Supply Resolution for the Northern Ireland Main Estimates 2021-22

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 7th June 2021.

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Debate resumed on motion:

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. — [Mr Murphy (The Minister of Finance).]

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

I will not detain the Assembly all that long. Obviously, I cannot, given that this is a time-limited debate, but I will bore everyone, including the Minister, tomorrow.

As has been said, we in this place make something of a habit of debating Budgets, Supply resolutions such as this and money Bills. Frankly, it could and should be said that the heat generated is in inverse proportion to the light shone for the benefit of the people whom we serve. We are possibly getting on for close to a dozen Budget statements and Supply resolutions or Budget Bills that I have debated as the SDLP's finance spokesperson in the Assembly since I started last January, which is remarkable because it is barely a year and a half since I came in here. In all that time, as I have said repeatedly, we have not been able to debate a joined-up strategic Budget. That is a matter not just of great regret but of immense frustration.

Some of that is, of course, down to the fact that, as the Minister has said before and will, no doubt, say again today, the UK Treasury has failed to provide us with a multi-year Budget. That is, as it were, on it. The Treasury needs to provide us with the tools to make a multi-year Budget, but we are not powerless here. There is not much point in our being here if we are not at least going to debate our priorities and seek to deliver long-term plans against them. I will say more about it tomorrow, but it is worth saying again as we pass the Supply resolution — yes, we will support the Supply resolution associated with the Main Estimates — that we need more strategic direction. It is simply not enough to say that we have to wait for London to provide us with the resources. We need London to provide us with the resources because that is how we are funded, so I am not being disingenuous, but there is a chicken-and-egg situation. It is not beyond us to sit down and, for example, come up with a draft plan for funding over a five-year horizon the crisis in our health service. We should all, whatever our political party, be committed to doing that because one in four of our citizens is languishing on a waiting list. That is not just regrettable but totally unconscionable and unacceptable; it would be unacceptable in any other jurisdiction.

We sometimes wonder why people have such a low opinion of this institution. In part, it is because they do not see us addressing the issues that matter to them, and few things matter more to people at the minute than addressing our waiting list crisis. I would rather have been debating with the Finance Minister, as I said fairly directly a couple of weeks ago, at least a draft plan or a set of intentions for how we will fund the waiting list crisis in our health service over the next few years. We do not have that yet, and nor do we have a thought-through economic recovery plan to get us out of the COVID crisis.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Will the Member outline any alternative suggestions that were put forward by his Minister to the Executive on the Budget?

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

I am aware that there was a discussion at the Executive. Of course, I am not on the Executive, so I was not there to hear exactly what that discussion was, but I know that we have consistently raised the need for a more joined-up and strategic approach to funding for all these questions. We are genuinely and sincerely open — indeed, we have written to the Finance Minister about it — not to playing party politics but to sitting down and discussing how we better allocate moneys to deal with the health crisis.

I will touch on a couple of other things briefly because time is limited, but I will bore people more tomorrow. What we are approving today involves a high number of COVID allocations. It is welcome that we have moved swiftly, and I welcome the hard work done by civil servants on allocating COVID moneys, but there must be a degree of risk around some of those allocations. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister whether he thinks that the hundreds of millions in COVID allocations that we are approving today will all be spent and, if they are not spent, where, he thinks, they could be reprioritised to. Could they, for example, be reprioritised into our health service?

Some fairly big-ticket items have been approved, including one involving a ministerial direction from the Economy Minister for the high street voucher scheme. It is a large amount of expenditure, and there is still a significant question mark over the economic impact of that scheme. A ministerial direction was attached to it, so we need to hear more about that.

I welcome the fact that the Minister has moved to set up a fiscal council, but I would like to hear more about the fiscal commission. I would also like to hear more about how, he thinks, those institutions will help us to bring more rigour and strategy to the process. We all agree — certainly, I have said it repeatedly — that we need much more strategy in our approach. Again, I will speak at much greater length about that tomorrow.

Finally, though not finally for me, there is the protocol and how we deal with the opportunities, how we prioritise and take advantage of those opportunities and how we deal with the broader consequences of Brexit, of which the protocol is one.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close, please.

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

I will draw my remarks to a close now, Mr Deputy Speaker. We know that there is a significant loss of funding. It would have been helpful to have a clear line of sight in the Budget statement or the Main Estimates of how much EU funding has been lost. For now, however, we will support the resolution. I will say more, possibly more robustly, in the Budget (No. 2) Bill debate tomorrow.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I am speaking as a DUP member of the Health Committee. There is no doubt that the challenges facing our health service are unprecedented, and, as such, we must look for unprecedented levels of support for our health service. We have all heard the figures for our waiting lists, and they are heartbreaking. Every person on the waiting lists represents a health need. Every one of them, because of the wait, is living with the worry and pain of a worsening condition and with doubt about their health outcome. Above all else, it is our duty to ensure that we do all that we can to lift that burden from the shoulders of those whom we represent in this place.

Additional allocations through monitoring rounds, such as the £50 million set aside in June, are very welcome. They are only a drop in the ocean of what is required, however. There are unprecedented demands on our health service: the resumption of services; the need for reform; and the need to remunerate our staff at an acceptable level for the work that they do, the care that they provide and their professionalism, skill and expertise. The needs of patients and all staff must be met.

