Budget (No. 2) Bill: Final Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:00 am on 22nd June 2021.

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Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 11:00 am, 22nd June 2021

I beg to move

That the Final Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill [NIA 24/17-22] do now pass.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

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

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Today's Final Stage debate concludes this part of the legislative process for the Budget (No. 2) Bill. The Bill provides the legislative authority for the expenditure of Departments and other bodies as set out in the Main Estimates, which were laid in the Assembly on Thursday 27 May 2021. Those Main Estimates are in turn based on the departmental spending plans set out in the Executive's Budget 2021-22, including the in-year allocations confirmed at that time. As Members will know, the Treasury's spending review provides an increased capital budget; however, the Executive's non-COVID resource departmental expenditure limit (DEL) settlement essentially represents a standstill Budget, once increased costs and service demands are taken into account.

With the limited resources available to us, the Bill provides funding for front-line Health and Social Care (HSC) workers to continue to roll out the vaccination programme and funding for waiting lists. It also provides funding for free school meals, special educational needs (SEN) and services to address the impact of COVID on the well-being and learning of children and young people. Funding has been provided to support business and jobs, including through the Job Start employer incentive and the economic recovery plan, which includes the high street voucher scheme. Support has been provided to individuals and families through the rates freeze and to businesses through the rates holiday. The Bill provides the legislative authority for that expenditure.

I remind Members that the Budget Bill was agreed by all Ministers and that no Minister proposed a single change to the allocations in the Bill. My Department continues to engage with all Departments to ensure that the Executive have an up-to-date picture of the pressures that they face and how the available resources are being used. As the year progresses, the Executive will make further decisions on the allocation of resources, and I will bring those back to the Assembly through the spring Supplementary Estimates (SSEs) and a subsequent Budget Bill at the end of the financial year.

I express my gratitude, once again, to the Finance Committee for giving agreement to accelerated passage. I thank all Statutory Committees and, indeed, all Members for the scrutiny that they have been able to bring to the process.

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

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Minister for his opening comments. My remarks on behalf of the Committee for Finance will address the Final Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill.

The Department kindly provided the Committee with oral and written briefings in respect of the Main Estimates in the Bill. The Committee was also provided with clarification on a number of process issues in respect of headroom

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and accrued resources. Additionally, officials helpfully explained particular Budget lines relating, for example, to the Executive Office and the Executive COVID task force, amongst other things. Statutory Committees also asked questions of their own Departments. Important issues have resurfaced in the House, including the victims' pension scheme, PSNI numbers, Northern Ireland Water and waste treatment capital spending, the delivery of universal credit and other matters relating to 'New Decade, New Approach' and to confidence and supply. I also thank the Committees and their Chairpersons, who have participated, often very eloquently, at the previous stages of the Bill.

Sometimes, in such debates, we have had clear answers and secured important assurances from the Minister. At other times, the issues have proved a little more intractable. In any event, I thank the Minister and his officials for the many responses that he has provided in plenary sittings and in exchanges with the Finance Committee; indeed, at many of our Committee sessions, we seemed to be permanently engaged, which is an appropriate place for the Committee to be with the Department.

The Main Estimates are several hundred pages long. The Bill has a number of detailed schedules where the cash and capital figures are sometimes combined. The descriptors for the expenditure in the Bill schedules are lengthy and hard to understand, and some officials also found them particularly hard to explain. Therefore, it was sometimes practically impossible to work out exactly what we have all voted for. It was also the case that, because of the way that the Bill Estimates are presented, it was difficult to work out, on some occasions, what questions we should ask; indeed, I would not be surprised if, lurking within the pages of the Estimates, there are unknown and undeclared problems that we have not properly understood. I also would not be surprised if the answers to those problems might be difficult for any Finance Minister to explain fully in this forum or for any officials to do the same for their Committee at the limited number of sessions at which the Budget is discussed.

We have heard a lot of complaints about the Budget process, many of which have been from me and members of our Committee. If it is so bad, why did we as a Committee support accelerated passage? Why have most Members voted in support of the Bill at its previous stages? The answer is simple: the Department has advised that, if we do not pass the Bill speedily, public services might just run out of money. The consequences of money running out for vital things like health and education and a myriad of other important things are too awful to contemplate, particularly in the midst of a COVID pandemic. Thus, we are where we are: at the Final Stage of the Budget Bill.

The way out of this may come from the independent Fiscal Council for Northern Ireland. That body may be able to analyse public spending, compare allocations in similar jurisdictions and forecast what would be required over a financially sensible period, that is, three to five years or more. It might also produce reports that we can understand and to a timescale that works not just for the House but for everybody in Northern Ireland who is interested in how we manage our Budget. If anybody does not think that that is important, I say that we are dealing with somewhere close to £13 billion of public money. That is public money for all the people of Northern Ireland, and it should be of interest to all of us.

In recent evidence to the Committee, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) indicated that, with a one-year Budget, the legislature was simply along for the ride. I think that we are all tired, the Minister included, of being along for this ride for the Assembly. It is now time to make a change and, indeed, to make a difference.

We now begin to see a new way forward for this new key governance moment: the passage of the Budget Bill. In the meantime and for the reasons that I set out, the Committee is content that the Budget (No. 2) Bill should pass its Final Stage.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

First, I thank the Minister and his office for their kind words

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Committee. I do not know whether that is an elevation or a demotion. We will soon see, so thank you very much for that.

