Budget Bill: Final Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 8 March 2022.

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Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 10:30, 8 March 2022

I beg to move

That the Budget Bill [NIA 55/17-22] do now pass.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

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

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Today's Final Stage debate concludes the financial legislative process for the 2021-22 year. This has been another year in which financial management has been made more difficult by the pandemic and by the uncertainty over our final funding envelope. Over the year, the Executive allocated almost £700 million in additional resources and over £90 million in capital. We have provided support to the health service, schools, businesses and individuals who have continued to face difficulties as a result of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. That support includes over £250 million of additional in-year funding for the Department of Health to meet pressures on hospital services and elective care as well as funding for mental health. It includes over £100 million to the Department of Education to help schools deal with COVID pressures, such as PPE and staff substitute cover, as well as support for special educational needs (SEN). Over £90 million was allocated to the Department for Communities to support local councils and the Housing Executive as well as to fund the energy payment support scheme to help the most vulnerable with rising fuel costs. I understand that the majority of those payments will be in people's bank accounts later this week.

Almost £100 million has been allocated to the Department for Infrastructure to help mitigate the impact of COVID, subsidise the public transport network, provide support to the bus and coach industry and mitigate the impact of rising energy costs on Northern Ireland Water. The Executive also agreed to provide over £45 million to my Department to fund the omicron hospitality scheme to provide grants to the sectors that were most affected by the disruption to Christmas trade.

As we move towards the recovery phase of the pandemic, we have to rebuild our healthcare system. A first step in that process should be agreement by the Executive on a multi-year Budget to enable the health service to begin tackling the soaring waiting lists and the process of transformation, which we had all agreed were the priorities. Unfortunately, the First Minister's decision to resign has prevented that from happening. While the Bill provides a Vote on Account to allow services to continue beyond 1 April, that does not constitute the setting of a Budget that is needed to allow Departments to plan ahead, and it does not provide the additional resources that are so desperately needed by our health service.

I conclude by, once again, expressing my gratitude to the Finance Committee, which worked with us to grant accelerated passage to the Bill. I also thank all of the Committees for the level of scrutiny that they have brought to the process. This is the final stage of our financial legislative process for 2021-22, and the legislation has already been subject to considerable debate. I look forward to hearing any final thoughts from Members on this important piece of legislation.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 10:45, 8 March 2022

The Committee for Finance enjoys a special position in that it has a unique set of responsibilities when it comes to the scrutiny of Budget Bills and the associated founding Supply resolutions. The Committee takes those responsibilities seriously and has sought to work with the Department to prove the understandability of the Estimates and related documentation.

As I indicated at Second Stage, new financial reporting legislation has been passed, Estimates memoranda have been issued and a Fiscal Council has been established in the past 12 months. Those are already proving to be beneficial, and I expect more improvements to follow. That is very positive, and all involved are to be commended in that regard.

COVID still plays an important role in the spending in 2021-22, with, perhaps, an extra £1·5 billion coming from our Government this year. The schemes that the Executive devised, which were backed by that money, have made a real difference to hard-pressed businesses during these difficult times. It is hoped that individuals and households will also benefit from the Executive's cost-of-living measures.

The Bill also provides for a Vote on Account. That is not a Budget: it is a kind of float for the Department for the first few months of 2022-23. Given the current political position, the Committee intends to explore with officials what Departments and, indeed, Ministers will and will not be able to do with the Vote on Account in the absence of an Executive. Perhaps, in his winding-up speech, the Minister will provide some clarity on the £400 million of additional money generated by the increase in all of our national insurance contributions. Will the Department of Health, for which that money has been earmarked for waiting list reductions, be able to access that money without accruing resource in 2022-23 without an Executive in place? Many of us are aware that much of that money has already been accrued, so we need to look at whether there is any possibility of it being accessed.

I do not want to finish on that uncertain note, as the Committee and Minister have made progress in respect of financial scrutiny during the mandate. Let me thank him and my colleagues on the Committee for that. Indeed, let me thank Mr McHugh, who is now wearing a fine suit and a nice tie.

Photo of Maolíosa McHugh Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin

It does not suit.


Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

The sartorial elegance that you have shown today and yesterday has been wonderful to see. We rubbed off on you at some stage.

With the prospect of better and more informed scrutiny of financial matters, and on behalf of the Committee for Finance, I commend the Final Stage of the Budget Bill 2022.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to participate in today's debate as Chair of the Health Committee. In the past financial year, COVID has continued to make departmental and trust spending plans challenging, and a number of important priorities have been pushed back as the Department continues to deal with the pandemic. The Department of Health receives the largest proportion of the block grant, yet we are still seeing increasing waiting lists, overcrowded emergency departments and difficulties in providing care packages to free up beds in our hospitals. <BR/>While we can acknowledge that the pandemic has caused many difficulties and challenges, especially with workforce planning, our health and care staff have been stretched. The Committee has constantly raised the issue of workforce planning. This year, the Department is spending close to £300 million on agency staffing costs. That is not sustainable. We are hearing many stories of staff who are leaving the trusts and moving to work for agencies.

