Public Expenditure: Draft Budget 2021-22

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:00 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 6:00 pm, 18th January 2021

I have received notice from the Minister of Finance that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in light of social distancing being observed by all parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members still have to ensure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called, but they can do that by rising in their place as well as by notifying the Business Office or Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the period for questions afterwards.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I wish to update the House on the Executive's agreement to a draft Budget for 2021-22. Members will know that the Executive cannot set their Budget without a funding envelope being set by the Treasury spending review. I had hoped that the Executive's Budget would be set last summer and would provide a multi-year settlement. That would have provided the Executive with sufficient time to reprioritise, plan and consult the public. However, the spending review outcome was not announced until 25 November 2020 and provides only a single-year Budget.

In those circumstances, I tabled a draft Budget for the Executive's meeting on 10 December that largely rolled over Departments' existing baselines for another year. Unfortunately, it was not until today that the paper was allowed onto the Executive's agenda for decision. That delay has further shortened the time available for consultation.

Excluding the funding provided for COVID-19, the spending review outcome provides a broadly flat-cash position for normal departmental spending, once one-off funding for public services in 2020-21 has been factored in. It is that spending review outcome that forms the basis of the draft Budget that I am announcing today.

The spending review has not delivered the support required to kick-start economic recovery in the context of COVID-19 and Brexit. The outcome reflects an effective flatlining of the 2020-21 Budget position. With increased demands on public services, and taking account of inflation, it will be a challenge merely to deliver existing services at their current levels. Make no mistake: the spending review outcome has led to very difficult Budget settlements for all Departments.

Of course, the Executive have the option to increase revenue through the regional rates. However, in recognition of the impact that COVID-19 has had on jobs and households, we are freezing the regional rate both for domestic and non-domestic customers. I call on councils to consider taking the same approach when setting their district rates.

Members will know that I am looking at how additional business rates support can be provided in 2021-22. In this difficult financial context, the Executive have prioritised allocations to continue welfare reform mitigations and to provide for Agenda for Change pay, which will support our health service staff. Those allocations reflect the priority that the Executive place on protecting the vulnerable and supporting our front-line health and social care staff, who have been at the coalface of the fight against the virus. We have also provided funding for pupils with special educational needs, reflecting that this is a crucial stage in young people’s lives. However, I recognise that, for most Departments, the draft Budget outcome represents a flat-cash settlement that will mean effective reductions once increased costs and demands on services are taken into account. Choices will have to be made, public services will have to be prioritised, and, if Ministers want to start new programmes, they may have to stop others.

I turn now to the capital budget. The draft Budget sets out some £1·75 billion of capital spending. It will help to deliver on the Executive’s flagship projects, including the A5, the A6 and the new mother and children’s hospital. Those capital allocations will enable investment in our infrastructure while supporting the construction sector. I can also announce that funding has been allocated to enable work finally to begin on Casement Park. More widely, the draft Budget will also help to deliver key capital projects that will encourage investment and drive our economy: for example, investment in water infrastructure and in the school estate. The level of funding provided also delivers on the NDNA priority to increase investment in social housing. That investment will help to address high levels of housing need and stimulate the construction sector.

People will want to know what provision we have made for dealing with the impact of COVID-19 into the next financial year. The spending review provided £538·2 million of funding for COVID support in 2021-22. That compares with £3 billion in the current financial year. The Executive have allocated £380 million to the Department of Health for the COVID-19 response and vaccine support; £30·6 million to the Department of Education to support families on low incomes through holiday hunger payments; and £700,000 to the Department for the Economy for higher education places following the uncertainty that surrounded the A-level results last summer. The £126·9 million balance of our COVID funding will be held for further consideration as part of the final Budget.

Due to legislative constraints, the Executive’s Budget is restricted to the amounts set out by the Secretary of State and notified to the Assembly in my written ministerial statement of 1 December 2020. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State failed to confirm a number of previously agreed financial packages, and, as a result, those cannot be formally allocated as part of the draft Budget. They include confidence and supply funding, city deals funding and New Decade, New Approach funding, and come to £254·4 million for 2021-22. I hope that the Secretary of State will confirm those important funds in time for them to be incorporated into a final Budget in the coming weeks.