The Budget highlights the overwhelming financial contribution that the UK Government make to Northern Ireland. The financial benefits of being part of the United Kingdom are vital to the public services and economy of Northern Ireland, and additional funding contributions during the pandemic response underlined that. That highlights the need and importance of remaining an integral part of the United Kingdom. Without the financial input of Her Majesty's Treasury, and

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levels of support offered to the Executive to mitigate the worst effects of the crisis, many businesses would not have been able to stay afloat and there would not have been the assistance for employees across Northern Ireland. Those are the benefits of those elected to Westminster actually attending Westminster and lobbying Westminster.

There is a need to ensure that all Budget processes are

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and lend themselves to full scrutiny. The absence of a multi-year Budget continues to be of great concern. It is in the interests of all that a multi-year Budget be planned. The culture of in-year monitoring rounds and one-year Budgets needs to change, as such Budgets have only been stopgaps and temporary fixes. We must have a proper multi-year Budget that is delivered in a timely manner to allow for proper scrutiny.

When they exclude one-off COVID funding, it is clear that, for most Departments, the Budget outcome represents, in theory, a flat-cash settlement. The reality is that, given increased demand on services, it is likely to represent a reduction. That is extremely concerning. When considering the Budget, we must always be mindful that public money should be spent wisely and not wasted on vanity projects.

The need for a clear, continued Budget can be particularly seen in respect of the Department of Health and the need for transformation to allow us to deliver for all constituents across all areas, as set out by the Health Minister only last week. It is hard to ignore the fact that health and social care account for almost half of day-to-day spending this year at just under £6·5 billion. We must ensure that any Budget safeguards allow for action to be taken to reduce waiting lists dramatically and provide treatment for the 330,000 people awaiting appointments and treatment. Given current estimates, it will take in the region of £750 million to £1 billion to tackle waiting lists alone effectively. It is clear that the funding impetus for the long-term change that is needed is simply not there at present.

Our economy needs a clear and decisive Budget. Many businesses are still impacted directly and indirectly by the restrictions. Many Departments still need to deliver support to businesses as they continue to feel the impact of COVID restrictions and their outworkings. We cannot predict the full extent of the pandemic on our economy, but it is clear that there will be a massive impact on Northern Ireland's rates income. We need to acknowledge the challenge and drive forward with an approach to the rates revaluation that incentivises jobs and growth and meets the needs of established and emerging sectors of our economy.

I await the outcome of the fiscal commission and the fiscal council's initial work. Maybe the Minister can touch on that in his remarks.

Independent advice sector funding needs to continue. In my constituency, workers for Advice NI work on a monthly contract, as there has been no confirmation regarding future funding for the sector.

It is clear that much has been done over the past 15 months to keep things afloat, but much more is to be

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Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I will speak briefly as Chair of the Economy Committee, and I would like

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the Committee

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the Budget scrutiny.

Since I spoke in the Second Stage debate, the Committee has received a further briefing from departmental officials regarding the June monitoring round. The Committee remains concerned at the Department for the Economy's heavy reliance on in-year Budget allocations to pay for important programmes and projects. Additionally, the Committee hopes to see the significant use made of ministerial directions during the COVID emergency reduced.

As I have said previously, the Economy budget has flatlined in 2021-22. However, officials have assured the Committee that they are confident that the Department's funding is appropriate to meet its expected requirements over the next number of months.

The Committee remains alert to the fact that the economic recovery action plan has been allocated some £290 million by the Executive

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The Committee repeats its call for better monitoring for that spend, as it will be vital that live analysis be undertaken regarding how well funds are being spent and the impact that they have. It is vital that the use of that money is maximised. We continue to engage with officials on that.

The Committee has concerns that the 10X Economy plans for innovation, trade and investment are non-Executive strategies and, as a result, are not funded. Members also have concerns about whether that means that they have not been fully aligned with other key programmes and strategies across Departments. The Committee is keen to see the Department's New Decade, New Approach commitments properly funded, and members have concerns that Treasury funding for Project Stratum etc is still not in the Department's bank account, so to speak. Officials have indicated that they are content with the Department of Finance's response to their June monitoring round requests. However, the Committee remains somewhat unclear on some of the detail and will continue to scrutinise the outcome.

The number of vacancies in the Department is another significant concern for the Committee as that must impact on the delivery of important work. Members ask the Finance Minister to ensure that recruitment competitions and the induction of new staff continue at speed to ensure that staffing in the Department for the Economy is at appropriate levels. I ask the Finance Minister whether there is any update on the recruitment processes.

Members know that we are entering a critical phase for our economy. It is likely that the British Government's COVID supports, such as the furlough scheme, will start to fall away, so we must be ready with our skills programmes and other supports to ensure that our people are not left without work or training opportunities. The Committee has a strong focus on the skills agenda and wants to ensure that that is properly funded at a number of levels. As ever, the Committee will work tirelessly to advise and support the Department for the Economy to make the right decisions and seize the opportunities that are presented. The Committee is content to support the Bill.

I will make a couple of brief comments as Sinn Féin economy spokesperson. I will spare the Minister a repeat of my previous contribution. We heard at the briefing on June monitoring last week that some capital funding allocations that are not part of June monitoring are expected to be made along with it, including £42·3 million for Project Stratum and some capital DEL funding for the city deals and Magee medical school. Officials told the Committee that those allocations are from Treasury. Will the Minister clarify that? Does he expect those allocations to be made along with June monitoring?

