I beg to move
That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £10,342,800,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund, for or towards defraying the charges for the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission (NIAC), the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO), the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation (NIAUR), the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO), and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland (PPS) for the year ending 31 March 2022 and that resources, not exceeding £11,843,690,000, be authorised for use by the Northern Ireland Departments, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman, and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2022 as summarised for each Department or other public body in columns 3 (a) and 3 (b) of table 1.3 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Main Estimates 2021-22 that was laid before the Assembly on 27 May 2021.
The Business Committee has allowed up to three and a half hours for the debate. The Minister will have 40 minutes to allocate at his discretion between proposing and making a winding-up speech. The Chairperson of the Finance Committee will have 10 minutes in which to speak, and other Committee Chairpersons will have seven minutes. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
The motion covers the Supply resolution for the Main Estimates 2021-22, which relates to the supply of cash and use of resources for the current financial year. It seeks the Assembly's approval of the 2021-22 spending plans of Departments and other public bodies as set out in the Main Estimates, which were laid in the Assembly on Thursday 27 May 2021.
The Main Estimates are based on the departmental spending plans set out in the Executive's Budget 2021-22, including the in-year allocations confirmed at that time. I announced the Budget on 1 April and made an oral statement on 27 April, and it was subsequently the subject of an Assembly debate and vote on 25 May.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
The Main Estimates include allocations that legally could not be included in the Budget as the funding had not been confirmed in writing by the Secretary of State. For reasons that remain a mystery, the Secretary of State has still not confirmed confidence-and-supply and New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) funding, but the Treasury has now confirmed that funding.
The Main Estimates do not include the COVID allocations agreed by the Executive on 20 May 2021 as those had not been confirmed at the time that the Main Estimates document was being finalised. However, some £96 million for the extension of COVID business support schemes has been included as that was agreed by the Executive at an earlier date.
While the funding has not been formally allocated and discussions are ongoing with the British Government, I have included Estimates cover of some £19 million for victims' pensions. That will ensure that there is no delay in making payments and, I hope, will provide much-needed certainty for those affected while we continue discussions with the British Government on their financial contribution to the scheme. The remaining allocations, along with any further allocations agreed later in the year, will be included in the spring Supplementary Estimates at the end of the year.
The Main Estimates position is set out in the detailed document that has been provided to Members, and the Budget (No. 2) Bill reflects that same position. Members will be aware that, as per an NDNA commitment, I had hoped to bring forward a multi-year Budget that would have provided Departments with greater certainty and enabled longer-term strategic planning of services. Unfortunately, that was not possible as the Treasury spending review on 25 November covered only one year. I recently discussed that with the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and he indicated that he will announce a multi-year spending review later this year. I very much welcome that, as it will in turn allow the Executive to present a multi-year Budget. That will assist the Executive in planning for recovery, rebuilding the economy and tackling systemic issues such as health transformation and waiting lists.
I will now go back to the 2021-22 financial position. Members will know that, while the Treasury's spending review provided an increased capital budget, the Executive's non-COVID resource departmental expenditure limit (DEL) settlement was essentially at a standstill. Once increased costs and service demands are taken into account, that effectively means cuts. Ministers must therefore prioritise their budgets. There has also been a significant reduction in COVID funding from £3·3 billion last year to £1·3 billion this year.
Three key priorities were highlighted as part of the Budget consultation exercise: health, education and economic recovery. Those are reflected in the final Budget, the Main Estimates figures and the Budget (No. 2) Bill. The Executive have continued to prioritise health, and the Department of Health has been allocated nearly half of the entire resource budget and £430 million of additional COVID funding. That includes funding to support our Health and Social Care (HSC) workers, as well as the roll-out of the vaccination programme. Some £250 million of COVID funding is to help rebuild the health service, and the Health Minister has flexibility to use that money for waiting lists.
Education has received 18% of the resource budget and £108 million of COVID funding to support the delivery of services to deal with the impact of COVID on children and young people's well-being and learning. The Department for the Economy's economic recovery plan has been funded in full, with an allocation of over £300 million to support businesses, town centres and high streets to recover and rebuild as we emerge from the pandemic. Rates have been frozen for a second year at a cost of £230 million. That will help families and businesses, and the sectors that have been hardest hit by the pandemic will benefit from the rates holiday, which has been extended for a further year. The Executive also made a number of in-year allocations as part of the final Budget process. Those are contained in the Main Estimates and include £35 million for teachers' pay, £20 million for safe staffing in the health service, £12·3 million to recruit additional PSNI officers and £1·4 million to extend the Bright Start school-age grant scheme.
The increased capital budget will stimulate the economy as we move to the recovery phase. The Executive have agreed to borrow up to £170 million from the reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) facility. The Department for Infrastructure has been allocated £722·5 million. That is a record budget, representing over 40% of the available capital budget. The Department for Communities has received over £160 million to provide new social housing. Over £111 million has been allocated to various Departments to deliver the Executive's flagship projects, including Casement Park.