The Secretary of State has also yet to provide funding for the victims' pension, which his Government designed and legislated for. Indeed, Mr Lewis has refused even to meet the First Minister, deputy First Minister, Justice Minister and me to discuss the funding of the victims' pension payments. The Executive are fully committed to delivering those payments, and, in line with the British Government’s statement of funding policy, it is the responsibility of the British Government to provide the necessary funding. I hope that the Secretary of State will meet with Ministers to discuss how the significant costs involved, which the Justice Minister has estimated might be as much as £800 million, will be funded.

As part of the Budget process, I am commencing a period of consultation to help the Executive to form a final Budget before the new financial year. As a result of the delay in the spending review, it is possible to allow only a short period for the consultation process, with replies due by 25 February 2021. Details of how to respond are available in the Budget document that accompanies this statement and on the Department of Finance website.

In conclusion, the Budget seeks to protect key public services in a very challenging financial context. I hope that this one-year Budget will act as a bridge to a multi-year Budget that allows the Executive to reprioritise their spending properly and plan for the longer term. I commend the draft Budget to the House.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Minister for the statement and for meeting with me earlier today to discuss its contents. The Finance Committee considers that Budget scrutiny is a primary foundation of good government that recognises the respective roles of the Executive, in producing a draft Budget, and Assembly Committees in undertaking and exercising their scrutiny duties. Notwithstanding the unprecedented events arising from the pandemic this year, the Committee is very concerned that delays in progressing the draft Budget will have a direct and very adverse impact on the scope for legitimate scrutiny and engagement with key stakeholder groups.

The Minister indicated that the Executive has received around £3 billion of COVID support from our nation's Treasury in the current year and that some of this money remains unspent. Minister, is there a danger that Departments will hand back COVID money in March, only to find themselves with Budget shortfalls in April? I know that the Minister is seeking flexibility from HM Treasury with regard to unspent COVID resources. Will he use that flexibility to fund a rates holiday for hard-pressed local businesses? I advise the Minister that the Committee strongly supports the full take-up of the £200 million per annum of the available reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) borrowing. What measures is he bringing forward to make sure that Departments make the best use of that cheap form of borrowing?

I thank the Minister for his comments earlier, but I have already started engaging with other Committees to encourage their Ministers to look at this money and at the likelihood of any underspends this year to make sure that money is not going back to the Treasury.

Finally, there is obviously concern that, within the draft Budget, there is no provision for the victims' payment scheme or the Troubles permanent disablement payment scheme. The Minister has already given an explanation around why this is the case, but, bearing in mind that the courts have ruled that the Executive was obliged to make the relevant provision in this Budget, will he outline how we are going to get to that point? Thank you.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I thank the Chair of the Committee for his comments, the support that he has offered me over the course of trying to get the Budget paper to the Executive and agreed, and for the conversation with the Committee last week on these matters. Of course there is concern about potential underspends. We had £3 billion of COVID money on top of the money that Departments already had to spend over the year. It is a significant challenge, and a lot of the COVID money came late in the year. Although we have allocated the vast bulk of it, we received an additional £200 million on Christmas Eve. It was a Christmas present from the Treasury, but it was just before we broke for Christmas and added to the money already there.

Departments are beginning to return money, and I intend to bring a January monitoring and COVID paper to the Executive on Thursday. Departments have begun to return some amounts that they fear they will not be able to spend. As he said, there are two ways to address this. One is that we encourage all Departments to bring forward schemes and to redouble their efforts to make sure that whatever sectors are under their responsibility get the necessary support over the next two and a half months. We are also lobbying very strongly, alongside the Finance Ministers in Scotland and Wales, with Treasury to allow us the maximum flexibility to carry over some of that money into the new financial year. Whilst we have a significant proportion of money to spend in this financial year, our challenges arise in the next financial year, for which we have been allocated, as I have said, a flatline Budget which, in effect, is a cut for some Departments. The COVID money that we have allocated is only a small proportion of the COVID money that we have received this year. We want that flexibility to carry over as much as we can to assist with some of the pressures that we will undoubtedly meet in the next financial year.

With regard to RRI borrowing, I have identified that two Departments have asked for £70 million each — the Department for Communities and the Department for Infrastructure. That will help the Department for Infrastructure to carry out the very necessary water and sewerage work. It will allow for other development, not just public-sector development but private sector as well, and stimulate construction and development. For the Department for Communities, as we have said, there is an NDNA commitment to a significant housebuilding programme. This will help support us to meet that commitment, and I look forward to those projects being developed in full.