The Committee has highlighted to the Department the need for it to review its recruitment and retention policies to ensure that terms and conditions allow flexibility in recruitment and working patterns. While we understand that there will always be a need for a level of agency spend, our over-reliance is unsustainable, and the £300 million that we spend on agency costs could go some way to addressing the issues facing the health system. Workforce planning will be key to ensuring that services are provided to patients in a timely manner, and, as part of the transformation agenda, it can lead to a real reduction in waiting lists and the health inequalities that we see in our communities.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

The Member referred to the £300 million being spent on agency staff, and I appreciate his point that a level of agency staff may be required. However, irrespective of how much money goes to the health service, £300 million is a lot of money to be going to agency staff. What discussions has the Committee had and what plans has the Department of Health put forward to reduce that figure to a reasonable one?

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

We have had ongoing engagement with the Department on its workforce planning. Unfortunately, we do not see that detailed planning. As has been emphasised by many of those who attended and gave evidence to the Committee, longer-term, three-year budgeting is absolutely essential to deal with the workforce. Workforce planning is a longer-term project. That should be reflected upon.

Throughout the past two years, I have taken the opportunity, on several occasions, to highlight the Committee's difficulty in identifying spread across streams. This morning, I took part in a meeting on mental health, where it was very clear that it is difficult to trace how much money is going into mental health and what the outcome is. A complicated budgetary process in the Department of Health challenges scrutiny in following the money and measuring the outcomes. We have struggled to get clarity on total spend. Following briefings, we have had to write to the Department to get further detail. The Department needs, therefore, to undertake further work on its budgetary processes. <BR/>Throughout the past two years, we have been advised by the Department that a multi-year Budget is required to provide some surety and allow planning to tackle some of the key issues. The time in this mandate is coming to an end, but I am sure that any incoming Committee will look closely at the Department's budgetary planning to ensure that it delivers the transformation that is needed to ensure better health outcomes for everyone in our community.

I will now make some brief remarks as the Sinn Féin health spokesperson. Members, it is abundantly clear that we face a crisis in our healthcare service. That crisis includes mental health, which was the subject of the meeting that I was in this morning; physical health; the workforce; retention and recruitment of the workforce; and transformation. All that is put at risk without a three-year Budget. While we are trying to create the basis for transformation, the DUP's decision to collapse the Executive is producing nothing but stagnation. There are people on waiting lists who need us to focus on developing the plans to address those waiting lists, but we are getting delay. We have a workforce that has been massively overstretched and whose members deserve the Assembly to be focused on the resources that they need for recruitment and retention of staff in the healthcare services that we will need in the future.

Last night, in the Assembly, we passed an autism Bill to provide additional resource and supports to families, and I was delighted to be part of it. If we do not see a realistic Budget, those supports will come to nothing. They have to be resourced and planned for, and they have to be planned for over a longer time. I, therefore, urge the DUP to reflect carefully on its continuing decision to ensure that there is no Executive at this time. We are still dealing with a health and social care crisis. There is a responsibility on us to take our roles seriously and to get back to work.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

As I have stated previously in the Chamber, we all appreciate that, because of the pandemic, all Departments have faced challenging times.

Budgets were stretched, but billions came from the Treasury to support our economy and the Executive through that difficult time. We are thankful for that. Dozens of additional schemes have been delivered quickly and efficiently, while other Departments have been slower to respond.

The legislation before us today provides legal cover for expenditure in 2021-22 and for some spending, up to 45% of the previous year's Budget, in 2022-23. That means that Departments will be able to continue their day-to-day spending until the end of July in the absence of the formation of an Executive following the election in May. The Committee was advised that, should an Executive not be formed, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 would allow the new Finance permanent secretary to avail themselves of a progressively larger percentage of the Budget for allocation in 2022-23, although that will, apparently, cover only business-as-usual spending.

The pandemic had an impact on our public finances and not least on our economy. The Budget tidies up the 2021-22 year and will give us a degree of stability for the next financial year. I support the Bill.

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

Today is the Final Stage of the Budget Bill. As I always say when we debate Budget Bills, we often do not really know what we are talking about. I do not mean that mischievously; I mean that people stand up and talk about budget documents, things in their local area and quite discrete things. I made points yesterday about the need to be more strategic and focused on both prioritisation and the technical details of what is in front of us.

