerns about how elements of the funding for that guarantee have been calculated and that that could result in a cut in support for rural communities. As I said, that is new information, and the Committee will have to decide how it wishes to take that forward.
The Committee has also expressed concerns about replacement funding for rural development —
As Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, I will address the Supply resolution for the Northern Ireland Estimates 2016-17 Statement of Excesses.
On 2 July and 8 July of this year, the Public Accounts Committee considered the reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General on the resource accounts of Departments that had exceeded the limits of expenditure authorised by the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is part of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s control framework over government spending. It is the role of the Public Accounts Committee to scrutinise the reasons behind each Department's excess of allocated resources and to report to the Assembly on whether it has any objections to making good the reported excesses.
The Committee reported to the Assembly on the Excess Votes (Northern Ireland) 2016-17 on 8 July 2020. I will outline the Committee’s consideration of those Excess Votes. First, it is important to note that, due to the dissolution of the Assembly in January 2017, the process of considering the approval of the 2016-17 spring Supplementary Estimates by way of a Budget Bill could not take place. As a direct consequence, a number of Departments incurred resource and cash excesses. Specifically, in 2016-17, nine Departments incurred Excess Votes. Seven Departments incurred resource excesses totalling £183·12 million and six Departments incurred cash excesses totalling £112·62 million. There were no Excess Votes in 2015-16. The Committee noted that eight of those excesses were technical in nature, as the mechanism to regularise revised resource and cash requirements was not available to Departments. The Public Accounts Committee notes that, in the majority of cases, if the Assembly had been sitting, those Excesses could have been regularised in-year through the Supplementary Estimates process. The remaining case involved other budgetary issues that would have resulted in an Excess Vote even if the Assembly had approved the spring Supplementary Estimate.
The specific case was the Department of Health's Health and Social Care (HSC) pension scheme, which incurred a resource excess of £2·22 million because the current service cost figure used in the budgetary process had been underestimated as a result of the actual payroll details not being available at the time. We understand that the Department has advised the Comptroller and Auditor General that it will continue to liaise with the Government Actuary's Department to determine what further reviews can be carried out when the spring Supplementary Estimate forecast is being prepared. They will continue to work closely together to scrutinise forecasts to ensure that they are as robust as possible.
Having considered the reasons for the Excess Votes, the Committee recommends that the Assembly provides additional resources, as summarised for each Department or other public body in part 1 of the Northern Ireland Estimates 2016-17 Statement of Excesses that was laid before the Assembly on 13 October 2020. However, it is important to stress that the scale of some of the excesses suggest to the Public Accounts Committee that there is room for greater precision in budget setting. We, therefore, welcome the fact that the Comptroller and Auditor General is conducting a separate investigation of the operation of the budgetary process in Northern Ireland. We look forward to the outcome of that work.
I welcome the opportunity to reflect on the Committee's considerations. Further to briefings that we received in April and June, the Health Committee was updated last week by departmental officials on this year’s financial situation in Health and Social Care. Once again, our briefing was couched in terms of the ongoing uncertainty of the situation given the rising and ongoing COVID-19 pressures.
By way of overview, while the budget for 2020-21 saw a rise of 4·7% and the Department has benefited from subsequent in-year allocations, Members will be aware that significant pressures remain. Our lengthy waiting lists are well documented, most New Decade, New Approach transformation commitments remain unfunded, and the pressures on the system continue to rise.
I will speak first about the resource budget. The 1%, or £50 million, savings target for trusts, previously flagged as risky, remains a significant challenge, not least in the context of coronavirus but also because of assumptions that previous savings would be recurrent, despite the Department's acknowledgement that there was little evidence to back that up. The Committee has now been advised that the Department is bidding for £15 million of additional resource to address around half of the projected unmet financial pressures in trusts. Officials did state, however, that there can at times be reduced demand towards the end of the financial year, and that may alleviate remaining pressures somewhat.
Upon the return of the Assembly, we were advised that £30 million was required to address red-flag and urgent cases of elective care, plus a further £50 million to clear the backlog of long-waiters, yet the Department sought and received only £10·3 million in June for that purpose, because of COVID pressure on capacity. It is now seeking a relatively small additional amount of £1·5 million.
The Committee has sought an updated projection of waiting times and hopes that the dedicated day-procedure centre at Lagan Valley Hospital will help ease some of the pressures. Pressures from staff costs have resulted in a further £6·7 million bid for resource for an inflationary pay increase being implemented across here, England, Scotland and Wales.
The Committee has been advised that, owing to a failure to secure end-year flexibility on funding for the Encompass project, the resulting requirement to absorb the £48 million cost from this year's capital budget has created unmet pressures for estate maintenance, equipment and fleet. The Department is therefore bidding for additional resource in that area. Officials acknowledged that current uncertainties create major risks to projects at or near building stage, where the Department may not be able to spend as planned.