That leaves an additional £60 million of RRI borrowing that is accessible over this year. I know that a number of Departments are interested and have expressed an interest in bringing forward projects, among them the Department of Health and, potentially, the Department of Education. I look forward to engaging on that with those Departments and their Ministers before we get to the final Budget paper.

The final question that the Member raised was about victims' pensions. I am, of course, conscious of the findings of the court and the responsibility that we have to address that. That means not just the responsibility that the court placed on us but the responsibility that we have to victims to find a solution. As the Member will know, the Government changed the agreement that we collectively reached at Stormont House. They drafted a new policy and legislated for it, and, under their statement of funding, they are required to meet the costs.

We have not yet had an accurate final cost for victims' pensions, but the top-level estimation of the Department of Justice is certain to be well beyond the finances available to the Executive over a number of years. We have tried diligently to get conversations with the Secretary of State but to no avail. In order to meet not only that court requirement but the requirements of victims, I want to have the matter agreed before the final Budget statement comes to the House and goes to the Executive so that we can get some certainty for victims. We hope that the Secretary of State will eventually commit to meeting us. As I said, a joint meeting was sought with the First and deputy First Ministers, the Minister for Justice and me. We have not been able to get that meeting yet. I will also continue to talk to Treasury about these matters, because it will also have an input, not just the Northern Ireland Office. We want to see the matter addressed and resolved by the time that we get to the final Budget stage.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP 6:15 pm, 18th January 2021

Radical thought seems to be non-existent in this Budget. In a time of great challenge, we seem to be doing the same thing over and over again, so will the Minister ensure that the final Budget will contain sufficient revenue allocations to promote economic recovery when the Executive allow businesses to open and trade freely?

The two Departments that seem to be hit hardest in this time of challenge are Health and Education. Will the Minister give a commitment to the House that he will look seriously at RRI borrowing for Health and Education?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

With regard to radical rethinking, the funding that we hoped to announce in the summer did not get announced until 25 November. We were told right through the autumn that we were working on the basis that we were going into a multi-annual Budget situation. We were told abruptly at the end of November that it was to be a single-year Budget. That funding was then not confirmed for a further 14 days by the Secretary of State, as is the requirement. Therefore, the ability to engage in a significant reprioritisation exercise was taken away from the Executive because of the timescales involved.

Nonetheless, we want to see economic recovery. Economic recovery is, of course, led by the Department for the Economy but is not the responsibility solely of that Department. The capital funds that we have found for housebuilding and the necessary sewage and water treatment work that will underpin all sorts of developments that might happen, public and private, will make a significant contribution to construction, which makes up about 20% of our economic activity. Of course we want to support the Department for the Economy in the time ahead, and we will do all that we can to support it. All Departments recognise that every one of them is in a difficult position as a consequence of a Budget that we did not seek and that we find unacceptable.

In relation to RRI borrowing for Health and Education, of course I am happy and willing. When we published the initial draft Budget, the Departments that came back to us were Communities and Infrastructure, which said, "We had significant capital bids that were not met. We would like to examine the possibility of using RRI borrowing", and we were able to do that with them. I am doing a similar exercise with Health, and we will do one with Education, should it come forward with some projects.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas seo. Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Minister for the statement. There is a lot in it to be welcomed. He mentioned investment in social housing: how many homes does he anticipate will be built in the coming year with that funding?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. I agree that there are things to be welcomed, but the overall picture is not good, as I have made clear. While we are able to find some good news in how the Executive will prioritise the limited resources available to us, the picture is not the one that we would have wanted.

I am trying to find the figure from the Department for Communities, but I am told that it intends to have around 1,900 new builds next year. That is a significant number, not just to meet the acute housing pressure. I have listened to the Minister for Communities address the Executive over the past number of weeks, and I understand that the pressure has built during the pandemic and that housing stress has become more acute and has risen more rapidly, as, I am sure, has happened to many public services. The contribution to economic activity that that level of construction will bring is also to be welcomed.

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

Minister, whatever about food supplies being disrupted as a result of Brexit, I am afraid that the draft Budget statement is, as you have acknowledged, pretty thin gruel. The statement is fairly brief.