I have put on record previously my concerns around the ending of furlough, so I will not go into those again. The situation two weekends ago with Stobart Air highlights the impact that there will be on certain sectors that are likely to see a prolonged negative impact from the pandemic. When it comes to aviation and aerospace, there are particular responsibilities for the British Government as those are reserved matters. Have there been any discussions with or representations from other Ministers in respect of support or calls to the British Government for support for our airports or air routes? The Irish Government also have New Decade, New Approach commitments on route development, and there is the issue of the travel sector more generally. I have raised that with the Economy Minister and will continue to do so. That also needs to be an important part of the economic recovery action plan and the tourism recovery plan. I will leave it there.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:15 am, 22nd June 2021

I will try not to detain the Assembly too long. Most of us have said what we were going to say multiple times now in the Budget process. I am sure that the Minister

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more than once. A lot has happened since the initial Estimates were laid and the first Budget document on which they were based was laid. We have had accelerated passage of the Bill and accelerated passage of a DUP leader and a First Minister, so it has been a busy time. Other things have happened since the Main Estimates were first laid and since the Budget document was first passed. We have taken, we hope, another step forward in moving out of this phase of the pandemic, but we have also seen in stark relief the position in which our public services will be left post the end of the pandemic.

It has been mentioned that we face a devastating waiting list crisis, with one in four of our population languishing on waiting lists in Northern Ireland, and it is critical that we deal with that. We have not yet been able to deal with it via our budgeting process, and, as I said, in the absence of an agreed Programme for Government, the Budget process is our default Programme for Government and our default strategic policymaking tool. So, when we approach the multi-year UK spending review later this year, it is critical that we have a coherent plan agreed between the Finance Minister, the Health Minister and, yes, other Ministers, to confirm those priorities and make those allocations. Ideally, we would have that agreed before the UK spending review is published. I know that those conversations are happening already with the Treasury, and it would be helpful if the Minister could update us on those. We stand ready to do our part in delivering on those commitments, because where we are with waiting lists is simply unconscionable.

Another thing that has happened since we started the process of passing the Budget (No. 2) Bill is that inflation has risen again. We now face a situation where UK inflation is above the Bank of England's target. The Minister has talked about the fact that, when you strip out COVID spending, this Budget is broadly a flat-cash settlement for Departments. It is difficult to get a clear reading of where we are because of the unique situation of the COVID spending allocations, which I will go on to talk about. It is clear, however, that, given the spending review later this year — there is, probably, an internal tussle in Whitehall at the moment around allocations — and the fact that inflation and costs are rising across public services, we need to have a clear picture of how that will affect our public services. As we enter the next six months, it is critical that we have a clear approach from the Finance Department, the Finance Minister and all Departments to what the needs are and what the spending profile should be.

Others mentioned something else that is happening here, which is the creation of the fiscal council and the fiscal commission. My party has supported their creation. We called for them repeatedly, I lobbied hard for them, and I welcome the fact that they have been set up. In addition to the work that the fiscal council will do as a watchdog, I hope that the fiscal commission can give us a clearer picture than we have at present of the broad waterfront, if you like, of revenue raised in Northern Ireland, because that is critical. At the moment, frankly, whatever your view of how we spend money, the long-term position or whether the block-grant funding model is a good thing — should we should simply be grateful to the UK Exchequer for its beneficence or seek to raise more of our own revenue? — ultimately, it does us all good to have a clearer picture of how much revenue is raised in this jurisdiction. We are simply flying blind in many ways. Of course, when I mention the word "flying", it brings me back to the subject of the £2·5 million that we spend every year subsidising non-existent long-haul flights. At least, when we are flying blind, we are flying — or maybe not even flying — for the cost of that £2·5 million a year.

Part of the reason why we will need that clarity from the fiscal commission is that as well as costs rising and inflation increasing, the most significant revenue that is raised here is from the regional and local rates. During the COVID pandemic, those rates have, in large part, been subsidised, which was a good thing, but we do not know what their long-term durability will be. We do not know how, in the medium to long term, the huge and significant shift in economies everywhere that has happened as a result of COVID-19 will affect that revenue base. We are looking at a Budget (No. 2) Bill today — I will come back to the Bill, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, before you take the opportunity to make me do so — that is predicated on a revenue picture that may well be out of date. We need an update on how all of that works.

I come back to the immediate short term. This year, part of the problem with our budgetary process is that we end up debating out-of-date Budget Bills. As the Minister said, this Budget (No. 2) Bill and the Main Estimates did not incorporate all the allocations that have been made in-year. That is understandable, given the fast-moving nature of the picture, and subsequent allocations have been made by the UK Treasury. However, we need to see the June monitoring round. I know that individual Committees have had briefings from their respective Departments. If the Minister could confirm today that he expects to make a statement to the House before we go into recess, that would be helpful. There are specific areas in which, given the volume of outstanding COVID-19 funding, we will want to know exactly how the money is moving around in and between Departments. One obvious area is the high street voucher scheme, for which the Department's permanent secretary sought a ministerial direction at a very early stage of the process. We therefore need to understand whether the Executive are confident that all the money will be allocated this year; and, if not, we should have a clear understanding of whether and how it will be reprioritised.

In conclusion, let me say that there is a chance, given the political volatility of this place, that this will be the last Budget Bill that we debate in this mandate. I hope that it is not. I hope that we go to our full term. It is worth saying, however, that one of the things that has marked out the past year and a half of this mandate, although, yes, civil servants moved at speed to deal with unprecedented circumstances, is a mistiness, a vagueness and a lack of strategy that has plagued the Executive overall.

Let us all pledge, as we create the new fiscal institutions and as we move, hopefully this time next year, into a new mandate and a refreshed sense of purpose for whatever Executive emerges afterwards, to do budgeting better, more strategically and with more clarity. I will spare the Assembly further words. We support the Bill at Final Stage.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the Budget (No. 2) Bill at Final Stage. Like others, I do not intend to repeat the remarks that I made at Second Stage. There would be little point in doing so, given that nothing in the legislation has changed since it was presented. The entire process feels like going through the motions rather than an opportunity for genuine scrutiny, but, as someone recently said, "That's life".