In this single year, the standstill Budget will continue to put our public services under pressure as we emerge from the COVID pandemic. The Executive have, however, used their carry-over flexibility and borrowing capability to maximise investment in public services. The Budget was agreed by all Executive Ministers. No Minister proposed a single change to the allocations being discussed here today. I request Members' support for the resolution on the Main Estimates for 2021-22, which, together with the Budget (No. 2) Bill that we will debate tomorrow, will secure the continued funding of services for the remainder of this financial year.
I thank the Minister for his opening remarks on the Supply resolution for the Main Estimates. The Minister’s officials have kindly provided written and oral explanations of the Estimates at a number of Finance Committee meetings. On behalf of the Committee, I thank the Minister for that and express the hope that those useful engagements will continue in a spirit of cooperation in what is left of the current mandate.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, we have lost count of the number of times that we have indicated the Committee’s dissatisfaction with the Budget process. We refer, of course, to the opaqueness of the Estimates documents; the confusing and impenetrable accountant's terminology; and the debates that are scheduled after the decisions have been taken and usually do not deal with budgetary matters anyway. Let us not forget the monitoring rounds, scheduled and ad hoc, where money seems to appear from nowhere and the explanations seem to leave the Committee confused. I know that other Committees are similarly confused.
In recent evidence from officials, the Committee also noted that, in the votes that we will have today and tomorrow, the Assembly will not vote on capital. Nor does it appear that it will it vote on much of the spending of non-departmental public bodies. Committee members were surprised to learn that all of that may account for around 25% of the Executive’s spending. That should be a significant concern for every Member. I expect that many Members may be surprised to hear what I have just said. I find that, the limited understanding of these important matters by Members of the House, to be the most unsatisfactory aspect of the process.
What are we to do about that? I had hoped that the independent fiscal council would be a good beginning to the process of unpicking this over-complex Budget process, providing further, much-needed transparency and accountability. I had hoped that an independent fiscal council with the necessary functionality, discretion, powers, independence, competence, credibility and engagement with the Assembly would facilitate improved understanding and ownership of the complexities of the Budget process. Perhaps, Minister, in your response today, you will advise the House on the timing of the introduction of the legislation for the establishment of that independent fiscal council. The reason that I ask this now is that my understanding is that it possibly is not going to happen in the current mandate. I can see no good reason for that, but I await with interest the Minister's clarification of what he is doing to expedite the legislative process whereby we can put the independent fiscal council on a statutory basis in this mandate. Will the Minister indicate whether the current fiscal council will indeed produce an assessment of the Executive's revenue streams, their spending proposals and the sustainability of their finances and whether that will happen this year?
Mr Deputy Speaker, in tomorrow's debate, I will, with your indulgence, address the issues of consultation on the public expenditure proposals and speak briefly about accelerated passage for the Budget (No. 2) Bill. For now, I will address the Supply resolution and the Main Estimates.
It is worth beginning by mentioning again that 2020-21 was a very unusual year. If we look at the resource and capital spends for the last month of that financial year, we can see that they are very significant, with nearly £2·5 billion of resource and over £600 million of capital all spent in the month of March. I expect that we will hear more about the provisional out-turn at June monitoring, but it appears that Departments have undertaken a mammoth expenditure task successfully. It also appears that only a limited amount of financial transactions capital (FTC) will go back to Westminster, which, of course, we will all welcome.
Although it is important to ensure that all of our money gets spent appropriately and none gets returned unnecessarily, I am a little concerned in respect of the capital surge in March. I hope that other Departments are not disregarding the Finance Department’s advice and settling up with capital contractors at the eleventh hour of the financial year. That is a risky strategy that might one day lead to unspent capital money.
For 2021-22, I refer yet again to the failure of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to provide the necessary clarity on the New Decade, New Approach and confidence-and-supply funding, even though it is clear that HM Treasury has largely approved it. This has led to considerable related sums in the Main Estimates, significant amounts, being recorded as "headroom". That has deprived Departments of a necessary degree of clarity and certainty in respect of their spending.
The Estimates also include funding for a number of post-COVID recovery measures that we have discussed before but are, nonetheless, of undeniable importance as the economy recovers from the pandemic. I think in particular of the rates holiday, the extension of the localised restrictions support scheme (LRSS) payments into May and, indeed, the much-anticipated high street voucher scheme. I think that we in our Committee and, indeed, the Members of the Assembly would like to have some detail and clarity of when that is due and how it will be accounted for.
I cannot conclude my remarks on behalf of the Committee without referencing the importance of providing clarity and certainty to victims in respect of the victims’ payments scheme. I note the Minister's remarks about the £19 million. However, I hope that, as part of that process, the Department, with its responsibility for strategic finance, will come to a better understanding of the related need and thereby narrow the size of the liability associated with that vital victims’ scheme.
In tomorrow’s debate, when I have a little more time, I may address some of the detailed feedback received from the other Statutory Committees. In the meantime and on behalf of the Committee for Finance, I endorse the Supply resolution motion.
I rise to speak in another Budget debate during which we will talk again about the same things. However, the debates are useful. They are useful so that the Finance Minister can listen to the concerns and disgruntlements of Chairs of Committees and other Members who are frustrated and concerned. It is useful for the Finance Minister and the Executive to hear those concerns. That is the essence of what this place should be about. The Minister will have to sit through a few minutes of my disgruntlements and concerns. There are just a few.
