Budget Bill: Second Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:00 am on 2nd March 2021.

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Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 11:00 am, 2nd March 2021

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Budget Bill [NIA 17/17-22] be agreed.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated a time limit for the debate.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Today's Second Stage debate follows yesterday's approval by the Assembly of the Supply resolutions for the expenditure plans of Departments and other public bodies as detailed in the 2020-21 spring Supplementary Estimates and the 2021-22 Vote on Account.

As Members will, undoubtedly, be aware, accelerated passage of the Bill is necessary in order to ensure Royal Assent by the end of March. If that is not received in time, Departments and other public bodies may not be able to access cash, which would threaten the effective delivery of public services not just in the closing weeks of the current financial year but in the early months of the 2021-22 financial year. That would, undoubtedly, affect the delivery of essential public services and our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am grateful to the Finance Committee for confirming that, in line with Standing Order 42, the Bill can proceed under accelerated passage.

We all recognise that the situation this year has been extremely challenging, requiring increased levels of flexibility to ensure that we give our citizens, hospitals, schools and businesses the best chance of recovery. While the Executive have had to work outside the normal process this year, the Finance Committee and Assembly still had the opportunity to scrutinise the financial position reflected in the Bill. The 2020-21 Budget was debated in the House, and statements were made to the Assembly on each change to the financial position. Members had the opportunity to debate the further Vote on Account in May and the Main Estimates in October. There has also been significant engagement with the Finance Committee throughout the 2020-21 financial year. I appreciate that this year has been extraordinary in terms of the volume and pace of allocations made, but I have been open with the Committee about the challenges faced and the decisions that the Executive and I have taken through the year. The work of the Committee in that respect is vital, and its importance should not be underestimated.

Standing Order 32 directs that the Second Stage debate:

"shall be confined to the general principles of the Bill."

I shall endeavour to keep to that direction. The main purpose of the Bill is to authorise the cash and use of resources on services on the basis of the Executive's final spending plans for the 2020-21 year and for Departments and other public bodies as set out in the spring Supplementary Estimates for 2020-21. The Bill also provides authorisation for the cash and use of resources in the early months of the 2021-22 financial year as a Vote on Account, pending the Assembly's consideration of the Main Estimates and the Budget (No. 2) Bill in June.

Copies of the Budget Bill and the explanatory and financial memorandum have been made available to Members today. The 2020-21 spring Supplementary Estimates and the 2021-22 Vote on Account were laid in the Assembly on 23 February.

The Bill will authorise the issue of a further £22,220,328,000 from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund and the further use of resources totalling £25,124,542,000 by Departments and certain other bodies listed in schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill in the year ending 31 March 2021; that is this financial year. The cash and resources are to be spent and used on services listed in column 1 of each schedule. Those amounts supersede the amounts that were previously authorised by the Assembly through the Main Estimates.

For the current financial year, the Bill also sets a limit for each Department on the use of accruing resources, which are current and capital receipts totalling £2,829,984,000. The accruing resources are to be spent and used on the services listed in column 1 of schedule 2. Therefore, the total resources and accruing resources now provided in the Bill bring the total resources for use by Departments in 2020-21 to just under £28 billion. In addition, the Bill will authorise the issue of a further £10,081,611,000 from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund and the further use of resources totalling £11,194,733,000 by Departments and certain other bodies listed in schedules 3 and 4 to the Bill in the year ending 31 March 2022. The cash and resources are to be spent and used on the services listed in column 1 of schedules 3 and 4.

As I have explained, the Vote on Account does not constitute the setting of a Budget for 2021-22 but merely allows Departments to continue to operate and to provide services in the early months of that year, pending the consideration of the Executive's Budget for that year through the Main Estimates and the Budget (No. 2) Bill in June.

One point that I want to draw to the House's attention is that, while the vast majority of expenditure by all Departments is done on the authority of statutory powers that are provided through legislation passed by the Assembly, there are occasionally some, usually small, functions that may, from time to time, be done on the sole authority of the Budget Act. When a Department makes use of the sole authority of the Budget Act, it will highlight that fact by placing a note in a black box symbol in the corresponding Estimate. The Estimates document now also sets out why the sole authority is being relied on. Additional information has also been provided to the Finance Committee, and, at its request, a supplementary page to the Estimates document has been provided to Members.

Because the Main Estimates for 2021-22 will not be available until June, I want to make the Assembly aware that, until Royal Assent is received for the Welfare Supplementary Payments (Loss of Universal Credit or Housing Benefit) Bill and until the Welfare Supplementary Payments (Extension) Regulations (NI) 2021 have been approved by a resolution of the Assembly, the Department for Communities seeks approval to incur spend under the sole authority of this Budget Bill at an estimated cost of up to £32 million.

Clause 5 of the Bill provides for the temporary borrowing by my Department of £5,040,806,000, which is approximately half the sum authorised by clause 4 for issue out of the Consolidated Fund. I stress to the House that clause 5 does not provide for the issue of any additional cash out of the Consolidated Fund, nor does it convey any additional spending power. However, it enables my Department to run an effective and efficient cash management regime and to ensure minimum drawdown of the block grant on a daily basis, which is important when contemplating the daily borrowing by our Departments.

The numbers in the Budget Bill are significant, and I am sure that Members will agree that it is not an easy task to translate those figures into the delivery of public services on the ground. The reality is that this legislation is required for every public service, whether it is for a schoolteacher or a nurse, for the building of a new road or for the training required for gaining a new job. All public services need the legislation to operate in each financial year. Whilst it may appear dry and seemingly detached from day-to-day life, it is, in fact, crucial legislation that underpins our public services.

On that note, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I will conclude. I will be happy to deal with any points of principle or detail of the Budget Bill that Members may wish to raise.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 11:15 am, 2nd March 2021

I thank the Minister for his remarks. With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, before I make my remarks on the Second Stage of the Budget Bill on behalf of the Committee for Finance, I would like to briefly comment on the question of accelerated passage.

The Committee for Finance is in a unique position in respect of the requirement for it to provide confirmation to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on the public expenditure proposals covered by the Budget Bill. When we were considering the matter, it was evident that the majority of Committee members did not feel that they had been appropriately consulted in respect of the relevant public expenditure proposals. Why, then, did I, as Chairperson of the Committee, write to you in order to indicate the contrary? The answer lies with the use of section 6 of the Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 1998. That legislation provides the cover for the Department to make cash advances from the Consolidated Fund.

Members noted with concern that, despite the very significant additional cash that has been available throughout the year, the cash-advance facility had reportedly been almost exhausted by February 2021. Consequently, it was understood that, if accelerated passage had been denied to the Budget Bill, Departments would literally have run out of money before the end of March, thus endangering essential services, possibly including COVID-19 supports. Members had not been warned of that and learned of it, with some alarm, only at the very recent Committee meeting. Members felt that, faced with the possibility of essential services stopping, they had no option other than to accede to the Minister's request for accelerated passage.

The Assembly may find it notable that, whereas some advances had been repaid in 2021, others were not, thus leading to the facility becoming almost exhausted. As one can imagine, that is a highly unsatisfactory outcome, which, to some degree, replicates the experience of this time last year, despite the extra £3·3 billion that was made available from our Exchequer. I anticipate therefore that some Members might seek to remedy the situation either through the good offices of the Committee on Procedures or through a suitable legislative vehicle.

I will turn now to the substance of the Bill. The proposed legislation provides legal cover for expenditure in 2021 and, insofar as it refers to the Vote on Account, also provides legal cover for some spending in 2021-22. For the present financial year, I advised the House yesterday of the unique situation in which the Executive have found themselves. A global pandemic found its way to Northern Ireland. Many people lost their lives. Sadly, many continue to do so. Many others have suffered emotional and financial loss as a consequence of the pandemic.

The Executive received from our Government very substantial additional support, which was most welcome. That enabled the provision of numerous support schemes for hard-pressed individuals, families and businesses. In that regard, there is much to be welcomed in the Executive's financial response to the crisis. There were, however, also issues with Land and Property Services (LPS) effectively retooling itself from a collection agency to a distribution agency. Additionally, uptake of some schemes was much lower than expected, and some important sectors and individuals have, with some justification, felt overlooked. That having been said, the Minister gave us some hope yesterday that that situation might yet be addressed for some.

The upshot of all the additional money, new support schemes and underspending on other, non-pandemic-related services has been a little bit complex, to say the least. We have had multiple allocations outside of the usual in-year monitoring rounds. We have had three — not two — Budget Bills and a significant reconciliation between the Main Estimates and the spring Supplementary Estimates, including around £1 billion of headroom being included in the latter. Unspent resources apparently amount to hundreds of millions of pounds, which has necessitated a special carry-over arrangement with HM Treasury. The Committee still awaits clarity on the unspent resources for the current financial year. I have no doubt that the Minister will furnish us with those details as soon as they are available.