The Bill is not a budget document. It is not a single-year Budget, nor is it a multi-year Budget. We do not have that. The DUP has walked out, so we cannot have that — at least, not ahead of an election — and we do not know whether we will debate any Budget after the election.

Today is the Final Stage of a Budget Bill that authorises spending, some of which has already happened in the financial year 2021-22, which comes to an end in a few weeks, and authorises the first 40-odd per cent of spending for the next financial year, 2022-23. It is a relatively technical but essential thing that we are doing today. In many ways, it is the most fundamental thing that legislatures do: they authorise spending.

Let us pause and reflect on doing our jobs, because certain people in the Chamber at the moment do not want us to do our jobs or to have a proper functioning Executive. For three years, we had no institutions. We did not have an Executive or Assembly in which to authorise spending. It would be unconscionable if the debate today were to be the last moment in which we debated any budgeting for months upon months or years, but that is what could happen.

Today is the Final Stage of the Budget Bill, so, when we pass the legislation, we will have authorised the remainder of spending for this financial year and the first chunk of spending for the next financial year, but, as of now, most of us in the Chamber cannot say for definite when we will be back here to debate the next Budget Bill. We should be debating —.

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

I will give way to my colleague in a second.

We should be debating a Budget (No. 2) Bill later this year, but, in all probability, if some people in the Chamber or some parties get their way, we will not be doing that.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree with the Fiscal Council's report that this was "a golden opportunity"? We heard contributor after contributor yesterday, even the Minister, agree that it was a golden opportunity that has been missed, simply through the politics that have been played out in the House.

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

I agree with my colleague. He is absolutely right: we had a golden opportunity to agree a three-year Budget. I did not agree with everything that was in the Finance Minister's multi-year Budget. I was planning on scrutinising it and trying to get him to agree to change it in certain ways. I did not agree with every prioritisation at all, but the fundamental principle of having a three-year Budget and having us agree on prioritisation, presenting a strategy to the people whom we serve and telling them that that is what they can judge us against is critical. We are not doing that. Today, we are simply legally authorising spending that has already happened and authorising spending so that public services can continue for the first few months of the financial year.

Let us not kid ourselves today that this is some great moment for the Assembly, because, as of now, we do not know and cannot say when we will be back in the Assembly debating a Budget Bill. It is important to say that and to make that clear to the people outside the House, because some people will be led to believe that we are concluding the Budget process for the financial year. We are doing that in one sense — legally — but all we are doing is authorising the "float", if I may use the word that the Chair of the Finance Committee used, so that things can keep going.

In a few weeks' time, we might be telling civil servants, "Guys, can you keep it going? Keep things ticking over. Just keep your hand on the tiller so that nothing goes too awry". How shameful that would be, for some of the reasons that have been mentioned, such as the cost-of-living crisis. Around 70% of households in Northern Ireland use home heating oil, the price of which has gone up by 75% in the past fortnight. We face a huge cost-of-living crisis that will affect not just people on the lowest incomes but people on middle incomes.

We face a huge crisis around regenerating and regrowing our economy after COVID. We do not know how all of that is going to pan out. Frankly, we do not yet have a proper economic recovery strategy. We face an appalling crisis with waiting lists, about which we talk and talk. We had an opportunity through a three-year Budget to do something about that by prioritising the issue. Yes, I would have liked to see more detail in the Health Department's plans, but, fundamentally, we had an opportunity to do something about that crisis. Of course, the climate crisis sits above all and will dictate everything that we all do, probably for the rest of this century, long beyond the period for which most of us will be not just in the Chamber but on the planet.

As legislators, we should be dealing with all those big, critical issues, but we cannot, unless we are back here after the election, doing our job by making Budgets and plans and explaining to the people whom we serve what we are doing for them.

I wanted to make that point. Although it is welcome that spending will continue to be legal after today, that is all that we are doing. We are just ensuring that the spending has a legal basis. Let us not kid ourselves that we are delivering strategic spending that is aimed at people's priorities. We will go to the people and tell them what our plans are for the health service, the cost-of-living crisis, economic recovery and climate change. If we then fail to come back here after the election in May and do our job by producing a three-year Budget with meaningful targets and a Programme for Government with meaningful strategies to deliver on people's priorities, it will be totally shameful. If the next Budget Bill for here is passed late on some Tuesday or Wednesday night at Westminster, the people on whose doorsteps we stood and told them that we were going to deliver for them will rightly ask what the point of us is. I say that directly and bluntly to one party in particular, which is threatening not to establish our institutions after the election. We can talk today about all the plans. I have heard DUP Members — it was Sinn Féin in 2017, but, at the minute, it is the DUP — talk about pressures on spending and about priorities and issues. You cannot talk out of both sides of your mouth. On the one hand, you are talking about budgeting pressures, things that need to be prioritised and money that needs to be spent, but, on the other hand, you are threatening not to come back here and do your job.