In the debate last week, I talked about hope and inspiration and asked where those were in the Budget. Today, I want to talk about direction. We are a devolved Assembly. We do not have sovereign power and have few fiscal powers. There may be good reason for that. As a devolved Assembly, we still need to provide direction for our people. One of the main ways of doing that is through the Budget process. How do we get direction in a Budget process, especially one that is challenging? The Finance Minister has told us about the standstill Budget, having very little money and the cuts that there will be when you take all the inflationary aspects into account: I get that. I get the point about those pressures, but how do we instil direction in a Budget?
Having looked at it for many years, the only way that I can really see that happening is through a Programme for Government that is underlined and underlaid by a Budget that finances and populates the Programme for Government with money. The Programme for Government gives you direction. The Budget funds that direction. Those two have to be coupled, even in a devolved Assembly. We have not yet seen that alignment. That causes concern, but it also means that we are not firing on all cylinders. That is a problem for people, not least those in our businesses out there. That is a big issue, especially with the challenges that we have in health and education and economic recovery and the lockdown restrictions that have placed an intolerable burden on some of our business sectors. People want to see direction. Whilst I talked last week about hope and inspiration, I am now talking about direction. Our people need to see a way out of this mess.
Every sector in our economy has been affected in one way or another. Do not get me wrong: some people have endured the pandemic and the economic crisis quite well, but so many more have not. We are still living in a phoney war period. A lot of our businesses are on life support, whether through the furlough scheme or the rates holiday, and those are very good and essential. Business is on a life support machine, and, when that life support gets turned off, as it will inevitably be at some point, probably in the near future, we need to be assured that our budgetary processes and the budgets that we have on the ground cater for and assist with the recovery, direct our people and businesses and get them out of the mess that we find ourselves in. It frustrates me that I do not see that direction in this Budget.
I also speak of the grave concerns that I have about the victims' payment scheme for permanent disablement. The Chairperson of the Finance Committee outlined the concerns about that. That is money and a scheme that the Executive had to be taken to court for. I worry about its budget lines and provisions for it, and I hope that the Finance Minister will deliver that funding for those people. Those victims will have read the newspapers over the last number of weeks and seen the great wealth that the Finance Minister's party has in its coffers, yet they struggle day in and day out with life.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. Thanks to the Minister as well. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Supply resolution that will give effect to the Main Estimates for 2021-22. I commend the Minister and the officials in the Department for producing the Estimates and the associated Budget Bill. The Estimates are based on the Budget 2021-22 document that has been endorsed by all the parties in the Executive and again here in the Chamber only two weeks ago.
This has been an extraordinary year for us all. The scale of the damage that the pandemic has inflicted on society, in both human and economic terms, has been catastrophic. Thousands of jobs have been lost since the outbreak of the pandemic, bringing down untold stress and hardship on families with so much uncertainty about when the next pay cheque will arrive and whether it will be enough to pay the bills and put food on the table. We have seen a huge spike in the number of people suffering from mental health issues, with many struggling to access the services that are available. On top of that, thousands of workers have been placed on furlough. Those people face a cliff edge come September if they do not manage to find their way back into work before then. The British Government should do all that they can to ensure that people on furlough are protected when the scheme ends. There has been an increase of 125% in the number of people claiming universal credit, and that will, no doubt, continue to rise in the months ahead. Our economy shrank by 11% last year, and the economic forecast predicts that we will not get back to pre-COVID levels of economic activity until the end of 2022.
Despite the significant scale of the problems that we face, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The vaccine roll-out has been a huge success, and we are now in a much better position, with businesses able to open to the public and resume normal activities once again. The task for us all is to start to rebuild the economy and get people back to work by investing in our public services in order to generate growth in the economy. We need to get back to a position where we can make real inroads into the ongoing issues in our health system. The crisis in our health service waiting lists is now at breaking point. That has been an ongoing issue for years, without any significant attempts to get to grips with the challenges. I am regularly in contact with patients in my constituency of West Tyrone who are suffering daily but have no realistic prospect of being seen by a consultant for years to come. A decade of underinvestment and cuts to our health budget due to Tory austerity have left it in a weakened state and struggling to cope with ongoing pressures. We need radical reform and significant investment from the British Government if we are to begin to meet the needs of patients.
Brexit is still a concern. So much of the current uncertainty and disruption is a direct result of Brexit. Boris Johnson and the DUP promised us that we would be better off and that all EU funding lost would be replaced; however, I remain sceptical. We need clarity on the Shared Prosperity Fund and the Levelling Up Fund in respect of the size of the funding envelope and how those schemes are to be delivered. The £35 million that the British Treasury has committed will be used to assist the implementation of the protocol and will minimise the worst effects of Brexit.
The Minister described the Budget as a standstill Budget, and I agree. We are almost entirely reliant on the British Government to provide the necessary funding to enable our public services to function, and, yet again, we have been let down by the same Tory Government who do not care about this place or the people who live here. To stimulate the economy into a position of recovery, we need investment from the British Government, yet they have chosen not to invest.