With all of that going on, it is not surprising that the Committee did not feel appropriately consulted. To be clear, the Department and Minister have engaged cooperatively and have genuinely sought to explain. Most of the difficulties were probably not of the Department's making. Instead, they were often the product of circumstances or difficulties at the Executive. Nonetheless, if Standing Orders are to be fulfilled in a manner that ensures transparency in Budget scrutiny, a new approach is definitely required. That may involve a new Budget memorandum of understanding between the Assembly and the Executive and a very clear role for an independent fiscal council. I suspect, however, that, in order to manage what appears to be a perennially uncertain process, new legislation will be required.

As I indicated previously, the Vote on Account provides legal cover for spending in 2021-22, which can include new services. Although no such new services are footnoted in the Vote on Account, I will, as is usual, now make remarks on the draft Budget for 2021-22. The Committee gratefully received feedback from all the Statutory Committees that, despite the short timescale, have done their best to interrogate departmental submissions. The Chairpersons of those Committees will undoubtedly and — I am sure looking around me — eloquently refer to the pressures that their Departments face. I will, therefore, merely give the House the key points.

It is surprising that Infrastructure has received far less capital in the draft Budget than it sought, and that, consequently, it may be unable to fund in full the capital aspects of Northern Ireland Water's draft determination. Some of us had assumed that capital would be used to jump-start economic activity in 2021-22, and that, coupled with a large number of related and currently unfunded Department for the Economy resource bids, is most worrying.

I will now turn to other resource issues. The Department for Communities shortfall in its draft resource budget is projected to be significant. The absence of COVID support schemes and labour interventions for that Department may lead to substantial delays in the receipt of benefits when furlough ends and an unavoidable increase in AME spending on social security. That appears to look like a false economy.

Turning to the Department of Justice, there is an alarming possibility of a cut to PSNI numbers instead of the promised increase. The funding is yet to be determined for the victims' pension scheme that will be administered by the Department of Justice, and the Minister of Finance has advised that the actual estimate may be anywhere between £600 million and £1·2 billion over the lifetime of the scheme. All Members agree that the continuing absence of clarity on that issue is not acceptable.

For Agriculture, there are concerns regarding a number of relatively modest but very important and unfunded bids, including those relating to pillar 2 replacement funding and bovine tuberculosis eradication. For Health, there is the absence of funding to support the post-pandemic catch-up necessary for hospital waiting lists as well as concerns about delayed transformation programmes. For Education, there are concerns about special educational needs and the school restart programme.

Much of the feedback from the Committees refers to unfunded bids and an over-reliance on in-year monitoring. It seems that, every year, the Budget process is different, and it seems that, every year, there is a different reason for that. It also seems that this year will be the same as all the others, despite COVID and the increase in funding from our Exchequer.

The Committee hopes that the independent fiscal council, coupled with a new memorandum of understanding between the Executive and the Assembly, possibly backed up by legislation, may offer us a way out of a process that I cannot believe that anyone finds satisfactory. Whether it be for 2020-21 or 2021-22, there has to be a better way to do Budget scrutiny. The Minister, as a former Finance Committee Chairperson who denied accelerated passage for a Budget No. 2 Bill in 2012, is, indeed, sincere in wanting to find such a way forward. In the meantime, and on behalf of the Committee, I commend the Second Stage of the Budget Bill to the House in the hope that, next time, we will all be able to do much better.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I rise to discuss and debate the Budget Bill. Of course, the Minister is absolutely right that a very important Bill comes before the Assembly today. I agree with everything that the Chairperson said about the Finance Committee's experience over the past year. I place on record that I welcome, thank and respect the officials who have come before the Committee over the past year. They are very informed, at the top of their game. They have grappled not only with the challenges of the health pandemic and the economic crisis but with members of the Committee as well. At times, of course, those sessions can be robust, but that is good and healthy in a democratic society. I welcome the officials' expertise at all times when they come before the Committee because they really help us.

Of course, the Committee is there not only to scrutinise but to support and advise. As Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, I take that role very seriously.

I will turn to the Budget. I agree with the Chair that there has to be a better way of scrutinising a Budget Bill. Having said that, we are a devolved Assembly and not a sovereign Government. We get Barnett consequentials, the block grant and all that that entails. You struggle to think of a more effective and efficient way until you stumble upon one, so whilst we are in this environment, we will do the best we can, as a Committee and as an Assembly.

The Assembly has a vital role, and I am glad that the Chairpersons of all the Committees have a part to play in the debate, as, of course, do ordinary Committee members, if they so wish. It is vital to get that message on record and to get their concerns and fears on record, and I hope that the Finance Minister will listen to those fears and concerns, not only today and through the various stages of the Bill but throughout the year, because there will be information flow today that could well be of some use come the monitoring rounds. That is vital because, as the Chairperson said, it seems that we rely heavily on monitoring rounds, even with a one-year Budget, to move money about, not least in the year of crisis that we have just come through. That is not necessarily a negative, because you do not want Departments to cling on to money that they may not spend. There is a real danger of handing money back to Treasury when it could be spent here in an efficient and effective way when our people are crying out for it and crying out for support. It is important that we spend as much money here as we possibly can for the benefit of our people.

There are some aspects that I wish to go into in detail. This issue seems to recur every time we speak on a Budget debate or a financial motion. There is a real fear that, if we are not standing still, we seem to be going backwards on many issues that were important to our people and to the Assembly last year, the year before that and the year before that. Some of those issues and problems are big beasts. They are massive to grapple with and will take a massive amount of funding.

I am sure that the Chairperson of the Infrastructure Committee will go into this in detail, but I have a real concern — not for the future but for the present day — about NI Water and the infrastructure and capacity, especially in respect of waste water. It is a massive issue, but, for a lot of our constituents and our population, it is under the ground and under the radar, and they do not yet see the potential blockage — pardon the pun — that we will all face.

It is not only about the fact that NI Water is not funded efficiently and effectively — of course, as an organisation, NI Water badly needs reform — but it is about the stopping and blocking up of every construction and every development in our system. It is not just waste water plants but includes housing developments and businesses, and I can see the evidence of that, very much so, in my constituency of North Antrim, where I know of developers not being able to select a certain site because of the waste water issue. That is dynamite for our people when we are looking to attract jobs, investment, employment, business and profit but are being stopped in our tracks because of an infrastructure issue that needs to be dealt with not today, not next week and not next year, but three years ago, five years ago and 10 years ago.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:30 am, 2nd March 2021

I thank the Member for giving way. He makes a very valid point and draws direct attention to the exacting issue facing the Department for Infrastructure. Does he agree that the Department for Infrastructure is massively underfunded and that the Minister of Finance should have provided for the bids made by Minister Mallon this year rather than running around at the last minute with a wheelbarrow full of cash saying, "Take it now"?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Yes. I thank the Member for his intervention. I raised that point yesterday. It is not that I want to see an axe grind between the particular Minister and her party and the Finance Minister, because the Minister and her party can defend themselves. However, it is clear that the Department for Infrastructure made 40 bids last year. Of those bids, 34 were COVID-related and 33% were successful. Having looked at the figures and data, I know that the Infrastructure Department made multiple bids over and over again, which explains some of that. I am not for one moment saying that there should have been a 100% success rate for that Department, because there is a role for it to play and it all has to be attested, but those figures are striking. I see that the Member wants me to give way again.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. I want to point out some of the detail. The outcome for the Department from the 2021-22 Budget was £420·7 million. That is an increase of £2·8 million, which is a 0·7% increase on the 2020-21 opening resource allocation of £417 million. That is proportionally less of an increase than for any other Department and less than the average departmental increase of 6%. That identifies a key issue that needs to be resolved, and the Finance Minister has the wallet to do it.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. That is a point well made, and I am sure that the Finance Minister will tackle and grapple with that in his response.

A Member:

Give me strength.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

It is important, and I am sure that, in our constituencies, we are all experiencing and finding issues with NI Water and waste water systems.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Yes, I will.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Does the Member also agree that that is because of a lack of joined-up government? If you take the small village of Armoy in our constituency as an example, you see that the Housing Executive and planning have approved a modest number of new social housing units, yet they cannot be built because the infrastructure is not there. Is there not a need for a joined-up overview of development that links to infrastructural needs across the Province?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. He made that point well. We have experienced it all in North Antrim, and Armoy is not the only place where it happens. Some people may not be aware that there is now a blockage on investment where they live. If some of those residents looked to open up a business or factory, they would soon find that they would be completely impeded.