I welcome the proposed summit on waiting lists that was agreed at the party leaders' forum last week, but we need to be in no doubt that the talking done at the summit will need to be resourced. We must share the political will and find consensus to make significant inroads into the mountains of referrals sitting on desks around our health service. I hope that we can all set aside our party political interests and back up our claims that waiting lists and our health service need to be our top priority. I fear, however, that we may hear some speaking out of both sides of the mouth, with people saying, "We regard the health service as our number-one priority" while pursuing a narrow political agenda at the behest of the loudest voices in our electoral base. That is a test for this place. It is a test for leaders really to decide what is important and to work for all of the community rather than for the few.

In that vein, we must address another budgetary challenge facing our health service, and that is the impact of the protocol. Significantly, a £10 million resource bid has been made to address the impact of pressures associated with EU exit and the protocol, including medicine price rises. We would welcome a more detailed breakdown of where those costs are rising, to what extent the 12-month derogation is masking further financial and logistical problems and the fuller potential impact of the Department having to reorientate to source supplies from markets outside the United Kingdom.

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

I appreciate the Member's giving way. I agree with her that we need to look at the issue of medicines. I have never denied that. The Member indicated that there are costs associated with Brexit more broadly, and I am sure that the Finance Minister will indicate that himself when he speaks. Will she agree that the costs associated with the protocol are significantly outweighed by the broader loss of funding from Europe?

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I thank the Deputy Speaker for the extra minute, which I will not be needing. The protocol as it impacts on the delivery of healthcare is a protocol that is not fit for purpose.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. One of the issues is that a six-month call needs to be made to the providers of medicines that are coming to Northern Ireland. We are now past the halfway mark of this year. Does the Member agree with me that, because of the Northern Ireland protocol, there are real concerns about the future security of medicine supplies to Northern Ireland?

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. I completely agree with him.

The protocol is not fit for purpose, is not as good as it gets and is not the best of both worlds. It is damaging to our constituents, and, as such, I urge others in the House to work with us for better.

The next number of months are going to pose more challenges from COVID. Thankfully, however, we can now place more focus on other challenges that the health service is facing.

So many have paid a huge price for the restrictions placed on the delivery of healthcare in the last 12 months: cancer patients, stroke victims and heart surgery candidates, to name but a very few. It is now time to give priority to them, politically and pecuniarily.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 3:45 pm, 7th June 2021

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Supply resolution motion today. The AERA Committee recognises the challenges in planning future Budgets, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant financial difficulties posed by Brexit. The Committee recently took evidence from the Department on the budget plans for 2021-22 and the plans for the June monitoring round. While the Committee welcomes the continuation of recurrent funding for many of DAERA's core work programmes, several outstanding economic challenges need to be addressed urgently in order to ensure that our public bodies and rural communities are supported to recover and modernise in the next financial year.

As I outlined in the Budget debate several weeks ago, the Committee is pleased to see the development of some important investment proposals over the next financial year, including an investment of £9·8 million in 2021-22 in order to support the agri-food sector as it emerges out of the pandemic; the roll-out of a new surveillance scheme, co-led by DAERA and the Belfast Trust, to facilitate early detection of coronavirus in waste-water outlets; and a £2 million investment to support green growth strategies in rural communities.

The Committee also welcomes the commitment from the Department to contribute £7·5 million in capital funding to Project Stratum, to support, in collaboration with the Department for the Economy, the roll-out of high-speed broadband across rural communities. That is a vital and worthwhile project to enhance infrastructure, connectivity and capability in rural areas and will be essential in driving equality and improving livelihoods in rural communities. However, the Committee is concerned about the significant economic challenges facing our agriculture and environment sectors and urges the Department to be mindful of the current and future pressures that will emerge over the coming year and to take appropriate action to ensure that those sectors are supported.

It is crucial that our rural communities be provided with sufficient investment to support the transition to eco-friendly practices and that such innovations are encouraged and incentivised in the sector so that the farming community can do its fair share in helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. It is essential that DAERA be provided with the investment needed to ensure that sufficient resource and staffing levels are in place at our ports of entry to comply with the checking of goods as they are imported from Britain, in accordance with the protocol, particularly given that those requirements could increase over the next year. It is also vital that there be appropriate support for businesses and industries that may encounter any delays or disruption as a result of checks.

The Committee is particularly concerned about the projected £19·5 million shortfall in DAERA's budget this year, which is due to a loss of EU funding that could have been rolled over. That deficit is a direct result of the British Treasury's decision to net off £14·4 million of ring-fenced EU funding against other manifesto commitments and a failure to fund £5·1 million towards programmes to support disease eradication. While the Department has confirmed to the Committee that it anticipates having sufficient funding this year to meet pillar 1 and pillar 2 farm payments, the £19·5 million shortfall represents a significant resource opportunity loss that could have been directed to support innovations and developments in our rural communities. That is being compounded by the lengthy time frame to launch a consultation on a new rural policy framework. Whilst the Committee welcomes the recent progress from the Department on that, we have been calling for the consultation to be brought forward for many months. Had more progress been made, it may have been possible to launch or pump-prime new strategies for this financial year. The delay in engaging in that is unfortunate. I hope that the consultation will generate viable strategies for future economic development in our rural communities.

The Committee welcomes the planned capital investment of over £90 million in 2021-22 that will support improvements in research and development strategies, ICT infrastructure and rural development programmes. However, it is essential that the Department be supported to access any additional capital moneys that may become available over the next year to boost our rural development framework and ensure that our agricultural industry can continue to modernise its equipment, infrastructure and estate to deliver innovations and best practice.

The Department has advised the Committee that it does not intend to make any bid against the June monitoring round as it has sufficient budgetary allocation in this year to cover its resource and capital expenditure. However, given the challenges highlighted by the Committee, the Department is urged to actively horizon scan for pressures and areas where securing additional resource could improve capability and policy development in our rural and environment sectors.