This last Budget moment that we have before the election in May is an opportunity for us to say what we, as MLAs, should be doing now and what those of us who hope to be returned after the election in May should be doing then. We should be in the Chamber delivering strategies, policies and law to improve people's lives and delivering Budgets that are matched to those priorities. If we are not willing to do that, we are not serious about serving people.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance 11:00, 8 March 2022

It is important that we consider the Bill at its Final Stage today. I hope that the House does not divide. It is completely and utterly crucial that we allow the Bill to pass so that it becomes law. Like the Member who spoke previously, I have sincere worries that this is one of the last actions, if not the last action, that we could be taking on budgetary matters in the Assembly, largely because of the selfish actions of the DUP, which has put its party political fortunes ahead of the people of Northern Ireland.

Although it is described as a Budget Bill, it is not the Budget in the traditional sense. It should be encapsulated in an overarching three-year Budget for Northern Ireland, but that is nowhere within reach, because we do not have an Executive to agree it. We must have an Executive, because Northern Ireland is facing a significant crisis. If there were ever a time that we needed an Executive in Northern Ireland, it is now. We are facing a cost-of-living crisis that is completely and utterly crippling households across Northern Ireland. I have people contacting me who are absolutely aghast at the prices that they are being quoted for home heating oil. People who are in work are struggling to pay bills because of the crippling costs that are coming through to them. Moreover, the health and social care system is under an immense amount of strain. We heard reports yesterday that the Ulster Hospital is yet again under an immense amount of strain. There is a real need to have a functioning Executive to provide leadership and deliver the resources required to our health and social care system. Alongside that, we have the continuing climate crisis that faces Northern Ireland. Hopefully, we will be able to move forward with legislation on that, but that is a continuing thing that requires an Executive to be in place.

Whilst this is the Final Stage debate of this Bill, at previous stages of this Budget Bill and during yesterday's debate on the draft Budget which was previously presented, I have found a real sense of frustration when some parties seem to say that their collapse is better than someone else's collapse. Collapsing the Assembly is bad. It is not forgivable. We need an Assembly and an Executive in place delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. To be honest, any parties that walk away from that need to take responsibility for their actions associated with that.

I am increasingly worried that we are running out of road in relation to the options for the Executive Ministers to take action on this. There seems to be more of an idea that you can run an Executive through exchange of correspondence. We need an Executive that can meet together, and I am very conscious that, for the next financial year, there is £300 million that will sit idle. I would be interested to know the Finance Minister's view on why that sits idle. Is it as a result of the 1998 Act and the legal obligations associated with that? That £300 million could help people in real, dire need at this time and could also tackle waiting lists in our health and social care system. I would like clarity about why that £300 million will sit idle. The legal reasons for that are important.

In conclusion, it is absolutely, completely and utterly vital that we pass this Bill today. Essentially, it is about being able to run payroll and deliver core public services, but it is not the panacea that we need. We need an Executive and a three-year Budget, and that can be resolved very quickly if the DUP decides to go back into the Executive and to put people in Northern Ireland ahead of its own party political interests.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to speak at the Final Stage of the Budget Bill. Yesterday, I spoke on the motion on the 2022-25 Budget, and there are a couple of issues that I want to pick up on today.

One of the issues that we as a party are severely concerned about is the fact that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has made no allocation to the tackling rural poverty and social isolation framework (TRPSI), an initiative within the Department. Members will know from their experience of rural areas that TRPSI funding is an example of where a little can go a long way. It is used to fund the rural networks and many localised initiatives such as the assisted rural transport scheme. For whatever reason, the Department has opted this year to fund this out of in-year monitoring. That is not acceptable, because there are people who are employed in this sector and the networks are in place. It is absolutely essential to be able to forward plan, and that is not possible when relying on in-year monitoring. That is regrettable, and, of course, again, it is made impossible by the fact that we are not fit to do a three-year Budget as a consequence of the DUP's walking away from the Executive.

The second item that I want to pick up on is the matter of the rural development programme. Members will be aware that, when we were in the EU, we did have the certainty of a six-year multi-annual budget, which gave communities certainty. Again, anyone who represents rural communities will know that, in most villages in the country, where you see a community hall, where a village and rural project has taken place, where there is a localised connectivity project and where there are small businesses, in most cases, since we were part of the EU, those were funded out of the EU rural development programme. Again, as a consequence of Brexit and as a consequence of the DUP forcing the British Government into the hardest possible Brexit, we are now out of the EU rural development programme. In the last funding round between 2014 and 2020, we had a rural development budget of £623 million. We now do not have that, and, as I said yesterday in my speech on the motion, in the third year of this incoming Budget, we are going to experience a 67% drop. That will have a serious impact on our ability to deliver basic services in rural communities.