It is also disappointing that we have still not got a multi-year Budget settlement that would allow more strategic planning —
— despite the commitment in New Decade, New Approach to deliver that.
I welcome the £230 million of COVID support funding for the 12-month rates holiday that will benefit thousands of businesses, and I know that this particular Budget will, in fact, leave us all much better prepared in many respects —
I rise to speak on behalf of the Committee for the Executive Office. The Committee heard from the Department about its spending plans on 12 May, and we look forward to engaging with officials this week to hear what they are asking for in the current monitoring round.
The Department was allocated over £120 million in the final Budget for resource and £15 million for capital. However, the Department’s planned expenditure for the financial year would require an additional £5·5 million in total. Of the planned spending, £33 million is for the arm's-length bodies that are sponsored by the Department, £29·6 million is for departmental spend and the remaining just over £62 million is for ring-fenced funding. That funding includes £46 million for the implementation of the recommendations of the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry, including compensation paid through the redress board to the victims. The Committee has taken a close interest in this issue and, while we are pleased that there is now acknowledgement and compensation for those who have suffered abuse, there is still much to do to ensure that it is undertaken in a sensitive and appropriate manner.
A £6·7 million allocation has been made to the implementation of the victims’ payment scheme for permanent disablement, but nothing for the actual payments themselves, which are estimated at £19 million for this financial year. The Committee acknowledges and supports the Executive’s approaches to the Northern Ireland Office to foot this bill, but, in the meantime, it is unclear where this money, which the Department has a legal obligation to pay, will come from. It is of particular importance to the Committee that people who have been affected by the conflict will receive financial support. After years of endurance and campaigning for people to receive support, the scheme is finally expected to open at the end of this month.
The Committee was also pleased to hear that £12 million was announced to continue the excellent work being undertaken by projects under the Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC) strategy. Just last week, the Committee heard from Community Relations in Schools (CRIS), and it is an example of the commitment and dedication shown by community-based organisations to promote peace and reconciliation in our communities. However, can we not commit to multi-year funding streams to ensure that they can adequately plan and embed their work and retain the experienced staff they need? A one-year funding cycle is barely sufficient to plan and build the necessary relationships to begin this sensitive and challenging work, let alone run a full programme of activities.
The Committee has raised some concerns that whilst £12 million of the shared future funding has been announced, only half of that has been committed with the remainder to be found during the year. If we add that £6 million to the £5·5 million over-commitment by the Department, the £19 million that will be needed to pay victims of the conflict and the additional £2·3 million that the Department says it needs for COVID recovery, that makes, by my calculation, more than £32 million that the Department has to find somewhere, and that sounds like a lot to expect from monitoring rounds. The Committee will be monitoring the Department’s financial commitments closely in the coming year, and we look forward to engaging regularly with the Department on how it spends its money.
I now wish to make some remarks in my capacity as an MLA. Government finances should be about people and how their Government values them and seeks to invest in them. Currently, one in four people across the North is on an NHS waiting list. That should terrify and shock us. The waiting list crisis predates the COVID-19 pandemic, yet there is no aspiration in our Budget to address that crisis. It seems to be a recurring theme across so much of our Executive that we do not aspire but, rather, react to some of the issues of the day.
The uninspiring and lacklustre Budget that we are discussing today deals with the short term — temporary bursts of money — and does not aspire to long-term budgeting that will effectively address the very real issues that affect us from day to day. Where is the drive from our Finance Minister to bring forward a Budget that is aspirational, forward-thinking and transformative? After 14 years of successive DUP and Sinn Féin Finance Ministers, we are still reacting to and playing catch-up on the issues of the day. It is people and their lives that are being impacted.
The architect of the Budget that has been supplied today, Minister Murphy, has achieved something quite remarkable in that he is failing not only to fund the waiting list crisis but to sort out our nurses' salaries. I do not think that we will find many from the NHS out clapping for this. Unless we are realistic and aspirational about the issues of the day and what is required, we will become crisis legislators — we will be legislators who react to a mental health crisis, a waiting list crisis and a nursing crisis — and legislators who are themselves forever in a crisis, thanks to the DUP and Sinn Féin's incompetence.
One of the excuses that we hear so often is that we cannot have a multi-year Budget because our finances are heavily dependent on allocations from the British Government. However, until we reach a point of self-determination, that is where we are. If we turn to the Troubles permanent disablement scheme, which was mentioned, we see that the Finance Minister has funded its implementation but that we still need £19 million to issue the payments. If we are serious about addressing the legacy of our past, the Finance Minister has a responsibility to show the British Government — they are the very ones who made so many victims — that they must make that money available. Victims were failed by the British Government. They must not be failed further by the Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, or by the DUP and Sinn Féin.