The Committee also welcomes the recent moves by the Department of Finance regarding the establishment of an independent fiscal council and hopes that that body will be granted sufficient autonomy and powers to support the development of multi-year and sustainable budgets across economic sectors. That is welcome progress against New Decade, New Approach, and it will, hopefully, provide better assurance and scrutiny and build greater levels of trust among the public with regard to expenditure.

On behalf of the Committee, I close by highlighting the challenges associated with the Budget planning process and why we are having these debates and discussions on financial planning now, when the budgetary forecasts for this year have been, largely, agreed. The Assembly should be engaged in Budget planning as early as possible in order to allow Members sufficient time and latitude to challenge the projected strategic expenditure of Departments and to help steer them towards initiatives that will have the most policy benefit and outcome.

During tomorrow's debate on the Budget, I will speak in my capacity as the Sinn Féin spokesperson on agriculture and rural affairs.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I will focus my comments on health, but I will make an early comment on the process used in what we are debating. Ultimately, the Estimates are for legislation, policy and service delivery over the financial year — in other words, a period of one year. However, we are already more than two months into that period.

Waiting lists should probably have been the biggest issue for the past decade, never mind the past few days. Let us consider how inadequate it is for a Budget to be over a single year and based on a single year of programmes and allocations, when we face a crisis as acute as the crisis that is before us, with hundreds of thousands of people waiting for up to six years or more for treatment and diagnostics. Last week, when departmental officials came before the Health Committee, members from various parties asked many questions about waiting lists. Unfortunately, because of the one-year set-up, it is difficult to recruit staff, and the crisis very much hinges on the vacancies that exist. To tackle a problem that has developed over years, and which has resulted in waiting times that are measured in years, will, inevitably, take years. In the short term, we need to have funds available for targeted interventions as soon as the clear evidence for them becomes apparent. In the longer term, we need a guaranteed transformation package that is about reforming the whole system and improving primary care options so that fewer people end up on waiting lists in the first place, and so that those who do end up on them do not experience the appalling waiting times that are being experienced currently across many specialities.

Let us consider something else that emerged on Friday: the fact that the level of physical activity in young children in Northern Ireland is the worst of any comparable country. We were already well aware of that. It emerged from a report to the Education Department and Committee, but it has a profoundly worrying impact on the overall health of our people. It is a health matter, but not a penny in the Health budget has been allocated towards tackling the issue. The Estimates state that the Department of Health spending is for promoting good health and well-being. The example of spending on physical activity in schools would, unquestionably, contribute to that objective. Our system of budgeting is designed in a way that ignores that. We are assessing Estimates that are broken down by Department even though we have a Programme for Government that is about breaking areas down by outcome. In the end, our entire budgeting process is about just that: the process. Does it work?

I turn now to the immediate issues. My proposal to the Health Committee for a Committee inquiry into waiting lists, which, I was pleased to see, the Deputy Chair Pam Cameron supported, is designed with reform in mind. I want the granular detail of why we in Northern Ireland have got into such a bad situation, compared with the rest of the UK and the South, to be examined. We are spending over £6 billion a year on healthcare. I want to understand how the healthcare system got into such a state by looking at the financial and human resource management and at all aspects of the estate. Waiting lists do not have to be part of the system. We could have a much more responsive system based on better-resourced primary care and regional specialisms, minimising waiting times and providing taxpayer-funded universal healthcare that is free at the point of access. Never has it been more important to look across the silos and base our spending on outcomes. Those outcomes include a health service that is not as vulnerable to a pandemic, that does not rely on making people wait so long that some services are effectively not delivered at all and that can never again be described by the Health Minister himself as being in serious trouble.

To conclude, our job today is to safeguard the finances of Northern Ireland and, most of all, the people of Northern Ireland. We trust that we will very much help to do the latter by voting through the Estimates. We must urgently consider, however, whether this is the best way that we can do that. We must also consider how we can deliver much more effective outcome-based budgeting to deliver a truly universal health service and to deliver in areas such as children's physical health or developing primary care hubs in a way that is genuinely transformative in the longer term. Thank you.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

There will always be pressures on the amount of public spending that can be provided. You just have to look at the funding bids that have been put forward by most Ministers, which show that the amount for which they bid was many times more than the amount that could be allocated to them. I do not underestimate the difficulty of making those decisions or the difficulty that the limited resources will create for the running of major departmental programmes.

Let us look, however, at what the Budget includes. We are about to vote on £13 billion of departmental resource spending and £1·8 billion of conventional capital, with around £74 million of financial transactions capital and £170 million of reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI) capital. The Treasury has signed off on a number of additional allocations: £411 million from the Chancellor's statement, plus another £224 million of Barnett consequentials, as well as additional carry-over of resources that were left unspent in 2021. The Secretary of State is yet to sign off on those, but it is expected that they will be included through in-year monitoring, and thus there is £687·4 million of additional allocations. It is expected that an additional £306 million associated with funding packages such as NDNA and confidence-and-supply will be paid by the Treasury, although that has not yet been confirmed. On 20 May 2021, the Minister issued a written ministerial statement indicating that a further £114 million had been made available by the Treasury. The Department has already advised that a further £14·9 million resource, £33·6 million capital DEL and £19·3 million financial transactions capital is to be allocated in the June monitoring round.