It normally affects housing, which is massive for people, but it also affects jobs, employment and prosperity. It affects all those things. It is a massive issue that we need to get to grips with. I believe that it will take the Executive as a whole to sort it out. It cannot be left to one Department in a silo, a number of Departments in silos or a Finance Minister on his own. It will take a holistic approach, and I am not sure that any work, or as much as should have been, has been done on it this year. That might be because of the pandemic and the crisis that we have been in, but that is only an excuse.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

That is not a reason not to do those things. I will give way to the Member again.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member's party has had some influence over the last few years with the British Government. Given the huge problems with infrastructure deficits that we face here in Northern Ireland, surely the Minister and leader of the DUP could persuade Boris Johnson to divert the funds for his beloved tunnel to tackle some of the deficits across Northern Ireland that badly need to be addressed.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. Again, he made a valid point about how we can progress infrastructure. Of course, he will know about the DUP's confidence-and-supply arrangement, and I am sure that he will applaud and thank us for that. It brought in a lot of money for infrastructure across the Province, even for internet access. His constituency will benefit greatly from that, and I will take another intervention from the Member if he wants to thank the DUP for that work.

There has to be a balance and cost-effectiveness in every piece of progress that we make on infrastructure.

When I hear about a tunnel or a bridge linking Northern Ireland to GB or Scotland, I do not think only of the physical infrastructure. I think of the opportunities that it brings for trade, mobility and energy supply interconnection.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Members, may I draw you back to the Bill rather than talking about tunnels etc?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I will try not to go down a blind tunnel, Mr Deputy Speaker. Members can see where there could be opportunities with the interconnection of our energy supply, which, again, is vital infrastructure. We need to resolve issues with the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) so that it is truly independent.

That brings me to another point about multi-year Budgets. It will be very hard for an Executive, as holistic as they could be, to spend money effectively and efficiently if we do not reach the point of multi-year Budgets. It is vital to get to that point. I do not blame the Department of Finance or the Finance Minister for the issue because it is not his problem. He can work only with what he has been given. It is an issue for our sovereign Government. We should get to the point, sooner rather than later, where we have multi-year Budgets. We can then look at long-term projects, because, let us be clear, when you build a hospital or a school with massive infrastructure or new roads, it takes longer than a year. Therefore, that has to be planned very carefully. It still feels as if we are going backwards.

In New Decade, New Approach and in Patten, 7,500 police officers were promised. Those are peacetime figures, but we are falling short. Even in this Budget, we are told that we could lose police officers; numbers could go down. That is totally and utterly unacceptable. That in itself will add to pressures elsewhere.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank the Member for giving way, and I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board. I want to put on record that the current police complement is 7,005 officers. The Chief Constable has warned that, on current budgetary terms, he may lose 300 officers. Compared with the commitment in New Decade, New Approach of 7,500 officers, that is a net loss of 800 — over 10%. I hope that the Member agrees that that is not tolerable.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. It is not tolerable at all. It is simply not acceptable, in this day and age with the society that we have, the crime rates as they are, the terrorist threat as it is, to have that number of officers. Nobody who has looked at and studied the police has ever come to that total or established that figure. That is why it is important. If the Executive get to the point of shedding a number of police officers, we have a massive fundamental question about whether we are protecting our people and making sure that they are safe. That is a fundamental aspect of government no matter where you are in the world.

Where is Bengoa's health transformation? What progress has been made? What progress is in the Budget Bill? Where can we see that transformation? Do not get me wrong: health has been in the grip of the pandemic, at the cutting edge, at the tip of the spear and on the front line of this crisis, but we still have to transform the service, even in the midst of a crisis. Do you know something? There will be a crisis next year and the year after that. We will always find an excuse not to transform our health service. It is vital that we grapple with that now because every week that we waste affects our people, not just in death but in the value of living. That is very important.

I will mention the victims' payment scheme and my grave concerns that it is not in the Budget. There is a legal duty on the Executive to cater for and fund pensions for victims of terrorism. It is comparable to the provision in the TEO budget for historical institutional abuse issues. I will tell you why: they, too, are innocent victims who have had injury and pain brought upon them through no fault of their own. If we can make provision for victims of historical institutional abuse, surely we can make provision for victims' pensions.

I know that there is a debate and argument to be had with none other than the Secretary of State, Mr Lewis, who continues to claim that the pension will cost £28 million in its first year. We know that the Government Actuary's Department has estimated that the first year will cost between £70 million and £145 million. The total cost of the scheme could be £1·2 billion. That money must come, and I agree with the Executive that it must come from the British Government. However, we cannot wait any longer to remunerate the victims for the pain that they have suffered and will continue to suffer. They have been affected so badly that they have not been able to work in the way that we have been able to work. These innocent victims of terrorism have not been able to progress their life in the way that they should have been allowed to do.

The party and the Minister opposite — I will support him 100% — will push to get that money in whatever way that they can. However, the truth in all of this is that, while we shout for the British Government to pay up, we have to remember who the victim-makers were. Some 60% of those victims were created by republican terrorists, not least the Provisional IRA, to which the party opposite is linked. Right across society, all those bombs and assassinations had a massive impact on people's lives.

Every party in the House has stated that the religious orders and the institutions that were involved in the historical abuse cases should pay up. If they were to do so, would it be so outwith the bounds of reality to ask the victim-makers — Sinn Féin, the political party of the Provisional IRA — to pay some of the burden of the victims' pension? This is a massive issue. Victims need to be remunerated and compensated for the pain that they have suffered through terrorism.

I see nothing in the spring Supplementary Estimates about such provision or the creation of any headroom. I see nothing in the Budget Bill to give those victims succour as they go forward with the remaining part of their life. The Assembly should not tolerate that. We should no longer tolerate failure in that regard; we should get this money to the victims.

One of the massive issues in the near future will be lockdown damages. There is absolutely no doubt about the impact that lockdown has had on businesses, communities and people. It is important that we recognise that. We will not get daily statistics, as we do with the COVID pandemic, on how people have suffered economically, mentally and physically during lockdown. Nonetheless, the pain and suffering are there. I see very little in the Budget Bill to reflect the reality of what lockdown has done to our people. Many parties in the House, mainly the party opposite, will blame Tory austerity for all the ills that occur over this period. There is no doubt that cutting our cloth to suit our Budget was always going to be painful, but think of the damage and potential damage from lockdown. Will the party opposite, including the Finance Minister, take its share of the blame and bear its share of the burden of the impact of lockdown that the Executive have imposed on our people and businesses?

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:45 am, 2nd March 2021

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He talks about lockdown and COVID as if they were two different things. He almost literally said that they were two different things: he said that there were daily COVID statistics but no daily statistics on the impact of lockdown. There are different views on how we handled lockdown and restrictions at different times. I will not go into those or have an argument about whether we should have eased restrictions at certain points. Does he accept that lockdown was a product of COVID and that there was no other way of dealing with the pandemic when the case numbers got so high in our community, as has been the case throughout the world? Sadly, I see that the Isle of Man, where all restrictions had been lifted, has, unfortunately, gone back into lockdown.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I will allow the Member to briefly comment on that, but, again, I remind everyone that this debate is on the Budget Bill.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. In the Budget Bill, I see no way of supporting people who have suffered due to the lockdown. The Member made a good point on lockdown in his intervention. He suggests that it was the only way to deal with the pandemic. There are many ways to deal with a health pandemic, and there have been many ways used over the last 100 years to deal with pandemics. However, lockdown was not in that book and was not a factor over the last 100 years. There are other ways of dealing with pandemics. I am not saying that lockdown was the wrong way, but, again, let us see the science and the data.

The only time that the Executive published the data on lockdown, they were cut to pieces because it showed that there was no logic to some of the decisions on the lockdown. I want to see proof in the Bill of how we are going to support people. How are we going to support hairdressers who were deprived of earning a living? How are we going to support the single mum of two children who, if it had not been for the help of an aunt, would not have had enough food for her children to eat? That is the reality of today.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. What about support for the families who have lost loved ones as a result of the rapid spread of infection throughout our communities, which, some would say, was due to the Executive's insufficient, slow and protracted action and decision-making that has been far from good?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. Again, we await with anticipation information on the speed of the actions that the Executive will announce today on how we are going to get out of this crisis and on the pathway to recovery. Let us see how fast the Executive can operate to support those people.