At the time of Brexit, we were told that the lost EU funding would be replaced through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. We have not seen that yet. We have not seen the colour of the British Government's money in relation to the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

As my colleague Caoimhe Archibald said yesterday, if the UK Community Renewal Fund is anything to go by, that will not inspire confidence, because the British Government have gone over the head of the Executive in administering that funding through Westminster. It provides something like £11 million, which is a vast reduction on the usual £65 million a year that we would have had if we had remained in the EU.

The Department has declared a surplus — a reduced capital requirement — of £7·5 million this year. That is regrettable, given the pressures on our rural communities as a consequence of the lost EU funding and on our farmers, who face increased costs for fertiliser and other inputs. There is also a red diesel crisis. That will be made worse by the desperate situation in Ukraine. The Department should be able to forward plan and, rather than handing back that £7·5 million, re-profile it to make sure that it is invested in rural communities.

It is deeply regrettable that we have not been in a position to have a three-year Budget to give some degree of certainty. Again, legislation for that cannot be brought forward because of the DUP shenanigans that have created huge uncertainties for the Department and, indeed, for our rural communities.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I have just finished, but I will give way.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

I listened attentively to the Member as he referred to his concern for rural communities. He represents the West Tyrone rural community, and I represent the Mid Ulster rural community. Does the Member actually listen to the rural communities as in the farmers? The farmers whom I listen to on climate change say that the Bill that is coming forward will decimate or completely annihilate them. Are you really listening to the rural farmers? You are saying a different thing here from what you are saying to the farmer on the ground.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I was at the end of my speech, and I welcome the Member's intervention. The Member will be aware that that is a different conversation. Had he been following the debate on climate change, he would be aware that our party tabled 39 amendments to the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill to make it fair and effective for all sectors. They include amendments on methane at Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage, which have been very much welcomed by the farming community. That is the debate for tomorrow. OK?

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

The context and circumstances of the Budget Bill are firmly rooted in the consequences of the pandemic. The real-life impact has been a tragedy for many families across the country who have faced loss. The human cost of that can never be measured, and it will certainly not be forgotten for generations. COVID-19 has also wreaked havoc on our health system and economy.

Unprecedented levels of spending have been poured into Northern Ireland in an attempt to plug the gap. It goes without saying that, without our treasured place in the United Kingdom, we would not have been able to sustain our financial position and recover in the way that we have so far.

As a member of the Health Committee, my focus in the draft Budget has been on health. The Health Committee received a briefing from the Department on the draft Budget in December and discussed it at a number of briefings from stakeholders and officials. Owing to the mounting pressures of legislation, including consideration of seven Bills, numerous COVID regulations and a number of legislative consent motions (LCMs) and statutory instruments, the Committee was not able to spend as much time as it would like in scrutinising and taking evidence on the Department of Health's draft budget.

The Budget process so far has been extremely rushed, to say the least. In particular, as the Budget will cover a three-year period, the time to scrutinise and consider the consequences of Budget allocations or to agree anything has been lacking. For a Budget covering that length of time, there simply must be more time to strategically plan its allocations. For some time, I and other Members have been keen to see a multi-year Budget to allow more strategic long-term planning in the Department of Health.

Only through longer-term strategic investment and effective remodelling of service delivery can we achieve the long-overdue transformation of our health service: one that puts patients and front-line staff first.

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

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. With respect to the Member, we are talking about the Budget Bill, not the three-year Budget. I am slightly concerned that people watching the debate will think that there is a three-year Budget that will do all those things in health, when it will not —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member is making a contribution, and that is not a point of order.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP 11:15, 8 March 2022

Thank you, Mr Speaker. We need a transformation that delivers the best possible service for all patients regardless of where they live in Northern Ireland and one that gives our health and social care workforce the facilities, capacity, support and safe staffing levels to carry out their work.

In those aspects, the draft Budget leaves me and my party far from convinced. It has no plan or strategy. We cannot continue to do the same things and expect a different outcome. There must be a detailed three-year health transformation plan connected to the Budget for the public to see and for an Executive to agree. Without making available the investment and strategy necessary to tackle waiting lists, soaring costs will simply continue, and there will be a knock-on impact for GP services, community pharmacy services, mental health demand and social care across Northern Ireland.

The next Programme for Government must include an ambitious strategy for transformation. It makes better sense that a multi-year Budget, with much more careful consideration, should be agreed among the Executive parties after the election.