All the Departments received income from the EU that was used to fund European programmes. There are some concerning shortfalls post-Brexit, however. The Department advised that the UK Government's spending review will provide funding for farm support direct payments of £315·6 million and fisheries funding of £3·1 million in 2021-22. Thus, there is a shortfall of around £15 million in farm payments. The Department also advised that it is expected that the PEACE PLUS programme will provide replacements for Peace IV and INTERREG funding. The Department indicated that limited information has been provided on the planned Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF). The Department suggested that the SPF will not provide for the replacement of EU structural funds in 2021-22, which will lead to an anticipated shortfall of around £69 million. Of that shortfall, £45 million is understood to sit with the Department for the Economy. Finally, there is £6 million from the Irish Government for the A5 road capital project.

My somewhat long-winded point is this: we have the highest per capita public spending of anywhere in the United Kingdom. Is it, therefore, acceptable that Departments fail our citizens in so many areas? We have the highest per capita spending on health, and yet our waiting lists are out of control and many times longer than those in other parts of the United Kingdom that have less funding. In fact, the more money that we put into health services, the more inefficient they seem to become. We have historically lower levels of productivity in business, lower birthrates and lower wages. Those are not the indicators that you want if you wish to lead in many ways or rebuild an economy post-COVID.

We have a benefits system that spends billions to treat claimants with contempt, and excess them to within an inch of their lives, in order to try to weed out a relatively minute number who try to cheat the system. Instead, we could use that money to tackle the overbearing poverty. That is the only proven way of actively helping those on benefits. We spend and spend without a plan, or even a notion of a plan. We throw money away on ineffective programmes —

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:00 pm, 7th June 2021

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close, please.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

— and severely underfund the projects that could make the most difference.

If you want to improve the prosperity of Northern Ireland, that is what we need to tackle, but it will take proper scrutiny and consultation, not £13 billion of spending rushed through in a matter of weeks.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

The debate on the Supply resolution for the Main Estimates 2021-22 requires Members' consideration and scrutiny. Members, right across the House, have indicated that this is extremely difficult for numerous reasons, as outlined.

We have many financial difficulties and pressures, right across the Departments. We have serious problems in Northern Ireland, and they are so severe that we should not pretend that it is business as usual. Yet, the Finance Minister seems to pretend exactly that. Sinn Féin seeks to portray a crisis in the Republic of Ireland, while its Ministers here in the North say, "Nothing to see here. Let us just carry on as normal."

Last week, I was accused of politicking and electioneering. I make no apology for calling out the elephant in the room. The SDLP has no interest in blocking allocations that are much needed, but we have consistently raised concerns, inside and outside government, about this Budget. The SDLP Minister is effectively taking a budget cut, so of course we wanted a better Budget. Let us remember that the SDLP has one vote in the Executive.

As I have said, there are multiple problems. The health service was unable to meet the needs of our citizens before COVID. The health waiting times, and the length of waiting lists, are off the Richter scale. It is absolutely appalling and embarrassing. Meanwhile, we are faced with climate change on a scale that risks enormous damage to the health of the population globally.

Photo of Maolíosa McHugh Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin

Whilst the SDLP has only one vote in the Executive, do you accept that the Budget was agreed by all of the Executive?

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Yes, I do. As I indicated, we have no interest in blocking allocations of money that are desperately needed by Departments, but we have one vote. We would do things differently if we had more.

As I said, you would not realise the extent of our problems, if you were to look at either the Finance Minister's Budget or the Economy Minister's plan. I will give a little example of why things are so frustrating. Earlier this afternoon, I asked the Economy Minister to outline the economic impact assessment and multiplier-effect details of the £145 million high street voucher scheme. I specifically asked how the scheme would support job retention and business sustainability. Unfortunately, the Minister was not in a position to give me those details, as no full economic impact assessment was available. Yet the Minister has made an allocation of £145 million for that scheme with no clear understanding of the economic impact. Honestly, I find it unbelievable. In a way, it illustrates the rather chaotic manner in which money is spent in Northern Ireland. It is really not good enough.

We all know what we need to do. We must create a resilient and flexible health service, reskill our workforce across the whole economy, restructure our energy industry and, at the same time, find ways to support thousands of jobs at risk of being lost, particularly at the end of the furlough scheme. That will be particularly difficult for those sectors that will have a longer recovery period, and I am talking about the aerospace industry, the travel industry and the event management industry. We need to find a way to ensure that we support those businesses beyond furlough.

As I said, this is a time when dynamic leadership is required, and that is not what we see here today. We need not a steady-as-he-goes Finance Minister but one who seizes the moment by recognising that real change is needed and who oversees a major reconfiguring of the Budget in response to the massively changed situation that we are now in. With all the generosity in the world, this Budget is not it. This is not the time for slight bits of reform here and there.

While I am talking about substantial reform, I wish to make a comment about the role of the Utility Regulator, as the motion specifically references it. I look forward to the new Economy Minister, whoever that might be, bringing forward proposals to redefine the role of the Utility Regulator, because it is an extremely important position. As our economy changes shape, instead of the regulator having a legal duty to promote the gas industry, the role must change. It must prioritise the rapid decarbonisation of the energy sector, end the use of fossil fuels and promote a market in which renewable energy sources are readily available and affordable and in which much faster progress is achieved on making homes energy-efficient and properly insulated. We urgently need effective plans to make social housing, owner-occupied homes and the private rented sector all fit for the climate challenges that we collectively face.

We need plans for the future, just as we need a Budget that looks forward, not one that simply looks backwards and gets photocopied for the next year. This is a Budget that fails people, including those who need healthcare, those who need hope for the future and those who need jobs that make our society a better place. Budgeting in Northern Ireland needs a complete overhaul.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I ask the Member to bring her remarks to a close, please.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will indeed.