The Member is right to point out that this has been an awful year for illness due to a virus that we knew very little about this time last year. We knew of COVID, of course, because it is not new, but we knew nothing about COVID-19, and we had to learn quickly. There have been actions taken and mistakes made, and I am not going to be too hard on people who have taken action and made decisions, even if, at some point, they were the wrong ones. That is just the job that we are in, and we have to make sure that we make decisions to try to save people's lives.

It has been a horrendous year when some people have died before their time. I get that — I really do — but there is no point then in putting further pressure on our population and industry when the science and the data is not being published for us all to see. Let us face it: there has been a fundamental weakness, because MLAs only get to hear about what is happening on the news at the same time as the rest of our population. We are not privy to the Executive's actions or to what the data suggests. As I said, the only time that the Executive published the data, they were torn to pieces because some of the decisions had no logic.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

No, I will make progress, because I risk the wrath of the Deputy Speaker. I have tested his patience for long enough, so I will move on.

Throughout our Departments, it is vital that, maybe for the first time, there is a collegiate approach to Budget-making and that we remove the silos. We are doing this Budget in a vacuum, because we do not have an up-to-date Programme for Government. Really and truly, those two should run line by line, because they are parallel processes that complement each other. You cannot really do one efficiently, effectively and sufficiently without the other, so to set a Budget, even a flat Budget, without a Programme for Government that outlines your priorities is not the most effective and efficient way to do things. We really should have been in a position to publish a new Programme for Government to complement the Budget.

It would have made much more sense, and the Assembly would have been able to scrutinise the Executive's priorities better.

As I have outlined, there are massive concerns around infrastructure and the transformation of the health service, but what about education? The education of our young people has been destroyed this year. They will never make that time up. You cannot be educated at home in the same way in which you can be educated at school. Parents are not teachers, so they cannot provide the same service, especially if they are working eight hours a day from home. It is impossible.

As I said, those children will never make that time up, and I am not even sure that we should be telling them that they are going to make it up. The Executive have to do something about it now. They have to try to rescue the situation for those year groups that have struggled this year, for those year groups that will struggle next year and for those year groups that are looking at pending exams. How will we support them? How will we help them? How will we assist them? I do not see how we will do that in this Budget Bill.

The Member was right to interject about the Department for Infrastructure, but the Department of Education is the same. Education made 56 bids, of which 42 were COVID bids and 14 non-COVID bids, which was the highest number of non-COVID bids submitted by any Department in this place in the past year. Less than 50% were successful. That is no way in which to treat our children. Let us therefore see the evidence in the Budget Bill of support for our children. They are the future of this country, and have we not let them down so badly in the past year? They will never get that year back. In fact, it is more than a year. Who knows what is ahead of us? I do not, however, see any evidence that we will support children with this Bill.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. I feel that it would be irresponsible of me to let that comment go unchecked. We have to have higher confidence in our teaching and non-teaching staff and in our children and young people in Northern Ireland that they will do everything that they can to sustain their learning. The Member's colleague holds the post of Education Minister and has invested in the Engage programme. I will critique that programme, but to say in the Chamber that there has been no investment made, no work done and support provided for our children and young people to maintain their learning is irresponsible.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. At no time, did I utter those words. The Member has to be careful when he makes an interjection that what he says is factful. In his intervention, he did not mention the real, deep impacts that children have suffered this year, not just in education terms but in societal terms, mental health terms and mobility terms: all those aspects. He did not mention all that children gain from being in school with their peers, being taught by teachers, with a principal to guide them. He did not mention other staff, the caretaker and the dinner ladies. All those people are part of a family, and children have been separated from that family for too long. Let us therefore see what the Executive produce today on opening up our schools and allowing —.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

No, I will not, because I think that the Member was irresponsible the last time that he made an intervention, when he tried to put words in my mouth. I will allow anyone to make an intervention in the House, but we need to keep it real, folks.

I went through some of the Departments for which I feel that there is grave weakness in the Budget Bill. That weakness needs to be resolved, if not through the Bill, through monitoring rounds and by getting to grips with the issues and problems that our society faces in the coming weeks and months. They are mighty. They are grave. We need the Executive to step up and support our people like they have never supported our people before so that we can get out of this and find a road to recovery. That should be sooner rather than later.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 12:00 pm, 2nd March 2021

I will outline the Committee's position on some aspects of the DAERA budget.

I start with our concerns about timing. The Committee requested that DAERA officials provide oral evidence on 4 February. However, at the last minute, DAERA was unable to provide the briefing papers and the evidence session was moved to 11 February. Even then, the relevant papers were provided late, leaving Committee members little time to consider and digest the information provided. The lateness of the evidence session left the Committee with no time to follow up on queries. For example, the written briefing did not cover the budget allocations by DAERA to its arm's-length bodies, and the tight timing meant that the Committee has been unable to cover that aspect. We have requested information in writing and are waiting for it to be provided.

I will outline the Committee's consideration of the DAERA budget proposals. The draft budget proposals provide for £544·2 million of resource DEL and £95·5 million capital DEL. While that includes replacement by Treasury of the funding previously provided by the EU for farm payments, there is still a shortfall arising from the replacement of pillar 2 funding that I will cover later.

In general, the Committee is aware that, in the spending review outcome for here, everyday expenditure is standing still and there is no additional block funding for DAERA.

The Committee heard that DAERA will press the Finance Department for additional resource DEL and capital DEL funding. That is to take forward the important work on the green growth strategy and the bovine TB eradication strategy in particular. The Committee has indicated support for the additional funding.

DAERA has been able to secure additional funding from Treasury for its work on EU exit, as well as water reform and climate change initiatives. The Committee welcomes that additional funding.

Overall, on resource DEL, the Committee is aware that DAERA faces a shortfall of £33·9 million, most of which arises from the shortfall in replacement EU funding. The Committee is aware that the impact of EU exit on DAERA's remit has been wide and far-reaching, particularly in connection with food supply and the agri-food industry. DAERA now has new responsibilities and functions allocated to it, as powers return from the EU. It also needs to implement and deliver on the compliance checks now required as part of the protocol and EU exit.

The Committee questioned officials on aspects of the EU exit. We note that sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks at ports and the international airport are funded through a separate exercise with Treasury and that the details of that funding were not included in the budget documents. The Committee has requested an additional written briefing on that aspect. It is also aware that the relevant local authorities have staff working alongside DAERA officials at the ports of Larne, Warrenpoint and Belfast. We have asked for clarity on the relationship between local authority and DAERA staff, how many DAERA and local authority staff are employed at each point of entry and details of the role, remit and financing of those staff.

I turn to the replacement of EU funding by Treasury, as promised in the manifesto commitment. The Committee has registered concerns regarding the shortfall of about £14·4 million in 2021-22 against pillar 1, pillar 2 and common market organisation (CMO) funding. It has been netted off because it has been carried over from the EU funding sources. The Committee is disappointed by that approach by Treasury.

There is another shortfall of £5·1 million that was obtained by the EU fund for disease eradication. That fund had been used in previous years towards the costs of bovine TB eradication. It is not being replaced by the Treasury and therefore represents a shortfall in its budgetary requirements. The budget for bovine TB has, over the last few years, varied between £36 million and £40 million per year, so to lose £5 million is a substantial shortfall. The Committee questioned officials on that point, and they responded that, in recent years, the incidence rate of bovine TB was downward, meaning that less funding was required, although it is a statutory responsibility and therefore must be funded. Additionally, the Committee heard that it was the intention of DAERA to manage shortfalls either through internal reallocations or the monitoring round process.

The Committee is concerned about the lack of information and clarity on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF). It was assumed that it would be the replacement funding for the previous EU structural funds invested in rural development. In October, the Chancellor announced that £220 million would be allocated in the 2021-22 year to help areas to prepare for the introduction of the Shared Prosperity Fund, which is part of a wider investment framework and not devolved to each Administration. The Committee is concerned that there is no detail on the method of allocating the Shared Prosperity Fund between the four Administrations. It is also concerned that it appears that the funding will be administered centrally by Whitehall and that there are no guarantees that the funding allocated to here will be ring-fenced for rural development.

I turn now to another priority of the Committee — the tackling rural poverty and social isolation programme (TRPSI). TRPSI funding is used for a range of initiatives in rural areas to support a range of community-based projects, from developing youth entrepreneurship to assisting farmers and supporting positive mental and physical health. Given the positive outcomes that TRPSI has had for rural communities and the impact that it has had during COVID, the Committee considers that the programme should be a priority for DAERA. The DAERA budget document provided information on the funding allocated to TRPSI and noted that, in 2018-19 and 2019-2020, TRPSI was funded under the confidence-and-supply allocations. In 2020-21, it was funded by the Executive, but the funding was not baselined. Although £1·8 million funding has not been formally allocated at the draft budget stage, it is part of anticipated confidence-and-supply funding that will be allocated to DAERA for 2021-22. The Committee expressed concerns that the TRPSI revenue DEL funding had not been allocated and was not baselined. It registered that it is also a concern for DAERA and that discussions are ongoing on that matter.