The Department now expects to spend around £94 million on transformation projects. Although that is a tiny fraction of the £6 billion budget, it is significantly more than the Department expected to have available at the start of the year. It exceeds, although not by much, the £81 million projected requirement to stand still, but officials also stated that transformation has become an element of all services, not just the dedicated transformation projects. Transformation remains key to safeguarding the future of our health and social care system. That level of funding is simply incapable of delivering the scale of change required. Nevertheless, some comfort can be drawn from the undoubted innovation and determination seen in continuing efforts to transform services even while we are in the midst of a pandemic.
It is clear that the entire budgetary discussion is dominated by COVID-19 pressures. Those pressures impact on capacity, irrespective of how much money could be allocated in the coming months. Pre-existing workforce shortages have been exacerbated, and that is an issue that takes years to solve, given the long lead-in times, despite a touchingly positive response to the workforce appeal, which has brought hundreds of workers out of retirement at a time of need and at a time when we deeply appreciate that effort.
The current estimated cost of the crisis is around £900 million. In addition to previous allocations, the Department hopes to draw down a further tranche of £526 million of funding from a centrally held pot now that it has completed a required needs assessment. The Department has identified unmet capital pressures of £33 million to deal with COVID pressures and has submitted a bid for further resource in that area. The resources are required to cover PPE, the Nightingale hospital, surge planning, testing, staff costs, rebuilding services and the digital rebuild, which is a range of IT solutions to enable HSC to resume services in a way that is safe for patients and staff.
Needless to say, there remains much uncertainty about the further costs of the pandemic in the months to come. The Department has therefore advised us that its capacity to rebuild services will depend on the nature and severity of the pandemic over those coming months.
I conclude my remarks as Health Committee Chair there and will contribute as Sinn Féin's health spokesperson in tomorrow's debate.
I will speak first as Chairperson of the Audit Committee. The main role of the Audit Committee is to scrutinise and agree the budgets and Estimates of the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) and the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO), and to lay the Estimates before the Assembly. The Committee also undertakes a budget scrutiny role for the Assembly Commission, although my contribution today will relate solely to the Estimates for the Audit Office and ombudsman, given that the functions in respect of the Commission are yet to be codified. The Committee recently agreed to take advice to progress this matter.
The Audit Committee fulfils its Estimates role in place of the Department of Finance in recognition of the independence of these non-ministerial bodies, although the Committee has regard to the advice of DOF — and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in respect of the Audit Office — in carrying out this role.
The Audit Committee’s 'Report on the Estimates of the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman 2020-21' was laid in the Business Office on 10 September 2020. The contents of that report reflect the factual position on the Committee’s scrutiny and deliberations relating to the evidence from both the Audit Office and the ombudsman on their draft budgets for 2020-21. That position was reflected in a Committee report published on 5 March 2020.
It was anticipated that the Main Estimates giving legal effect to those budgets would follow in June. However, given the impact of the public health pandemic, that process was postponed. Instead, what followed was a Budget (No. 2) Bill and further Vote on Account, allowing the Main Estimates to be taken forward at this time.
When considering the Estimates for both bodies, the Committee noted correspondence from the Department of Finance, which indicated that the figures included in the Main Estimates for 2020-21 would be those figures included in the Committee’s report on the draft budgets, published on 5 March 2020. The Committee was also informed that the cash, resources and accruing resources, for which the Assembly’s approval will be sought in the corresponding Budget (No. 3) Bill, will also be written to that position. On that basis, the Committee was content to agree its position by way of Standing Order 115(9).
In its report published on 10 September, the Committee noted that the Estimates were consistent with the figures set out in the Executive’s draft Budget document, as explained in correspondence from the Department of Finance and accompanying reconciliation information, which is provided as part of the Committee’s report. We also noted that PAC agreed that its view, reached on 20 February 2020, remained unchanged and that it had no further comment to make in that regard.
The consideration of the draft Estimates and associated correspondence formed the basis of the Committee report, which gave legal effect to the Audit Committee’s statutory function of laying the Estimates for the NIAO and NIPSO before the Assembly. Those were submitted to the Department of Finance for inclusion in the Main Estimates.
Given the connection between the figures in the Estimates and draft budget reports, I would like to highlight some of the Committee’s deliberations concerning the budgets for the NIAO and NIPSO. Members questioned officials on the Audit Office’s new business model and transformation work undertaken in recent times. The Committee also sought clarification on the capital budget to refurbish the NIAO’s accommodation, and members recently received an update on the increased costs for that project.
Despite its relatively small budget, Committee members were struck by the wide remit of the NIPSO, as well as the growing numbers of complaints considered since the office’s inception in 2016. Members have taken an interest in the NIPSO’s role in relation to the Complaints Standards Authority in respect of potential savings by reducing the number of complaints finding their way to the NIPSO in the first place. Now that a permanent ombudsman appointment has been made, we look forward to productive engagement in the coming months.
As I have said before, the Committee would be supportive of a multi-year budgetary framework, enabling an improved strategic budgetary focus. The Committee has noted that any changes to the budget allocations for the Northern Ireland Audit Office or the NIPSO during the 2020-21 financial year will be handled through the spring Supplementary Estimates. We will examine those with appropriate diligence in due course. That concludes my comments as Chair of the Audit Committee.