We need to carefully rethink the impact and value of every pound that is spent. Is the spending having a positive and productive impact? Is it improving lives and livelihoods? If the Minister does not know the answer —

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for his comments. I rise on behalf of the Alliance Party to join colleagues in supporting the motion on the Supply resolution and to make some brief observations as a member of the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee. As a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, I will make some additional comments on matters relating to justice.

As other Members said, this has been an incredibly difficult year, but, despite the challenges that we have faced, as we emerge from the catastrophic coronavirus crisis, our immediate priority must be, as I have said before in the House, avoiding further disasters.

As I said, I will keep my comments brief, but I must raise in the Chamber again the pressing need to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and to avoid the devastating tipping points that would shatter the global economy and pose existential human threats. This is a crucial juncture in our history. As we get back on the path to recovery from the pandemic, we must integrate solutions to both crises in a coherent response. We must take the opportunity to create green jobs and to propel the economy towards sustainable growth and increased resilience. It is, therefore, vital that high-line budgetary provision is targeted specifically at environmental protection and tackling the climate emergency. It would appear that we are not quite at that stage at this juncture.

I will move on to matters relating to justice. Funding to progress outstanding New Decade, New Approach targets for policing are welcome. I note the significant unmet pressures in the Department, and I commend the Department of Justice for securing the additional resource to, first, secure 7,000 officers for the PSNI and, secondly, to enable the police to begin recruiting an additional 100 officers this year. It will be a matter for future Budgets to ensure that that is baselined and built upon. We have made some progress but not as much as we might like, but given the current financial situation and other pressures, it is commendable that the Department is at least able to start moving in the right direction as opposed to regressing, which might have been the case in such a challenging year.

Again, I thank the Minister for his contribution, and I am pleased to support the Supply resolution motion.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Traditionally, and without fail, we hear much lip service in the House to the need to address the huge needs of the Health budget. I do not gainsay or dissent from that whatsoever. Under devolution, our health has suffered greatly, not least because of the reduction of nigh on 2,000 beds and all the accompanying staff who have been removed from our system. No wonder, then, that we have waiting lists that are crippling the service.

When I hear all that lip service to spending on health, it causes me to look at the Budget and to ask this: have we gone for efficiencies? Are we in the business of ending squander? On the very day that we hold this debate, we all get a missive from the Chair of the Procedures Committee telling us that we now have a proposal from that Committee to spend £321,000 on translation services in the Chamber. A sum of £321,000 would employ 10 new nurses per annum, yet the priority of the Procedures Committee, or of the majority who are represented on that Committee, is to take that money and spend it on needless translation services. There is not a Member who does not speak or understand English. Yet, in the depths of a health crisis and a money crisis affecting health, we have a proposition that we should squander an amount such as that on fitting out this place with 10 interpreters so that people in pursuit of that vanity project can, when they wish, speak in Irish or, if any Members spoke it, Ulster Scots and have the vanity of knowing that it is being translated into English, and vice versa. What a total waste of much-needed money. Yet that is the sort of project that some in the House prioritise above fixing and improving the health of our citizens.

What comfort is that to the man to whom I spoke at the weekend? He waited six and a half hours for an ambulance to arrive at his home to take his wife, who had fallen, broken her femur and smashed her hip, to hospital. The ambulance did not arrive until 3.00 am. What am I to say to that gentleman? "Oh well, there are more important things that we need to spend money on: translation services for Irish and Ulster Scots. Get your priorities right, man. Do not worry about your wife lying in agony on the floor. We do not need to fix the health service until we have provided translation services". Really? Then the House wonders why it struggles with credibility in the community.

We were awash with money for COVID. What did we do with most of it, or, at least, with some of it? We decided that Royal County Down golf club needed £1·5 million. Golf clubs needed £4·5 million. The IFA needed £6·5 million. The GAA needed £7·5 million. The health service did not need that money; of course not. Now, the health service does not need the money that might employ 10 or a dozen nurses. The House has a different priority: a shamefully political priority of promoting the Irish language over the health of its citizens. Shame on the House.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance 4:15 pm, 7th June 2021

Saying that the Estimates and budgetary process are simple, straightforward and easy to navigate is telling porkies. That is not just my view or my party's view but a view that is widely held. The Chair of the Finance Committee stated his dissatisfaction with the process, which I share, especially as he described its "opaqueness" and its "confusing" nature. That said, the Estimates process will, obviously, form the basis of the Budget for this year. When you trawl through it, many questions arise. As Members have said, the process is far from clear or straightforward, and I absolutely concur with those comments. For example, there is a gap of around £300 million in the DFC net resources this year compared with last year. At first guess, you may think that that is due to COVID and reduced demand or necessity, but, when you dig deeper, you see that there is a huge reduction in grants to the Housing Executive. Why? No reasoning or explanation as to why that is the case is given in the Estimates document or the accompanying documents. I ask this question: is this a reduction in order to speed up the privatisation of the landlord function, which the Communities Minister previously indicated that she wanted? I hope not, but I honestly do not know.

We also know that the resources allocated to the community and voluntary sector and the arts have decreased. We need to invest more, not less, in those sectors. There is also a reduction in resource provision for the Commissioner for Children and Young People at a time when young people's rights and the need to support them is stronger than ever. I question that as well. At the same time, agency services have increased under these Estimates and the Budget. We need to reduce spending on agency firms and to stop funding an unfair system for workers and taxpayers; instead, we need to redirect that money into beefing up the public sector and providing secure long-term jobs with proper terms and conditions.