The next matter that I want to draw attention to is the bovine TB eradication strategy. I have mentioned the shortfall in funding due to the EU funding not being replaced by the Treasury. The Committee has recently been briefed on bovine TB and is aware of the work of the TB strategic partnership and the Department on a new bovine TB eradication strategy. The Committee has been made aware that the new eradication strategy would cost more in the short to medium term but that, longer term, it should result in a reduction in costs to the taxpayer and farmers. The Committee is also conscious that the current incidence rates, although falling, could become a barrier to trade and agrees with the DAERA assessment that work towards eradication is essential. The Committee is aware that DAERA is in discussions with the Finance Department to secure the additional funding that is required and wishes it to be known that it supports that position.

I turn now to funding for the DAERA arm's-length bodies, such as the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), the Loughs Agency and the Fishery Harbour Authority. The Committee noted its disappointment that there was no mention of funding for ALBs, other than some reference to capital DEL for AFBI. The Committee has requested a written briefing on that aspect of the DAERA budget and hopes to be in a position to report on it during the Budget Bill debate.

Woodland creation is another area that the Committee is concerned about. It noted that £3·4 million of the £95·5 million capital DEL was allocated to woodland creation via the rural development programme (RDP) forestry programme. It is to help landowners plant native woodland, and it is a green growth foundation programme. The Committee has recently examined the difficulties being experienced in the importation of trees and saplings from Britain. I will not go into the technical difficulties, but the Committee has written to the British Government on behalf of the horticulture sector and garden centres on those and other matters. The Committee emphasises that the EU and the British Government should use every means possible to sort out the issues.

The Committee also noted that £15·6 million of capital DEL is to be allocated to the green growth foundation programmes. Those programmes are not yet fully developed, but they will be schemes and projects that will fall under a carbon-neutral programme, with the aim of working towards a target of zero by 2050. The Committee is disappointed that no further information on those schemes was made available.

Climate change is a priority for the AERA Committee. 'New Decade, New Approach' makes a significant commitment to tackling climate change and the introduction of legislation and targets to reduce carbon emissions. The Committee tabled a motion for debate by the Assembly in July 2020 calling for the Minister to bring forward climate change legislation urgently. The Committee was briefed by DAERA on its climate change discussion document before that document went out for consultation. That consultation has closed. The Committee was to be briefed again on 18 February on the initial outcome of that consultation and on the plans and timescale for climate change legislation. That briefing did not happen because the papers for it were not cleared in time by the private office. The Committee has written in strong terms to DAERA on the matter of non-provision of papers.

When questioned about the budget allocation to the climate change priority, DAERA staff referred again to the capital allocation of £15·6 million for the green growth foundation programme. They stated that proposals were being developed and that the Committee would be briefed in due course. That is not satisfactory to the Committee. Climate change is a priority, and, when we ask about the budget for it, we are constantly referred to the green growth strategy, which is still in development and about which there is little detail. Furthermore, reference was made to the funding allocated to existing programmes funded by the EU, but those were developed years ago as part of the rural development programme. They are not new, and there is a lack of specifics from DAERA on what is a Committee priority, which is worrying.

Finally, I want to draw attention to the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). As well as its reference to climate change, the 'NDNA' document refers to the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency (IEPA). The Committee is also aware of the UK Government's Environment Bill and its provisions for an Office for Environmental Protection. The OEP will have a role and remit that extends to this jurisdiction. On 31 December 2020, the environmental oversight role of the European Commission ceased. It was originally envisaged that the OEP would be established on 1 January and take on that role, but it is not now expected to become fully operational until late 2021. The Committee has expressed concerns that that delay in the creation of the OEP will leave a governance gap in environmental oversight. When questioned about that, DAERA officials referred to the Department's consultation on environmental plans, principles and governance, which was due to close on 26 February. It is also envisaged that a robust economic appraisal would be required, as significant resource would be needed for the UKG Environment Bill.

The Committee also noted a recent announcement by DAERA on 16 February about the establishment of a new body, the Interim Environmental Governance Secretariat (IEGS), on a temporary basis. That is in connection with the governance gap in the environmental oversight role previously carried out by the European Commission. Its key role in the North will be the management of complaints. It will operate until later in the year, when the proposed OEP is expected to be established. The Committee is disappointed that that was not mentioned by officials when answering questions on the OEP on 11 February, and we have now requested a written briefing on it.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

Today, I would like to reflect on the opportunities for the Executive Office to make a difference in people's lives in the year to come. I would like to talk about the hopes that we have as a Committee to see the good work undertaken through Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC) to continue to foster hope and good relations in our divided society. I would like to talk about the dedication of officials and community workers alike, which will be continued into the future. I would like to say how delighted the Committee is that support will continue for victims and survivors of the conflict or, indeed, about those further developments for our minority ethnic communities. I would like to detail how strategic investment will be undertaken in the future, and I would like to talk about the work that arm's-length bodies will do with the money that they are to receive in the coming year. But I cannot. I cannot, because I do not know and the Committee does not know what the Department will spend its money on.

It is true that we can see in the draft budget that the Department is to receive £118 million in 2021-22, and we know from an oral briefing last Wednesday that £58 million will go on the baseline funding for the Department; £46 million on historical institutional abuse (HIA) payments; nearly £7 million for the implementation for victims' pensions; £4 million as match funding for EU programmes; and nearly £3 million in EU exiting funds. In addition, the Department will receive £15 million for capital projects such as Ebrington, Urban Villages and the Maze/Long Kesh development. However, the Committee did not receive any written papers on this at all. I will leave that to fill the air a bit: a scrutiny Committee that was given nothing to scrutinise. It begs this obvious question: what do they have to hide?

The Committee did not have sight of the submission by the Department to the Department of Finance about its financial needs, so maybe the Finance Minister can tell us when he saw it and, given that we have not seen it, what is in this elusive and secret paper.

The Committee did not have input to departmental spending priorities for the coming year.

Financial scrutiny is one of the most fundamental tasks that a Committee undertakes in holding the Executive accountable to the public. Financial accountability is a bedrock principle of democratic governance. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) sets out 10 principles for budgetary governance. One of those is to:

"Provide for an inclusive, participative and realistic debate on budgetary choices."

In this case, we had no debate on the budgetary choices and nothing inclusive, participative, realistic or otherwise. Principles that are set down by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) state that the Executive are to:

"transmit Bills and other documents for parliamentary action for timely distribution to Members."

The Committee has still not seen what the Department is specifically spending its money on, and here we are with a Budget Bill being debated in the House.

Another CPA principle is that:

"Opportunities shall be given for public input into the legislative and Committee process, including the budget".

How can the public provide input if the Committee is not being sufficiently informed to do so? The Inter-Parliamentary Union refers to:

"Mechanisms to ensure effective parliamentary engagement in the ... budget process in all its stages" but the Committee was presented with a fait accompli. The Committee wants to do its job. We want to ensure that the practice of good financial governance is alive and well in this legislature. We want to demonstrate to the public that the Executive are being held to account. We want to contribute to the process of discussing and developing the financial priorities of our Executive Office. We want to be a conduit for the views of the public — young and old people; women and men; disabled people; people of any social, religious or ethnic identity — in the development of policy and legislation. That is our job.

The Committee is all too aware of the challenges with bringing forward a Budget in the current circumstances, particularly with the financial pressures on the Department. We have heard that the shared future funding that was derived from the Fresh Start Agreement is to run out this financial year.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP 12:15 pm, 2nd March 2021

I thank the Chair of the Committee for giving way. As he knows, the role of the Committee is to assist and advise Ministers, but how can you do that if you are not given the information with which to assist and advise?

The Department has form. Mr Lyttle will recall the day when we were in receipt of about 100 pages of financial information five minutes before the start of a Committee meeting. Mr Lyttle, as Deputy Chair, and I, as Chair, decided that we would withdraw rather than take the risk, six months later, of being told, "But sure you were given those papers at a Committee meeting". The Department has form, and the Chair has my sympathy.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. That is what we are slowly learning: Fresh Start; New Decade, New Approach — yes.

The Committee, as I said, is all too aware of the challenges in bringing forward the Budget. As I said, the shared future funding that was derived from the Fresh Start Agreement is to run out this financial year. From where will the money come for the excellent community relations programmes that we have heard about in Committee? It is not an easy question to answer, but the Committee must be part of that conversation.

