Budget (No. 3) Bill: Final Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:15 am on 10th November 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 11:15 am, 10th November 2020

I beg to move

That the Budget (No. 3) Bill [NIA 09/17-22] do now pass.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Business Committee has agreed that there will be no time limit on the debate.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Today's Final Stage debate concludes this part of the legislative process for the 2020-21 financial year. As I explained at the Second Stage debate, following the unusual step that we had to take by passing a further Vote on Account before the summer, the financial position now allows us to pass this Budget (No. 3) Bill together with the Main Estimates, which were agreed on 19 October. This provides the legislative authority for the expenditure of the Departments and other bodies for the remainder of this financial year.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that financial circumstances this year have been unprecedented. The Executive have acted quickly to provide funding, not only to deal with the health impact of the pandemic but to respond to the economic impact. We are continuing to plan and respond to the situation, and Members will be aware that I have made a series of announcements over the past seven months as the Executive have agreed further allocations.

My most recent announcement on the outcome of the October monitoring round on 29 October brings to over £2·3 billion the allocations that have been made to Departments by the Executive. That includes almost £1 billion of additional in-year funding for the Department of Health to ensure that our doctors, nurses and other medical staff have the resources that they need in the fight against this health emergency. It also includes over £428 million to the Department for the Economy to directly support businesses and the further and higher education sectors. <BR/>Almost £200 million has been allocated to the Department for Communities to support those most disadvantaged in our communities, as well as to provide support for the voluntary and community sector and the sports, arts and culture sectors. Over £180 million has gone to the Department for Infrastructure to ensure that our transport networks can continue to operate, including not only Translink but also our airports and seaports and our taxi and private coach and bus industries. The allocations to Infrastructure are also supporting Northern Ireland Water as it adapts to the changes in demand from its customers and consumers. Almost £180 million has gone to the Department of Education to support our schools and to continue to safely deliver education for our children and young people and to provide free school meals.

The Bill provides the legislative authority for that expenditure. I remind Members that, as well as authorising the expenditure in this current financial year, the Bill regularises the excess expenditure incurred by some Departments in the 2016-17 financial year, which came about because it was not possible for the Assembly to pass the spring Supplementary Estimates at the end of that year.

My Department has continued to engage with all other Departments to ensure that the Executive have an up-to-date picture of the pressures that they face and how the available resources are being used. As the situation develops further and the Executive make further decisions, as is likely, on the allocations of resources, I will bring these back to the Assembly through the spring Supplementary Estimates and a subsequent Budget Bill at the end of the financial year.

I wish to express my gratitude once again to the Finance Committee, which acknowledged the unique circumstances in which we found ourselves this year and agreed to accelerated passage. I thank all the departmental scrutiny Committees and, indeed, all Members for the level of scrutiny that they have been able to bring to this process.

To conclude, this is the Final Stage of the legislative process for this Bill. I now look forward to hearing any final thoughts from Members on this important legislation.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Minister for his comments so far. As previously outlined, the Bill makes provision for the balance of cash and resources required to reflect the departmental spending plans in the 2020-21 Main Estimates. As I indicated during the previous debate, the Committee agreed, under Standing Order 42(2), to grant accelerated passage to the Budget Bill on the basis of having been consulted appropriately on the expenditure provisions in the Bill. As we progress through this mandate, it is important that all Departments engage constructively with the Assembly Committees, particularly in relation to budgetary matters.

As I alluded to during the Second Stage debate, the Committee identified an inconsistency of approach by the Department of Finance surrounding the approvals for spending under sole authority. These are the now quite infamous black box items. Whilst acknowledging the Minister's recognition of the inconsistency during the debate, it serves as a reminder to us all that scrutiny adds real value and, therefore, requires all Committees to question, probe and challenge existing processes and practices to improve transparency and drive improvements to ensure high levels of accountability.

However, for that to be a continual process, reform of our existing systems needs to be delivered through initiatives such as the Department of Finance's current review of the financial process, which aims to provide a simplified read-across of the information in the Budget, Estimates and accounts. The review needs to be complemented by a memorandum of understanding (MOU), which aims to safeguard the information sought by the Assembly when undertaking its scrutiny. That work is continuing and will require consideration by the Executive and the Assembly once the draft procedures are developed, worked through and reflected in a draft version of the memorandum of understanding.

During the Second Stage debate, my Committee colleague Matthew O'Toole highlighted the need for long-term improvements to our Budget process, which should be underpinned by internationally recognised key principles. At various times, the Committee has heard about the need to move towards a fiscal council, and we need details about that sooner rather than later. I note the First Minister's remarks today when she said that a paper on a fiscal council has not yet come before the Executive.

I will move to the outcome of the review of the financial process being conducted by the Department of Finance and the MOUs being developed between the Department and the Committee for Finance. That process seeks to provide a single consistent approach to requesting, presenting and analysing budgetary information to support the scrutiny role of the Assembly. Of course, a memorandum of understanding can be put in place only on an agreed process. We also need commitments from Departments, Committees, the Executive and the Assembly to adhere to that process to enable us to participate fully in providing a timely, open and transparent financial process that lends itself to full accountability for the expenditure of public finances.

The Committee is interested in the role of arm's-length bodies and their financial accountability, responsibility and reporting procedures. At the Committee's meeting on 7 October 2020, it agreed to seek details of all bids that had been submitted by Departments during this financial year. The response date was extended to four weeks to take account of the recess period, and Departments were asked to provide this information by 6 November — last Friday. It is, therefore, disappointing to note that, to date, responses have been received from only five of our nine Departments. The remaining four Departments did not provide a suitable reason for the delay, request an extension or acknowledge that the deadline had been missed.

I take this opportunity to recognise the efforts of the Departments that have furnished the Committee with the information within the requested timescale. However, I will also highlight the Departments with outstanding responses. Whereas the Department of Health can be forgiven for not necessarily having its responses through in time, I cannot believe that the Executive Office, the Department for Communities and the Department of Justice have any excuse whatsoever. That is not acceptable, particularly when the extended response time is taken into account and when the requested information should be easy for departmental financial divisions to access and, therefore, readily available to the Committee. We must do better.

As we look ahead to the remainder of the financial year, a key challenge will be the effective deployment of all available resources received through our normal settlement and the additional COVID-19 funding to ensure that it is focused on the areas of most need and where it can bring the greatest benefit. We are aware of the additional £400 million of Barnett consequentials that came within the last two weeks and, added to likely outcomes, that shows the ability to have up to £0·5 billion available. However, that money needs to be spent before the end of the financial year, which is a significant challenge for our Departments.

The Committee would like there to be a focus on improving the Executive's utilisation of the allocation of financial transactions capital (FTC). As the Chairperson of the Committee for Communities said during the Second Stage debate, the reclassification of registered housing associations will provide a much-needed opportunity to utilise more of our allocation, which we must do. Whilst this is to be welcomed, we need to recognise the need for a more sustainable strategy to maximise the opportunities that FTC can bring in delivering positive outcomes for our society. We have had this opportunity for a considerable time but not managed to utilise it effectively, at any stage.

The Committee is generally supportive of the Minister's approach of seeking further flexibility from HM Treasury. However, Committee members want to ensure that any flexibility is used appropriately and only where absolutely necessary. I would appreciate the Minister's undertaking to keep the Committee fully informed of any developments as soon as they are known and updating it on any proposals that he may have to avail himself of such flexibility when the time comes. In the meantime, on behalf of the Committee for Finance, I support the Bill.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

This is the last legislative stage of the financial process that is the Budget Bill. With a Budget (No. 3) Bill, we are in strangely unique times. I have not seen one before in my time. In what has been a very traumatic year for the financial process, I have certain sympathies for the Department and the officials. However, in light of the evidence that we have gleaned and the experiences that we have lived through over this last traumatic year, it is absolutely clear that things need to change.