I want to ask the Minister a couple of things. First, what is the picture on underspend? It is critical to understand what we are not spending this year in order to understand how badly off we will be next year. Secondly, the draft Budget document that was recently published online mentions just under £70 million in lost EU funding. However, from what I have seen, that is not in today's statement. Will the Minister confirm exactly how much lost EU funding there is? It is falling particularly hard on Invest NI. There is a lot in here that we need to study in more detail, particularly in the draft Budget document, and I hope that there will be the opportunity to do that.

As a final thought with regard to lost opportunities, as the Minister said, we are, sadly, being squeezed very tightly. Unfortunately, we are finding £2·5 million to spend on Sammy Wilson's phantom flights. What an absolute disgrace. Is there no way that we can address that man's absolutely ridiculous folly, Minister?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I am happy to look at the flights issue, particularly in relation to where we are now. The Member will know that connectivity is a key factor in our economic recovery.

We have not identified EU funding because the discussion with Treasury on some elements of that funding and Brexit costs goes on. However, with regard to the Shared Prosperity Fund, from which the Department for the Economy has drawn down a significant amount of money — I think that it is around £70 million, although I do not have access to the figures now — the letter that I saw over the weekend from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to the Scottish Finance Minister does not fill us with any degree of hope. He confirmed that the Treasury's intent — we will continue to challenge it along with Scotland and Wales — is to hold on to that replacement European funding of, he said, £1·5 billion and allocate it centrally from Whitehall and use it to contribute to the levelling-up fund. From my reading, that is really about channelling money into northern English constituencies, perhaps to try to hold on to the seats that the Conservatives won. That paints a poor picture for us here with regard to our access to lost EU funding. The Member will know that we understood and intended that we would have the funding that we previously had and that it would be given to the Executive to allocate against our priorities. However, it appears that Whitehall and the Treasury are set in a different direction. That is not in the statement because it has not been finalised. We will continue to fight that battle over replacement EU funding.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Members, as is always the case in these circumstances, a limited amount of time is available to us. Steve Aiken, as the Chair of the Finance Committee, asked a number of questions, because Chairs are always given greater latitude. However, I do not want that to affect other Members' contributions. When Members ask multiple questions, they need to understand that a Minister is obliged to answer only one, although Ministers normally try to answer as many as they can. However, I am trying to make sure that as many Members as possible get to speak. Therefore, when Members can, they should limit their questions. Thank you.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I have only one question. It is blue Monday, and I am trying to be positive, but, as I read the draft Budget, that is really hard. A lot of that is because the UK Government have welshed on their commitments. These institutions were re-established about a year ago on the basis of commitments, and they are not being fulfilled.

My question is on rate relief. Throughout the pandemic, a lot of businesses have suffered really badly, and Brexit is also having an impact on them.

What consideration is being given to rate relief for businesses in the next financial year? I am conscious of the fact that some of them will not be able to pay their non-domestic rates bill if they land in April.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. I am conscious that the Chair asked me that as well, but I neglected to deal with it, as I was trying to get through the number of questions that he had asked. Yes, businesses have made it very clear to us that the thing that they would like that would benefit local businesses — small, medium and large — most is a continuation of the rates holiday that many of them have experienced over the past 12 months. Some of the carry-forward COVID money that we have bid for and argued for is intended to provide some level of rate relief into the next financial year, and hopefully as much as we can possibly provide. Hopefully, if the vaccination programme rolls out and the pandemic begins to recede, a lot of businesses will re-emerge and be back trading again in the new financial year, but they will continue to struggle with bills.

Rates is a particular bill. The business community has argued in all of our dialogue with it over the past year that the one measure that has had the most impact, by providing it with a level of support, is the taking of the rates bill off the table. That has also assisted councils, as it has given them a guarantee for their rates income. It is something that we very much want to do, and we have earmarked money to be set aside into the next financial year to do that. The earlier that we can give businesses the advice that that is what we intend to do, the more that they can plan and budget for next year.

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. I also welcome the freeze on the regional rate. I agree with the Minister and encourage all councils to do the same with the district rate.