In the section under the Department for the Economy, there is some very worrying news indeed. There is a significant reduction in provision this year compared with last year's Budget. Why? The resources sought for 2021-22 are 36·9% lower than the final net provision for 2020-21. We face massive challenges of deprivation, wealth inequality and health inequality. Surely now should be the time to throw conventional economic wisdom out the window and adopt a fundamentally different approach that looks at putting money and wealth into the hands of working people and people on welfare etc. Also, under the Estimates section for the Department for the Economy, it mentions:

"recoupment of costs in respect of processing mineral and petroleum licences; application fees for mineral and petroleum licences".

You may ask what that means, but, to me, that suggests that the Department is continuing to allow the practice of fossil fuel licences and petroleum licences to go ahead. At a time when we have a massive environmental crisis, we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

When you move on to Health, there is some additional money, which the Chair referred to, but it is not recurring and, ultimately, is nowhere near enough to meet the huge challenges faced by staff and patients now and going forward. From my reading of the quite hefty Estimates document, there appears to be a reduction in what the Estimates and provisions were last year in the following sections: hospital, paramedic and ambulance, dental services, health support services, and fire and rescue services. Why is that the case, given the scale of the crisis in our health service? The provision sought for 2021-22 is 6·2% lower for Health than the final net provision for 2020-21. With all our waiting lists and our mental health crisis, why is that the case? Why are the Minister and the Department not shouting more loudly than they are for extra resources and support and making more bids etc? When it comes to dealing with the waiting list crisis, the Committee learned that most, if not all, of the extra money allocated over this year will go directly to the so-called independent sector, which is really the private sector. Some people on waiting lists may not care who treats them, but that approach directly funds the two-tier health service, which says, "If you can afford to pay, you will be seen and treated". That is a despicable state of affairs in a so-called modern society.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I will do. The truth is that we are being asked to endorse Estimates that will allow for a standstill Budget, as the Minister says. In real terms, that means a Budget that reduces public services and does not meet the —

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

— challenges faced by workers going forward. For that reason and many more, I will oppose the motion.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Agus anois iarrfaidh mé ar an Aire Airgeadais ceann a chur ar an díospóireacht. Beidh suas le ceithre bhomaite is tríocha agat, a Aire. I now call the Minister to conclude the debate. You have up to 34 minutes, Minister.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Supply resolution debates can often cover many aspects that do not always relate directly to the subject that is being considered. On this occasion, the background of how we emerge from the COVID pandemic has helped focus most, if not all, minds on the importance of the public expenditure decisions that we debate in this place. I will endeavour to address as many points as I possibly can in the allotted time.

First, I thank the Finance Committee for its agreement to support accelerated passage for the important legislation that will come along with the Budget. Its Chair referenced that in his remarks. He and quite a few other Members raised the issue of the complexity of the Budget process — Mr Carroll raised it at the end — and I get it. We will want to look at that in the time ahead and, indeed, have already begun the process. We will put through legislation on financial reporting, which is the first stage of what will probably be a lengthy process to try to streamline, align and make accessible and understandable, not just for Members but for the public at large, the complexity of our Budget process. There is no denying that it is a complex process that needs to change.

The Chair of the Finance Committee asked about the fiscal council. As he knows, it is currently meeting and consulting a range of stakeholders. There will be a session with the Committee in the near future. Following that range of consultation by the fiscal council, I expect to have a final set of terms of reference agreed and in place by the end of the summer. We are considering a possible legislative time frame. The Member is correct to say that that will be challenging in the time frame that we have left. Interestingly, in Scotland, I think, and other places, a fiscal council was in place for a number of years before legislation was enacted. At the end of the summer, the question will be asked as to whether we try to rush through legislation or bring it to the point at which it can be done in the incoming mandate to ensure that it is got right.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Minister for his remarks. I assure him that the Finance Committee will endeavour to do everything that it can to put the fiscal council on a legislative footing during this term. All Committee members realise that such legislation is vital, and we must get it through.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

If that is the case, and it is possible, of course, I would be content to look at accelerated passage. We just need to ensure that we get the legislation right. That means seeing the outcome of the consultation over the summer and what the final terms of reference for the fiscal council will look like.

The Chair asked about the council's carrying out an assessment of the Executive's revenue streams and spending proposals and of the sustainability of the Executive's finances. It will do that. How it does so, however, will be a matter for the council itself, because it is an independent body. That will include reporting on its first annual assessment of the Executive's revenue streams and spending proposals, how those allow the Executive to balance their Budget, and the sustainability of the Budget going forward.

I referenced the review of the financial process. That will be the first stage in untangling some of its complexity, I would like to think. It will be a complex and lengthy piece of work but is, nonetheless, a piece of work to which we are committed.

The Chair asked a question about the high street voucher scheme, I have been advised by the Economy Minister that the roll-out of the voucher scheme is expected at the start of the autumn. Everybody in the North who is aged 18 or over will be eligible to apply for a prepaid card that has to be spent locally on the high street. The Economy Minister has advised that the scheme is currently at the procurement stage. She has stated that the card must be used at a bricks-and-mortar business in the North. It cannot be used online. The timing will be in line with the experience elsewhere, in that, as people have probably experienced, there has been an initial surge in spending since reopening, and that will probably taper off in the autumn. My assumption is that the voucher scheme has been timed to take place in the autumn, when an additional boost will perhaps be needed for the high street.

If people wish to argue against it, as Sinead McLaughlin appeared to be doing, they need to take up that matter with the Economy Minister, but the Executive have agreed that this is part of an economic recovery package that will have a beneficial impact on the high street.