Lastly, I mentioned that £12 million is being made available in order to continue the excellent work that has been done through T:BUC, but, ridiculously, only half the money has been committed, so not only are we not able to do multi-year Budgets but, it would appear, there are areas for which we cannot even do a single-year Budget. The people most affected, such as those on waiting lists, victims of the Troubles —
As the Alliance Party's finance and infrastructure spokesperson, I support the motion on the resolution, and I seek to speak primarily to it. The Supply resolution authorises Departments to spend money to provide the public services that we all rely upon. It is therefore essential that the motion be approved. I pay tribute to the many dedicated public servants across Northern Ireland who have continued to serve us so well over the past year and beyond. One good thing that has emerged from the pandemic is that we are less inclined to take our public services for granted, and long may that continue.
I note that, next week, the Finance Minister will bring forward his Financial Reporting (Department and Public Bodies) Bill for Second Reading. We will discuss the Bill in detail then, but part of the process is to simplify financial reporting in order to better align Budgets, Estimates and resource accounts. The ultimate aim is to improve the alignment and transparency of the financial information presented to the Assembly and the public.
As someone in their second year of formally scrutinising the Main Estimates, I can tell the Finance Minister that there is a lot to do in that regard. No doubt, the figures and Estimates have been meticulously prepared, but they are bafflingly incomprehensible to the non-specialist. I would be interested to hear whether he agrees that it does not have to be that way and that there is much that can be done over and above the Bill to make those figures more comprehensible to the public. It is their money, after all.
Does the Member agree that it would be very useful if we had a common reporting standard across all government in Northern Ireland, including Departments and, indeed, arm's-length bodies?
I thank the Member for his intervention. Hallelujah; may that day come, please.
While, in effect, much of the Budget represents flat cash, the baseline figures in the Estimates continue to grow. In particular, the capital budget has increased by 15% compared with the final Budget position this time last year. The Department for Infrastructure's capital budget, which is the largest of all the Departments, has increased by approximately double that — by 29% to be precise. That increase in the capital budget, which was partially as a result of the decision to borrow £170 million in RRI funds and which the Alliance Party has consistently called for since the outset of the pandemic, is welcome.
Across the world, Governments are agreed that investment is key to a successful recovery from the pandemic.
Recently, the Alliance Party launched 'A Green New Deal' — its plan for a green, equitable and prosperous future in Northern Ireland. While we welcome the increase in capital allocations for Departments in this financial year, more could and should have been done to ensure that that increased money is spent better. Seemingly, the proposals for an infrastructure commission are stuck in the mud. I do not know where it is: it may be in the black hole that is TEO. An infrastructure commission would set a 30-year vision for infrastructure in Northern Ireland to inform multi-year plans from the Executive Office. It would help to ensure that record levels of funding were spent in a strategic and coordinated manner. The ministerial advisory panel's report on an infrastructure commission, which was commissioned by Minister Mallon, was made public in October last year. The Ministers of Infrastructure and Finance held discussions on its findings. I ask the Minister of Finance for an update on what needs to be done to make that vital proposal a reality.
I am also concerned that the way in which we currently spend money on major capital projects remains suboptimal, to say the least. The Audit Office's 2019 landmark report, 'Major Capital Projects, made clear recommendations on centralising procurement processes and sharing best practice on delivery. I ask the Minister of Finance to confirm whether he is satisfied that the recommendations have been implemented in full and, if not, what the timescales for their completion are.
I fully acknowledge that a flat resource budget makes it more difficult for Departments to spend their increased capital budgets effectively. However, once again, the Finance Minister is not powerless. The Audit Office's report, 'Capacity and Capability in the Northern Ireland Civil Service', found serious issues with the way in which the Civil Service operates. Responding in full to those recommendations to ensure that we have a dynamic and attractive Civil Service that has the right skills and processes in place will enable us to deliver more for the people of Northern Ireland.
In conclusion, I am content to support the Supply resolution. I urge the Minister of Finance to lead the work required to ensure that Departments are in a position to provide, with the additional funds available, the greatest possible benefits for our entire community.
I welcome the opportunity to outline the Committee for Infrastructure's consideration of and views on the Main Estimates for the 2021-22 Budget, specifically in respect to how it impacts on the Department for Infrastructure and its ability to carry out its responsibilities and functions for the coming year.
It is to the Committee's regret that the Budget process continues to be far from satisfactory and falls short of affording Committees the appropriate time to carry out their scrutiny role, albeit I appreciate that we are living through unprecedented times. As one of the largest-spending Departments, the Committee takes its scrutiny of the Department for Infrastructure's budget extremely seriously. To that end, the current situation, where there are still unknowns, such as waiting for commitments from the UK Government on city deals, is untenable.
The Committee for Infrastructure received a briefing on the draft Budget 2021-22 from Department for Infrastructure officials on 3 February, and there was a further briefing on 21 April. 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 budget expectations and what they had received. During the briefing on 21 April, departmental officials outlined that the Department had received a final opening resource budget for 2021-22 of £429·9 million and a capital budget of £772·5 million. That excludes EU replacement funding that is to come from the UK Government for the city deals and NDNA funding for low-emission buses. The Department advised the Committee that the resource budget is an increase of £12 million — 2·9% — on the 2020-21 opening allocation. That £12 million uplift will be used exclusively for Northern Ireland Water: £9·2 million for COVID pressures and £2·8 million to, partially, meet its resource pressures and a draft determination by the Utility Regulator to enable it to continue as an essential public service. Taking that into account, the Department advised the Committee that, omitting the £12 million going to Northern Ireland Water, the resource budget has remained stationary and represents a real-term reduction. The Department advised the Committee that that was a disappointing outcome, especially given the fact that other Departments had an average resource increase of over 6%.