The present draft Budget is just that: a draft. Much more scrutiny is required to develop a Budget that delivers for the people of Northern Ireland. We need a Budget that does not harm our schools, cut our Police Service and does not hinder or delay proper transformation in health. It comes as no surprise that there is no agreement within the Executive for the present draft Budget, which fails on many of the promises of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which was the basis for the return to power-sharing in the first place. Clearly, much more work remains to be done.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Before the last two or three Members speak, it was raised in that attempted point of order that we are discussing the current Budget, not the Budget that we are not discussing.


Everybody who has contributed so far has spoken about a Budget that we are not addressing. Can we stick to the Order Paper?

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I want to address not only this Budget but the lack of a Budget. I understand that we have come out of the pandemic. I sit on the Finance Committee, and good work was done during the pandemic for workers. Payments were made through Land and Property Services (LPS), and a lot of help was given through that outreach. Mistakes were made, but none of us has a crystal ball.

I will take only one moment of your time, but I was elected to try to help. I thought that the greatest contribution that the Finance Committee could make was to have a Budget that would last for three years. I speak on the Budget Bill that we are discussing, but great opportunities were missed. I believe that those will play out in the years to come.

This might be the last time that I speak in the Chamber. I do not know what way the electorate in Lagan Valley will vote or how the election will work out. I am, however, genuinely shocked. I look over to the party to my left, and, I have to say, I am really disappointed that we do not have an Executive so that we can collectively do our best.

When I was first elected, I went for three years without a chance to speak in the House. If we want to make this place better, there is £43 billion to be spent over a three-year Budget, which we are unable to implement. A golden opportunity has been missed. We need to do better, folks. I hope that we do come back and that Members catch hold of their senses and see the opportunities that we can give when we try collectively, all of us together, because that is the only way we will get those opportunities.

I worked for years, and when I wrote out my cheque at the end of the year, it was to Her Majesty's Inspector of Taxes. I want that money to be distributed as fairly and equally as possible.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

At times, we need to remind ourselves what a Budget Bill is. It is primarily the Assembly's essential control mechanism in respect of Departments and arm's-length bodies. It is the mechanism by which we, the elected representatives, give authority to those Departments to spend money. That is our money: public money. A Budget is therefore a critical accountability and control mechanism.

That brings me to my primary point. Astoundingly, we have built into the Budget Bill headroom of £181 million, in respect of which there is no accountability to the Assembly. The way in which a Budget should work is that you say to an individual Department or body that you control, "Here is your allocation. Based on the calculation, this is what you are getting, and this is why you are getting it". In the case of this Budget Bill, however, we are saying, "Here is your allocation, and here is £181 million on top of that. We don't really care how you spend that. We're not going to hold you accountable for it". That is an absurd situation for the Minister to have brought us to. I have never heard of there being headroom of £181 million in a Budget.

I asked the Minister a question for written answer — AQW 30168/17-22 — about the £181 million. In his answer, he said something that I found utterly astounding:

"The Budget Bill is a routine matter, and no separate legal advice was sought or received for this."

In that answer, "this" is the headroom. A Budget Bill is anything but a routine matter. If that is the fiscal attitude to the spending of public money, it is little wonder that we are in the deteriorating situation that we are in. The Budget Bill is the fundamental control mechanism. I need go no further than the explanatory and financial memorandum that comes with the Budget Bill. Let me read paragraph 3:

"Budget Bills are the legislative means by which Assembly approval will be sought for departments and certain other public bodies to incur expenditure and use resources as detailed in the corresponding Estimates volume and summarised in the Schedules to the Bills. Furthermore, Budget Bills will enable the Assembly to hold departments accountable for managing and controlling those resources within the limits authorised."

The key phrase is "within the limits authorised".

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

In a moment.

With that runaway headroom of £181 million, we are saying to Departments that we are not interested in holding them to account and that we are not interested in accountability. We are saying that they can spend as they will and that we will not restrict them or place their spending within any limits. That comes from a Minister who says, "What about it?" He tells us that a Budget Bill is only a routine matter. It is not a routine matter; it is the fundamental control mechanism of any Assembly over any Executive spending. I find that careless attitude to public money utterly appalling.