The initial allocations for this financial year have been agreed. A key role for Members will be to scrutinise how Departments allocate their settlement. That a Minister has received a similar settlement to last year does not necessarily mean that that Minister has to spend it in exactly the same way. The Minister for Infrastructure recently confirmed to me that she has a budget of just over £200 million of capital to spend on her ministerial priorities. We will continue to press the Minister to do more to deliver a green infrastructure in Northern Ireland rather than accept that the underfunding of walking and cycling infrastructure in particular in Northern Ireland is an inevitability. It is not.

We will continue to scrutinise in-year COVID funding and monitoring rounds. I agree with Mr O'Toole's point on the high street voucher scheme. If the scheme is to be reviewed and we are not to proceed with it, we need to take that decision early to ensure that the money can be used wisely. The Executive should prioritise supporting our economic recovery from COVID, but they must be sure to spend wisely to ensure that money that could be spent on rebuilding public services is not wasted. That is a key test in this financial year.

We will also continue to challenge the Finance Minister and others in the Executive to push forward a policy and legislative agenda that will enable better financial scrutiny and decision-making in Northern Ireland, such as on the work of the fiscal council, which needs to progress its efforts at pace. It is important that the fiscal council be given appropriate resources and, in due course, statutory authority to fulfil its role effectively and independently in this financial year and beyond.

The Finance Minister must lead the response to the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) report on the capacity and capability of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) in order to make sure that the Civil Service has the skills and experience to spend a sizeable capital budget effectively and develop schemes that catalyse a green economic recovery.

Finally, I turn to the role of the recently established fishcol, fishcal — easy for me to say —

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

It is not.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

— fiscal commission, which will identify ways in which the Assembly can utilise tax-varying powers. It is important that the fiscal commission set a pathway for the significant work that needs to be done before Northern Ireland is granted greater fiscal devolution.

The spectre of RHI still looms large over this place. Despite the Functioning of Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act (Northern Ireland) 2021, we still need to see the final report from the Executive subcommittee on the RHI inquiry. I ask the Finance Minister for an update on that. Until we can show that the lessons from RHI have been learned — I am not sure that they have — and that there has been a fundamental change in the culture of Stormont and the Civil Service, I fear that the fiscal powers devolved to Northern Ireland will remain totally unchanged. Yet there is a significant amount that the Executive could do if there was a political consensus to do it. Everyone in the Assembly agrees —.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 11:30 am, 22nd June 2021

I ask the Member to resume his seat briefly. I have shown considerable leeway with Members because it is a Budget debate, and historically that is the case. However, I will say to the House that, whilst Members may wish to consider the Budget process more generally, lengthy discussions on the wider process are likely to be beyond the scope of the Bill, unless the contribution can be related directly back to the principles of the Budget (No. 2) Bill.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I have one more comment, which is significant and relates to the Budget as it is on the non-domestic rating system. The Alliance Party has consistently called for an independent review of the non-domestic rating system, which could bring forward proposals for how we can ensure that we support local retailers while shifting the burden from bricks-and-mortar businesses to online retail and increasing the rates revenue to pay for public services. We need to address this key issue in this financial year, in the context that the reliefs that are in place as part of this Budget will end at the end of this financial year, leaving many businesses facing a cliff edge.

In conclusion, my party supports the passage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill. We record the need to reform the budgetary process and call on the Finance Minister to continue with the large body of work that can be done in this financial year to improve Northern Ireland's financial position and the institutions overall.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I will speak on behalf of the Committee and then make some brief comments as my party's spokesperson on health. The Department of Health has been allocated almost half of the entire resource budget, with a resource allocation of almost £6,451 million. There is no doubt that this is a significant amount of resource funding for the Department. However, the Department has indicated that, despite the large allocation, this is a standstill budget and there is no funding space available to tackle backlogs and waiting lists.

There is no doubt that the 2021-22 budget allocation for the Department of Health is challenging. While all Departments are under considerable pressure, we are all too aware of the real-life experience of our constituents in accessing healthcare and treatments. We hear news stories every day about the size of waiting lists and the length of time that people are being told that they will have to wait for a first consultation, never mind for whatever treatment they may require.

While we welcome last week's statement from the Minister on the elective care framework, considerable investment is needed in the health system to not only address the waiting lists but bring forward the important transformation agenda to ensure that the health system is both efficient and provides effective treatment when it is needed most. It was for that reason that the Committee wrote to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to request that an Executive meeting be held to consider the issue of waiting lists. We hope that that will happen as soon as possible and that an update will be provided on the outcomes of the meeting. Waiting lists have to be one of the Executive's priorities over coming years.

I will reiterate some of the comments that I made in the last Budget debate about the scrutiny of spending plans and priorities. I have to say that, in the Department of Health, it is very difficult to identify spending on priorities and, then, to track that spending over the financial year. With such a large budget in the Department of Health, we tend to get a headline figure, with no real detail of the total spend to tackle waiting lists and health inequalities and spend on mental health. That is further complicated by the differing approaches and reporting in the Department, the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) and health and social care trusts. That can make it complicated and confusing to follow the funding and, importantly, to track outcomes to see what is working and what could work better.

The Committee is keen to ensure that there is transparency in the spending plans and that it is able to follow the funding across each of those organisations. We need to be able to identify and track spending, especially on priority issues such as how much is being spent to address waiting lists, to reduce inequalities, on mental health, on autism diagnosis and follow-on services, and to support unpaid carers. We need to see how much is being spent on those priorities and the outcomes of the funding. I note that the Department has been very good at identifying and tracking COVID spending and pressures, and we need to see a similar approach to those priorities over the coming years. The Committee will continue to engage constructively with the Department to ensure scrutiny of its spending over the coming year.