A number of Members asked about the victims' payments scheme. We have given a commitment that payments will be made to successful applicants under the scheme. That provides reassurance and confidence to victims that payments will be made when they fall due under the terms of the scheme, regardless of where the funding comes from. Headroom has been included in the Main Estimates that accompany the Bill to ensure that there is no delay in making those payments. We are still of the view — I raised this recently with Treasury in London, and the Executive agree — that the British Government should provide funding for the scheme. The offer that the Secretary of State put forward fell considerably short of what is necessary. On the basis of the estimates — the Chair asked about those — from the Government Actuary's Department, the overall cost is anywhere between £600 million and £1·2 billion over the lifetime of the scheme. Those are the estimates that came from the Government.

Mr Frew and a number of Members raised the issue of the alignment of the Programme for Government with the Budget. Matthew O'Toole asked a question about strategic planning and strategic direction. The spring before last, when the Executive came back into office, they set out with a series of strategic planning days and awaydays. Then, the pandemic came and knocked everything sideways. I want the Executive to get back to that. We have been told by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to expect that we will do a multi-annual Budget from this year on. We have not been told what the quantum will be, so, in that sense, planning is not just as straightforward. However, I want the Executive to get back to those strategic discussions. We will assist them with projections of the costs of priorities, but the Executive need to plan over the summer and into the autumn for a multi-annual Budget. That is the territory that we want to be in, and we will play our part in assisting with the costings of that.

There is no big expectation of huge increases in the Budget, but we do not know what is coming until the spending review is complete. It is incumbent on the Executive to agree strategic priorities, to plan those out over the years ahead and to commit funding to them. People are frustrated by the lack of ability to do that since we have been back, but nobody is more frustrated than those who sit round the Executive table and want to be able to plan in advance. If people remember, that is the exercise that we had on a number of away sessions early last spring; that was our clear intent. As I said, the impact of the pandemic just knocked everything sideways. Obviously, the objective is to prioritise, to align with the Programme for Government and to set out clear Budget spending over a number of years so that Departments will know clearly what they have.

Maolíosa McHugh and Caoimhe Archibald mentioned the extension of the furlough scheme. There are no proposals or even sector-specific extensions that we are aware of, although we continue to raise it with Treasury in our discussions. It is clear that not all sectors will be able to fully reopen, given the social distancing and other mitigation measures that are required. It is important that they continue to support businesses, so we will keep that dialogue ongoing with Treasury.

A number of Members mentioned the Health budget in general and, specifically, waiting lists. The Budget did not provide the Department of Health with a specific allocation for waiting lists for reasons that I will get into, namely that the Executive decided not to reprioritise given the level of money that we had and the time frame involved. However, the Department sought and received £430 million of COVID funding. That included £250 million to support the rebuilding of the health service as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. It has been allocated a further £50 million in-year as part of the May COVID expenditure exercise. The Department has the flexibility to use that COVID-related funding. The Health Minister has the ability to use it to tackle waiting lists, which have been exacerbated by COVID.

We have had the discussion at Executive level — this is important, and Mr Carroll, among others, mentioned it — about the need for recurrent funding in order to employ people. As Jim Allister outlined, that cut to the Health budgets over all those years of austerity removed beds and posts from hospitals, which are essential for dealing with waiting lists in the long term. Simply throwing money to the private sector to try to bring down waiting lists on a temporary basis means that we end up going back to the same problem.

The Health Minister and I are in full agreement, as are the rest of the Executive, that long-term recurrent funding is needed. The COVID money is for one year only and has to be spent in-year. It does not provide that long-term funding. Nonetheless, it is a welcome addition to help the Health Department to cope with some of the significant pressures around waiting lists, as everything else.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 4:30 pm, 7th June 2021

I thank the Minister for giving way. I thank the Minister for his comments in relation to the strategic priorities. For a long time, I have had the view that we need a priority framework. Members will have heard me say this in the House before: this place seems to want to do everything and does not know how it will fund it all, particularly in relation to health. What is it? Is it Bengoa, or is it a restructuring of health? The reality for all Members is that, if it is Bengoa, that means that there are services in each of our constituencies that will not be there. I would like to have some insight from the Finance Minister's point of view. Is he prepared to fund the Bengoa report, which basically means that we go from 11 acute hospitals to six? Is that the trajectory of improving services that we are looking at?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

First, it will be the Executive's decision on how to improve. The improvements required in health are a mixture of all those. Bengoa gave a plan. There are restructuring plans. There are specific plans to tackle the waiting lists and elective services. It needs to be a combination of all that.

The Executive need to have a clear and costed picture from the Health Department as to what that looks like in the future. Better services are the ambition, co-designed with people who work in the health system. Access to those services is a key issue, because we do not have the infrastructure here to give people access to all the services. That has to be balanced with that. It is easy just to pick a figure and say six hospitals or 11 hospitals: we have to have access. That is a key part of the debate.

With regard to some other points that were raised, I have dealt with the issue of simplifying the Budget. Andrew Muir raised the point about the infrastructure advisory panel. The concern that has been expressed about that is the overlap between an infrastructure commission and the duplication of work already undertaken by bodies such as the Strategic Investment Board and my Department's construction and procurement delivery role. We need to get some clarity that we are not creating additional bodies at a time when we are reviewing arm's-length bodies and have given a commitment in NDNA to rationalise the arm's-length bodies that we have. I have no doubt that there is a good argument to be made for such a body, but we need to make sure and see where it fits into the scheme with other public bodies. I expect that to be worked through in the not-too-distant future.

In the last debate, the SDLP launched a "We're in the Executive, and we're not in the Executive" approach to the Budget, so that the Members from that party could criticise all that there was, even though they went into the Lobbies and voted for it. I thought that the real danger of trying to ride two horses at one time and falling in between them would have brought some sanity, but it appears that that is still their strategy. Fair enough, if they think that it will work for them.