My question relates to what Mr Kelly asked earlier. We know that any investment in social housing should involve not only new builds. Investment in our present stock is much needed. We also have the added issue of the tower block strategy and people being displaced, especially in north Belfast, where there is not the land on which to build. If all the money allocated is going to new builds, will any other money be made available for those other, much-needed housing strands?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

There has been a substantial capital allocation made to the Department for Communities for usage, but, obviously, it will be up to the Minister to prioritise. I am sure that the Committee and its Chair will be in dialogue with her and her officials about the priorities that they think that they should be following. The additional £70 million that we earmarked was an unmet bid. The Department for Communities therefore has quite an ambitious capital programme for next year. We identified £70 million of RRI funding to try to contribute towards that, particularly to meet the NDNA commitment on social housing. It will be up to the Minister for Communities to identify where the rest of her capital budget will go to once the final Budget paper is agreed. I am sure that she will consider issues such as those that you have raised.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement this evening. The level of COVID funding will reduce dramatically next year. Given that some Departments will return money late in the year, can COVID money be carried into the next financial year?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

As I said in answer to the Chair earlier, we have gone back to Departments to try to ensure that they will spend out. We wanted an early return if that was not going to be the case, and we have had some returns. As I said, I will be bringing a paper to the Executive on January monitoring plus COVID. Clearly, the larger element of the underspend is from COVID allocations. We want Departments to come forward, because there is still a very significant and continued need out there from businesses, communities, hospices, farming communities and other sectors. We want to see whether we can allocate more of that money ahead of the end of the financial year. In recognition of the particular challenge of spending that out and the challenge of having a poorer Budget next year, we will try to carry over as much as we can in order to try to ease pressures. It is a combination of trying to spend out what is available and seeking as much flexibility from Treasury as we can possibly get to carry over money into the next financial year.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

This statement, like many of the Minister's statements in the past have been and as many of his statements in the future will be, is dominated by COVID-19 and the response to it. Although I welcome the £538 million in the next financial year, the reality is that it falls far short of the £3 billion that was pledged last year. I support the call for the Treasury to allow flexibility to carry over funds into next year. That is essential.

The Minister will know that the most vital support for small business has been rate relief. I support the call for the continuation of that.

Equally, VAT has been a crucial support line for many businesses in the sectors affected. Has the Minister had any conversations with Treasury as to a continuation of that reduced VAT rate?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 6:30 pm, 18th January 2021

The Member is correct that that has also been vital. That is not in this because it is not within our remit or our control. However, yes, we continue to talk to Treasury in relation to all the schemes that it runs. Obviously, the furlough scheme was essential to keep workers paid over the course of this. The VAT scheme was a great contributor to an awful lot of businesses as well. The furlough scheme will now go up to the end of the financial year, which is good news. We will encourage Treasury to consider extending the schemes and protections that have been built in into the new financial year, and I hope that we have some success in doing that.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Minister, we read last week that some of your ministerial colleagues want you to address the EU shortfall perhaps by taking money out of other Departments' budgets; the irony in that, if it is true. I have listened to your response. Are you saying that the shared prosperity fund — the fund that Brexiteers told us was going to replace all the European funding — is not going to replace the European social fund and the European regional development fund? Have there been any further developments in the replacement of EU funding for next year?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The shared prosperity fund may well replace the funding that came from Europe, but it will not replace it in the way that we are used to receiving it. There is a clear indication, particularly in the most recent communication from the Treasury to the Scottish Finance Minister, which was shared with me over the weekend, and in the legislation that is passing through Westminster, that they intend to hold that fund centrally with people having to bid in. They have now gone further and said that they intend to use it as part of the levelling-up process. Of course, the levelling-up process, as announced by various Government Ministers, including the Prime Minister, is really about the north of England.

First, I think that our chances of receiving the same allocations are very limited. Secondly, those allocations are not set by the Executive against our priorities and the priorities to suit the people who we represent here. Therefore, I do not believe that we are going to receive anything like the same level of funding that this Executive received as part of EU funding and spent down through its Departments. We will continue to fight that battle to see whether we can change Treasury's mind. The Executive have an agreed position that we want to access the funding that we got previously and be able to allocate, prioritise and distribute that according to our own priorities. However, the Treasury seems very intent on a different direction, one that, I think, will be damaging to the people here because we will not have access to funding that, over the years, was vital to supplement a lot of departmental budgets and to provide much needed support on the ground.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