At Second Stage, I asked the Finance Minister where in the Bill was the support for hairdressers, the self-employed, entrepreneurs and people on their own who were trying to scrape a living to provide for their families after the Executive closed them down. He said, "It is all here. It is all in this Bill." It must be still in the Bill, because there are people and businesses in my constituency who have not seen a pin from it. They have had no support from the Executive or the Finance Minister since the day and hour that they were closed down. They were closed down abruptly without any indication of when, how or why they should do so. Since then, we have seen the evidence that led to their closure, and, boy, that is so flimsy. I met those businesses the week after, and even this week, and they just cannot understand it. It is beyond anger now.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for giving way. I represent the same constituency and have the same businesses coming to me. That is why I am writing to the Minister responsible for providing financial support — the Economy Minister. I am extremely disappointed in her performance to date in supplying those businesses with grants and getting money out to them quickly.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I am very disappointed, too, that a party in the House can hold on to money that it did not need and which was not even meant for it. The party held on to that much-needed finance for months without alerting the authorities, bringing it to the attention of the Finance Committee or even declaring an interest to the various Committees. That is shameful. When businesses are crying out for anything — anything — that is absolutely shameful.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. He paints a stark picture for businesses. There are a lot of pressures on businesses, and we heard some of those mentioned on the radio this morning. Does the Member agree that the calculation is based not simply on the scientific modelling but on the fact that our R rate is rising and more people are dying due to COVID? The Executive do not work on the basis of a single figure, which may be presented as 0·5 or 0·1; they take into account the rising rates, the rising threat to health and the increasing number of deaths in our population.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP 11:30 am, 10th November 2020

I thank the Member for his intervention again. I know that he made an intervention last night during my colleague Jonny Buckley's speech on the very same issue. My answer is the same as Jonny Buckley's. Of course this is a very dangerous disease. Of course we are in the midst of a great pandemic.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I ask Members to face the Chair to ensure that the sound is picked up.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Of course we need to address those issues and make it safe for those people and those businesses to operate, but closing them down was never the answer. Closing them down so that they cannot operate is never the answer. Not allowing people to earn a living to provide for their families was never the answer.

When you look at the evidence for the decisions that were taken and at some of the sectors that were closed down, you will see that there was absolutely no justification for the Executive to make the decisions that they did. Those business owners are still scratching their head asking, "Why has my business been closed down? The Executive forced me to invest hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds on safety measures to keep me, my staff and my customers safe. Why did the Executive close us down?". That is what I hear when I meet the businesses.

It is beyond anger, as I said. It is just pure frustration, and, in many cases, it is just hopelessness now. Yet here we have an Executive that cannot even agree on the exit strategy and the opening of those businesses that were promised that they would be opened this week. That is an absolutely shameful position to be in.

A number of weeks ago, when we were discussing the Bill, I rhymed off to the Minister all those sectors that needed support, and the Finance Minister gave me the commitment that the support is in the Bill. It is here. It is what we were passing. Where is that money now? Where is that funding? Where is that support that was promised? It is not just on the Department for the Economy or the Minister for the Economy; it is Land and Property Services (LPS) that administers the scheme.

LPS was tremendous the first time round. It put money out to businesses on a system that was designed to bring money in, not to push money out. Of course, mistakes were always going to be made, and I will never be hard on LPS for those mistakes, simply because the speed with which it got that money down the first time round was immense. It was tremendous.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree with me that the Chair and members of the Finance Committee wrote to LPS thanking it for its work and its quick response? These are horrific times, and that was the reason for doing that. We are not attacking it, and I hope that it does not come across like that. I thought that it did a tremendous job.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

A tremendous job it did. I echo the sentiments of my colleague Pat. He is absolutely right. The effort, the tremendous work and the coordination and communication with MLAs was immense. It was perfect. It was brilliant. It was really good. You could have gone from the top to the bottom of the organisation and you would have got the same, concise, clear answer in a speedy manner. It did tremendous work. However, it is now three weeks since businesses were forced to close just like that, abruptly, without any warning, so why are they still crying out for that support, little as it is? Let us face it. They have not received one bean; not one penny. They have employees asking them, "What shift will I do on Friday? What hours do I have to work on Saturday?". We have business owners asking, "Do I bring my supply chain in? Do I order all that food? Do I fill my freezer?".

This is unbelievable. This is a tremendously harsh time for businesses, yet this Executive are doing an act of vandalism to those businesses. It is an act of vandalism to be unable to tell a business, on a Tuesday, that it can open up for sure on the Friday, fill its fridges and freezers, bring in its stock or pay its supply line. All these businesses have no idea. That is no way to run a business, and it is no way to run the Executive. It is an absolute disgrace — an absolute farce — that we are letting down so many people who earn a decent living, provide employment to our people and are being let down by the hour this week, without any knowledge of what they are going to do next week. It is an absolute disgrace.

Here we have a Finance Minister who wants more fiscal powers. Really? Do you think, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I would stand here as an MLA and want to support and vote more fiscal powers for this Executive and this Finance Minister? Is that where we are at? No, I will not support more fiscal powers coming down to the Executive, when they cannot even spend the Barnett consequential moneys that we have received from our sovereign Parliament. We are going to find it tough to spend that money. It is perverse that I am speaking about money sitting at the centre, and yet, out there in the real world, businesses cannot employ their people, provide a living, open their shop floor, cut somebody's hair, provide a meal or sell a coffee, despite all the investment that they have put in. They are an absolute farce of an Executive. It makes a mockery of the Budget Bill and process. More fiscal powers? Are we having a laugh? Go and ask a business, any business, that has been forced to close down whether the Executive should have more fiscal powers. The answer, every time, will be, "No way, no chance."

One thing I have learnt about the process is this scary thing. Look at the decisions that have been taken by the Executive over the past eight months; yesterday was a typical scenario. The Assembly, which should really be the seat of power, was asked to approve regulations that are coming to an end and have had their impact. They have destroyed businesses and lives. People will die because of the decisions the Executive took. Should we have more fiscal powers? No. Should we have more democratic accountability on a finance process? Absolutely yes. It is not good enough to usurp the power and will of the House, or to bypass it. Whilst I understand the reasons why the Finance Committee gives accelerated passage to a Budget Bill, to hasten the process, we should not compromise on scrutiny in return for that acceleration.

What do I mean by that? I do not know that the Finance Committee's role should really be about what pound goes where and that sort of thing. The minutiae of that would bog it down. However, the monitoring rounds are an important cycle in the Budget sequence. We have seen their importance clearly, through this Budget Bill and this process. I see the Budget process as two-yearly. There is the year in which you produce a Budget, which then comes into force in April, but then you have the in-year work, where you move around that money in monitoring rounds. That is critical, especially if we get to the point where we have multi-year Budgets.

Here is the thing, however. If we get to multi-year budgets and have monitoring rounds in-year, they become very important, because, with the best will in the world, you can have the best financial advisers in your Department, but they do not have a crystal ball. It is therefore very hard to predict what will happen in three years' time, so that flexibility must come with a three-year Budget, but scrutiny must also be enhanced.

The Chairperson of the Finance Committee talked about the fiscal council and the memorandum of understanding. When the Finance Minister was on the Finance Committee, he identified not having the memorandum of understanding as being a problem and pushed for it, and I thank him for that work. Surely he should see that there is a democratic deficit in the way in which we do a Budget, because it is an excepted matter. There is a duty on the Finance Minister to provide a Budget to this Assembly, and that is it. There is so much more that the Assembly needs to see on budgetary and financial matters, however. I am talking not just about having a memorandum of understanding but about having deep, meaningful reform. I am talking about reform that will make the Assembly the place where the power resides. By that, I mean that Departments take an inconsistent approach to bringing their information to the Committees. Some are late with it, which is unforgivable. Some provide scant information to their Committee, and, let us face it, sometimes Committees have other priorities. Sometimes the financial side of things does not get the time and scrutiny that it should.

We have problems. We should all see that, and, if we do not, we are blind. What, as an Assembly, can we do to fix those problems? Codes do not work: quite clearly they do not. I do not believe that a memorandum of understanding would work either. It would just not be strong enough. The Finance Committee can produce a series of platforms and produce pro formas that Committees and Departments can fill in. That has helped to a certain degree, but it has helped identify the weaknesses. It has helped us see the holes in the system.

That is why I say that we need statutory reform. We need laws in this place that place statutory duties on the Finance Minister and on all other Ministers to bring information to their Committee in proper time and information that serves its function. That information would then be scrutinised. It would then go into a centralised system whereby we all, as an Assembly, could see and scrutinise that work. When we got to monitoring rounds, they would then become vitally important, if they are not already important, of course.