I will now make a few comments as an MLA for West Tyrone and my party's education spokesperson. The times that we are in are, obviously, unprecedented, and we are all learning as the days arise. It is also very clear that, throughout our respective constituencies and in absolutely every facet of life, our people are being impacted upon as a result of the virus.
When schools reopened, after months of closure, we saw the huge and crippling consequences of the pandemic on our teaching and non-teaching staff. It is vital that, as far as possible, our schools are fully and absolutely resourced to ensure that our teachers and school leaders can cope with the incredible pressures that have arisen as a result of the pandemic.
It is also important that the allocations made are relative to the crisis that we face in our economy. Many businesses out there have fallen between stools of late and will undoubtedly do so again on this occasion. It is important that the Assembly works collectively to ensure that no person is left behind and that whatever financial interventions are available are sought and delivered to them.
We are in very difficult times. We face a tsunami of challenges in the Assembly and in society. People are finding it extremely tough. They have to make decisions about how to protect the health of their family and, at the same time, how to feed them. It is a very complicated and difficult situation for us all, but it is very important that the Minister consider making as many interventions as possible, with the help of the British Government in Westminster, to ensure that we support businesses as much as possible. We should also ensure that we match the support that is available elsewhere, even the £500 isolation fund that is available in England. That should be available here to support our people and ensure that they can make informed and correct decisions to protect them and their families at this time.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the A5. I have mentioned it at every possible hurdle when we have been speaking about finances in Northern Ireland, and I would like to see it fully delivered. The SDLP has the Ministry, and I have every confidence in our Minister, but I hope that the Finance Minister will allocate the funds necessary to deliver that project. It will transform the lives of the people in my constituency and throughout the north-west.
I want to make two general points and one specific point. I declare an interest as a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. It is clear that the Chief Constable is on a mission to transform the Police Service: its numbers, its estate and through the use of the IT and digital technology that are available to him. It is also clear that he wishes to change the uniform. We learned today that he has initiated a pilot scheme in which 150 officers are road-testing what we might call a more relaxed and modern uniform, certainly one without a shirt and tie, which is creating much feedback on social media.
If we look back 21 years, we see that Chris Patten and his Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland made two key recommendations. Number 44 was:
"Policing with the community should be the core function of the police service and the core function of every police station"
Recommendation 45 was:
"Every neighbourhood (or rural area) should have a dedicated policing team with lead responsibility for policing its area".
To achieve those recommendations, we must honour the commitment in New Decade, New Approach to increase the complement of police officers to 7,500. That is a key challenge for the Minister of Finance, because, this day last week, the Minister of Justice stood in the Chamber and told us that her priority was dealing with "inescapable pressures", which she defined as dealing with:
"just standing still" — [Official Report (Hansard), 12 October 2020, p55, col 2]. not to deliver on any commitments under New Decade, New Approach.
The specific point that I want to mention is one that has been raised by the Police Service: funding for EU exit. The police believe that they are just over £4 million short — I believe that it is £4·1 million — of the money that should be delivered to them for that purpose. I am not aware whether that money rests with the Department of Finance or is still with the Treasury in London. However, if the Minister has the power to sign off on that, I urge him to do so. If not, I urge him to use whatever influence he has to ensure that the money is released as soon as possible from London and made available to Simon Byrne and his senior team of officers.
The other general point that I would like to make is about multi-year Budgets. I know that the Minister favours those, and I am sure that he is frustrated that, to a certain extent, we have to follow the lead from London, which has broken down somewhat and is not following the expected route. I want to approach it from the point of view of users on the ground and put on record the experience that I had in the two years during which I helped to set up the Commission for Victims and Survivors of the conflict.
That put us in direct contact with up to 100 voluntary and community groups, all of which existed to help provide services for those who had been injured and hurt during the course of our long conflict.
There were two things that I discovered with regard to annual budgeting. The first was that a group might identify a new service that it could offer and which might be of benefit to many of its members. After securing funding, it might employ a key worker to deliver that service, but that key worker might be on a one-year annual contract, and after six, seven or eight months that worker would be thinking about the fact that they had a mortgage to pay, a car to run and a family to look after, so they would become concerned about whether that contract would be renewed. However, when they asked the organisation, the organisation was not able to give them a solid answer, because it was waiting to see what the Executive were going to do with regard to next year's Budget. What would often happen is that that key worker would then see a job advertised in the statutory sector, and off they would go. The net effect on the people who that worker was providing the service for was that they had been taken up a nice ladder to a better place, but were now down the long snake and in a worse place because they knew that there was better to be had.
The second problem with annual funding is that the voluntary and community sectors are therefore disinclined to share best practice. Sharing best practice is surely exactly what we want them to do, to ensure that we get the best return for our investment. However, if you are competing on an annual basis for a budget, then you are not going to share best practice for fear that the person who you are sharing with is going to put in the better bid for next year's budget, which means that may end up losing out.