The Department advised the Committee that its total pressures for 2021-22 will be £88·5 million. That is better than the £103 million resource pressures that it estimated when it briefed the Committee in February. It advised the Committee that it has identified £58·8 million of COVID pressures and £29·7 million of other pressures for next year. When the Committee questioned what the COVID pressures are, departmental officials advised that Translink estimated a pressure of £50 million this year, based on how quickly people will return to public transport. That, in turn, is based on the planned staged recovery from COVID that was produced by the Executive. As Members are aware, driving tests and MOTs are returning, but the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) will still lose around £5 million this year. DFI Roads and DFI Rivers, Crumlin Road Gaol and the Rathlin ferry will have COVID pressures of £3·8 million, £100,000 and £300,000 respectively, making total COVID pressures of £58·8 million. Officials outlined that the longer that we work from home, the more water is used in residential settings, which does not create income for Northern Ireland Water, and that water usage by businesses, for which it does charge, is reduced.
The Committee asked officials to outline what the impact would be to the work of the Department. Officials advised that that would mean that work will have to be prioritised and that the core work of the Department, including public services such as gully cleaning, street lighting outages, grass cutting, bridge repairs and road markings, may not be carried out.
The Committee noted that the increase in capital for this financial year is £772·5 million. That is a £164 million, or 29%, uplift from the opening position for the 2020-21 financial year. That represents 40% of the total £1·781 billion that is available to the Executive and is the largest capital budget across all Departments. After conducting an assessment of its capital requirements, however, the Department advised that that does not meet its requirement for capital for this year. The Department estimates that it needs £811·3 million to carry out its functions and that £519·6 million of the budget will be needed for flagship, inescapable or pre-committed expenditure. The Department indicated that that large requirement is due to the expected spend on a number of major projects and the investment requirements for Northern Ireland Water, which were set out in the Utility Regulator's draft determination.
During the Committee's scrutiny, members were keen to understand the disparity between the 29% increase in capital and the 2·9% increase in resource. Officials advised that that disparity was a disappointment and meant that the resources in the Department to deliver on an extensive programme of capital projects will be under severe pressure. The impact of the lack of staffing resource was rehearsed in the Chamber last week during a debate on unadopted roads. The Department has only approximately 20 staff to cover that work when, prior to 2015, it had double that number of staff. The result of that lack of staffing resource is an enforced reactive, rather than proactive, approach to enforcement. That is simply unacceptable.
I thank the Member for very generously giving way. Does she agree that the Department for Infrastructure is underfunded and that it is therefore practically impossible for the Minister to repair those roads and do the necessary work for our communities with the budget that has been allocated by the Finance Minister? Is that the Member's assessment?
I thank the Member for his intervention. He will be aware that I have rehearsed that point many times in the Chamber.
That impact on staffing is one example of the knock-on effects of suppressed resources. In considering that disparity, the Committee supports the Department's call for an increase in resource moneys. The Committee has called on the Department to think creatively about how to draw down funds into a range of its ongoing funding schemes and to urge it to get road maintenance schemes up and running quickly to take advantage of those. The Department assured the Committee that it is looking at contingency measures to ensure that it can spend out its budget in case any big spending projects are delayed. The Committee accepts, however, 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 resources exist to enable it to manage its capital programme effectively. I support the motion.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Budget and the Supply resolution. As the Minister outlined, and as has been reflected previously, this is a difficult Budget for the Executive as a whole, with many Departments facing more or less standstill budgets. It is a Budget that, despite some of the party politicking that we will undoubtedly hear, has been agreed by all Ministers in the Executive and was voted for by all parties in the Executive a fortnight ago.
Despite the difficulties, I welcome the significant funding allocations —
No, I will not give way to you.
Despite the difficulties, I welcome the significant funding allocations for important items and schemes, including to address the economic recovery, to support young people into employment, to create new social housing and, really importantly, to tackle Department of Health problems such as waiting lists. As Sinn Féin economy spokesperson, I welcome the allocation of funding to extend business supports and for the rates holiday, both of which have been critical supports for businesses over the past 16 months.
<BR/>I also welcome the fact that funding has been allocated to the economic recovery action plan, which, as I reflected a fortnight ago, is critical for driving forward the recovery from COVID. That overall allocation of almost £300 million breaks down into £20 million for research and development and innovation; £50 million for skills and an agile workforce; £20 million for a greener economy; and £200 million for trade, investment and exports. Over half of the total allocation — £145 million — is for the high street voucher scheme. The Economy Committee got a written update on that scheme last week, but some questions remain, including on its economic impact. As a policy tool for stimulating recovery, it is important that it deliver to the absolute maximum, and I am keen to continue to engage with the Department on how it will ensure that that is the case. It will almost certainly involve an initial focus on promoting uptake, but it will also be about buying locally and supporting local businesses. I am sure that we can all get behind that.