It is not good enough that the Assembly rubber-stamp or vote on something for which the Executive have decided to move money around. With the democratic deficit that we already have in this place, I say that the Assembly should perhaps have that say and agree to pass the monitoring rounds. We do at the spring Supplementary Estimates (SSEs) stage, which is in February, and thus after the event, so why not allow the Assembly to vote to pass the monitoring rounds? In that way, we, as MLAs and as an Assembly, have a say. In that way, we can ensure that the Executive take cognisance of what our Committees have to say and what the Finance Committee has to say. That is the way forward.

One thing that I have learnt in my time as an MLA, and since I came back to this place, is this: there is a lot that we get right, but there is a lot that we get wrong. We cannot abide by that. Where we see problems, we should fix them. We need to repair, we need to fix and we need to resolve. Fiscal powers? Not a chance. There is not a chance that I will support more fiscal powers for an Executive that have made decisions this month to destroy livelihoods and jobs and to ruin businesses. There is no chance. I ain't going there. Maybe I will be persuaded. It is up to the Minister to persuade the House. I ain't seen anything yet. I say this to the Finance Minister: get that money to those people. Last week and the week before it was the time to do it. Do not leave those businesses hanging any longer. Some of them are already gone; some will not reopen. This is a record month for redundancies.

Do not get me wrong: I do not blame the Executive for all of it; it was caused by the pandemic. However, when people needed the Executive to support and help them in the midst of this cruel pandemic, in which people are dying, what have the Executive done? They have destroyed livelihoods and businesses by the decisions that they have taken. They need to change step; they need to go out into the real world and see the suffering in it. Will the Budget help those people? Money has been lying at the centre for months. There are business owners lying at home, not knowing what to tell their employees about Friday. It is shameful.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin 11:45 am, 10th November 2020

I thank the independent — sorry, DUP — Member for North Antrim for giving way once again. I take exception to the tone of his remarks and the accusations that he has levelled at the Executive, which, in my view, are doing their very best. The Member talks about destroying lives and livelihoods, but I caution him and suggest that he take a walk round Antrim Area Hospital, Causeway Hospital or the hospitals in this city to see for himself the impact of the pandemic on lives and livelihoods.

With regard to the finance Bill — which, halfway through the Member's contribution, I forgot we were actually discussing — it is the job of the Finance Minister to provide money and resources to his Executive colleagues. I repeat that the accusation that the Member has levelled most about destroying businesses is one that he should take up with his party colleague in the Department for the Economy.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Before the Member responds, I want to draw the debate back to the Budget (No. 3) Bill.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker. If only the thought police mattered. This is a place of challenge. That is what the Assembly is meant to be; it is how it is meant to function. I say to the Member that I know the real world out there. I see the people who go into hospital; I see the people who need operations but cannot get them; I see the people who have been on waiting lists for years and will, now, have to wait further years. I know how the pandemic has affected families because it has affected my family. My very brother had it. Even today, my sister has it. I will not take any lectures about the real world from Members across the House. I will not. However, I will plead with the Member to walk with me around Ballymena, Ballymoney, Ballycastle, and every village and art and part in between, and he will see real struggling and suffering. That is not of those people's own making; it is because they cannot make a living. They cannot earn a pound; they cannot get benefits. They are waiting on compensation from the Executive, the very Executive that closed them down. They cannot see that compensation, they do not have it in their bank accounts, and they cannot spend it.

I suggest that the furlough scheme is the game changer and the only thing that has kept most of those businesses afloat. However, the furlough scheme came from Westminster. What have the Executive offered? Nothing but pain and suffering in these past three weeks. Where is the money? Where is the funding? Where is the support for people? They cannot see it or feel it. Now, they do not even know whether they are opening on Friday. That is a shame and disgrace.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

It is striking that, since we last discussed the Budget a couple of weeks ago, the financial picture for the Executive has changed yet again. An additional £400 million has been allocated to help with COVID pressures, which, of course, is very welcome, but that money has to be administered. Although there are plenty of pots that it could go into, there is a challenge in making sure that it is spent effectively before the end of the financial year.

Since we last debated the Bill, funding has been allocated to the Economy and Infrastructure Ministers for business support schemes for businesses that have been impacted by the restrictions, for newly self-employed people and for the taxi and coach sectors. The supports for the newly self-employed and the taxi and coach sectors have, in particular, been long awaited. Since that money has been allocated, I have been contacted nearly every day — I am sure that other MLAs have been as well — about when those people can expect those schemes to open. I talk to business people every day, Mr Frew. I met some bus tour operators yesterday, and there is real frustration out there. We all get that. I know that it is not in the remit of the Finance Minister, but, once funding is allocated for schemes, it is important that those schemes get the money out to people as quickly as possible. Similarly, with the supports for those who are impacted by the restrictions, we still await the opening of the scheme for businesses in supply chains. The restrictions are due to end later this week, and many businesses have not yet received that support. Under normal circumstances, businesses may have had reserves, but those reserves are much depleted and debts are mounting. That support needs to go out speedily.

We have asked a lot from people, and, when restrictions — the very necessary restrictions — are introduced to protect lives, financial support schemes need to be forthcoming. We all know the challenges that Departments face and the pressures that they are under, and we recognise the work that staff have put in, but the Finance Minister has allocated the funding, and Ministers and Departments need to step up that delivery, because businesses, jobs and livelihoods depend on it.

Minister, I know that you have voiced support on many occasions for giving support to those who have been excluded from previous schemes. While we await the newly self-employed scheme, we know that there are still groups of individuals and businesses that have missed out. Local newspapers are one such example and another is travel agents. I know that representatives of travel agents met Ministers last week, and, hopefully, we will see some support for that sector soon. Travel agents have highlighted to us the fact that they have had to provide refunds and things like that. The Economy Minister was asked about that yesterday, and she said that she recognised the need for support and was looking at it. She also referenced the fact that travel agents have been able to avail themselves of other supports. However, it is important to remember that, as with every group, there are anomalies. Not all travel agents work from an office; some are self-employed and work from home. They also need to be considered in whatever support is brought forward.

A number of schemes have been announced over recent weeks, and those have addressed some of the gaps, but there is now a need to address and evaluate what gaps remain with the support that has been offered. Some remain excluded after all these months, and we need to try to address those gaps. I ask the Minister to look at that in conjunction with Executive colleagues, so that bids can be made, speedily, to the Department of Finance to allocate the funding that remains at the centre to further supports.

I commend the Minister on his efforts to make the case on behalf of the Executive to extend the furlough scheme. Albeit that it was extended belatedly, that is very much welcomed. We know that there will be a review in January, so we need to continue to make the case so that businesses can keep in contact with their workforces. That is particularly the case with sectors in which there are skilled workforces that are furloughed and may need to gear up quickly once the economy reopens and conditions improve. We need to make that case now and ensure that that support remains for those businesses.

Another issue that I would like to raise with the Minister — I know that he has been sympathetic to it, previously — is support for our students and young people, who have had a very tough year. A few months ago, the Executive allocated additional support for the student hardship fund. That was important, particularly for those young people who were trapped in rental contracts for houses that they are not using and still having to pay household bills but do not have the normal opportunities for part-time employment in cafes, pubs and shops that are all operating at a much reduced capacity. They continue to face difficult financial circumstances, and we will continue to monitor the support that is in that pot. We have raised that issue with the Economy Minister and will continue to highlight it, but it may need to be looked at again in the time ahead.

My colleague John O'Dowd has called for support for the mental health and well-being of our young people and students. It has been a very stressful year for those young people, particularly those who have gone into first year at university or college and who had the issue with grades in August. Now, at a time that should be a really positive experience for a young person, they face great uncertainty and, in some cases, isolation and the worry of dealing with self-isolation and family worries. As with all of society, there will be a great toll on mental health, and we have called for the Economy and Health Ministers to look at what support might be needed with regard to that, and that will likely need to be resourced.

We know that restrictions have a huge toll on the economy and our way of life. The Executive have indicated that it is, obviously, their intention to build capacity in our trace, trace and protect system as part of the strategy to move away from these circuit-breaker-type interventions. Investment in the health system will be required to develop that capacity in the test and trace operations, and support will be required for individuals to enable them to self-isolate. I welcome the discretionary support grant that the Minister for Communities has put in place. However, I am still hearing from workers who, when they have to self-isolate, are being told by employers that they should take leave — in some cases that is unpaid leave — and they are only entitled to statutory sick pay. I have raised the issue with the Economy Minister to see if anything additional can be done to support those people. I have also raised the need for guidance for employers and workers. We understand the impact that COVID has on businesses, but, again, it is vital that workers and families have incomes and that people are not being forced to choose between their health and putting food on the table.