I hope that the Minister retains his drive and desire to see multi-year Budgets, and that this is the last time that we will have this debate in these terms in the House. It is not just about the quantum of money that we allocate but the manner and conditions with which we allocate it.
I will say at the outset that these are unique times. It is a strange year, not least for the officials in the Department of Finance. I have a certain sympathy for officials — it may sometimes not seem like it in the Committee — who have had to work extremely hard on the budgetary process this year, and of course for the next year, with all of the unknowns that that brings. However, this difficult year has brought with it an influx of money and whilst I am certainly not blaming the officials on this, it is clear that we seem to be struggling to spend the additional Barnett consequential money. It is very clear, not least in the last week, that we need more strategic thought injected into the Executive's decisions, and the Finance Minister is at the heart of that. It has been stated here, even by the last Member to speak, that we should have multi-year Budgets. I think that all of us recognise the advantage of having multi-year Budgets. That is how we deliver our budgets at home — of course it is — so why would that not be the case in a Government and in a devolved Assembly like this?
However, you can have all the multi-year Budgets that you like, but unless you bring strategic thought to those Budgets then one year will roll into the next, one error will roll into the next error, and instead of having errors on a yearly basis, we will have them on a three-yearly basis and nothing will change. So again, yes, the cry should be heard loudly about multi-year Budgets, but unless you have strategic thought injected into that by the Executive, it will count for absolutely nothing.
One query I ask of the Minister for when he is preparing his statement — I know that his officials will be listening — is about table 1.3, which is a summary of total amounts. With regard to the Vote on Account, the resources do not match up, bar two, with the Vote on Account which we passed months ago in the Assembly. I am asking this genuinely because again, I do not know: why are they different? Is it due to injections of money that they have had over the months? If so, why are they based in table 1.3? Why not start off with the Vote on Account sums and then build up the balance and total provision? I am seeking clarification on that from the Minister and the officials.
Here we are, having to go through what will be called the Budget (No. 3) Bill and the uniqueness that that brings with it; it is really, really strange. Yet out on the ground, after all the months that we have had to cope with this crisis, there are sectors that have still received no support. Haulage companies, travel agents, taxi services, the newly self-employed, social enterprises and the supply chains of business that no longer need their supplies have not been supported as they should have. Of course, there were the big-ticket issues that came down from on high. There was the furlough scheme and the rates holidays, which were gratefully accepted because they were, without doubt, game changers; they were the big-ticket issues. However, we seem to have struggled to spend all the other money that has come down, and there is a central pot yet to be allocated. The Minister says that he is waiting for bids and Ministers say that the bids have gone in, yet here we go along.
I thank the Member for giving way. I commend the Member's effort on the Committee and what we try to do on it. However, when we speak about big-ticket ideas to help the Finance Department, we, as a Committee, should be bringing forward ideas. That is our role as well. I hope that the Member agrees with me that our job is not just to scrutinise figures. Collectively, we should be trying to bring forward ideas that will help the Finance Department to get us out of this.
That is fine, Mr Speaker. Thank you for your judgement.
I agree with the Member entirely. That will have to be a vital cog, especially when we move to multi-year Budgets, and, of course, this year's Budget, with all the uncertainty that it brings.
You can have all the big-ticket issues and ideas in your head that you like, but the best way to support businesses at this time is to allow them to trade safely. The Health Minister talked in biblical terms at the start of this crisis, so let me talk in biblical terms: it is a God-given right for a person to endeavour to earn a living to provide for his or her family. It is a God-given right, yet the Executive removed that right without having any idea about the support mechanisms that will be in place.
I met businesses last week, and none of them is in a good place. This week, some of them will be making the decision to close shop forever. I know of a hairdresser's that employs 18 people — six at any given time in the shop — that has been cutting hair safely, with all the measures that it invested in. Yet none of the staff knows where their next pay cheque is coming from or whether they have a job. That is a sad state of affairs that should not be. The Executive will say, "We are doing this for your own protection. It is for your own good. We are here to protect you". Who is here to protect the people from the very Executive making those decisions? I see no rhyme nor reason for closing businesses that have put in place measures to safeguard staff and customers. I have yet to see any evidence to suggest that those businesses were the places where the virus was contracted.
I speak as my party's education spokesperson. At the beginning of this financial year, the Department of Education received an 11% increase on last year's resource budget. That was the first significant increase in the Education budget for 10 years. That increase in funding to the Department of Education made it possible to make long-awaited pay awards to our teachers and to invest further resources in areas like improving special educational needs provision. The onset of COVID-19 has brought with it much tragedy and uncertainty. I pay tribute to our teaching and non-teaching staff, our youth sector, childcare services, unions and the wider education sector for the way that they have adapted in order to continue to deliver.
Like every Department, Education has had to make changes to its initial budget plans and bid for extra resources in order to deal with the emergency that we find ourselves in. I commend the leadership and initiative shown by the Finance Minister throughout the crisis, particularly in the context of education and, more recently, in my constituency. The Minister also ensured that our most disadvantaged children and young people were supported over the summer months with free school meals direct payments. In a very short period and in what were very difficult circumstances, the Finance Minister not only delivered a much-needed increase to the Education budget but made real-term increases to all Executive budgets.