The criticism was that there is no vision. That was a recurring theme two weeks ago: there is no vision in this document, no aspiration. We could write a narrative for that document. I could get departmental officials to write a flowery narrative, and it could be all motherhood and apple pie. That might be something that pleases the SDLP because it generally has a priority of style over substance. The substance is — this is the reality that you are dealing with — that we were told, all last autumn, that we were getting a multi-year Budget. We were then told, on 25 November, that we were not, that we were getting a one-year Budget and it was a flat-cash Budget. As other people said, when they looked through the Estimates, that, in effect, presents itself as a cut for some Departments.

The Executive collectively were faced with a choice. If we wanted to meet some priorities, we had to decide to reprioritise the allocations to all Departments. That meant that some Departments would have got more and a lot of Departments would have got less. We decided that, in the time available to us, given the very late outcome of the spending review, we did not have time to do that exercise in the way that would do it justice, and we decided to do a rollover budget for every Department.

On that basis, I am at a loss as to how I could have presented some grand vision, if that is what people would have liked. Effectively, we told every Department, "You will have the same amount of money. If you want to do new things, you will have to stop doing some of the things that you are doing".

The SDLP needs a reality check. As I said, it is playing the issue of being in the Executive and not being in it. That is fair enough: if it thinks that that will work for it in the run-up to an election, I say, "Knock yourself out". However, at least in some cases, the SDLP needs to be accurate. I think it was Daniel McCrossan, in one of his interventions — no, actually it was Sinead McLaughlin who said that, effectively, the Infrastructure Minister got a cut in her budget. She got a 19% increase in her capital budget and an increase in her resource. I think it was about a 21% increase overall. We should at least be honest when we throw some of those figures around. If the SDLP wishes to oppose the Budget or vote against it or speak against it but vote for it, that is something that it can talk to the public about and maybe try to get them to understand. At least it should get things right.

I was told by Colin McGrath that we had not provided any money for health pay. We allocated an additional £52 million for Agenda for Change pay to maintain pay parity with England and an additional £85 million to be provided through NDNA. As I said, it is one thing to criticise but it is another thing to make those criticisms factually correct. Sinead McLaughlin, I think, said, first, that I had said that there was nothing to see and that we were not roaring and shouting: I do not know anybody who has complained more about a lack of finances in this Building than me. They say that we are accepting this and that we are carbon-copying one year into the next: I have been to multiple meetings with Treasury, alongside Finance Ministers from Scotland and Wales. I was in the Treasury three weeks ago talking to the Chancellor about the lack of budget that we have. At the meeting with the Prime Minister last week, the deputy First Minister raised the issue of rebuilding the health service and the need for substantial investment. There is absolutely no way that we have said that this Budget is fine or that there is nothing to look at here.

We will have an open-ended debate tomorrow, so I look forward to the propositions about doing things differently. If you want to do things differently, take the Budget amount that we have, take the tables and work your way through them tonight and tell me where you would take money off and where you would put it in. I will be happy to listen to that tomorrow. You will have an open Floor tomorrow, so you can take all the time that you want to respond to that. There is no point in talking about things like reconfiguring the Budget unless you bring forward propositions to do just that.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for giving way. We are talking about £13 billion. I have never been in the Executive, but I believe that it is made up of nine Ministers: three from Sinn Féin, three from the DUP and three from the other parties. That means that, collectively, the six votes that you carry with the DUP are the lead vote-maker in the Executive. That is a simple mathematical equation.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

All of that would be relevant if there was a vote on the Budget in the Executive, but there was not. Your Minister did not vote against it or speak against it. I was in Executives with previous SDLP Ministers. The previous leader voted against the Budget. I think that Mr Storey was in the Executive when she disagreed with the Budget and voted against it. I think that her party even voted against the Budget. None of that is relevant, because you did not oppose it.

If you are going to say that all of the decisions that we have taken are wrong and that the Budget needs to be reconfigured and the priorities are all wrong, there is an obligation on you to tell us where you will get the money from. As I said, there is an open-ended debate tomorrow on the Second Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill, and I look forward to hearing propositions from you in relation to how you would do things differently. All of the Executive agreed the Budget without a vote and without division at all. Every Executive Minister supported it. If every one of us is wrong, please tell us what you would have done differently with the same amount of money that we have to use.

A number of other points were raised. As usual, Jim Allister thinks that the problem for the health service is funding for the Irish language, but that, I suppose, is a debate for another day. Gerry Carroll asked a number of questions. A lot of them were about other Ministers, who will have to answer in relation to their areas. Ministers have autonomy within their Departments. They have the ability to spend money themselves, and I am sure that they can answer to that. The overall point is the same, which is that a standstill Budget is an effective reduction. That is what we are dealing with here.

I will draw my remarks to a close, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank you and other Members for your patience. The Assembly's approval of the motion on the Main Estimates for 2021-22 is a crucial stage in securing the public expenditure that Departments need to continue to deliver services during this critical time.

Failure to pass this Supply resolution would put at risk the continuation of public services for the remainder of the financial year. I therefore commend the Main Estimates 2021-2022 to the Assembly, and I ask Members to support the motion.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that it is established practice that the vote on this motion requires cross-community support.

Question put.

Some Members:


Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Is Mr Carroll content that that be noted as a dissent?

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

As there are Ayes from all sides of the House, with one dissenting voice, I am satisfied that cross-community support has been demonstrated and the motion approved.

Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved (with cross-community support):

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.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Members, please take your ease while we move to the next item of business.