This has been a tumultuous time for our society, and the economic fallout continues. While we are, obviously, right now continuing to mitigate the worst impacts, there is a need to look towards and to plan for economic recovery. Obviously, that needs to be led by the Department for the Economy, but it must have a truly cross-departmental approach to it. In that context, it is disappointing that the British Chancellor moved to set only a one-year Budget, because the type of planning and investment for that recovery is going to have to be multi-year to address the major challenges that we face, along with the structural issues in our economy, which have resulted in the lowest productivity in these islands, and that will not be a quick fix.

I said in the previous debate, and I think that it is worth repeating, that there needs to be a focus for Invest NI, as our economic development agency, on the economy as a whole. We had a debate yesterday evening about the manufacturing sector, and I have seen, in recent days, the particular hit that that has had. So, there is a need for support to start up and build capacity in our local businesses, and that is as well as tackling regional inequalities and supporting the decarbonisation of our economy. The supports that are being made available to businesses need to be developed in partnership with businesses to ensure that they are practical and are delivering what is required, and that is something that we will continue to raise with Invest NI and the Department for the Economy.

There is also a need for Invest NI and DFE to support businesses as they prepare to deal with the outworkings of Brexit. I know that the Minister is continuing to press the British Treasury on the need for funding for Brexit preparations and the replacement for our various EU programme funds. The lack of detail and information about the shared prosperity fund and how it will be delivered is constantly being raised with us through the Committee for the Economy and at other engagements. I ask the Minister to comment on any further discussions that he has had with the British Treasury on that particular issue.

Finally, I refer to the representations that the Minister has made to the British Government around additional borrowing powers and flexibilities, because that is going to be crucial in giving the Executive the ability to shape the recovery. I look forward to hearing further details on the forthcoming fiscal commission, which the Minister intends to establish, as part of that broader conversation about economic and fiscal powers. I look forward to persuading Mr Frew on its merits because, in some ways, we are hamstrung by the dribs and drabs of money from the British Treasury and by the one-year Budget. It is really important that we have that ability to plan our investment, our spending and the way in which we pay for things. I will leave it there.

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

Today is the final stage of the Budget (No. 3) Bill. During this year, financial legislation has been something like the proverbial London bus. We waited for three years to vote on a Budget, while this place was not here, and during this year we have had three, one after another. Of course, the spending that we are legally authorising has to happen. I am glad that it is happening, as we need to keep public services functioning and, particularly, as has already been rehearsed well, to help us through the maelstrom of COVID-19 and the end of the Brexit transition period.

However, we again find ourselves in the position of authorising spending with very little meaningful scrutiny of whether funding is being correctly prioritised or how it helps to deliver against any agreed strategic priorities. That is, in part, because we have very little by way of a strategy. There is something slightly futile about standing up to hold an Executive's finance plans to account when there is not really any overall plan to speak of.

We have heard from some today about the need for individual allocations in individual areas. I share many of the concerns, and I share the desire to increase allocations to those who have been excluded so far from financial support. We need support for students and for our water infrastructure. There is a long list of areas where allocations are essential, including in the local newspaper industry, as Caoimhe Archibald just mentioned. I have been pushing on that subject for a long time. I want all those allocations to be made, but, if we are just talking about allocations in a piecemeal way, it is very difficult to judge the Executive's or the Department's overall performance in delivering a financial plan that makes sense.

Of course, the allocations that have been made in response to the crisis are welcome. They have been made in response to the acute, unprecedented crisis of COVID. I again put on the record that the SDLP welcomes much of the work done by individual civil servants and organisations in Northern Ireland to get money out quickly to businesses. I might add, in parenthesis, that it would have been good had certain organisations been as quick in returning money that they had received in error. As I said, although I welcome the hard work done by all those institutions and civil servants, it is not unreasonable for us to state that there have been profound issues with the Executive's overall performance in prioritising spending and delivering to the Northern Ireland public a coherent plan for how money would be spent to deal with the unprecedented crises. As I said, the allocations that have been made in response to COVID and the looming Brexit crisis are welcome. The Executive are not responsible for either of those issues, albeit one of the parties in the Executive had something of a hand in delivering one of them.

I should add that the Executive should be taking, as I said, much more public ownership of the effort to protect our economy and our society from the worst effects of Brexit. We saw the First Minister and deputy First Minister here today delivering a statement on the British-Irish Council. Again, it was slightly light on detail about what the Executive Office is doing to prepare our economy for Brexit, and that is not new.

It would be one thing if, in handling the immediate-term crises, the Executive were acting robustly in making allocations in a timely and coherent way. Unfortunately, they are not. Decisions are being made haphazardly, including with the current debate over whether and how to extend COVID restrictions. There are no easy answers to the extraordinarily complex policy challenges thrown up by COVID-19 and its knock-on effects. Policymakers everywhere are trying to find ways to balance carefully the challenges of virus control with the myriad economic and social consequences that managing the virus has caused.

I acknowledge much of what Paul Frew said. The problem is that, from listening to his remarks, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was not a virus. I recognise what he said about close family members suffering from the virus; I am not saying that he is taking it lightly. Unfortunately, we do not live in a world where there are perfect solutions to protecting absolutely every sector of the economy when we need to keep a virus suppressed. There was, I am afraid, no way in which we could have left economic activity unchanged a month ago. Had we done so, we would have seen the virus run riot.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP 12:00 pm, 10th November 2020

I thank the Member for giving way. I think that I acknowledged in my speech that it is a deadly virus and that we need to take measures to protect people. Does the Member realise that the Executive persuaded and incentivised businesses to put in safety measures — barriers, shields, face masks, gowns and safety equipment — and that some even went as far as putting in motion-sensor lighting so that people would not have to touch light switches, which came to an investment of thousands of pounds? Does the Member accept that it was criminal to tell those businesses that they then had to close?

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

I agree with the Member that businesses have been extremely poorly treated in many ways. They have had abysmal communication and very little clarity from the Executive overall. They should have had more support, and they should have had it more quickly. I will, however, say, gently, to the Member that, if he knows anyone in the biggest party in the Executive, perhaps he could write a letter to them. I do not know whether he knows anyone in a big party: perhaps the First Minister or the Economy Minister? I encourage him to write to those people because I share many of his concerns. Businesses have been poorly treated and communicated with, albeit that restrictions were necessary when the virus numbers were getting out of control in Northern Ireland, we were in severe danger of our health system being overwhelmed, and there simply was not a scenario in which we could leave everything open.

Policymakers everywhere are having to find ways to carefully balance virus control with the economic damage and myriad other societal consequences. Long after we have a COVID vaccine, and our lives have returned to something approaching normal, there will be myriad societal consequences that we have to deal with and for which the Minister will have to make allocations. It is a tragic and, in part, unavoidable truth that, as individual MLAs with constituents and, more broadly, as an Assembly, we will have to deal with many unintended and unavoidable consequences. However, in Northern Ireland, while we are facing these challenges, as is everywhere else, in working out how we come to a rational outcome, rather than balancing the needs of epidemic control and economic mitigation, we seem, unfortunately, to be trying to find ways of balancing public health, economic damage and what Edwin Poots wants.

As it is with COVID-19 regulations, so it is all too often with our spending allocations. Rather than matching our spending to a set of agreed priorities, such as those in a Programme for Government, we have all too often been improvising and ad-libbing. I acknowledge that some of that, in the circumstances, is inevitable, but not all of it.

This virus came to these shores at, I believe, the end of January/early February. We began our period of restrictions in early to mid-March. We have now had nine or 10 months of this virus being the biggest issue facing us. It is understandable that there has been a fast-paced and occasionally frenetic response. However, that does not explain everything about the ad-libbed and disjointed nature of that response.

In the absence of an agreed Programme for Government, our financial allocations process — our Budget process — becomes the de facto strategic policymaking tool for the entire Executive. Given that we do not have an agreed Programme for Government — the Minister has been more positive and optimistic about this than me — it seems, I am afraid, pretty unlikely that, about 18 months out from the end of this mandate, we will get one now. It would be great if we did, but it seems more likely that we will not.