We now need to see the financial commitments that were made in New Decade, New Approach by the British and Irish Governments delivered. Pre-COVID, Education pressures still existed, and, with those in mind, it is important that we deliver on the basis of objective need. I am extremely concerned by the disruption that the pandemic is causing for our young people's education. We must strive to create the environment in our education system where every child, regardless of their background, gets the best start in life and is given the ability to reach their maximum potential.
We must seek to enshrine a culture of collaboration and joined-up thinking across the Executive. Departments should be able and should be encouraged to share costs in achieving common outcomes. We are now entering an economic crisis that is like none that we have seen before. Those are the circumstances in which the Finance Minister and our Executive are operating. Our budgetary processes have operated in an unusual way this year, but we are in extraordinary and unprecedented times. I encourage all Members to acknowledge that and to support the motions.
I welcome the opportunity to speak as the Chairperson of the Education Committee. I will also take this opportunity to pay tribute to and thank teaching and non-teaching staff across Northern Ireland for the innovative and courageous way in which they have responded to the pandemic.
As the Minister indicated, the debate would, ordinarily, happen in June and the balancing amounts would be expected to be a lot higher. Instead, due to the COVID crisis, the Executive sought and secured an additional and larger Vote on Account in May. Those changes were necessary, but they make it difficult for Committees to track the financial progress of their respective Departments.
The extra-large Vote on Account for Education was deemed necessary to cover a significant number of additional pressures, including the provision of free school meals payments and support schemes for childcare provision. The first of those was, regrettably, poorly delivered, but the second, thankfully, was more successful. There was also a scheme to support substitute teachers.
The Department of Education has advised that the cost of restarting education in schools will be just over £100 million in the current financial year and that it sought £57 million and received £42 million for the autumn term. The additional funding will include £12 million for PPE, £6 million for school cleaning, £12 million for substitute teacher cover and £3·3 million for blended learning in schools. That spending, as well as known pressures and obligations relating to New Decade, New Approach, including teachers' pay, which we welcome, appears to have driven the Department of Education's budget from around £2·1 billion in 2014-15 to £2·67 billion in the 2020-21 Main Estimates.
The Main Estimates also include references to capital spending. The COVID lockdown may well have had an adverse impact on the Education Department's capital spending programme for this year, so perhaps the Minister will indicate in his response whether he believes that capital spending on new school builds and on other works will resume in this financial year.
Perhaps the Minister will also clarify the position on Fresh Start capital.
The Department of Education has advised that there is uncertainty around spending on the Strule project. Will he confirm whether the Treasury has agreed to allow the Executive to access all of the significant unspent Fresh Start money and to profile it over the next few years?
In my position as an Alliance MLA, I draw to the Finance Minister's attention reports that funding from the Department of Education Engage programme has been used to procure access to private transfer test tutoring or tutoring applications for some pupils in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister and his Executive colleagues ensure that there is an assessment of the appropriateness of the use of that Executive-provided public fund?
It is unacceptably clear that the structure and financing of our education system is in crisis. I ask the Finance Minister that, in addition to financial support for education, he supports the urgent establishment of the independent review of education to inform the transformation that we need to deliver equal educational opportunity for all children and young people.
As has been outlined by, I think, all the Members who have spoken, we are in a difficult year and in difficult times. That is not simply down to COVID. The House must recognise that we already had challenges not only Tory austerity and their approach to how they would finance any Department or any public body but the Brexit debacle. In my role as justice spokesperson, I say that there are challenges in the justice family, particularly for the PSNI and how it will police what could come our way as a result of Brexit and how it will police the current regulations and all that they bring with them.
There are many competing justice priorities, and we would love to see the delivery of all the things that are important to us. We particularly need to see the implementation of all the Gillen recommendations. We have just completed the Committee Stage of the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill, which has the potential to be transformative. I say "potential" because, if it is not properly resourced and proper training is not put in place, the legislation will not be worth the paper that it is written on. It is important that the Minister looks at her priorities and works with the Committee in moving forward. We have many challenges.
One of the main concerns will be the victims' pension payment and how that will be resourced. I was happy that the Executive approached the British Government in a united way to ensure that they are held to account. This is their legislation; they brought it forward. I have many difficulties with the scheme, and I intend to challenge them. People will be excluded, and that should not happen. Victims are victims: end of story. Victims deserve to be supported, but the fight is not theirs. They deserve to be paid; they do not need to wait any longer for the payments. People are dying as they wait for the payments, and we need to ensure that they get them. The British Government need to accept their responsibility and put proper resources in place. Bringing forward legislation without resources is an atrocity in itself.