Significant sums have been allocated to other economic recovery action plan priorities, such as skills, which I am sure that we all agree will be really important not just for the recovery but for creating a better economy that has a focus as much on well-being as on productivity. Last week, the British Government published some updated information on the Community Renewal Fund, the deadline for which is 18 June. The Finance Minister might be able to reflect on this, but there are some concerns around ensuring that what is funded through that process aligns with the Executive's priorities and the Programme for Government commitments. There are genuine concerns that there will not be proper oversight in that respect.
We will all agree that supporting research and development and innovation is a really important aspect of driving the creation of well-paid and secure jobs and encouraging entrepreneurship in communities for the benefit of communities. The focus of our recovery very much needs to be on sustaining and creating jobs and on giving people opportunities, particularly our young people. To that extent, I am glad that the Communities Minister was able to bring forward Job Start, which we all very much support.
I consistently raise in Budget debates, and Mr McHugh mentioned it earlier, that the furlough scheme is due to end in September. Last week, there was an announcement of further redundancies at Thompson Aero Seating, and that really highlights the importance of taking a sector-specific approach to the furlough scheme. It would be a strong signal if we could send a consistent message from the Executive and the Assembly that there needs to be a sector-specific approach taken to extending it.
I have a final point on the economic recovery action plan. A lack of priority is given in the plan to maximising our benefits under the protocol, such as our continued access to the European single market as well as to the British market. Last week, the Economy Minister published a trade and investment strategy. You have to scroll to page 10 of a13-page document to find any reference to that unique ability, yet it should be front and centre of our investment strategy. It is unacceptable for the Economy Minister to ignore the opportunities that exist because it is politically uncomfortable for her to do so.
Points have been about the waiting lists, and it is really important that we have a renewed focus on them. I am really glad that £250 million of the COVID funding has been —
As I have stated in previous Budget discussions, the pressures on our finances have never been greater. At the AERA Committee, we have had many discussions about the challenges that have hit the sector throughout COVID. I put on record again my gratitude to the many farmers and those involved in agriculture, food processing and food preparation for their sterling efforts in what have been unprecedented times. That collective effort has ensured that our industry has weathered the significant storm of COVID-19 and that consumers' needs have been met. The Department and the Minister have also ensured that those who experienced difficulties in various agri-food sectors because of COVID have been supported with specially targeted financial aid, which has been welcomed by many in the industry. Those COVID support interventions across the spread of Departments and responsibilities have, of course, cost a lot of money and had an impact on spend. It is easy to see why, in this unique period, budgets have become so stretched.
A high street voucher support scheme is pending. That is another unique measure that will aim to provide people with a voucher to spend in local retail and, therefore, assist in the bounceback of our high streets at a critical time. I have asked that the Minister for the Economy ensures that the voucher is not limited solely to the high street scenario and that retailers of all types, and those that are not considered to be on the high street as such, are included, to give the broadest possible target base for the redemption of the vouchers and, in turn, support our local economy. It is, of course, difficult to completely predict the longer-term impacts of the pandemic. However, it is safe to assume that it will take a significant time for the full impacts to be felt. That will have a further impact on spend, as issues that may not have been fully expected or calculated at this stage may have to be focused on and responded to financially.
Bearing that firmly in mind, there is a looming concern over our health service and the impact of the thousands of cancelled surgery appointments and other treatments. That impact will be felt for some time, and debate about how the waiting list crisis will be responded to is intensifying. Health accounts for half of everyday spending in Northern Ireland, with a continual requirement for additional finance. The pre-COVID requirement for extra resources has only become much greater during the current crisis. I was recently contacted by a person who is waiting for cataract surgery. I questioned the Health Minister on the issue of waiting times last October. It was astonishing to note that, at that time, the waiting time was four years; it may have become an even longer wait, given the impacts on services of the virus. For someone with very poor sight that might be vastly improved by surgical intervention, a four-year wait is really concerning. That is, of course, only one example; there are many other areas of concern.
The debate has moved again towards how our health and social services are distributed and delivered in Northern Ireland and how best those can be shaped to ensure that an already significant amount of public money is spent to the maximum advantage of patients and their care. That is the core of the issue. The welfare of health and social care staff right across the sector is also of paramount concern, as they have been under such immense pressure for an extended period.
I know that many in the House have been grateful for the unprecedented support provided by the Treasury in response to COVID. That includes the furlough scheme, which has undoubtedly been a lifeline for many families throughout the UK who have been able to have the security of a continuation of their wage whilst specific sectors have been under restrictions. We look forward to better days ahead. Of course, there will be much more debate to come on the issues of financial resources and how they are managed and spent. I support the motion.
I will speak first on behalf of the Health Committee, and then I will make some brief remarks as my party's spokesperson on health.
There is no doubt that the past 15 months have been an extremely challenging period for everyone, with the pandemic, lockdowns, disruptions and the loss of many loved ones in very difficult circumstances. It has been especially challenging for our health and social care system and its workers. I pay tribute to those staff who have sacrificed so much over the past 15 months. They have worked beyond what was expected of them, and we thank them all for their service.