I cannot speak about future spending without referring to the pension for people injured in the conflict. The Committee has consistently called for that to be paid, and quickly. The Department now has a duty to do so, but clearly that cannot be provided for in the current Budget. We look forward to working with the Executive to investigate ways in which that commitment can be honoured. As a Committee, we want to work with the Department on so many fronts. However, our work is being frustrated by a Department that will not provide us with papers on time, will not provide us with financial information about departmental spending and is making a mockery of the Committee structure and process.

I wish to make some remarks in my capacity as an SDLP MLA for South Down.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for granting me the intervention. As the Deputy Chairperson of a Committee, I am alarmed to hear of the experiences of the Chairperson and his Committee. Did he write to the Executive Office asking for an explanation as to why the Committee did not receive any papers? I am genuinely interested.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. I am tempted to say, "Do not make me laugh". When we write, we do not get answers to our letters or, sometimes, they take so long that, by the time that we actually get a response, the question and the issue that we raised have expired. We did communicate and are communicating with the Department. We mentioned it to the officials but, as I referenced earlier, only last Wednesday, they came to the Committee without any papers. We await the response.

I am, of course, conscious that we continue to live under the shadow of COVID-19. The Budget must be viewed through the lens of how we emerge from COVID and the devastating impact that it has had on all of our lives. The last year that we have lived through has often felt like a lifetime. It has taught those of us who have our eyes open some unassailable facts about life here. The first is that, when we need to, we can act quickly. Finance can be found quickly for the places where it is needed most. It can be delivered to the front line and make a difference. Recently, I met council officers, who told me that the speed and agility of the funding processes in the past year helped them to make a difference in people's lives in respect of COVID. We must continue with the type of funding model that responds to people's needs quickly.

If we want the North to work, the Assembly and Executive must act quickly. That is what will define our future. The Sinn Féin Members on my right love harking to the past and trotting out lines about 10 years of austerity. The irony is that they are the ones who hold the purse strings. They are the ones who are capable of releasing funds from the Executive to be the catalyst for change in the North. Do not hark on about austerity while you preside over Departments that are handing back tens of millions of pounds unspent at the end of the year. It is up to the Finance Minister to show us the colour of his money. Should he continue to ensure that the funds that we have are unspent, that will be a clear indication of his failure as a Finance Minister. Maybe it is politically advantageous for the Finance Minister to ensure that the North is seen as not working. Regardless, with this Budget, we must act, and act now, to deliver for people.

Across my South Down constituency, there are many places in which additional funding could be transformative and help the North to work. South Down has earned the privilege of holding the jewel in our tourism crown, with Newcastle being a go-to location. This will only be enhanced this year and in the future as we emerge from COVID. I urge people to try to stay away from Newcastle while the COVID restrictions are in place and to leave it to those who live within a 10-mile radius. South Down is a destination for tourists. We must see funding, including from Tourism NI, which can sell the tourist products that we have, through to funding for tourism infrastructure on the ground.

One of our assets, which has been discussed recently, is the infamous rock pool. One of the last surviving saltwater pools across these islands, it is beloved by countless people. However, it is in need of investment for repairs and renovations. It recently suffered from being used by a DUP councillor as a means of getting cheap headlines, but that might have more to do with next year's Assembly election than anything else. The rock pool has a devoted following crying out for Executive support. I urge the Finance Minister and his officials to invest in the people of Newcastle and support our rock pool.

As we emerge from COVID and schools return to face-to-face learning, we will have to decide how we deliver this. Given that area planning will continue, as envisaged by all parties in the House, further consideration will need to be given to funding those communities who make the move as planned and suggested. Therefore, I urge the Finance Minister that, in instances where we see schools being brought together to make their contribution to reform, they must receive the capital investment that they need as part of that reform process. If communities are going to go the extra mile, the Executive must walk with them.

We have been told that we do not have the required finances in the Budget to address hospital waiting lists. In South Down, we are all too familiar with a lack of finance impacting health. Yes — before Members say it — it is time for me talk about the Downe Hospital. As long as we continue with the status quo of services and funding being stripped away from the Downe Hospital, we will find trust and confidence from people in South Down stripping away from the Government. Further investment in the Downe Hospital and its services is what is needed, not excuses and not services being stripped away at the drop of a hat. COVID is now being used as the most recent excuse to remove services from the Downe Hospital. I urge the Finance Minister to do the right thing and provide the transformative funding that is required for the health service to be able to deliver change and additional services to units such as the Downe.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. He must show me where that rock pool is, because I am down in the Mournes quite a bit. On the point about health, he raises a massive issue. Of course, last year, 95% of health bids were successful, yet we have not been able to move forward with transformation, which, to me, is crucial, even in a time of crisis. That shows that something is going wrong with the spend that Health is getting.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. I think that everybody accepts that there needs to be transformation in the health service. That will require upfront investment. People are prepared and ready to be part of the conversation, but it seems as though that has been going on forever. People want to see transformation take place, and that would undoubtedly see additional services delivered to the Downe Hospital.

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

As someone who originates from his part of the world, I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He talked about the rock pool. There has been a lot of talk in the Chamber recently about the negatives of the Irish Sea and the Irish Sea border. For anybody who does not know what the rock pool is, it is basically the Irish Sea in a pool by the side of the promenade in Newcastle. Perhaps some DUP Members — in fact, all MLAs — could do with a good long dunk in that chilly rock pool full of the Irish Sea. That might serve us all quite well and clear our heads. Does the Member agree?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order. I urge Members not to have excessive debate about a local constituency issue.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. Of course, if we are going to have a discussion, be it with Boris or whoever, about infrastructure in the Irish Sea that needs to be supported, we need to include the rock pool in Newcastle. That is what I want to see.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I am just glad that he does not want to put a bridge over the top of it, like you want to do at Narrow Water.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

As the Member will be aware, the rock pool is a great tourist facility. The bridge that he mentions will facilitate additional footfall, additional visitors and an additional presence and will therefore support the economy in South Down. I would be delighted to see that bridge.

Politics should bring out the best in us. It is the art of the possible, yet somehow we still have many people in the North living in various forms of poverty. As long as one person here continues to live in poverty, I feel like we are failing. Regardless of what the Sinn Féin MP for South Down thinks — the one who abandoned the Infrastructure portfolio a few years ago — we should not take the approach of President Xi in China. President Xi may be committed to ending poverty, but he continues with an abhorrent policy of surveillance, arbitrary detention, forced indoctrination, conversion therapy and a string of other human rights abuses. That is quite the new ally for the republican movement. Regardless of that new stance by some, we need an anti-poverty strategy to be published and, more importantly, funded here.

I therefore implore the Finance and Communities Ministers to deliver that. To go another year once again ignoring the reality that thousands in our community face each day as a result of poverty is an abject denial of the basic function of any Government, which is to look out for those who need help the most.

I am under no illusion that the action or inaction that results from the Chamber will be definitive. For too long, the two parties that head up our Government, Sinn Féin and the DUP, have chosen the path of complacency. They cannot seem to let a day pass in the Chamber without missing the purpose of this place, instead playing to their respective galleries. It is more difficult but ultimately more rewarding to fight for what is right for all our futures. I urge all in the House to set a new course as we emerge from COVID and seek the highest ideals in order to deliver maximum results. If we do that and choose self-determination, nobody — not even the most far right Tory — can take away that which is delivered. If we at long last get it right, if we create the conditions for putting the money in the right place, if we create dignified and sure employment, and if we are willing to do that together, the North will work, and work for all people, regardless of their background, religion or ethnicity. It will simply work for everyone.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance 12:30 pm, 2nd March 2021

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Budget Bill's Second Stage as the Chairperson of the Education Committee. I apologise again for my absence from yesterday's Supply resolution debate.

The COVID pandemic has claimed life and livelihood, and it has severely disrupted the education of children and young people. Unlike the DUP MLA for North Antrim, I have faith in the innovation of our teaching staff and in the resilience of our young people to overcome that challenge, if they are adequately resourced to do so.

The pandemic and the unreformed Budget process have made it challenging to assess whether that resource allocation is adequate to help them overcome the challenge. As we have rehearsed today — as, it seems, we rehearse every year in the Chamber — the timings that we work to represent an inadequate budgetary process for proper transparency and scrutiny under any circumstances. As, however, the Chairpersons of the Executive Office Committee and the Finance Committee have said, that is particularly so during a time of this type of challenge and at a time when the education and well-being of children and young people is under such challenge.