As I said, there are many challenges in the justice sector. I want to raise some issues from my constituency. Over the past weekend, many businesses and self-employed people have raised issues with me. Mr Frew referred to businesses and sectors that were not supported during the previous restrictions. I hope that he will use whatever influence he has with the Economy Minister to address that, because I have raised it numerous times in the House. Sectors that were not helped in the last lockdown have no assurances about what will happen this time.
I thank the Finance Minister for his speedy response in putting in place the grants for rateable businesses, but we have no assurances for the self-employed or for those who do not have rateable businesses. I want to see those assurances from the Economy Minister and Ministers with responsibility for other sectors. I met a number of sectors last week, including the coach industry, which has had no financial assistance either. We want to see that coming forward. That is not only for the Economy Minister, but it is the main responsibility of the Economy Minister. We have to acknowledge that. She needs to take responsibility. I urge you to use whatever influence you have to ensure that those sectors' needs are met.
I thank the Member for giving way. There are issues with the new scheme that the Finance Minister produced last week. First, it is nowhere near enough money. Secondly, it is based on the rates base, which is a very blunt instrument. Thirdly, given that it is not enough, the people who obtain that money are worried that they will disqualify themselves from further support in the future.
I thank the Member for his intervention. The Minister can deal only with rate-based businesses; it is the Economy Minister's responsibility to deal with the rest. If we knew what was coming forward from the Economy Department, they would know whether they will be excluding themselves. It is important that we get the information from the Economy Department on how those issues are dealt with.
I could go into the detail of many spheres that will be affected, particularly in the justice family, but we would be here all day. Everybody knows that we face serious challenges. I want to see all our Ministers working together to ensure that we face those challenges realistically. The biggest concern of the businesses that I met on Friday was about Brexit. They said that they believed that they would get some financial help for COVID and that, eventually, we would come out of it but that Brexit would be a long and painful process.
Here we are again. Today and tomorrow, we debate the Main Estimates on departmental spending for the financial year 2020-21. That is a few months after we were due to do so, given the extreme extenuating circumstances. It has been, to put it mildly, an unusual year in budgeting terms. We have had lots of opportunity to debate spending plans, but, unfortunately, we have had little by way of spending strategy. We have had retrospective approvals of spending that happened while the Assembly was not sitting, including the excesses that we are voting on today. We have had hurried Votes on Account to authorise spending brought forward by the pandemic. We have also had a Budget document that was, by the Executive's own account, mostly obsolete by the time that it was published.
It is worth saying that most of that is not the fault of the Department or the Executive. When the Assembly and Executive re-formed in January of this year, no one expected the first year back to be dominated by managing a pandemic and the subsequent economic turmoil. Given that the UK Government helped to coordinate New Decade, New Approach, it was to be assumed that they would take seriously the promises in it around multi-year budgeting. They have not, and we know that there will be nothing approaching a comprehensive spending review this year. Nevertheless, there are real questions about how the Executive have approached budgeting over the past number of months and what their approach will be in the months to come; in particular, it is important to understand exactly what is being done to produce a joined-up economic recovery package for the sectors most directly affected by the ongoing pandemic. That relates not just to the Finance Minister but, as others have said, to the Economy Minister. Publicans, cafe owners, hairdressers, taxi drivers and countless others are struggling for existence; they are struggling to see a way through the next few weeks, let alone the next few months. Given the severity of the crisis that we face, they will want to know that we are doing absolutely everything in our toolbox to help them. It is not clear at the moment that we are. I will elaborate on a few points on that, but, first, I have a couple of specific points on the Main Estimates document and the broader picture around budgeting.
A couple of weeks ago, the Minister told us about his intervention with other devolved Finance Ministers. It would be helpful to understand precisely what flexibility he has asked for. There was a degree of strategic vagueness in the statement; I understand that there may be reasons for that. He specifically talked about the Budget exchange scheme, which allows devolved Administrations to carry forward underspend of 0·6% of resource and 1·5% of capital. It would be helpful to know precisely what he is asking for. Is it just that those shares should increase, or is it something more complex? Moreover, in the same statement to the Assembly, the Minister said that his requests were limited and logical. I am sure that I will agree with him that they are necessary, but what are they? Given the gravity of the situation that our workforce and small businesses, in particular, face, it would be helpful to understand exactly how those flexibilities will be used.
On those flexibilities specifically, can the Minister explain to us what is being done to convert underspent capital into in-year resource funding that we can get out the door to small businesses and their staff? That is really critical. As we know — we have talked a bit about it today — historically it has been a challenge for us to spend capital quickly enough, specifically financial transactions capital. I would like to see us make full use of FTC, but what are we asking the Treasury for in order to convert any underspend to resource spending and get it out the door? The Finance Department acknowledged to the Committee that the Executive might struggle to get all £100 million of FTC out the door in this financial year. Are officials working on schemes that could aid our recovery from COVID by making urgent FTC allocations? If not, how much of the unallocated funding do they think that the Treasury will convert into conventional funding or resource spending?