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

I thank the Member for giving way. He is right to be very concerned about and alert to issues around our scrutinising and using our control and supply powers properly in the Assembly. He is right to be concerned about our not doing that. Does he agree that we would be in a far worse position in relation to scrutiny and control should there be no Executive and Assembly after the election? In that case, these decisions would be made with basically no scrutiny, as happened between 2017 and 2020. Will he therefore encourage the DUP — over which he exerts, I would say, a degree of influence — and people in his party to enter into these institutions after the election?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Institutions that have been denuded of the power to make fundamental laws affecting our economy and trade by virtue of the fact that they have been subjugated to foreign control are not institutions worthy of that name. Anyone who thinks that they can simply carry on as if the protocol has not robbed this legislative Assembly of powers over key functions is deluded. The Member and the other rigorous implementers who want to hand control to a foreign place need to look at themselves and at where we are proceeding to. There cannot be a functioning Executive or institutions so long as we are subjugated by the ill-gotten sovereignty taken by the EU over Northern Ireland. The answer lies in the EU giving up that ill-gotten sovereignty and restoring the sovereignty where it should lie for those matters. If the Member wishes to get a solution, that is the territory that he needs to look at.

As regards the Budget, I reiterate this point: either it is the proper control mechanism that we post it to be; or it is something that we think is just routine and to be nodded through. Sure it is only £24·5 billion, anyhow. Really? To say, "It does not matter. We do not need to have control over the headroom; we can just hand it away", is truly shocking from a Minister who thinks that a Budget is only a routine matter. It is anything but.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

When you turn on the news, you cannot get away from the fact that there is a cost-of-living crisis at the moment. People are struggling, and the Executive have failed to stand by them. The Executive are ramming through the Bill, which does not adequately meet what people need or deserve. On average, prices are up by over 5%. The cost of petrol and diesel is up by over 20%. The average home's energy bills are up by around £1,000 from last year, and they are set to rise yet again. People are struggling like never before, and no solutions are being offered to deal with that.

For decades, we were told that there was no money to pay for services to fund proper wage increases. Then, during the pandemic, billions were found and spent. Where is the urgency when it comes to addressing the cost-of-living crisis that is faced by people right across our communities today? Money must be found urgently in order to tackle the wages poverty and to give people a fair deal. Politicians must show the same urgency in dealing with those issues and in mental health as they did during COVID.

The Minister said that the allocation that we are debating and voting on today does not provide adequately for our health service. Indeed it does not. For years upon years, our health service has been hammered by services being cut, privatisation creeping in and being allowed to exist, and, obviously, by the pandemic. Waiting lists have increased to the point that large numbers of people are languishing in pain without any sign of treatment in sight. The only way that many people can get treatment quickly is if they have the money to pay for it privately.

The health workers who carried us through COVID and who were clapped for and applauded are now struggling to live on low wages. Immediate funding is needed to uplift their pay and protect services. It is worth remembering that all the Executive parties have endorsed the below-inflation pay offer to our health service workers. That is unfair and inadequate. I cannot stand by and support it. Of course, that is not to mention the threat to NHS dentistry, which, as we heard yesterday, is going to the wall and does not have sufficient allocation to protect and enhance NHS dentistry work. That will have massive health implications across our communities.

Since the DUP withdrew from the Executive, there has been a real focus on three-year and one-year Budgets. That is a relevant debate. The DUP's actions must be called out, as it is trying to protect itself from electoral annihilation. However, to those who think that the three-year Budget is the magic solution, I will say this: it is not. It does not scratch the surface of what we need to see implemented in order to protect jobs, communities and services more generally.

If the crucial issue of public-sector pay were resolved by being uplifted, for example, that could help to resolve the cost-of-living crisis overnight. Nothing that is in the Budget Bill concretely addresses that, and, once again, workers are faced with another year, if not longer, of pay freezes and cuts. The Budget does not have money for that or the other issues that I mentioned, and for the reasons that I outlined, I cannot give the Bill my support.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I thank the Members who have participated in the debate. I will deal with some of the points that have been raised. There were general themes. Of course, as you quite rightly pointed out, Mr Speaker, we have spent a lot of time debating the Budget that we are not talking about. Nonetheless, I feel obliged to respond to some of the points that were made about the Budget that we are not talking about as well.

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

I hope that the LeasCheann Comhairle will indulge me in that as he takes the Chair.

Steve Aiken, the Chair of the Finance Committee, raised the question of the national health funding. I have taken legal advice on the matter and am considering that. Obviously, I have also been in touch with Treasury to get some certainty on the issue. If the money comes across as a general Barnett consequential, generally speaking, it will come across in an unhypothecated way, which means that an Executive have to decide to allocate it even if they were already so minded that it should make a contribution to Health. So, we need to get some clarity on whether that will come across and join the other £300 million that is sitting in limbo, or whether it can go directly to Health, given that that is where it was intended to go. However, if it requires Executive approval, we will be in difficulty.

Just to finish the point, the absence of a Budget will not give Health the increase that we had wanted to give it. Even if it manages to get the national insurance contribution, it will not get the uplift that will allow us to do the whole transformation piece and tackle the major issues in Health that we want to tackle.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 11:30, 8 March 2022

I thank the Minister for giving way. The specific question is about the fact that the money has already been accrued in the Budget process, so we could say that it has already been agreed. Is there any method of ensuring that those funds go to our health service to provide the vital changes that we need? By using the word "accruing", there is a mechanism for that money to come to Health.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

That is the very point that we are continuing to test. We have offered to give some advice to the Committee if and when we receive clarity on that. As I said, if it comes across in the normal fashion as a Barnett consequential and requires the Executive to approve carrying it on to where it needs to go to, we will be in trouble. That will add further problems to the Health Department, which we cannot give any uplift or strategic support to for the next three years in the absence of an Executive to take those decisions.

Some other issues were raised. Andrew Muir raised the issue of the £300 million, and, similarly, the plan to carry that over to the next financial year was to ease some of the real pressures. A lot of the pressures that people have identified over the last couple of days in debates here could have been dealt with in the next financial year by the allocation of some of those pressures. The reason why we had so much to carry over is because a lot of it came after a very late announcement from the British Government. We got the ability to carry some of that over and to spend some of it. With regard to Mr Allister's point about headroom, over the past two years, we have received a lot of significant allocations, many of them very late in the day. So, we have had to take some more extraordinary measures compared to the normal process.

As I said, on the basis of the in-year allocations that I made just the other day — the £45 million — I had Executive agreement that further adjustments would be made, that there would be more money available and that there would be more spending done. We had no agreement on how the £300 million would be allocated next year. Again, an Executive is required to be in place to make allocations from that funding.

Pam Cameron raised an issue that has been raised on a number of occasions by the DUP. Regardless of how often it has been answered, the DUP response seems to be straight from the Trump and Johnson approach to politics: if you are faced with an inconvenient truth but keep telling a falsehood, maybe some people will believe it. In this case, the falsehood is that the Budget should not have been done in the time frame within which it was done in; legally it had to be done in the time frame within which it was done.

I will take you through the Budget process. The Member talked about there not being enough strategic discussion and planning, but last summer we started to engage with Departments on various scenarios in relation to the Budget and what it might look like. We called an Executive planning session in early autumn to have a conversation with ministerial colleagues about the possibility of a three-year Budget and where we might want to prioritise. At that time, I put forward the proposition about prioritising Health. We also discussed the prioritisation of green growth, skills and assisting vulnerable people, but there was no disagreement that Health would be the priority. The contribution from the Member's ministerial colleagues was minimal at that meeting, considering that they now want to see much more discussion on the Budget. We only learned the Budget amount and got confirmation of the three-year time frame in late autumn. That reduced the time for a consultation on a Budget. The Budget also has to be legislated for before the end of the financial year. The whole time frame was compressed, and that is not in our gift.

The DUP, which has sent various Members out to use that script over the last number of weeks, knows all of that. The DUP knows that that is the time frame that we had. The argument that we should have left the Budget to an incoming Executive does not stack up. Their party colleagues know that, but the DUP keeps send out Members to repeat the falsehood. Those Members are faced with the inconvenient truth that the actions of their party have left us in the position where we cannot agree a Budget, make the £300 million allocations for next year to assist Departments or take forward a strategic Budget for the next three years. To try to deflect from that, the DUP continues to point out some other route or argument about the Budget that has never borne any relationship to the truth.

Mr Carroll talked about the cost-of-living crisis. Of course, the Budget that we are discussing is the Budget that concludes last year's business. We would love to be in that position, and we have already provided a scheme to assist people that will pay out this week. However, there is a range of issues that are beyond our control. We continue to raise those with the Government in London, and I hope that Mr Carroll will join us in the call for assistance to be given to people. As said, if money could be found to assist people during the pandemic, why can it not be found during the cost-of-living crisis? We ask the Treasury that question, and I hope that he will join us in pressing that case.

Mr Carroll seemed to suggest that a pay lift for public-sector workers would end the cost-of-living crisis overnight. Of course, there are many people who are struggling with bills who are not in the public sector. We want significant measures to be taken to assist all families who are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. Some of that would be under the control of an Executive if it were able to take decisions. A lot of it is under the control of the Government in London, and it should take decisions in order to assist people.

The Bill is a crucial piece of draft legislation that will provide Departments with the power to continue to deliver vital front-line services to all our citizens through the remainder of this financial year and into the beginning of 2022-23. I commend the Budget Bill to the Assembly and ask Members to agree its Final Stage.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Before we proceed to the Question, I advise Members that, as this is the Budget Bill, the motion requires cross-community support.

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

That the Budget Bill [NIA 55/17-22] do now pass.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.