As has been mentioned, it would be unthinkable if those who were severely injured and have waited so long have to wait again for a victims' payment. In your statement, you said that the Secretary of State has refused to even meet to discuss the funding for the victims' pension payments, which must be an affront to those in that sector. Is there an opportunity to move the ignorant Secretary of State out of the way and go directly to the British Prime Minister to get this issue sorted for that sector immediately?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The Secretary of State has been tasked with the responsibility of sorting the issue out, so, in the first instance, we want to talk to him, but he is not the British Government. I talk to Treasury regularly. We will continue to raise this and other issues where funding arrangements have not been finalised. He is quite correct that it adds to the pain and anguish of victims when, on an issue such as this, what seems like an unseemly squabble over finances has not yet been resolved, even though the administration has been put in place by the Executive to make sure that the process can continue. It clearly needs to be resolved. We have no official estimate or figures attached to what the British Government legislated for, but, according to some of the estimates that the Justice Department has brought forward, it would be beyond the scope of the Executive.

That is, unless we were to reduce that over the lifetime of the victims’ pension. If it was against the high-level estimate that the Department of Justice brought, we would be taking £0.5 billion off the health service and £150 million off the Education Department over the lifetime of the scheme to match that. Clearly, it is not sustainable for the Executive to continue to provide public services and do that. I hope that the Secretary of State will engage in the times ahead. If he does not, I will ask Executive colleagues that we press whatever buttons we can to get this issue resolved in time for the final paper.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

This time last year the newly appointed Health Minister was addressing the issues of nurses' pay and safe staffing levels. I note that the Minister says that the Executive have prioritised allocations for agenda for pay in the health service. However, can the Minister go further tonight and commit the funds to deliver on nurses’ pay and safe staffing levels and to do so in a sustainable manner, and not through non-recurring means such as monitoring rounds?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

To do so, I would have to ask another Department to surrender money because the Government in London — supported for nine years while they delivered austerity policies upon us by elected Members from this part of the world — have decided to give us a flat-cash Budget. In order to meet increased demands on pay, we would have to take consequential resources off another Department.

What I can commit to, and what I have committed to the Health Minister in recent conversations with him, is that the money will be found to do those things. The Executive, as part of this paper, have committed to find money for safer staffing levels and those issues in the Health Department. The Health Department, as I can remember, has always had, over the last number of years, even prior to my being in the Department of Finance, a first call on moneys throughout the year in recognition of the particular pressures that the Health Department faces. That prioritisation of the Executive will continue into the new financial year, and those issues will be addressed. They would be much better addressed if we had a Government in London that did not continue to follow austerity policies in relation to public finance pressures.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement, although it is disappointing that the Executive have been provided with only a standstill Budget. I am particularly concerned by the Minister's statement that the spending review has not delivered the support required to kick-start an economic recovery.

I ask the Minister whether he agrees that, given that the economy will only be entering recovery mode next year — depending on the path of the pandemic — what is needed now is economic stimulus rather than a return to austerity, as he mentioned in his previous answer, particularly so at a time when there are historically low borrowing rates.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

In light of a very disappointing Budget allocation, we have to examine what additional measures we have to kick-start economic recovery and some of the RRI borrowing issues. We will examine ways to utilise the full level of RRI borrowing up to £200 million. There is financial transaction capital available to us, and we will be encouraging Departments to make bids that will utilise it. It is our responsibility to utilise all the options we can to support public services and to kick-start economic growth coming out of the pandemic. That will be a challenge; nonetheless, it is a challenge that we have to meet.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I thank the Minister for bringing this depressing document to us. It is quite tough. I want to ask for clarification on a detail.