There is also the question of reinvestment and reform initiative borrowing power, in which we have £200 million of headroom. In May, I asked the Minister whether he was looking at that. He said then that he was looking at it in general, but we have not heard anything about it since. Given the dire situation that we face, people watching today will want to know that we are not just waiting for Barnett consequentials. It is right to push London for further allocation, but, given the London Government that is in it, as it were, we need to demonstrate to the people that we are pulling out every stop that we have at our disposal.
The risk is not that we do too much but that we do too little. Those are the words of Jay Powell, the chair of the US Federal Reserve. They are also the words of Pearse Doherty, Sinn Féin's finance spokesperson in Dáil Éireann. He is right: now is not the time to be precious about borrowing costs. The IMF said last week that Governments around the world, whether they are sovereign or, as in our case, devolved, should not think about the cost of borrowing. Costs are at historical lows. We should do absolutely everything to spend money where we need to, because not only do we face the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19 but we face the looming cliff edge at the end of the Brexit transition period.
I will not labour arguments about the specifics of Brexit — most Members know what I think about that — but every Department in the Main Estimates document specifies that EU exit costs are a specific pressure this year, but there is not a line from the Department or the Executive explaining in an overarching sense what those costs are. What precisely is EU exit costing us? Declan McAleer, the Chair of the AERA Committee mentioned the pressures. Mike Nesbitt mentioned them in relation to policing, as did Linda Dillon. It would be helpful to get a sense, by Department and globally, of precisely what EU exit is costing us. I know that the Minister is putting pressure on the Treasury in that regard, but it would be helpful to know exactly what we face in the cost of implementing the protocol, the loss of funding and, more broadly, the administrative implications.
No one thought that we would be dealing this year with the biggest pandemic in anyone's lifetime, but our citizens were certainly entitled to expect that the economic and financial response to the crisis would be ambitious and comprehensive. Unfortunately, it has not yet been either. While much of the responsibility sits with the Economy Department, it is true that, in the absence of an agreed Programme for Government or even a coherent crisis response plan, our in-year budgeting process has become the de facto strategic policy driver for the Executive. If it has to be that way, let us at least ensure that we show maximum ambition and maximum effort on behalf of our workers and our small businesses as we plot our way through the crisis. We may not have a road map or a GPS for the unprecedented period ahead, but surely we can do better than simply wait for people to shout directions from the side of the road.
I am conscious that the debate today about the North's Main Estimates and the Budget debate tomorrow come a week after a similar debate on the Budget of the Twenty-six Counties. The two Budgets and the two debates expose the stark nature of partition and its impact on the island. In the South, there is a Government inefficiently using public money and failing to direct it to where it is most needed; in the North, the Finance Minister is dependent on the British Exchequer and is being hamstrung from making better financial decisions because he does not have the necessary financial tools at his disposal.
In the midst of the global health pandemic in which we find ourselves, I wonder what different decisions we could have taken on behalf of the citizens whom we represent if we had done so on an all-island basis and if countless Southern Governments and right-wing Tory Governments had not imposed years of austerity Budgets that have resulted in a lack of investment in our heath service, education, infrastructure and every other public service.
Ireland as a whole has suffered from the effects of partition, but no part has suffered more, particularly economically, than the northern six counties. Minister, I look forward to the day — I hope that it will be soon — when I can watch you or our colleague Pearse Doherty set out a fair Budget as Finance Minister on behalf of all the people of this island. It will be a Budget fair to workers, families and small business owners, that builds up the capacity of our health service and addresses the damage that partition has done to the prosperity and wealth of the island of Ireland and its population.
Ach ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as an obair ghasta atá déanta aige lena chinntiú gur tugadh amach an t-airgead go héifeachtach le linn na paindéime. All that being said, and dealing with the current reality, I thank the Minister for his efforts and the work of his Department throughout this extremely difficult period, for showing leadership and initiative and for acting speedily to ensure best use of the public finances within his remit.
This is not a normal year, and therefore this is not a normal Budget process. In the context of the current pandemic, protecting lives and livelihoods must, of course, be the priority. I welcome that the Health Department will receive an extra £1·4 million in the Minister's Budget.
I also note the work that the Minister has done to ensure that businesses are protected. Swift action at the beginning of the pandemic included the cessation of business rates, allocation of money to other Departments and the recent financial support scheme to help affected businesses. It is clear that not only should businesses be protected but we need to protect wages. As others have said, the new furlough scheme is nowhere near enough to protect workers. I note, Minister, that you are engaging with the British Treasury on that issue on behalf of employees in the North.
Other Members have commented on the businesses and workers that have had no protection throughout these difficult past few months. That issue needs to be addressed urgently. It is vital that some way is found to ensure that we protect the maximum proportion of our population. Like other MLAs, I have listened, over the past months, to many difficult accounts from constituents who are worried about protecting their businesses, jobs or their families. The Minister recently met some of those groups and individuals. I welcome his comments on the subject and, in particular, his request to other Ministers and Departments to quickly bring forward proposals that will address the situation.
Notwithstanding the challenges that the Executive face in dealing with coronavirus and its implications for the public purse, we still have the spectre of Brexit hanging over our heads. That presents entirely separate economic difficulties. Unlike COVID-19, Brexit is a conscious and deliberate political act, driven by right-wing English nationalism against the wishes of the people in the North.