The Committee was briefed by officials on the 2021-22 Budget and was advised that, as things stand, the Department anticipates additional funding of £495 million as compared with its opening baseline last year. The Committee welcomes the additional amount. However, the Department outlined that, with the lack of recurrent funding, it is essentially a standstill budget that will make it difficult for the Department to make any inroads into the waiting lists.
Over the coming years, we need to focus on the transformation programme. However, the 2021-22 Budget provides only £49 million for the transformation agreed under the NDNA agreement. That is 0·7% of the overall Health budget. While allocations for additional nursing staff and mental health are welcome, it does not go far enough. Over the past months, we have heard significant evidence of the very real benefits of multidisciplinary teams (MDTs) in primary healthcare. GPs have told us how beneficial they are. However, there is an allocation of only £22 million for MDTs in the budget. That does not allow for the expansion of MDTs; it merely provides continuing support for those that are in place.
We all share concerns about the length of waiting lists. The Minister outlined that it would take £1 billion over 10 years to address the waiting lists. I think that we can all agree that that needs to be a priority over the coming financial years and that there is a clear need for recurrent funding to make inroads into those waiting lists. Indeed, the Committee has written to the Executive to outline its view that there is a need for an Executive meeting solely on the issue of waiting lists. As we understand it, if that is to be addressed, it will require the whole Executive to commit to it.
The Committee had has some difficulty in identifying spending on specific priority areas in the Department of Health's budget. For example, how much is it proposed that we spend on mental health and on cancer? What is the split between primary and acute care? How much is proposed to be spent on inequalities and even on addressing the waiting lists? When officials briefed us on the budget, significant time was taken on identifying the detail of proposals and allocations. Therefore, the Committee welcomes further work on providing more detail and granularity in the financial briefings to allow members to identify spending priorities and associated funding. The Committee will continue to monitor the budget and to seek to engage constructively over the coming months.
I now will make a few remarks as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. It is fair to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has upended our entire economy; nowhere is that more evident than in the health and social care sector. However, our problems of waiting lists and workforce pressures started long before the pandemic. We are not out of the woods yet, Members, in relation to the COVID crisis, as evidenced by the numbers of delta cases discovered in the North. I have heard recently from healthcare professionals and others working in testing centres of the low uptake of available PCR testing, with the suggestion that people are not aware of that programme. One of the practical measures that the Department of Health and the Public Health Agency (PHA) can undertake is a better communication strategy that informs our community of the full availability of testing and allows members of the community to take that up.
If we are to go into the autumn and winter better equipped to deal with the pandemic, the Department of Health must ensure that a comprehensive testing, tracing and isolating programme is at our fingertips and that it can be mobilised instantly when and where the need arrives. In light of that, I welcome the additional testing put in at Kilkeel over the weekend. To defend the community against the delta variant and COVID itself, we need to apply that type of localised support, based on find, test, trace and isolate.
Across the water, lateral flow tests are available in pharmacies. I am not aware if they are available in pharmacies here. Constituents have contacted me to ask how to get hold of them. Does the Member agree that we need to increase awareness and availability of lateral flow tests?
Yes, I agree. We need to utilise and mobilise every single piece of testing and to follow that up with tracing and supported isolation. I absolutely agree, and I thank the Member for raising that point.
I want Members to welcome the additional £495 million from the Department of Finance, though the Minister and I recognise that that is merely a drop in the ocean in relation to what is needed to tackle the problems across the health and social care sector. At its very core, the budget for Health is problematic, as it is non-recurrent and denies us the ability to plan and develop a first-class healthcare system that workers and patients are entitled to. However, we need to do everything that we can in the short term and not be paralysed by the lack of longer-term funding. We need to have the same level of commitment, creativity and urgency in dealing with waiting lists as we have had in dealing with COVID-19.
Many services for mental ill health face not only an increase in referrals but a noticeable increase in the severity and complexity of the care that is required. For example, between March 2019 and September 2020, referrals to eating disorder services jumped by 43% and those needing a review by 64%. Recently, there has been consultation on two considerable new strategies: a substance use strategy and 10-year mental health strategy. A lot of focus will be given to the content of those strategies, but also to the funding that is allocated to them; indeed, rightly so.
I also want to touch on the fact that this week is Carers' Week. A recent report issued by Carers NI states that 79% of carers in the North have not had a break from caring during the past 15 months. That is unsustainable and is driving those carers to breaking point. We need to take that into account urgently. Carers cannot be left behind and ignored. They need to be supported and recognised. That needs to be done through restoring day-care and respite services; dealing with the restoration of those services; progressing the COVID-19 recognition grant for carers, which appears to be no further forward; and ensuring that the future reform of social care places carers at the centre of any changes. I thank all carers and health and social care workers.
Finally, the Minister for Infrastructure has indicated that she is prepared to allow money to be reallocated back towards Health. Has such a bid or proposal been brought to the Executive? Can the Minister provide any detail on that?