I will give an example of how many allocations in our Budget processes in the past year were ad-libbed and fairly incoherent. If you go back to the Budget document that was produced in March, you will see that many of the chapters relating to individual Departments referred to Programme for Government headings. In the bizarre situation where we did not have an agreed Programme for Government, some Departments' introductory preambles, which, presumably, they had sent to the Department of Finance in a pro forma way, listed their 2016 draft Programme for Government outcomes as headings that they were matching their spending priorities to. That is, clearly, to use a slightly wonkish term, a suboptimal situation. We need to do better.

As I said, it is unlikely that we will have a new Programme for Government before the end of the mandate. However, that does not mean that we have to continue to proceed without a real, clear and joined-up indication from not just the Finance Minister but the entire Executive of the plan to which allocations are being made. <BR/>That includes in quite a big way — this is something that we and, I know, other parties have called for today — much more clarity from the Economy Department about what it sees as the interventions that it needs to make over the medium and long term for our economic recovery and the longer-term rebuilding of our economy.

A former senior special adviser for the DUP famously described the process of government between the two bigger parties — I do not want to make this about the two big parties, but there is a relevant point here — as being akin to a "sausage machine". Unfortunately, too often recently we have seen evidence of that old sausage machine being cranked back into action. It took more than two months, for example, for a £29 million Barnett consequential that was announced for the arts to finally be allocated to the sector. When it was announced, it was of course welcomed, but too often we are welcoming funding without any sense of prioritisation or, indeed, a clear sense of where that money is going once it has been allocated. We have headline announcements, but we then have very little detail.

The other day in the Public Accounts Committee, which I sit on, we were taking evidence on an allocation that had been made to the University of Ulster, where, essentially, an FTC loan was turned into a capital spending allocation. That might be a correct conversion of an allocation, as it were, that was made, but when it was made we got very little clarity from the Finance Minister or the Economy Department about the context and exactly why that allocation was being made in the way that it was. It was not as transparent as it could be, and that kind of thing needs to improve.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

It is important that, since the Member invoked the evidence that we took at the PAC —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order. Will the Member speak into the microphone so that Hansard can pick up what is being said?

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

It is important that, since the Member invoked the evidence that we took at the PAC last week, he then mentioned the Finance Minister and the Economy Minister, neither of whom gave evidence to the Committee. He may have heard that at another Committee, but he did not hear it at the Public Accounts Committee. I want that to be put on the record for the House.

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

I am happy to acknowledge what the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee said. I should say that I am referring to when the allocation was made earlier this year. My comment is that there could have been more clarity about that, not the evidence that was given to a Committee by either Minister.

Without prioritisation and certainly without a Programme for Government or anything approaching it, we are robbing the public, not just MLAs, of any real opportunity to judge how well the Executive are doing. That includes my party and all of us — I do not mean all of us; there are a few non-Executive MLAs here, and Mr Allister would probably have asked for an intervention if I had not made that clear. Simply acting as a transmission mechanism for funds with some interruption for arguing about allocations is not what this place was set up to do.

Aneurin Bevan, the Labour Minister who founded the NHS, which we have all rightly been talking about over the last number of months, said:

"The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism".

It should be the religion of power-sharing too, because without agreed priorities, whatever our ideological or constitutional inclinations are, it is hard to get very much done.

I will ask the Finance Minister this: before our next Budget Bill or Estimates debate, can we please have some kind of strategic document to judge our plans against? It would also be helpful to hear from him specifically on the £2·3 billion total in allocations that has been made because of COVID. Can he clarify whether that includes the additional, I think, £400 million that was announced last week? It would be helpful to clarify whether there an additional Barnett consequential came from the UK Treasury.

I recognise that the fairly contemptuous attitude of the UK Treasury to the devolved Administrations has not helped the task for him or his officials when preparing spending plans. We would be in a better position to produce a credible long-term strategy for this place if there was a longer-term Budget. Others referred to that. In the 'New Decade, New Approach' document, there was widespread agreement. There is agreement throughout this place that we need to move to a system of multi-year Budgets. Clearly, the Treasury's decision to cancel the spending review that was due this year has thrown that into some jeopardy.

In Northern Ireland specifically, we face an unusually acute short term, with weeks and months of profound, but at least partly, predictable challenge. We know that our businesses will face huge disruption on 1 January, whatever the outcome of the EU-UK trade talks. We know that there is a bewildering range of knock-on effects in areas from law enforcement to cross-border healthcare to agriculture. We know that we will be managing the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19 for months, even if there is now some hope that a vaccine may be deployed amongst our vulnerable population sooner rather than later.

We face all of these things in the immediate months. All of them are, at least to some extent, known. We know that spending is happening to prepare for Brexit, but we do not know how it is being prioritised or what the greatest need is, based on a reasonable worst-case scenario. We know that hundreds of millions is being held for the health service, but we do not know the volume of it that is directly contingent on the path of the virus or how much of it is mapped against transformation plans. It would be helpful to understand exactly how the Executive are planning to approach the next few months based on those two great challenges.

Some, including Paul Frew, have talked about the need for an exit plan and exit strategy in relation to restrictions. We certainly need an exit strategy in relation to this virus overall. We are seeing signs of hope. We need to give businesses, workers and people clarity. We cannot give them exact clarity over when people's lives will be back to normal and when they will be able to jump on a plane or go to a football match. However, we should be able to do our best to sit down and think about the next six months and what the key challenges are. They are pretty overwhelming. I have a suspicion sometimes that, unfortunately, some of these discussions do not happen and some of this work is not done simply because the challenge feels too overwhelming. I respect that; I can understand that. There is a pretty overwhelming, daunting task facing our Executive with both COVID and Brexit, but we owe it to people here.

We also owe it to them to be public about it. Lots of this work is going on, but MLAs are not even told, let alone the broader public. There is nothing stopping us from producing some sort of spending plan for the months ahead. This is not a long-term, multi-year Budget. This is about clarity for people, businesses and workers in Northern Ireland for the next three to six months about how outstanding money to the end of this financial year is being prioritised to get us through the acute challenges of COVID and Brexit — the Samson and Goliath, if you like, of the weeks and months ahead. Otherwise, we will simply be coming back to demean ourselves and this Assembly by debating a Budget Bill and Estimates which most people have barely read and allocations that have simply been spat out after haggling matches at the Executive.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I am interested in what the Member has to say. Does the Member agree with me, albeit it is a very primitive thought at present, that we should be looking at some sort of statutory duty being placed on Ministers to come to the House with regard to the financial process?

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

There is obviously already a statutory duty for the Finance Minister to come. I should say that, in many ways, the Finance Minister has been very good in coming to the Assembly a lot. The problem is the overall level of detail that we have had from the Executive on how priorities are matched to what the Finance Minister is announcing. We have not had enough clarity. I ask for specific updates from the Finance Minister on the flexibilities that he asked the UK Treasury for, many of which I support. I also ask for clarity on where we are with borrowing this year. As many of us have said, we are in a situation where borrowing costs are lower than they have ever been. Lots of us have rightly talked over the last number of years about the impact of austerity on this place. The global economic consensus is that we have moved away from the age of austerity now. No one in the International Monetary Fund or the economics profession anywhere is telling Governments to worry about their precise level of debt or deficit this year. They are saying, "Spend more money". That includes this devolved Administration.

I agree with the Finance Minister when it comes to pressing for more powers, and I disagree with Mr Frew when it comes to his scepticism around how we spend money. It has been made clear by Westminster and Whitehall's approach to managing this virus that the public policy priority will always be not just England but the south of England, where most Tory MPs are. That is a blunt, hard truth. I am not unfamiliar with a lot of the priorities of Whitehall and Westminster, so you can take it from me that, bluntly, the priorities will always be in the south of England.

That is part of the reason that, whatever our constitutional perspective, we need more flexibility here, so I ask the Finance Minister for an update on the fiscal council and the fiscal commission, which are two slightly different things. One is a specific commitment in NDNA, while the other is a slightly more forward-looking, one-off commission. I also ask him for specific updates on the allocations for Brexit. Is there a global allocation that the Executive or his Department have earmarked for Brexit preparedness? How much delta is there between outcomes?

Finally, I ask the Finance Minister, as I said, to work with Executive colleagues, particularly, to be blunt, the Economy Minister, and to think about how we can have a three- to six-month plan or statement to the Assembly — something — about how we are matching the allocations in our financial plans to the big challenges that we face in the months to come.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

As we consider and vote on the Budget (No. 3) Bill's Final Stage, it is important to reflect on the unprecedented circumstances that Northern Ireland's public finances have faced this year. We continue to live through a global pandemic that endangers lives and livelihoods. We have a health and social care system that is under unprecedented and incredible strain, coupled with the worst economic downturn in history, with many businesses closing for good, resulting in jobs lost and workers in search of support and re-employment.