Against the background of all those financial challenges, I commend the Minister for the management of our public finances. I also welcome his commitment to multi-year Budgets, which will provide greater certainty and long-term planning. We now face an economic crisis that will be greater than anything that we have faced before. Economic recovery will be an enormous challenge in the time ahead, but the lessons that we need to learn from the last 10 years include the importance of investment in public services and green growth in the way forward. There should be no tolerance for the disastrous austerity agenda, which has been imposed on us by Tory Governments and has caused so much damage.
I want to say a few words as the Sinn Féin infrastructure spokesperson. I reiterate some things that the Chair and my colleague Linda Dillon mentioned already in relation to support for the taxi industry, coach operators and hauliers. They have waited far too long for recognition, and I hope that the Infrastructure Minister will bring something forward.
The Finance Minister is bringing this Budget forward amid the unprecedented COVID-19 health crisis and all the economic and social impacts that have followed. It would be an understatement to say that our financial position before the pandemic did not help our response to COVID. The effects of 10 years of Tory austerity on our public services, on our health service in particular, have undoubtedly impacted on our response to the current challenges. Our public services, such as those within the Department for Infrastructure, also suffered financially from that destructive Conservative financial policy, despite infrastructure having a vital role to play in connecting communities and driving balanced and sustainable economic growth.
Infrastructure, such as trunk roads, rural roads and our water and sewerage system, is essential to everyday life and is a bedrock of the economy and society as a whole. Public and community transport help to tackle rural isolation and provide equal access to opportunities and services. The importance of infrastructure is acknowledged in this year's Budget, as demonstrated by the fact that, despite our block grant being £360 million — in real terms, that is below pre-austerity levels — the Department for Infrastructure received an 8·6% increase in resource funding. DFI has also received a capital allocation of £558 million, the largest ever made to the Department and by far the largest capital allocation to any Department. Over the course of the pandemic, over £100 million has been allocated to the Department to alleviate pressures. Therefore, although pressures remain across all Departments, I commend the Minister for his management of our public finances in these difficult and challenging times, and against the background of all these financial challenges.
Moreover, these challenges have not gone away. Brexit, COVID and the climate emergency continue to loom over us. Infrastructure has a big role to play in helping to respond to these challenges. Capital projects can help to kick-start the economy. Therefore, the commencement of projects like the A5 must follow as soon as possible. Meanwhile, North/South projects committed to in New Decade, New Approach, such as the Narrow Water bridge and the Ulster canal, must be realised in order to enhance connectivity and improve the economic fortunes of this island. I look forward to continuing to work and engage with the Department and the Minister to address these vital issues.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I draw the Speaker's attention to the remarks made by the AERA Minister, Edwin Poots, on Friday, when he accused the nationalist/Catholic community of having spread this virus. He also called into question the collective decision-making of the Executive. Those comments were unbecoming of any Executive Minister, and I ask the Speaker to investigate the remarks and report back to the Assembly.
On that point of order, the Member will be aware that it is not within the bailiwick of the Speaker to deal with or address such comments. In fact, some of the comments might be described as touching on a breach of the ministerial code. Again, it is not the responsibility of the Speaker to adjudicate on that. The Member has made his point on the record.
We all know that, last week, the Executive and their colleagues, the Chief Medical Officer and so on, all worked very, very hard. Whatever we think, collectively or individually, about the outcome, people worked very hard last week and brought that message to the Chamber. All the party leaders called for a collective response and for people to put their shoulder to the wheel and work together. It is regrettable that, towards the end of the week, the calls for collective action and for people to stand shoulder to shoulder on this issue were, perhaps, undermined by some people's remarks.
When Members are commenting, especially on something as critical as the pandemic — people are trying to deal with this, and it involves very complex issues — it is important that they are mindful of how their comments sound and how they might be interpreted by others. The Member has made his point on the record. As I said, they are not matters for the Speaker to adjudicate on. However, I regret that, by the end of a week in which we saw a Trojan effort by the Executive to get an agreement, that agreement was, in some ways, and in the view of many out in society, undermined by a breach of the solidarity that had been expressed by the Executive.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can I draw to your attention the actions of the Minister for Communities? On Friday, before the relevant legislation was even made, the Minister issued a misconceived direction to sporting bodies that misrepresented what would be in the regulations and caused untold confusion and upset, not least at the Showgrounds in Coleraine. Should the House not expect the Minister to know what is in the law and whether it has or has not been made?
The only comment that I will add to my last remarks will be directed at all Ministers, and, indeed, at all Members: people need to be mindful of how they conduct their business. As I said, it is not for the Speaker to adjudicate on the remarks of individual Members or Ministers. Again, as I say, it is essential that the good work of the Executive, the various Departments and all Members of the House in their own respective way not be undermined by the actions or words of any Member. Thank you.
I ask Members to take their ease while we prepare for Question Time.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)