Included in annex A, table 2, there is a planned capital DEL of £28·4 million for Fresh Start for integrated shared education and shared housing. Given the comments made throughout the document about how disappointing the Secretary of State has been in coming forward, is there a risk that those 17 schools will not proceed if the planned money is not finally decided by the Secretary of State?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I have no reason to believe that that commitment will not be met. It certainly will operate on the basis that it can, should and will be met by the Secretary of State. We got recent correspondence from the Treasury on the Strule campus, which you know is a key shared education project for the Department of Education, with some clarity in moving forward, and that is good news. We wanted and should have been able to include in our Budget the figures for the money that the NIO has authority for. Those did not come through in time to do that, but our intention is to have them cleared and in the final paper.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Minister, I have found some good news in the pages of your statement. I welcome the fact that funding has been allocated to enable work finally to begin on Casement Park. Certainly, that will be welcome news for Gaels in County Antrim and right across Ulster and Ireland, and I look forward to spending many days supporting my club of Dunloy there when it is built. As others said, essentially, what you are proposing is a rollover of this year's Budget into next year. As you said, it is a very difficult Budget settlement, for all the reasons that you outlined. Is it your intention to carry out a more strategic review of future Budget allocations?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I accept that there were consequences of the pandemic in London as well as here. If things had gone according to plan this year, we would have had a comprehensive spending review over the summer, we would have had a multi-annual Budget, and we would have had a process to enable us to do strategic and longer-term thinking and prioritise Executive plans over a number of years. That, however, did not happen, and we ended up with an announcement at the end of November, confirmation in December and an annual Budget scenario yet again. Of course, over this coming year — the next financial year — we want to plan again for the ability to set more strategic priorities. We have a five-party Executive, and we have the ability to have input from all the parties, with the exception, of course, of the Green Party and PBP, which are not in the Executive. That allows, going forward, for a broad approach in the Executive to prioritising spending in a more strategic way. I hope that we are in a better Budget scenario in the financial year beyond the next one and into a multi-annual Budget to allow us to be able to do that.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. Like others, I feel that it is very sparse and difficult to scrutinise. I have noticed that the Scottish and the Welsh Governments have a degree of pre-Budget consultation, with one starting in June and one in September. Does the Minister accept that it is very disappointing that, despite having been in post for a year, he is announcing a largely flatlined Budget? There has not been detailed planning, scrutiny or prioritisation to decide how we should spend the money that is available to us.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

It is very hard to prioritise and plan how to spend money when you do not know how much you have, when you do not know the period over which you are to spend that money and when you get an announcement about that at the very end of November and confirmation of it on 8 or 9 December. I am disappointed with the Budget outcome. I did not campaign for the Tories to be in government; you did, and they brought austerity policies with them. That was nine years ago. You might remember the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists — New Force (UCUNF): that incarnation of the Ulster Unionists and the Tory party. David Cameron was over here, and you wanted to get him elected to replace Labour, and he brought with him nine years of austerity policies that continue to affect us. I am disappointed by the outcome, as you should be, but I never supported them in the first instance.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Minister, 2021 will be a very important year for many in this community. It may not matter much to you, but given that this is the intended Budget of the Government of Northern Ireland, how much do the Government of Northern Ireland intend to spend on the centenary and on projects for the centenary? Can you tell us that? Surely it is not nothing, just like the innocent victims of terrorism got. What would that say about the alleged inclusiveness and outreach of the Executive?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Well, 2021 is an important year for me as well, because it represents 100 years of partition on the island. Of course, there are those who would like to celebrate that, and the budgets for it will be included in TEO's overall spend.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

It is very concerning that the Budget represents a flat-cash position, and it is very disappointing that most Departments will, effectively, have to face reductions, as the Minister stated. It seems as though the lessons of the last 10 years have not been learned. The squeezing and cutting of services will be ramped up if this goes ahead. What discussions has the Minister or his officials had with the Secretary of State about implementing a COVID wealth tax? To me, it is absolutely disgusting that, during this pandemic, billionaires have increased their wealth by £25 billion at the last count and likely by more now, and we are asked to take crumbs to deliver our public services over the next number of years.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 6:45 pm, 18th January 2021

I share the Member's opposition to the way that policies are framed in London. We have always made clear that that is the case. Of course, taxation matters are a matter for the Treasury and not the Secretary of State, and when we cannot get a meeting with the Secretary of State in relation to victims, I suppose it would be a bigger stretch to get a meeting in relation to taxation issues. We continue to raise the unfairness of this approach of deciding to cut public services in the first instance whenever any financial squeeze comes on and spend vast amounts of money in other areas that do not benefit people in their everyday life. We will continue to make those arguments in London for a fair allocation and a fair approach to government spending, but I have to say that I do not have a huge amount of confidence, given the Government that are currently in position there, that those arguments will fall on any willing ears.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Members, that concludes questions on the statement.

Adjourned at 6.46 pm.