I will now add some brief remarks as Sinn Féin spokesperson. I want to acknowledge the work that has gone into elective care plans to tackle waiting lists. I also acknowledge the work and the additional resource that the Department of Finance and the wider Executive —.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I ask the Member to resume his seat briefly. I know that no offence was intended by Mr McHugh, but it is not the done thing to walk directly behind a Member when he is on his feet speaking. I am sure that Mr Gildernew will give you a stronger reprimand afterwards than I did.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

That is OK. It is grand.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Mr Gildernew is not as exercised as the Principal Deputy Speaker, but thank you.

[Laughter.]

I acknowledge the work and the additional resource that the Department of Finance and the wider Executive have provided to help already. However, as we have seen with the waiting list plans, there is a considerable ask, amounting to an estimated £700 million over the next five years. More detailed plans, however, are now needed to address health. We have yet to see a detailed costed plan to address the crippling workforce shortages and pressures, and, without those pressures and shortages being addressed, we will not deliver on the ground the change and the increased service that are needed. We need to see how much is needed to provide for new training places, to upskill health and social care workers and to provide the safe staffing that was agreed with the unions, and we need to know what a fair rate is for domiciliary care workers and providers in the future.

I could go on, but those are the details that I will be seeking from the Department of Health in the time ahead. It goes without saying that, without multi-year budgeting, the task becomes increasingly difficult. I will end by reiterating my support and that of Sinn Féin to addressing the health emergency before all of us today.

Photo of Maolíosa McHugh Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin

Again, I apologise to my colleague. I did not know that there was a difference in that respect.

Ba mhaith liom fosta buíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I thank the Minister for his statement today, and I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Final Stage. During the debates that have happened over different days in the Chamber, we have focused quite a bit on Health and the like. The Budget has committed over £6 billion to Health. That is over 50% of the block grant, which is to be expected. We all know, however, that that is still insufficient to deal with the long-term issues and problems in health at present, in particular, as alluded to by Mr Gildernew, the long waiting lists, which would not be tolerated in any other part of the UK. I know that that would not be tolerated in England in particular, but here, in the North of Ireland, we are confronted with that. We know that the situation requires more resources and a reorganisation of the health service itself to resolve its difficulties and problems.

It is the case that some Members in the Chamber from one party often end up pointing the finger at those from another party about who is responsible for what. However, this is a major problem that we have all struggled with before COVID and during COVID, and, in fact, it has been exacerbated as a result of COVID. Much of it is a reflection of underfunding by the Tory Government, and that has created a situation in which our Finance Minister and the other Ministers have had their hands tied in many respects. They know that it all requires additional funding. Minister Swann has already announced an immediate comprehensive review to tackle waiting lists in particular. He has stated that that will require over £700 million over a five-year period. In fact, at one time, I saw it stated that it would require £2 billion over a 10-year period. His requirement is £300 million less over the five-year period, but he feels that that is what is required to address that whole issue. Yet and all, the question remains: where is that money to come from? There has been an offer in the Chamber from one Minister when confronted with the question of whether they would be prepared to sacrifice funding from their Department in order to assist Health. Maybe all Departments might be expected to do that down the line. However, even with that, we know that it would still be totally and absolutely insufficient to meet the requirements of the budget that is needed to deal with those issues.

At present, rates raise £580 million, I think, per year. As we know, that needs to be complemented in order to provide the present services and make all other provisions for society in addition to the health service. We need more funding. One of the ways in which we can actually achieve that is to have greater control over raising our own tax, perhaps through income tax or value added tax, in such a way that we can also then control how we spend that budget. I welcome the fiscal commission's being appointed to look at those issues and the devolution of tax to the Northern Ireland Government per se, just in the same way as it is at present in Scotland, where at least they are able to approach many of those issues and have greater control over the funds that they have at their disposal. We need that in the North of Ireland too. We need those funds at our disposal. Hopefully, through our own taxation, we will be able to raise those funds.

One can think immediately of some of the multinationals and the types of returns that they are experiencing at present as a result of the way in which they have conducted their business during COVID and so on. Once again, it highlights the very same issue that there are multinational firms that get away — I cannot say totally and absolutely, but relatively scot-free in comparison with what other people have to pay in tax, and so on. If we had that control —.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. On the issue of corporation tax, large corporations and the rest of it, is the Member then advocating for increased corporation tax, well within the OECD level of between 22% and 25%, across this island?

Photo of Maolíosa McHugh Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin

In fact, the latest suggested level of corporation tax is 15%. Those who earn more should pay more, and those who have the ability to pay should pay, rather than it being left as a burden all the time on working-class people. Once again, through the likes of the fiscal council and so on, I hope that they will arrive at conclusions and decisions that will support the Minister and allow him to then approach the likes of the British Government and demand greater taxation powers for Ministers in the North of Ireland.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

I acknowledge that it has been a difficult time for all Departments with regard to funding this year. I wish to speak about a few issues in the Budget that relate to the Department of Health. The additional £450 million for COVID and the post-Budget exercise is hugely welcome. However, because so little of that funding is actually recurring, and so much will be spent on the vaccination programme, COVID response, rebuild programme etc, it actually falls far short of what is needed to meet inescapable pressures and maintain key existing services.

Given that the allocation also fell short of the overall requirements to continue funding all ongoing transformation projects at 31 March 2021, COVID-19 rebuild funding had to be used to fund additional prioritised transformation projects. That is totally unsustainable.

The elective care framework, which the Health Minister published last week, indicates that £707·5 million of additional investment will be required over a five-year period to reduce the backlog of patients on waiting lists and to build Health and Social Care capacity to meet ongoing annual patient demand for services. For every £1 million allocated to tackle waiting times, approximately 1,000 assessments and 350 treatments are expected to be delivered. Economies of scale associated with larger contracts would be expected to increase that return, subject to case mix, and that would surely represent better value for money.

Multi-year funding would allow Health and Social Care departments to secure long-term, large-scale contracts with the independent sector, allow for greater strategic planning and avoid the historical stop-start contracting arrangements associated with the one-year funding allocations. I look forward to a time when we can have multi-year Budgets brought to the House.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance 11:45 am, 22nd June 2021

In some ways, it is ironic that, on the 100th anniversary of the Northern Ireland Parliament's first sitting, when there was a Government and an Assembly that attacked working-class people's conditions whilst proclaiming to uphold an all-class alliance, today, 100 years on, a multiparty Executive containing people designated as unionists, nationalists or others support and push through another Budget that does nothing to enhance pay, conditions or the experience of working-class and deprived communities beyond

[Inaudible owing to poor sound quality]

as usual.

The Minister has stated repeatedly, maybe at every stage of the Budget Bill, that, in reality, this is a standstill Budget. In real terms, in translation, that means a deterioration of conditions, pay and finance for people who are not connected to Stormont and are not wealthy as it is. A harsh reality during COVID has been that those who do not have as much as it is have found it difficult to weather the storm of the pandemic. Meanwhile, organisations that likely have large resources, such as sports organisations with well-financed bank accounts, get bailed out or profiteer from the pandemic while other people are failed. That is scandalous and a real, horrible legacy of COVID in this place. The Budget does not address those issues; it just exacerbates them.

We heard from the Health Minister last week or the week before about a road map for tackling waiting lists, and the reality is that the resources required to tackle waiting lists are not detailed in the Budget. As some Members have said, there is fuel and support for continuing the two-tier health model. That is the approach of the Department and, seemingly, the Minister. There is no plugging of the gap of the 7,000 nurses that we are short, as people know. There is no extra money set aside for nurses' pay beyond what is expected or what will be announced by the pay review body, so we are effectively subject to its decision. What an insult to people who worked through hell and high water to protect and save lives during COVID.

Of course, the truth is that things did not and do not have to be this way. Even in the belly of the beast of capitalism in the US, there has been, if not a break, certainly a sidestep in how government is operated. Joe Biden, who is by no means a socialist or a radical, is investing $2 trillion in infrastructure, in the US economy and in people's pockets, whereas this Executive continue to adopt policies of neoliberalism, attacking public services and implementing pay cuts whilst passing them off as increases — a classic, textbook Tory policy.

In looking back over 100 years, the only time when people's conditions improved was through mass demonstrations, strikes and protests such as the 1919 general strike, the 1932 outdoor relief riots and recent water charges campaigns. The Budget does not reflect the pain and suffering that people have gone through in the past year, and, for that reason, I will vote against it. The solution to that is to organise our communities to protest, to put pressure on the Executive for their failed policies.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I call the Minister for Communities — I beg your pardon. The word "communities" was used at the end of Mr Carroll's speech, and it was still ringing in my ears. I call the Minister of Finance, Mr Conor Murphy, to conclude the Final Stage debate.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I know that there have been quite a lot of changes to keep up with.

[Laughter.]

I am pleased to say that I am still where I was: in Finance.

I thank all the Members who have contributed to the debate today and those who contributed to the debates at the Bill's earlier stages and in the debate on the associated Supply resolution a number of weeks ago. I have listened to their remarks and am sure that I have answered some of them before. Nonetheless, the Chair of the Finance Committee knows that I share his view on the simplification of the Budget process and a desire to get to a space where we give the information that is required in an accessible way and conduct the process in a much more accessible way for Committees, Members and the general public. That has to be our objective. We have started the process to begin that change, and it is my intention, whether I am in the Department or not, that the Department will continue that change over the next number of years to get to the point that the Chair and others rightly identified.

A number of Members, including Mr Keith Buchanan, made reference to the fiscal council and the fiscal commission and asked where they were. The fiscal council is consulting a range of stakeholders and taking their views on the initial terms of reference that we provided it with before they are finalised. That may include legislation, whether it is in this mandate or the next, to confirm that. That will include engagement with the Finance Committee, which, I think, is coming up soon, perhaps this week. By the end of the summer, I expect to have the final terms of reference in place. We are looking at a possible legislative timetable to underpin that. That would be challenging, but the Committee is keen and has offered its assistance to do that. We will certainly look to do that in the time ahead.

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

I thank the Minister for giving way. On the point about legislation happening in this mandate, there is broad consensus in the Committee to do things quickly to help achieve that. We have a degree of instability here. Most of us hope that the mandate runs to its end, but is there any way that the Minister can use his office to ensure that, whether he is in the same office in the next mandate or not, we get an agreed commitment at Executive level about the legislative footing? It would be a real shame if it were to drift or fall?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The Member will know that the establishment of a fiscal council was agreed by all the Executive parties; it goes back to the Stormont House Agreement and was repeated in NDNA. There is an Executive commitment to establish the council. It is recognised that, in the first instance, initial terms of reference should be given to the council for consultation and analysis. Then, the council should work with us to finalise the terms of reference. In other places, that has been followed by legislation. If that can be done in this mandate, I am willing to try to do it, although we have been told by the Office of the Legislative Counsel that any legislation should have been tabled in the spring to ensure its passage. I understand that the Committee is keen to help us with that, and certainly, if it can be done, we will do it. I would not be concerned that the work will drop, because it is a full Executive commitment, and I expect that whoever occupies the Department of Finance will take it on if it is not done during this mandate. I would certainly like to be able to do it.

Unsurprisingly, a number of Members addressed the issue of health waiting lists. We have the issue of addressing the waiting list backlog plus future health transformation and workforce planning. All of those things are interlinked, complex and financially challenging. Nonetheless, that is what the Executive have committed to do. As Members have said, the Health Minister has produced the elective care framework, with an identified price tag of more than £700 million over five years. There will be an Executive discussion on that in the near future. We need to be in a position, as a number of contributors have said, to set a multi-year Budget, because the predicted finance that the Health Department will require to address waiting lists is recurrent. This year, we have been able to give COVID money, which is helpful to the Department. However, the Health Minister and I have had the conversation, and we both understand that the Department needs recurrent funding so that it can employ staff to enable it to target waiting lists. We are committed to doing that.

Caoimhe Archibald raised issues regarding the recruitment of civil servants. There is a programme ongoing in relation to that. We also have apprenticeship programmes. We are trying to recognise the need to change the make-up and age profile of the Civil Service and ensure that it is more representative of society. That process is ongoing.

A number of Members mentioned the June monitoring bids. I hope to bring a statement to the Assembly next week. Yesterday evening, I sent proposals to the Executive, and I am hopeful that those can be resolved by Thursday. That will allow me to bring a statement next week. Of course, Members will know that, when statements and allocations go to Ministers, people often have issues to raise with them. Nonetheless, that is the intent. It is my intent to do it before the month is out — hopefully, next week.

Caoimhe Archibald also raised the issue of support for airlines. The Economy Minister has written to me regarding proposed support for the airline industry and about air connectivity in particular. When I was in London a number of weeks ago, I spoke to Grant Shapps about support for connectivity here. We have also raised it with Dublin, particularly in respect of the City of Derry Airport, its air routes with Dublin and the possibility of supported air routes. We had intended to raise the issue on the margins of the North/South Ministerial Council on Friday, but the meeting did not happen. However, I hope that it will happen soon. We will continue that dialogue with Dublin.

I will go through some of the other issues. Matthew O'Toole raised issues relating to prioritising again. We have been through the argument about the one-year Budget many times and discussed the fact that the short-notice and standstill nature does not allow Departments to come up with anything new, other than to continue to tread water in challenging circumstances. However, we anticipate a multi-annual Budget. We have been told directly by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that that will be the outcome. I am in the process of writing to Executive colleagues inviting them to come together to have a more strategising session before the summer is out so that we can start to look at the priorities that the Executive will want to take forward over the next number of years. I am sure that health will feature at the top of everyone's list, but we will have to look at other priorities. We will do that in the context of not knowing what the Budget outcome will be, but, as the Member has suggested, it is important to begin that planning exercise now. In the autumn, when we find out what the Budget outcome will be, we will have to adjust Departments' spending accordingly. Whether that means that we will have to surrender some money in order to meet those priorities will be a call for the Executive in the time ahead. However, it is important to begin that planning process as soon as possible.

The Member also raised the issue of inflation. That is a growing concern, particularly in relation to construction costs. It is a concern generally, but construction costs and the indicative allocations for some significant construction projects may have to be revisited. That is a challenge

[Inaudible owing to poor sound quality.]

We hope that it might be a temporary increase. There are indications that there are problems with supply chains that may rectify themselves, but there has been a significant and growing increase in the costs of material. That has a knock-on implication for projects. We will keep a close watching brief on that, as we are concerned about how it plays out.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Minister for giving way. One of his other roles is chairman of the Procurement Board. The concern that he has just raised has significance for projects such as the A5 and its viability, considering the increased costs and the fact that construction work has not started. Is the Minister talking to other Ministers to make sure that value for money is applied to all projects? There are real issues with the growing 2·5% or 3% inflationary costs. We need to keep a careful eye on that.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 12:00 pm, 22nd June 2021

There are real issues for all projects. I have not been talking to any Ministers about specific projects, but officials will talk across Departments about the implications of this. They will need some time to see whether that is a permanent or temporary rise in costs. There have been indications that there is an expectation that some of the supply chain issues will resolve themselves, which may bring costs down. Nonetheless, we will have to keep a very close eye on that, and I am sure that it will inform our planning sessions when we get down to them over the summer and early autumn. We will have more information about Executive priorities in the time ahead, but that will affect every budget because, if costs go up, they go up for everything.

Issues were raised about the high street voucher scheme. The allocation for economic recovery has been given to the Department for the Economy in full. Part of that allocation — £140 million, I think — is for the high street voucher scheme. This morning, I spoke to officials in the Department about keeping in regular contact with all Departments about the spending out of COVID money. If there are any issues about schemes proceeding, we want the earliest possible indication. If they are not going to proceed, the money will have to be surrendered and reallocated. I can assure you that there are schemes and projects that would like to take up any underspend. As we did last year, we will ensure that any COVID money that we have, albeit reduced this year, is spent out. We have no indication from the Department for the Economy that there is any issue with that scheme, but we will continue to ask questions about all the COVID allocations that we have made and ensure that we get regular updates over the summer and into the autumn so that we can make sure that those are spent as intended.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

You touched on quite an important point, because that £140 million is subject to ministerial direction. Now that we are moving out of quarter 2 and beginning to look at quarter 3, there are real issues. I see that the Chairperson of the Economy Committee is sitting behind you. At what stage will we realise that the Department for the Economy is not able to utilise that money for what it is supposed to be for? Once we do that, we can reallocate it. We are running out of time again for this money to be allocated and put forward. In particular, the Assembly should be concerned about the money being there under ministerial direction.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

A huge amount of money has been allocated under ministerial direction this year because of the sudden nature of the injections of cash and the need to respond very quickly to the pandemic. There have been a number of ministerial directions in relation to schemes over the last year, so it is not unique in that sense. We will keep a close eye on that, however. The Department has plans in place that it is rolling out. From my understanding, it intends to have this scheme rolled out in the early autumn, when it believes that there will be a fall-off in spend compared with what people experience over the summer months. If there are any indications that the scheme will not go ahead as planned, we will want to know that from the Department as soon as possible. If that has an implication for the amount of money that was allocated, we will want that money to be returned as quickly as possible so that we can reallocate it. The Department has indicated that the scheme is going ahead, however, and that is what the Executive agreed to. With all the COVID allocations that we have made, we keep a tight watching brief on all the Departments to make sure that, if money is not to be spent — whether that is at all or in full — we get very early notice to make sure that we get returns as early as possible.

Andrew Muir asked about the RHI subcommittee report. That has been with the Executive Office for a substantial period, and I want to see it brought through the Executive, agreed and put into place as soon as possible. He also asked about the review of non-domestic rates. We are having ongoing discussions about that. Last week, I had a discussion with business organisations. One of the demands was for more frequent revaluation exercises, and we have now brought those forward. The shortest turnaround for revaluation is planned for 2023. That will take account of the pandemic and its impact on business rates. We are keeping in close contact, and there are reviews. Last year, there was an 18% reduction in non-domestic rates. That was kind of lost in the fact that we have used up about £520 million through affording people rates holidays. There has already been significant change, but we will continue to engage with businesses in the time ahead. As I said, one of the key demands was for the more rapid turnaround of revaluation, and we will deliver that in the time ahead.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I appreciate the Minister's update on the revaluation. It is important, and he has outlined that some of those issues were not caught because of the reliefs that were in place. Can he indicate why the RHI subcommittee report is sitting in the Executive Office and has not been before the Executive?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The short answer is no. It has not come through. There was some back and forth on presentational issues, but those were resolved some time ago. We have not heard anything since. I know that there has been a lot of turmoil in one half of the Executive Office, but I hope that we can get the report through quickly and get it done. The subcommittee completed its work some time back. I am sure that is was a number of months ago. We produced the report and gave it to the Executive Office, and I want to see that come through as quickly as possible.

Colm Gildernew, on behalf of the Health Committee, asked a question on staffing levels. In 2020-21, £5 million was invested in key priority services to strengthen the nursing workforce in district nursing, mental health nursing and emergency care nursing. The Executive allocated a further £20 million of funding for 2021-22 to honour their commitment to provide £60 million over five years to progress the safe staffing agenda and strengthen the nursing and midwifery workforce.

Gerry Carroll made a number of points. On many occasions, I have agreed with a lot of the points that he has made, such as that on our broader aspiration for a different and better outcome. The pay awards here broke from the approach that had been taken in London on recent pay awards, and I am pleased that the Executive managed to do that. I did not have at my disposal as much as I would have liked to give. Nonetheless, it was as much as we could afford at the time. I share Mr Carroll's view on President Biden's approach in the United States. Regardless of the overall economic policies of the United States and Great Britain — they seem to be moving from a tax-and-spend approach to a spend-and-tax approach — I hope that, when it comes to the spending review in London, we do not go back to the austerity approach that severely damaged all our public services over the past number of years. We are still struggling to play catch-up in the provision of public services, proper wages for public servants and all the issues that flow from a reduction in the Budget.

I have tried to respond to as many issues as I could. Undoubtedly, many of them were raised in previous debates. It is imperative that the legislation completes its passage through the Assembly to provide the legislative authority for the Executive's expenditure as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to support our economy through the recovery phase. I ask Members to support the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Before I put the Question, I advise Members that, as this is a Budget Bill, the standing convention in the House is that cross-community support is required.

Question put.

Some Members:

Aye.

Some Members:

No.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I see that Mr Allister and Mr Carroll are indicating No. That will be recorded in Hansard.

I remind Members that we should continue to uphold social distancing and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber. Before I put the Question, I remind those Members present that, if possible, it would be preferable to avoid a Division.

Question put a second time.

Some Members:

Aye.

Some Members:

No.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly currently has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. I remind all Members of the requirement for social distancing while the Division takes place. I ask you, Members, to ensure that you maintain a gap of at least 2 metres between you and others when moving around in the Chamber or Rotunda and especially in the Lobbies. Please be patient at all times, observe the signage and follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks.

The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 72; Noes 3

AYES

NATIONALIST:

Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms S Bradley, Ms Brogan, Mr Catney, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin

UNIONIST:

Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Easton, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stewart, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir

Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Brogan, Mr K Buchanan

NOES

UNIONIST:

Mr Allister

OTHER:

Mr Carroll, Miss Woods

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Allister, Mr Carroll

<TR><TD>Total Votes
75Total Ayes72[96.0%]
Nationalist Votes38Nationalist Ayes38[100.0%]
Unionist Votes35Unionist Ayes34[97.1%]
Other Votes2Other Ayes0[0.0%]

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

That the Final Stage of the Budget (No. 2) Bill [NIA 24/17-22] do now pass.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments for a change at the top Table. If you are leaving the Chamber, be sure to sanitise the place where you were. Thank you very much.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I propose to suspend the sitting for 15 minutes until 12.45 pm. The sitting is, by leave, suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.30 pm and resumed at 12.45 pm.