I look at the COVID-19 dashboard on the Department of Health website every day. Today, there are 426 confirmed COVID-19 inpatients and 55 people in intensive care. Those are stark statistics, and we should be grateful forever to the staff who are caring for people in hospital. Coupled with those statistics is the grief and suffering endured by those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic. There has been lots of talk about the evidence base for decisions, but the figures for confirmed inpatients, those in intensive care and those who have passed away is plenty of evidence.

Although an additional £2·8 billion in Barnett consequentials has flowed to the Northern Ireland Executive, the scale of the damage inflicted by COVID-19 means that it has been impossible to protect every person, every community, every business and every organisation from its impact. To date, Departments have taken many actions to assist. Those are to be welcomed, and I thank the officials for the work undertaken. Some initiatives have been bold and ambitious and have made a real difference, whereas others have been limited and slow, leaving many feeling frustrated, ignored and tipped into financial ruin.

As we endure the second wave and look towards a potential vaccine, it is important that lessons be learned and everything be done to better support people across Northern Ireland to get through the awful experience that is COVID-19. To do that, we must ensure that moneys are made available and well spent. The granting of additional financial flexibilities to the Northern Ireland Executive by Her Majesty's Treasury is essential, whether they be new borrowing powers for resource expenditure or the ability to carry over capital and resource funds into the next financial year. Although more Barnett consequentials have been made available in recent weeks, local Departments have been demonstrating a slowness in delivering support on the ground. We really need the power to be able to carry over funds into the next financial year. To have to surrender those moneys back to Treasury would be an unforgivable scandal when so many are in need right across Northern Ireland.

Providing moneys to spend is vital, but arguably of more importance is ensuring that every single penny is well spent. That is why I again raise the issue of a fiscal council. A commitment in page 12 of 'New Decade, New Approach' states that the purpose of such a council is to:

"assess and report on the sustainability of the Executive's finances and spending proposals."

At a time that we are spending billions more than was envisaged when the New Decade, New Approach deal was struck, it is imperative that the fiscal council be established without any more delay. Failure to get a fiscal council in place before we start another budgetary process would be wrong and a matter of real concern. In closing, I therefore ask the Finance Minister this: what is the reason for the delay and what are the definitive, confirmed timescales for recruiting members, making appointments and getting the council up and running?

The Alliance Party will support the Bill today, but, with over £800 million wasted every year to the cost of division, we can ill afford to continue without the oversight and reform that is needed as we look to the current and future needs to support and rebuild our communities, our economy and our public services over the months and years ahead.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

The passing of the Budget Bill is a lengthy process and, by the time the Final Stage is reached, most of us have probably covered the issues that are of importance to us. For fear of repetition, I will, therefore, keep my remarks short.

I have sat through debates on the passage of the Budget Bill, and, indeed, through many other debates. Throughout each debate, we see a recurring theme in Members' contributions: the need to transform our health service. Never has that been more acute than it is now in the wake of the devastation that COVID-19 has had on our health service, and the ticking time bomb that awaits us due to the interventions that have been missed. That should tell us that the time for talking has long gone and that the time to transform our health service is now.

We face a cancer crisis, a diabetes crisis, a heart crisis and a mental health crisis. Those are a few crises among the many in the health service. Add to them our longstanding failure to address the needs of those with autism and other disabilities. If we are honest, we will admit that we cannot do what needs to be done without a radical change in how we do things. We have the Bengoa report and the political endorsement of it. I take on board the comments of Members in the past. I think that it was the Member for South Down Mr Wells who, rightly, said that a problem always arises when it comes to closing a local hospital, for instance, and then we, as public representatives, lose our nerve. That is not always the case. I remember well that my colleague Edwin Poots reduced A&E in his constituency when he was Health Minister. That took guts, and guts is what we need to have at this time. We need to have a serious public conversation based on facts, not populism or playing to the gallery.

The Budget does not go anywhere near to addressing the needs of our health service. The needs of an older population will further stretch the purse strings, but we cannot ignore that need; we need to meet it. COVID-19 has changed everything, but if any good is to come from it, let it be that it is the catalyst for change that saves our health service before it is too late. I end my comments there.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I have already addressed the Assembly on the Health Committee's considerations, so I will not go over those comments again today. I make these remarks in my role as Sinn Féin health spokesperson.

The backdrop to our discussion today on the Budget is an unprecedented health crisis with which we continue to struggle. We face the economic uncertainties that have been brought about by the pandemic and by the instability that is hurtling towards us in the form of Brexit. We are not in a good place — there is no question about that — but we could make progress towards a better place if we had the political will.

The pandemic has afforded us lessons that we will, hopefully, learn from. First, we learned how much we depend on what we formerly categorised as low-skilled workers: those who sell us our groceries; serve our food; drive our buses; clean our buildings; and, crucially, form part of the system that delivers health and social care from the ground up. Surely, part of the lesson, apart from the gratitude that we should and, undoubtedly, do feel, is that those workers deserve better working conditions and fair pay. Those who staff the front lines are the most needed and valuable workers in our communities.

Any economy planning must address the deep infrastructural inequalities west of the Bann. Connectivity is regarded by many as an essential utility — a basic utility in any modern society — and we need to provide it across all areas of the North. During the COVID-19 crisis, we learned of students who could not access learning materials because they did not have the broadband access. There are 97,000 poorly served premises across the North, largely in rural Fermanagh, Tyrone and south Derry. <BR/> Poor broadband and mobile-data services continue to marginalise our rural communities and create another deep inequality in our society. If that is not addressed, it will contribute to increasing problems in dealing with health and the use of technology that could provide benefit in the areas of health and the economy. Students, patients, businesses and families who live in rural communities are entitled to, and must have, equal access to technology as their success is vital to sustaining those rural areas.

Many sacrifices have been made during the pandemic by our health and social care workers, to whom we are indebted. It is not enough to applaud on a Thursday evening, even though they are richly deserving of applause; we need to make every effort to rebuild our health and social care system, to recruit substantial and appropriate numbers of health professionals and to pay them fair wages. I once again urge the Minister of Health to address the issue of strike pay for health and social care staff. That money has been allocated by the Finance Minister; it should be paid immediately to provide staff with the recognition of our appreciation for their efforts on behalf of us all, during and prior to the COVID pandemic, and in recognition of the serious staffing concerns that their strike action highlighted. That remains a key area of concern that adds to pressure on staff each and every day.

As we navigate our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been challenged by the deep structural problems in our economy and, in particular, in our health and social care system. We must now invest in and resource a properly functioning public health system that is able to deal with the pandemic. That will require investment in find, test, trace, isolate and support systems to a level that will operate at any given time and will be able to flex to meet the needs of positive cases that we see in the community in order to build in the protections for the health system.

The structural difficulties did not start with COVID-19, but they have been cruelly exposed by it. They are a consequence of deep Tory cuts to the NHS over time. When the pandemic arrived, the devastation was worsened by the catastrophic cuts that we have all been talking about for 10 years and which, cruelly, came home to roost. Those are the same cuts that have caused workforce shortages, a lack of equipment and a crumbling health and social care system that is barely fit for purpose. We now urgently need to invest in and rebuild an effective public health system. That will require longer term planning, transformation and longer term funding. In that respect, I, too, am disappointed at the retraction from the commitment to longer term planning; health, in particular, requires longer term planning and budgeting to allow it to transform and deliver the service.

Surely the lesson of COVID is that we must endeavour to do things differently. Perhaps, for a moment, we should be more optimistic and look at where society is now as a blank canvas, where we can be creative, thoughtful and humane in the policy decisions that we make from this point and build in the lessons and the understanding of inequality that we have developed as a result of everything in recent times. Although we do not have all the money that we would like to have, surely we owe it to our communities to create a new, more equal society by addressing the deep inequalities that confront us every day and returning hope for the future to all our people, but especially our young people, who have suffered so much at this time. Austerity is not the way forward. We must now invest in our people's education, health, prosperity and well-being for the future and return that hope for the future to all of our communities and, in particular, our young people.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 12:30 pm, 10th November 2020

During the debate on the Supply resolution, I outlined some of the work that the Committee has undertaken throughout the year on the DAERA budget. I also articulated some of the Committee's main concerns, including the cost of EU exit and the cost to the agri-food industry of COVID-19. It is those aspects that I will focus on today. I will take the opportunity to update the Assembly on the latest financial information on the EU exit and COVID-19.