Despite that, the Education Committee has done its best in recent weeks to examine the information that we have been provided with by the Department. The additional Budget allocations from the UK Government to help us respond to the challenge that education faces are absolutely essential, but they too have complicated the budgetary process. It has been challenging for the Education Committee to establish precisely what the Department of Education has received and how exactly it has been spent. Again, however, despite what the DUP MLA for North Antrim said, there have been significant allocations made across the education system by his DUP colleague the Education Minister. It feels strange to have to defend the DUP Education Minister from his DUP colleague today, although that appears to be what I am doing. We have had allocations for free school meals during holiday periods to address holiday hunger. We have had allocations to address period product provision and allocations to the Engage programme, although, regrettably, that has not yet been extended to special schools and preschools. We have also had an allocation for the long-overdue emotional health and well-being framework. Those are all issues that the Education Committee has championed for investment. The measures have often been delivered later than is necessary, however, and they have perhaps not gone far enough for the people who need them. It is fair to say that the Education Committee has played a constructive role in platforming the challenges faced by education and the areas in need of investment. We engaged with a wide range of key stakeholders, particularly in the area of special educational needs. We also engaged with teachers, parents and pupils on a wide range of issues, including those that I mentioned.

One of the very few positives from the pandemic is the increasing awareness and appreciation of the importance of schools and the vital role that teachers and non-teaching staff play in empowering the well-being of children. We believe that teachers should be properly remunerated for the job that they do and that families should be adequately supported not only with early years investment but with a comprehensive and well-resourced childcare strategy. Schools must be supported to engage with the educational, physical and emotional development and well-being of pupils and be resourced to provide a unique pathway to support and protect vulnerable children in having equal access to educational opportunity.

The position for teaching and non-teaching pay pressures, contractual costs that will be incurred regardless of whether or not they are funded, remains unclear at this point. When the Committee received its briefing in January, teachers' pay negotiations for 2019 and 2020 remained at an early stage. That pressure was not submitted as a bid in the January monitoring round. However, we understand that the management side of the teachers' negotiating committee recently made an offer in confidence to the Northern Ireland Teachers' Council for 2019-2020 pay awards. The Committee looks forward to an early resolution of that for clarity for all educational stakeholders and hopes that the deal will represent the regard in which teachers ought to be held.

Early in the first lockdown, members of the Education Committee warned about the risks to vulnerable children and their families. We were shocked by the evidence that we received from voluntary organisations and parents regarding the extent of the disruption, and, in a number of cases, the cessation of support during later lockdowns. The Education Committee is adamant that that cannot happen again, and members seek confirmation that adequate resources will be put in place for safe and sustainable childcare, early years and education provision for all children. That means resources to rapidly deliver additional staff cover, additional accommodation space, ventilation, school testing and a special school vaccination programme, now long overdue.

The Committee endorses the view that a holistic approach to Restart is necessary, with a comprehensive and well-supported programme of activities and opportunities to support children to recover.

I noted the language used by the DUP MLA for North Antrim earlier in the debate. The record will correct me if necessary, but it was highly irresponsible language, saying that our education had been destroyed and that children will never make it up. That is language that the Education Minister himself has guided our education sector not to use, so I ask my colleague to reflect on that language and to support investment in recovery for children and young people. That will include educational, emotional and physical recovery. Far too many pupils were not accessing the recommended amount of physical activity before this pandemic. That must be addressed in Education Restart.

Before I move to capital investment, I would like to reference — which, to be fair to my North Antrim colleague, he referenced as well — the issue of multi-year settlement. The single-year budgetary approach is creating real challenge, particularly in the education sector. Indeed, it brings instability and uncertainty for many external organisations that play a vital role in the provision of education services, such as the sports programme delivered by the IFA and GAA, which is responsible for facilitating so much physical activity for pupils. It is clear that we need to move to multi-year settlements as a matter of urgency to ensure stability for that type of programme, which provides vital physical activity for children and young people.

I will move on to capital spending. The Education Department had spent 59% of its entire £143 million budget by December 2020 and anticipated a full spend by the end of the financial year. The Committee for Education received briefings from BlendED NI, the Goliath Trust and the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) on remote learning and digital inequality issues as well as the inadequacy of the C2k system, which is in much need of reform. The Committee hopes that the next capital programme will go quite some way to addressing the significant digital poverty issues that have been exposed by the pandemic and which must be addressed.

There are many other issues that are linked to the Budget that I would like to explore. For now, however, in his response, I ask the Minister to clarify the Department of Education's baseline. It appears that if we extract the New Decade, New Approach money and compare 2020-21 with 2021-22, following the spending review, the baseline has improved by around £200 million. That said, the Department has identified remaining pressures of around £300 million. Perhaps, the Minister will clarify the extent to which Education is, in fact, better or worse off.

I will now add a few comments as an Alliance Party MLA. I have said it before, and I will keep saying it: the former Education Authority CEO stated clearly that without radical investment in and radical reform of our education system, it would be unaffordable, socially immobile and unfit for the 21st century, despite the efforts of our innovative and dedicated education sector staff.

We also know that the cost of separation of education in Northern Ireland is estimated by a Department of Finance-commissioned study to be up to £100 million a year. Yet, area planning, as has been mentioned by other Members, and the rationalisation of the education system, are moving at a snail's pace.

This Budget, however we assess it, does not amount to radical investment in education, so the opportunity that is presented by the independent review of education for radical reform must be grasped by the Education Minister if we are to deliver a more integrated, affordable, socially mobile and fit-for-purpose 21st century system. Most importantly, we must deliver quality educational opportunities and outcomes for all children and young people in Northern Ireland with this Budget.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I will pass on the Education Committee Chairperson's high praise for the Education Minister, which I am sure he will appreciate; long may it last.

[Laughter.]

I welcome the opportunity to outline the Committee for Infrastructure’s consideration and views in today's debate. I would like to quickly outline the Committee’s consideration of the 2020-21 Budget and then move on to how the 2021-22 Budget allocation impacts on the Department for Infrastructure and its ability to carry out its functions over the coming year.

The Department for Infrastructure is one of the Northern Ireland Assembly's largest spending Departments, so the Committee for Infrastructure takes its scrutiny of the Department's budget extremely seriously. The Committee, therefore, regrets that because of the circumstances that we find ourselves in and because of the lateness of the Chancellor’s spending review, the process for budget scrutiny this year has been significantly curtailed. This year’s process has not afforded the Committee the time for a more detailed engagement on the budget allocation and the Department’s proposals on how it will best spend its allocation.

The Committee for Infrastructure received a briefing from departmental officials on the draft 2021-22 Budget on 3 February 2021. The Committee also requested written briefings from the Department’s arm's-length bodies — Translink, the Drainage Council, Waterways Ireland and Northern Ireland Water — on their expectations for the Budget and their allocations.

In considering the January monitoring round, the Department advised the Committee that one resource bid for increased holiday carry-forward was submitted and would be met centrally by the Treasury for the whole of the Civil Service. The Department also advised that it had made the Department of Finance aware of some additional COVID pressures in its January monitoring submission. Those were pressures of £1·9 million for lost parking income in Roads and a small amount of PPE costs in the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA).

The Department for Infrastructure also highlighted to Finance that the DVA used £10 million of its reserves in order to supplement lost income as a consequence of COVID-19 and that, unless that was reinstated, future capital investment might be hampered. To that end, the Department has been successful in securing an additional £12 million to address those pressures, which is, indeed, welcome.

The Department has also advised that, since the January monitoring round bids were submitted, two further bids were made to the Department of Finance to help to maintain the financial stability of Translink and DVA and that it has received an additional £50 million for Translink and £10 million for DVA. That will help to replenish their depleted reserves and provide a degree of financial resilience as we head into another year in which we can expect further impacts as a consequence of COVID-19.

During the briefing on 3 February, the officials outlined that the Department has received a draft resource budget of £420·7 million and a capital budget of £693·2 million, including the £70 million reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) borrowing. The Department advised the Committee that the resource budget is an increase of £2·8 million, or 0·7%, on the 2020-21 opening allocation. That 0·7% increase in the resource budget is proportionately less than the average resource increase of other Departments, which is over 6%. The Department advised the Committee that that was a disappointing outcome. The £2·8 million increase that it has received has been allocated to pressures that have been identified by Northern Ireland Water.