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 very proud of the agri-food industry; it has kept operating and kept the food supply chain going seamlessly during the worst of the lockdown and in to this new phase. We have every confidence that it will continue to do that in the coming months.

We have an industry here that produces the highest-quality food, which is exported all over the world. It has also been supplying the hospitality and catering industries, and that aspect has taken the direct hit.

The DAERA Minister made a bid and received an additional £25 million for the agri-food sector, and this was with the full support of the Committee; in fact, we in the Committee held a mini-inquiry to help to inform the Minister and the Department about how the farmers and, indeed, the stakeholders wanted to see the money spent. After our quick call for evidence, we heard from a large number of farmers and rural sector groups about what was happening in their businesses and what support was needed.

There are two schemes for the distribution of the £25 million. The first, making up the bulk of the money, went to dairy, beef, sheep and potato farmers and accounts for £21·4 million. The dairy sector got up to £11 million, while the beef sector got £7 million. That scheme is closed. The Committee was clear with the Department that it wanted to see the funding targeted at those most in need and who had suffered the most loss and that it would be equitable in its distribution. Some members still have concerns about funding for beef cattle and about whether enough was given to sheep farmers. However, we are well aware that we are not out of the woods yet when it comes to the financial impact on our farmers. Further support may be needed in this financial year.

The second scheme is aimed at the ornamental horticulture sector, and it accounts for around £1·6 million. That sector produces many of our vegetables, soft fruits and garden plants. When the secondary legislation came to the AERA Committee to provide the authority for the Department to spend the money, the Committee had concerns with the requirement for those businesses to be VAT-registered. The ornamental horticulture sector has lots of small businesses, and many are not VAT-registered and, therefore, are not eligible for the scheme. I am glad to say that the Committee made strong representation to DAERA on that aspect and the requirement for VAT registration has been removed. That funding scheme was recently opened, and it closes on 15 November. Applications are now being received by DAERA.

There is residual funding from the £25 million of £3·6 million, plus there has been a reprioritisation within the Department of another £3·6 million. That funding is being held by DAERA for potential allocations of support should COVID continue to throw up challenges in the coming months. Other COVID funding has been allocated, including an additional £145,000 for environmental NGOs, and that was allocated in September.

The fishing industry has also received funding to support it through the crisis. The Committee recently wrote to the Department to get an update on that funding. We considered that update at our meeting last week and noted that, in April, £1·32 million had been paid to 171 vessels under the fishing support scheme. Under the aquaculture scheme, the vast majority of the money, around £125,000, has been paid.

There is a further scheme — the extended fishing support scheme — for trawlers and dredgers. It is a tie-up scheme. It is to support the sector to help with the continuation of depressed markets and prices for landings of fish. Under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) programme, £1·3 million has been allocated, and that was launched on 5 October, with the first payments expected in December. During the period from 19 October to 27 November, 38 vessels will be tied up, and a further 23, to date, will be tied up from 16 November to 31 December.

Finally, there will be a fixed cost scheme for static fishers, with an allocation of £390,000, and the Committee will consider the SL1 on the scheme at our next meeting. We also understand that there will be a scheme for the Lough Neagh eel fishermen. It has not been launched yet, but the Committee understands that it will be funded under the EMFF, and the Minister is still considering the scheme's eligibility criteria.

The Main Estimates and Supply resolution will also show that £3·8 million of COVID funding has been allocated to waste. Most of that was to help local authorities cope with the closure of public amenity sites during lockdown, with the resulting increase in fly-tipping. A further bid of £11·4 million for the period from July to March 2021 was approved in September. That funding will help to support the additional cost of implementing social-distancing measures and ensure that staff across the council are able to fulfil crucial waste-management roles in a safe manner. The Minister of Finance announced the allocation on 24 September as part of the Executive's COVID-19 allocations of £165 million, which will see a funding injection for business, infrastructure, culture, schools and councils.

Some £2 million has been allocated by the tackling rural poverty and social isolation (TRPSI) programme to support the Department for Communities revitalisation programme.

I will now move on to the next major area of financial concern to which the Committee has recently turned its attention: the financial impact to DAERA of the preparation and delivery of EU exit at the end of the transition period. It also covers the contingency planning that DAERA is doing for the possibility of a no-deal outcome. The AERA Committee is getting regular written and oral briefings on the preparations, which, as most Members know, are essential to allow us to trade with Britain and to ensure that food can be brought in for our population. For Members who want information or details, I refer them to the Hansard report of the oral briefing that we received on 5 November from the DAERA permanent secretary and his senior team.

On the EU withdrawal Act 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 this jurisdiction. The preparedness work includes physical facilities, IT systems and staff training. It also requires the reprioritisation of DAERA work programme and the staff resource required to deliver official controls post transition. We know that, in connection with EU exit, DAERA has recently activated its major emergency response plan and has indicated that it will not be able to deliver a full-day service on day one after exit.

DAERA recently awarded major contracts to three companies for the new inspection facilities to be built at Larne harbour, Belfast harbour and Warrenpoint harbour. Contractors have been asked to deliver the design and build on the required facilities and the contingency arrangements.

I asked the Department about the staffing arrangements that needed to be put in place to deal with EU exit. We know that a recruitment process is ongoing, and the Department has increased its staffing capacity from 2,900 to around 3,200. It is estimated that, to operate 24/7 at Larne and Belfast, 25 vets, 75 port inspectors and 12 administration staff will be needed to undertake the required work. In addition to that, local authorities estimate that they will require some 30 additional environmental health officers, 18 plant officers and three fish officers. The Committee has been informed that most of the local authority staff are in place, but DAERA is still recruiting or redeploying staff from other business areas.

The Chief Veterinary Officer has just recruited 14 new vets, nine of whom are for the ports. He already has five in place, so that brings him to 15 of the 25 vets needed. The Committee heard welcome news from the Chief Veterinary Officer last week when he confirmed that there had been substantial and positive progress in the discussions with Queen's University and Ulster University about creating a veterinary faculty in the North. For years, many of our vets have been trained in the EU, and, unfortunately, many do not come back and continue to work overseas, which results in a brain drain. Vets are absolutely crucial in facilitating east-west trade and, indeed, maintaining the epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland. I spoke to the AERA Minister yesterday about it and wrote to the Economy Minister today for an update. It is a good news story about the possibility of having our own veterinary faculty in the North.

As I said, there is a price tag for EU exit. This year, it will cost £45 million, which includes £5 million of contingency costs. The money has come from the Treasury, and the Committee clarified that with the permanent secretary and the senior team last week. I have asked for a detailed breakdown of the costs for staffing, IT and infrastructure at the three ports of Larne, Belfast and Foyle.

Another major issue with EU exit is future funding to replace current EU funding. Members are aware that the bulk of the EU funding that comes to DAERA is paid out as direct payments to farmers. Whilst the Committee welcomes the fact that £293 million has been secured for 2020-21, it still has concerns about what will happen beyond that. The Committee is doing focused work on that aspect, and, as we start that, there will, no doubt, be a series of sessions on the future agricultural strategy, including the payment of support to farmers.

I note that the Paymaster General, Penny Mordaunt MP, wrote to the devolved Administrations on13 July confirming the British Government's manifesto commitment to maintain the current budgets for farming and fishing for the duration of the Parliament. That confirmation is a welcome starting point. However, the Committee recently received a copy of a letter on EU funding from the Minister of Finance to the Chair of the Committee for Finance. In the letter, the Finance Minister notes that, regarding replacements for agricultural funding where a 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 it may lead to a cut in support for rural communities. The Committee has asked DAERA for clarity on that.

The Committee has also expressed concerns about replacement funding for rural development. Currently, funding derives largely from CAP pillar II. Earlier in the year, we discussed with officials the resources and capital budgets that had been set aside for the rural development programme. The Committee noted that it is intended that the replacement for EU funding for rural development will come from the Shared Prosperity Fund. The fact that there has been very little progress or clarity on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund has been raised here today, and I raised it during Question Time with the Finance Minister a number of weeks ago.

Stakeholders from rural communities indicated to DAERA that, prior to the COVID-19 crisis, they had already begun work on a new rural development policy framework, which is welcome. When I spoke informally to the Minister yesterday, he said that there would be a consultation on the new rural policy in the very near future, and we all look forward to that.

Clarity on the Shared Prosperity Fund is long overdue, but I am hopeful that the Committee will wish to examine that aspect in detail in the near future. That is all that I want to say.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:45 pm, 10th November 2020

I thank the Department and the staff for the work that has gone into developing the Budget. I thank the Minister for coming to the Assembly, answering our questions and providing clarity on a wide range of points. I also thank him for all his help when the all-party group on fair banking was being set up in response to COVID-19. That will be used more and needed more in the future.

I agree with the Minister that MLAs treat this debate as an opportunity to highlight projects in their area for which they would like funding. I am as guilty as any: dare I mention Maze/Long Kesh? Really, this is not the stage at which to do that. I welcome his commitment to a review of the budgetary process as it will give help and clear direction on how best to input into the process. There have been delays, but, as this is such important work, I hope that the Minister will commit to making sure that there are no further delays.

I also welcome the Minister's continued work on trying to get flexibility in budgetary exchange. Given COVID and all the talk about Brexit in the last few days, it is vital that flexibility is put into our Budget so that we can deal with pressures that do not conform to a financial year. We all agree that giving back unspent money should be avoided at all costs, and I know that the Minister has the support of the Committee on that.

On the Budget itself, I hope that recent announcements on housing associations will help them to access FTC. For a long time, the lack of use of that function has been staggering, and I hope that a credible option is now available. Continual monitoring of the available COVID-related funds is needed. New announcements are welcome, but, as the Minister is aware, there are still those without support.

Continuous pressure must be put on the Treasury to solidify its commitment to meet Brexit costs.

The burden on our economy, on our agriculture sector and on our trade will be difficult enough. We will not front the bill for a Tory vanity project.

In the last debate, Minister, you made a point of monitoring the increase in the capital budget for the Department for Infrastructure and, specifically, the £15 million for Northern Ireland Water. I appreciate your point, but I am sure that you are well aware that that is far less than what is required to save our water and sewerage infrastructure. Northern Ireland Water has been to each council area describing how developments will have to be put on hold because of the issues. I hope that you will sit down with the Minister for Infrastructure as a matter of urgency to discuss what can be done.

Going forward to the next Budget, we have a number of issues that are already apparent. First, we need an announcement from the Treasury to kick off the process that is pushing any consultation period on the new Budget into the festive season. That is not ideal, and I hope that the Minister will continue to push the Treasury. We also know that a £350 million hole has been left by the New Decade, New Approach funding, which will need to be found from somewhere. Consultation with Departments must start as early as possible so that pressure can be identified and sensible decisions made. Ultimately, work must continue on a fiscal commission to give greater scrutiny into and expertise on our budgetary process. Maybe then some of the projects that we develop can begin to be checked off rather than gather dust in a report somewhere.

I sit on the Finance Committee, and the onus is on us to come forward with solutions. I thank the Minister and the Department for listening to the solutions that we try to bring forward. It is not always about scrutiny; it is about trying to help and bring forward solutions to get us to where we want to be.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Unfortunately, I do not think that I will have my remarks finished before the 1.00 pm break, but I will try my best to assist in moving the debate on.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Budget Bill. As I have said in the House before, while it is welcome that we have a Finance Minister, an Executive and an Assembly in place, our Budget Bill is unique in many ways, as we are not here today discussing a taxation policy or revenue policies; rather, we are divvying up what is, ungraciously, in my opinion, called the block grant, plus our rates and a few other earnings, among our Departments to spend in the year ahead. As an Executive, an Assembly and a society, we have to reach the stage where we have politically matured to the point where we have a Budget Bill that is based on taxation and other matters and fiscal powers, because that is where the real decisions are made.

If anyone watched 'The View' last Thursday night, they will have heard the paediatric consultant from the Royal Victoria Hospital talking about child poverty, which was quite horrific. She talked about how children on the wards stuffed toast down their nappies because they did not know when they would get their next feed at home and how children ate bowls upon bowls of cereal because they knew that, when they went home, they would not get any more food. What has brought that about? I cannot judge each case, but poverty has brought that about. What creates poverty? Poverty is not a natural phenomenon. Poverty is created because policies, legislation and decisions have been made that ensure that trends continue. In our society, down through the decades, you can pinpoint where the trends of poverty have existed and which communities those trends exist in. There is a higher level of poverty in the Catholic community but not exclusively. There is poverty in working-class communities across this society. As an Executive, an Assembly and a society, if we want to tackle that, we should not look towards charity or food banks. Look towards policy and legislation, and redirect much-needed funds towards ensuring that we do not have children stuffing toast into their nappies to bring home with them because they do not know when they will be fed again. That is what Budgets have to be about, and that is what our Executive and our legislation have to be about. We have to eradicate poverty, and we have to give communities that have been left behind for decades, if not centuries, an opportunity to create the change that is needed.

There are ways of doing that, as I have said. Education is one of them; in fact, education is key to it. Education is key to eradicating poverty in our society. Let us make sure that we invest in our education system and that we have the community infrastructure in place to ensure that there is a strong sense of community in our society. Let us make sure that the Executive have the spending power to redirect the extra resources into those communities. I recall, as Education Minister, redirecting millions of pounds away from some schools to others to tackle educational underachievement and poverty. Quite rightly, I was challenged. We were in austere times, and I was taking money off schools that were surviving and giving it to others to make sure that they had a leg-up. Those are the difficult choices that have to be made.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I am conscious of the time. I think I have another five minutes, if that is OK. I am just waiting for the break.

That brings me on to Mr Frew's commentary. It is understandable that the debate has entered the realm of COVID, which dominates everything. The economic impact of COVID has been as devastating, in many ways, as the health impact, setting it aside, of course, that over 1,000 people have died of COVID-19, many more have been ill and many more will face the consequences of that illness for a long time. I listened with interest, when I was in my room, to Mr Frew's commentary on this. I was not sure whether I was listening to a resignation speech from the DUP or to the continued feud between him and his party leader in relation to the role of the Executive. We have COVID-19 deniers, and now, to add to that list, we have Executive deniers. Five parties in the Chamber are members of the Executive, and it is right and proper that MLAs hold the Executive to account. That is our function; that is what we are here for. However, if I was of Mr Frew's belief that the Executive have been criminal, have led to killing people and are involved in wanton vandalism against businesses, I would sit in that corner, not on a party Bench. I would get up, leave that party and sit in that corner over there. If someone solemnly believes those statements about the Executive, they have to act on it.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Does the Member recognise that even members of the very Executive that he talks about have spoken in those terms? Even this morning, the First Minister, from this very Bench, spoke of the impact on businesses. This is not an issue in-house; it is the Assembly performing its function, using its power to hold the Executive to account. That is our job. When will the party opposite realise that its function is to challenge, not to be led like some troop through the Lobbies?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

At no stage have I heard the First Minister refer to the Executive as being criminal, killing people or doing wanton vandalism: never. I have not heard the First Minister say, "Who is going to save us from this Executive?".

There are mixed views in the business community around what the Executive should do next. I have listened to different views in my constituency and on the air waves about what should happen next. I have met businesspeople who are angry and frustrated with the Executive. The majority of businesspeople whom I have met want the Executive to take a leading role in tackling COVID-19, to protect themselves, their families and their loved ones, but in the recognition that, on the other side of this, we have to have an economy. At the start of the pandemic, many businesses were grateful and thankful for the interventions of the Executive — the Finance Minister in particular — and the funds that were distributed. What is clearly breeding frustration in the business community at this stage is this: three weeks into the current lockdown, many of the businesses affected have not received the financial interventions that they were promised, not by the Finance Minister but by the Economy Minister. I have concerns about the record and role of the Economy Minister, even if there was not COVID-19, because there has been —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Excuse me. I ask the Member to clarify whether he will have finished his speech in a couple of minutes. If not, we will bring him back in after the break.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I think that I will have to come back in after the break.

There has been dithering from the Economy Minister throughout the process. She has had one eye on Westminster and one eye on what happens in the Assembly. She needs to have both eyes on our local economy to ensure that our business community is supported. I will end there for now.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be questions to the Minister of Finance. We will return to this debate at 3.30 pm, when the next scheduled Member to speak will be Mr O'Dowd resuming his speech.

The debate stood suspended. The sitting was suspended at 1.01 pm.

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