The Department advised the Committee that it estimated its total pressures for 2021-22 to be £103 million. It has identified its pressures for next year to be £59 million of COVID pressures, £3·6 million of EU-related pressures and £40·5 million of other pressures. When the Committee questioned what the £103 million that it has sought was for, officials advised that, although the COVID pressure is largely unknown for the coming year, the Department has made the prediction based on research that indicated that it could take several years to get back to a normal level of passenger transport and that that will clearly impact on income. Officials also outlined that, for Northern Ireland Water, the longer people work from home, the more water is used in residential settings, which does not create income for Northern Ireland Water, and the water usage by businesses, which it does charge for, is reduced significantly.

The Committee asked the officials to outline what the impact would be on the Department's work. Officials advised that it would mean that work would need to be prioritised and that the Department's core work, which includes public services such as gully cleaning, street lighting outages, grass cutting, bridge repairs and road markings, all of which are visible and impact on the lives of our constituents, may not be carried out. The officials highlighted that that comes in the wake of a number of years when there was already a limited service in those areas, which is something that we are all very aware of.

The Committee for Infrastructure noted that the increase in the capital budget for the coming financial year is £692 million. That is a £135 million, or 40%, uplift on the opening position for the current year. However, the Department has advised that that still does not meet its estimated capital requirement for next year. It estimates that it needs £888 million to carry out its functions and that £562 million of the budget will be needed for flagship, inescapable or pre-committed expenditure.

The officials advised the Committee that the estimated capital requirement was higher than in 2020-21 due to several large projects having increased spending in 2021-22. In addition, a draft determination by the Utility Regulator sets the capital requirement for Northern Ireland Water at £222 million. The Department has advised that it requires £562 million simply to meet its existing commitments without any further allocations above its top priorities. Those commitments relate to a number of flagship and inescapable projects and to areas of its business that are contractually pre-committed.

In our scrutiny, members were keen to understand the disparity between the increase in capital of 40% and in resource of 0·7%. Officials advised that such a disparity was a disappointment, which means that the Department's resources to deliver on an extensive programme of capital projects would be under severe pressure as both are inextricably linked.

In considering this disparity, the Committee supports the Department’s call for an increase in resource moneys. The Committee has taken many opportunities with the Department and Minister Mallon to emphasise the failure to draw down and utilise the unspent end-of-year finances. The Committee has called on the Department to think creatively and urgently about how to draw down funds into a range of its ongoing funding schemes and has urged it to get road maintenance schemes up and running quickly to take advantage of monitoring rounds. However, the Committee accepts that that takes an adequate resource budget.

To that end, to avoid an underspend in the coming year, the Committee supports an increased resource budget for the Department for Infrastructure to ensure that the resources exist to enable it to manage its capital programme effectively. However, it also recommends that, in the Department itself, there is a more strategic process to ensure that shovel-ready projects are always in place to take the fullest advantage of any future occasions when the Executive find themselves in the position of having an underspend. The Committee does not accept that core aspects of the Department's work should be conditional on excess money during monitoring rounds. However, given the reality of one-year budgets, there should be forward planning so that the Department can avail itself of additional funds.

The Committee had to scrutinise the Department’s finances at pace. That is not appropriate or sustainable. In future, the Committee expects to have more time to consider the budget in detail, to look at more of the figures behind the broad headings and to tease out with officials how money flows around the Department and where our Committee can offer best advice.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 12:45 pm, 2nd March 2021

I call the Chairperson of the Health Committee, Colm Gildernew. I advise that I may have to interrupt him as we approach lunchtime.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to speak today on behalf of the Health Committee. I will outline the Committee’s consideration of current financial pressures and raise some of the Committee's concerns about the Department of Health’s budget.

The Second Stage of last year’s Budget Bill was debated on 25 February 2020, and little did we know at that point of the impact that COVID-19 would have not only on the budget of the Department of Health but on wider society. The Department of Health's dashboard and NISRA figures up to 19 February show that over 2,057 deaths and 112,000 cases later, we are debating the Budget Bill again with our finances and budgets in an unprecedented set of circumstances. Our thoughts are very much with those families who have lost loved ones over the past year and those who are continuing to feel the effects of COVID-19.

Each time I get up to speak on behalf of the Committee, I rightly pay tribute to those front-line health and social care workers who have gone above and beyond what is expected. We hope that the successful roll-out of the vaccination programme and reduction in the transmission rates will allow our front-line staff some well-earned respite. I also thank the Minister and officials in the Department of Health, the board, the trusts and those in back-office roles for all their work over the past year.

I will now outline some of the Committee's concerns about the budget process and the budget for the incoming year. Over the past year, the Committee has understood the need for the Department’s budget to be flexible as it had to be reactive to pressures as they arose. However, the recent publication of waiting lists has underlined the very clear problems that the Department faces in recovering from COVID and in delivering the full range of much-needed services to patients and the wider population. It is not good that we have over 320,000 people waiting for their first outpatient appointment, with over 50% waiting for over a year.

The Committee is due to be briefed on waiting lists at its meeting next week, and it will be good to hear the Department’s plans to recover and address this issue. Waiting lists will require significant resources and highlights the need for the Department to drive forward with its transformation programme. The Committee has concerns that the current funding situation outlined by the Department will not allow the transformation programme to be taken forward with any real scale of ambition.

That only underlines the need for a fully resourced multi-year budget that will allow prioritisation and implementation of projects over a multi-year period. Indeed, a joint submission from the Chairs of all the health trusts and HSC bodies raised concerns about the proposed health budget as it was non-recurrent and prevented long-term planning and prioritisation. I urge the Executive to use the next year to plan and consult on a multi-year Budget, which would allow the health system to recover and make inroads into those increasing waiting lists.

At a recent briefing, the Committee asked questions about the costs of agency staff in the health and social care system. Just this week, the Department responded in writing. It outlined that the cost of agency staff for 2020-21 is expected to be £273 million, with forecast costs for 2021-22 of between £275 million and £300 million. The Committee appreciates that there will always be a need for a level of agency staff to deal with various pressures across the system. However, this is a significant expenditure when we are considering workforce planning and the need for additional staffing and resource in the system. Surely a large proportion of that spend could be allocated to workforce planning.

COVID recovery will be a key factor in the prioritisation of the delivery of services. We are aware of the significant pressures in relation to waiting lists and the need to restart services. There will, no doubt, be additional pressures throughout the year during the recovery from COVID, such as dealing with the impact and reality of long COVID. However, there will also be a need for significant resource to support an increased demand for current mental health programmes and to develop and implement new programmes to support people.

The Committee is here not only to scrutinise the work of the Department but to advise and assist the Minister. We look forward to working with the Department over the coming months and advising it on its work to deliver services to those in need.

If I may, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I will say a few words as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. Our health and social care system is in crisis. It has been in crisis for years, and it will be in crisis for many more years until it is properly funded. Austerity has consequences. The COVID pandemic did not cause the crisis in our health service; it simply exacerbated and exposed the stresses created by the political choice of Tory Governments not to fund it properly. As the pandemic took hold here in the North, we found ourselves facing this challenge with equipment shortages and staff shortages. We did not even have the basic PPE when it was needed. We asked already overworked and underpaid healthcare workers to face the dangers while ill-equipped and unprotected, and they did it. We are forever indebted to every single one of them.

One year later, we have unprecedented challenges, among which are waiting lists for elective procedures and life-saving red-flag surgeries. During the height of the third wave of the pandemic, trusts across the North were forced to cancel life-saving cancer surgeries for hundreds of patients. Tragically, we are now playing catch-up, but it may already be too late for some people. All the challenges that we face across the health and social care sector are intensified by our inability to plan because of the budgetary process. Planning requires confidence that there will be money to fulfil those plans. That is why we must have multi-year budgets. We must have confidence that we can fulfil the health and social care needs of our population over the long term and that we will have the funding to do that.

The health and social care sector faces many challenges. One of the longest-lasting and most consequential challenges is that of health inequalities. We live in a society where life expectancy and healthy living are largely determined by postcode. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, I started to look at the problem of oral health here in the North. The inequalities are immense and absolutely shocking. Across the North, particularly in our more deprived communities, large numbers of children are suffering needlessly from the largely preventable disease of tooth decay, with many requiring hospitalisation, a general anaesthetic and multiple extractions. The figures are shocking, with more than 70% of under-15s having tooth decay. In one year alone, more than 5,000 of our children required 23,000 teeth to be extracted at a cost of around £9 million to the healthcare budget. The truth is that we are operating under a strategy that is outdated and increasingly irrelevant. Yet, when the Department was asked to develop a new oral health strategy, it told us that the outdated strategy, which is not working, was enough. Oral health is just one example of where profound inequalities exist in our society today, but the important point is that those inequalities can and must be addressed once and for all.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. This debate will continue at 2.45 pm, after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Paula Bradley.

The debate stood suspended. The sitting was suspended at 1.00 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —