Budget Bill: Second Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 19 February 2024.

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Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 3:30, 19 February 2024

I remind Members that they may table amendments in the Bill Office for up to one hour after the Second Stage is passed. I inform Members that the Speaker has received a letter from the Committee for Finance advising him that the Committee is satisfied that the consultation with it on the public expenditure proposals contained in the Bill has been appropriate, as required under Standing Order 42(2), and that the Bill can therefore proceed under accelerated passage.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Budget Bill [NIA 01/22-27] be agreed.

The Second Stage debate is on the Budget Bill that will authorise the expenditure of Departments for the 2023-24 financial year. The Executive returned just over two weeks ago, so this was the first opportunity that I had to progress a Budget Bill. The lateness in the financial year and the approach taken by the Secretary of State to the Budget means that not progressing the Budget Bill at pace could result in Departments running out of cash. There is an urgent need to secure Royal Assent for the Budget Bill to ensure that Departments and other bodies can continue to access the cash that they require from the Consolidated Fund to deliver services for the remainder of the financial year.

The situation is more challenging than would normally be the case, due to a combination of factors, many of which are beyond our control. This is clearly not an acceptable or tenable position, so swift action was agreed by ministerial colleagues last Thursday. Departments are currently operating under the authority of the Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Act 2023, which is based on the Budget that was set by the Secretary of State in April 2023 and which, as we are all very well aware, falls far short of the funding that Departments need. As a result, Departments will reach the cash limits set by that Budget Act much earlier than would normally be the case. In addition, the timing of the Executive's restoration and the need for them to have decided on allocations in response to their consideration of the forecast overspends and funding of public-sector pay awards means that the Budget Bill could not be prepared until this late point in the year.

As a result of that combination of circumstances, I ask the Assembly to consider the Budget Bill in shorter time than usual. The introduction of the Budget Bill would normally follow immediately after the Assembly's consideration and approval of the spring Supplementary Estimates (SSEs), which would involve a debate on the Supply resolutions. With the timing of events this year, work is only now able to commence on the preparation and publication of the Estimates. As it is a document of 300-plus pages, involving detailed financial tables, it is not possible for it to be completed and published before the Budget Bill needs to be introduced. Instead, I will bring the Estimates document to the Assembly as soon as the work on it has been completed for the Assembly to consider.

After the Assembly has passed the Budget Bill, there is a further stage for the Bill to be considered by the Attorney General and the Advocate General in order to confirm legislative competence before it can be submitted for Royal Assent. Any delay in progressing the Budget Bill will increase the risk that we could reach the limit set by the Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Act 2023. In that situation, we could face a position in which my Department is unable to issue cash from the Consolidated Fund to any Department that has reached its cash limit.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Will the Minister tell the House the difference between the figures in the Budget (No. 2) Act and what is in this Budget?

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I will come on to the headroom later in my contribution.

This is an exceptional situation in which we find ourselves so late in the financial year. I assure Members that I do not ask this lightly of the Assembly. I am cognisant that doing so restricts the scrutiny and consideration space that the Assembly is entitled to give the Bill. I assure Members that it will not, in any way, be regarded as establishing a precedent. My Department and I will ensure that the Assembly has the proper time required to fully consider the next Budget Bill, together with the 2024-25 Main Estimates, once the Executive have agreed their 2024-25 Budget.

For many people, the process today may seem technical and complex, but its importance and significance must not be underestimated, as it enables us to keep delivering public services and prevent Departments from running out of money. Money and financial packages have dominated the agenda since the Executive returned, and my Executive colleagues and I were determined to take swift action to address the challenges that we face.

Last Thursday, the Executive prioritised public-sector pay with an allocation of £688 million for our hardworking public-sector workers. That announcement shows that the Executive are working together and taking action in the most challenging circumstances. It is an important step for our health workers, teachers, police, transport workers and civil servants because it enables negotiations with trade unions to start immediately. I want to see them conclude as quickly as possible in order to ensure fair pay for workers.

The funding provided for this year's pay awards is non-recurrent. That will add further pressure to the 2024-25 Budget and, unfortunately, means that our finances are likely to remain in a very challenging position. Members will have noted the independent Fiscal Council's assessment of the restoration package last week, which supports the Executive position of our being underfunded on the basis of need. The Fiscal Council reiterates that the package does not address our underfunding in any sustainable or long-term way. If the British Government do not address that, we will reach a cliff edge. It is a case of when, not if.

The Bill also includes a Vote on Account in order to allow Departments to continue to deliver services into the early months of the incoming 2024-25 financial year. It is important to stress that that does not constitute setting a 2024-25 Budget; that Budget-setting process will follow. Once the Executive have agreed their 2024-25 Budget, it will be brought to the Assembly to consider with the 2024-25 Main Estimates and the Budget (No. 2) Bill.

The timing of the Executive's formation and the need for the Executive to carefully consider the prioritisation of allocations in the Budget for 2024-25 mean that it is possible that when the Budget (No. 2) Bill is brought to the Assembly, the Assembly may not be able to complete consideration of it before the summer recess. In order to remove any risk to Departments' cash position, and to ensure that the Assembly is not curtailed in the time available to it, the Executive have agreed that I seek a larger-than-normal Vote on Account in this Budget Bill to ensure that it will be sufficient to last until the summer recess. Although the Vote on Account would normally be set at 45% of the previous year's provision, this Budget Bill contains a Vote on Account set at approximately 65%.

As is normally the case for Budget Bills, I asked the Finance Committee to agree to the use of the accelerated passage procedure under Standing Order 42(2). I put on record my gratitude to the Committee for considering that request at such short notice and for confirming its agreement to the use of accelerated passage. I am also grateful to the Assembly for its agreement that Standing Order 42(5) be suspended for the Budget Bill as an exceptional step to allow the Bill to complete all its stages in less than 10 days.

Standing Order 32 directs that the Second Stage debate:

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

I shall endeavour to keep to that direction. The Bill will authorise the use of £23,937,688,000 from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund and the use of resources totalling £28,817,828,000 by Departments and certain other bodies listed in schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill in the year ending 31 March 2024. That is this financial year.

The Bill will also authorise the issue of £15,724,763,000 from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund and the use of resources totalling £18,731,611,000 by Departments and certain other bodies listed in schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill in the year ending 31 March 2025. That is the Vote on Account, which, as I have explained, does not constitute the setting of a Budget for the 2024-25 year. Its purpose is merely to allow Departments to continue to operate and to provide services in the early months of that year, pending the consideration of the Executive's Budget for that year through the Main Estimates and the Budget (No. 2) Bill.

The cash and resources are to be spent and used on the services listed in part 2 of each schedule. The Bill also authorises the use of income in 2023-24 by Departments from the sources set out in part 3 of schedule 1. Those amounts supersede the amounts that were previously authorised by the Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Act 2023, which was legislated for by the Secretary of State in Westminster. I draw Members' attention to the point that, although the vast majority of the expenditure by all Departments is done on the authority of statutory powers provided through legislation passed by the Assembly, there are occasionally some functions that may be done on the sole authority of that Budget Act.

The Assembly's authority is sought for the following items of expenditure under the sole authority of this Budget Bill: in the Department for Communities, £11 million on welfare reform and mitigation and £40,000 on the annual uprating of pneumoconiosis; in the Department for Infrastructure, £1·5 million for active travel; in the Department of Finance, £450,000 for the Fiscal Council; and in the Executive Office, £4 million for the truth recovery programme, £2 million for ending violence against women and girls, £1·4 million for actions relating to historical institutional abuse (HIA) and interdepartmental working, £3 million for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, £210,000 on full dispersal of asylum seekers, £22,000 for refugee integration proposals, £96,000 for strategic migration partnerships for British nationals overseas and £102,000 for strategic partnerships for asylum.

Clause 5 of the Bill provides for the temporary borrowing by my Department in 2023-24 of £11,968,844,000. That is approximately half the sum authorised by clause 4 for issue out of the Consolidated Fund. Similarly, clause 11 provides for temporary borrowing by my Department in 2024-25 of £7,862,382,000. I must stress that clauses 5 and 11 do not provide for the issue of any additional cash out of the Consolidated Fund or convey any additional spending power. Rather, they enable my Department to run an effective and efficient cash-management regime and ensure minimum drawdown of the block grant daily. That is very important when contemplating the daily cash requirements of our Departments.

I will briefly mention the allocations to which the Executive agreed last Thursday and which I detailed in my written ministerial statement. We had to wait until 13 February for the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to confirm the detail of the financial package that accompanied the restoration of the Executive. The key elements that are relevant to the 2023-24 position are £1,045·6 million resource departmental expenditure limit (DEL) in 2023-24 for general overspend pressures and pay, of which £559 million is repayable, and the deferral of the repayment of £559 million for two years, with a commitment to writing it off, if the Executive publish a sustainability plan by May 2024 and implement it by May 2025. I have written to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to request an urgent meeting to discuss the conditions and timescales, which I regard as unrealistic.

The total amount of £1,045·6 million resource DEL available in 2023-24 takes account of the repayment of the outstanding reserve claim for 2022-23. That amount is supplemented by £21·9 million of existing funds that have become available due to changes in regional rate forecasts and easements identified by Departments in respect of earmarked funding, which Departments could use only for the purpose for which it was originally intended.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

Yes, go ahead, Sinéad.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, you have a tickle in your throat. Maybe you should have a moment or two to rest your throat and get some water without having to continue. Is that OK? I feel your struggle.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

Thank you, Sinéad. That was very helpful.

The resource DEL allocations to Departments, which were set out in my written ministerial statement, cover the current level of Department forecast overspends, totalling some £380 million, and provide an additional £688 million for pay. The allocation for pay awards is just over £100 million higher than the £584 million provided specifically for pay in the financial package. That funding has been provided as a total resource DEL allocation for each Department to allow individual Ministers to manage their budgets effectively and to avoid influencing pay negotiations. It is now for individual Ministers to manage pay awards within the funding envelopes provided. My Department will begin discussions immediately with unions on the 2023-24 pay awards for those staff on NICS terms and conditions.

The additional funding allocations agreed by the Executive will provide much-needed relief to our public-sector workers and help to offset the pressures facing Departments. Significant challenges exist across all areas of our public services. The harm done by the decisions made in an effort to live within the Budget set by the Secretary of State in April cannot be reversed in the few weeks of the financial year that are left.

Unfortunately, the uncertainty over the total quantum of funding available and the need to wait for the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to confirm the detail of the financial package that accompanied the restoration of the Executive meant that it was only possible for the Executive to make a decision on 15 February 2024 on allocations to Departments to address overspends and to provide funding for public-sector pay awards. To have delayed work on commencing the preparation of the Budget Bill until after that decision was not viable, due to the risk of Departments reaching their cash limits before the Bill could be passed and Royal Assent secured. Instead, the Executive gave their agreement for my Department to prepare the Budget Bill to include headroom to ensure that Departments had the authority to spend the budget that has now subsequently been allocated to them by the Executive. The Budget Bill is, therefore, written to a position that includes that headroom.

All Ministers have committed to constrain their Departments' expenditure, including pay awards, to the budget allocation agreed by the Executive and not by the amount of headroom included in the Budget Bill if that is any higher. It is a highly unusual situation, which has been driven by the timing of events. It is not anticipated that we will face such a situation again, as the Executive now have the opportunity to agree their Budget for 2024-25 and for Ministers to set their Department's expenditure plans accordingly.

The numbers contained in the Budget Bill are significant, and I am sure that Members will agree that it is not an easy task to translate those figures into the delivery of public services on the ground. The reality is that it is critical for the Budget Bill to be passed to ensure that public services can continue to be delivered, including in our health services, our schools, our road services and our water services. On that note, I will conclude, and I will be happy to deal with any points of principle or detail on the Budget Bill that Members may wish to raise. I thank Ms McLaughlin for giving me a break to get my voice back.

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

As well as welcoming the Minister to her role, I commend my colleague Ms McLaughlin. That is what we mean by constructive opposition: helping people out where necessary.

First, I will speak in my capacity as Chair of the Finance Committee. In that role, I will present the views of the Committee and its perspective. I thank the Minister for her comments, and, on behalf of the whole Committee, I congratulate her on her appointment. The Committee wants to build on its relationship with the Minister on the basis of openness, candour and good communication.

The nature of today's proceedings and the Minister's request for accelerated passage of the Budget Bill 2024 mean that we are not necessarily where we would have wanted to be. Members trust that, in the future, the Committee will enjoy a much more appropriate level of scrutiny of Budgets and other aspects of the Department's work. Perhaps the Minister will say more about that during her winding-up speech.

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, as you are aware, I wrote to the Speaker, on behalf of the Committee, to highlight the Minister's request for accelerated passage for the Bill following the briefing that Committee members received on Wednesday 14 February. At that point, the Committee had not had sight of the Bill. As you are aware, the Committee and other Members did not receive the Bill until late on Friday afternoon. As the Committee's letter indicated, the request for accelerated passage is predicated on the Committee agreeing that there has been "appropriate consultation" as per Standing Order 42(2). Additionally, granting accelerated passage to the Bill will compromise paragraph 20 of strand one of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which states:

"The Executive Committee will seek to agree each year, and review as necessary, a programme incorporating an agreed budget linked to policies and programmes, subject to approval by the Assembly, after scrutiny in Assembly Committees, on a cross-community basis."

Section 64(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 states:

"The Minister of Finance and Personnel shall, before the beginning of each financial year, lay before the Assembly a draft budget, that is to say, a programme of expenditure proposals for that year which has been agreed by the Executive Committee in accordance with paragraph 20 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement."

However, given the timing of the Executive's restoration and where that coincides with the Budget process, as well as the rationale that has been given to Members by the Minister that the Bill must be passed with all haste, the Committee has agreed to the requested accelerated passage for the Budget Bill 2024, while also noting that the Vote on Account represents 65% of the current Budget allocation to see them into 2024-25.

Having finished speaking in my formal role as Chair of the Finance Committee, I will now relinquish my Finance Committee Chair's mantle. I do not have a hat to take off, but, if I did, I would take it off. I will now speak as leader of the Opposition.

The most fundamental thing that any legislature does is authorise spending following the Government making a Budget statement, which is supposed to set out key policy priorities. However, that is not what this is. We are authorising spending for the rest of the financial year, which is less than six weeks away, and a Vote on Account for 65% of the spending in the next financial year. That is nearly two thirds of the spending in the next financial year, and I will come back to that point. In the speech that I have just given on behalf of the Finance Committee — I am in a different role now as leader of the Opposition — I said:

"we are not necessarily where we would have wanted to be."

That was diplomatically understated. It is nothing short of shameful that we have yet again found ourselves in the position of desperately passing a Budget Bill at a frenetic pace with practically zero scrutiny. Of course, Budget Bills are only the legal authorisation for spending; they do not set out strategic priorities. For anybody who wants to read the Budget Bill, I will say that it is, as the Minister indicated, a short Bill. It has an explanatory and financial memorandum and schedules at the end that set out cash totals and what are called control totals for different organisations, Departments and other statutory bodies. Essentially, those schedules set out how much Departments can spend in cash and give them the legal authorisation to make those drawdowns from what is called the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. That is all that the Bill does. It is a lot — it is a very important thing — but it does not set strategic prioritisation. It does not allocate resources on the basis of what the new Executive have said should be the priorities for the people of Northern Ireland.

In our view, as the Opposition, it is clear what those priorities should be. In the short term, they should be paying public-sector workers. It has been said today that any delay in the passage of the Budget Bill would threaten the Executive's ability to close pay deals with public-sector workers. Officials have not entirely proven that point to my satisfaction, but, in the interests of getting those pay deals closed as quickly as possible, we, as the Opposition, will not throw any barriers in the way of getting the Budget Bill passed. If the officials are sincerely saying that — it would not actually be a delay, by the way; it would simply be passing the Bill through the normal, provided-for time periods — we will not stand in the way of the Bill's passing. However, I am afraid that neither the officials nor the Minister have convincingly made that case.

The job of a Budget document, which is to set strategic priorities, was envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement to be the fiscal vehicle by which to deliver on the goals and priorities that were set out in a multi-year Programme for Government. However, we have not had an updated Programme for Government in nearly a decade. In the short period of Government between 2020 and 2022, we had only limited single-year Budgets, which essentially rolled over funding settlements with barely any strategy, let alone a plan for rescuing our public services. It has to be said that that is what the Budget Bill does again: it simply rolls over totals. Lots of organisations were told at different times over the past year that funding cuts would be imposed on them, and that includes different organisations and charities such as Healthy Happy Minds that provide services in schools and other parts of the community sector. The Bill formalises those cuts that have already happened and that are factored into the 2023-24 Budget settlements for their parent Department. Those organisations were told by multiple different parties in the Chamber that, "We just need to get back into the Assembly, do something with the Budget and we might be able to help you", but approving the Budget means that that cannot happen now. It certainly cannot happen in this financial year. It might be rolled back in 2024-25, but we should be honest about what we are actually doing. We are formalising spending for the last financial year — I mean the allocations that have already happened — unless there is a plan to address those cuts that have already been imposed, but the Minister can correct me on that.

I am not saying that we should not pass the Budget Bill. If that is what it takes to keep the lights on and pay public-sector workers, we will not stand in the way, but we should be honest with people about what the Bill does. Collectively, particularly the parties that have brought down the institutions over the last half a dozen years, we have failed to be honest with people about what the document actually does. As I said, we have not had an updated Programme for Government for nearly a decade. We have simply had roll-forward Budgets on a single-year basis, and, when we have not had those, we have simply had things like the Bill, the stages of which we will pass today and tomorrow. It is a Budget Bill like those that are often passed at Westminster and sometimes passed here when we have been bothered to sit. All the while, our public services, particularly the NHS, have fallen not only into decline but, in some cases, collapse.

I want to put on the record some comments about the fiscal position and negotiations with the UK Government. On Tuesday 6 February, we said that the Executive and Finance Minister were right to push back against the British Government on the agreed financial package and fiscal framework, particularly on making the fiscal floor a floor and not a ceiling, and to ensure that that is properly backdated to reflect what they have already acknowledged. We acknowledge and support that position if the Minister and Executive grip it properly and deal with in a properly strategic way. I will come back to that.

This is our first opportunity as legislators — there are some new legislators here — to talk about how we do budgeting. We cannot talk about our budgeting in the North without talking about the broader UK position. Others, including Caoimhe Archibald, the Finance Minister, and Conor Murphy, the Economy Minister, have said today that we are essentially reliant on allocations from the British Government in London; and we are — that is the nature of the devolution settlement. I aspire to change that, both in getting more powers for here and, ultimately, through constitutional change in the long run. However, given where we are, we have to acknowledge that the UK Government position and the policies that they have pursued over the past decade and a half have fatally undermined public services in this place. First, they pursued austerity, which is widely acknowledged by not just left-leaning parties like mine but most serious people in the economics profession as a self-inflicted harm on the public realm in the UK writ large. Austerity was a mistake. It was a self-inflicted wrong borne particularly by the most vulnerable in society. There was also the insanity of Brexit, which I speak of with some personal experience. As predicted, Brexit has reduced the capacity of the UK economy, thus reducing tax revenue and the resources available for public spending.

As I said, the Finance Minister and her colleagues are right to push back on the Treasury and aim to address the outstanding questions asked by the financial package. I ask the Finance Minister whether she will, in her closing remarks, give us an update on when she expects to formally commence negotiations with the UK Government, what timeline she places on their resolution and when the Assembly will get an update on how the negotiations are going and whether they have been resolved. I worry, given the chaotic position of the Tory Government in London, that it will not necessarily be particularly straightforward to have a coherent, orderly negotiation with them.

Given the incompetence and untrustworthiness of this British Government, it is surprising that the Executive appear to take them on trust over a financial package that was not fully nailed down. Even though many of the broad outlines were discussed and proposed at Hillsborough before Christmas, not one written commitment was made public, so far as I can see, between the talks at Hillsborough and the restoration of the Executive. The Executive have spent more than a week appearing to contradict both themselves and what appears in plain black and white in a letter that they sent to the UK Government, which acknowledged that work on revenue raising would begin. None of that, I am afraid, inspires confidence that the new Executive have yet got a grip on either their approach to public finances or their plan to rescue public services.

Will the Minister update us today on when she expects to bring a full Budget to the Assembly? Will it be a multi-year Budget or just a one-year settlement? The Vote on Account of 65% and the statements that we may not have full scrutiny done on the Budget (No. 2) Bill by recess appear to indicate that we will not get a full Budget statement. Obviously, if we do not get a full Budget statement, that contradicts obligations under the Northern Ireland Act. It would be good to have a formal update on whether the Executive expect to breach their obligations under the Northern Ireland Act to bring a Budget to the Assembly before the end of the financial year, which is in less than six weeks' time. Critically, when we finally get that Budget, will it be linked to outcomes in an updated Programme for Government? As I said to the First Minister earlier, the Executive parties, which, as you are aware, do not include us, have, for the past 18 months, been meeting on the contents of a Programme for Government. Most of us who were not in that room would have expected the Programme for Government plans to have advanced a little beyond theoretical discussions. It would be helpful to have a timeline on a Budget, and clarity on whether it will be a multi-year Budget or a one-year settlement. Will it be tied to Programme for Government outcomes? Will it incorporate the costed and timelined public service rescue plan that we all endorsed on Tuesday 6 February in our Opposition amendment to the motion, which we supported, that put forward the Executive's position of asking the UK Government for more support?

First, let me say that I do not want to bombard the Minister with too many questions. I worked with her in her previous role on the Economy Committee. She acquitted herself really well there, and she is highly regarded. I am aware of the debacle that we face in passing the Bill at extreme and unacceptable pace. By the way, although we abstained in the vote earlier, it is important to acknowledge that it is a big deal, in addition to granting accelerated passage, to waive Standing Order 42(5), which is such a basic provision in terms of legislative scrutiny. I acknowledge that the Finance Minister has inherited a lot of the problems. What I will ask from her is that she is upfront and clear about her decisions on how she is allocating money, the priorities that she is setting and all of that.

Further to that and before I close my remarks, I draw her attention to a suggested amendment that we will submit today as a constructive Opposition. I do not know whether it will be ruled in scope; if you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, have any influence with your colleague the Speaker, maybe I could ask you to nudge him to judge it to be in scope. We have said consistently that there needs to be better accountability and transparency not just on the management of public finances here but in the improvement of public services. The public do not believe a lot of what we say, not because they think that we are all liars, but because, time and again, there have been plans, aspirations and strategies, but there has not been follow-through and delivery.

Genuinely and seriously, as a constructive Opposition, we think that one of the most important things that we can do in the mandate is to move towards a culture of delivery, openness and accountability, so our amendment attempts to give the Fiscal Council, which already exists but does not have a statutory footing, the statutory power not just to report on the public finances, as the Office for Budget Responsibility does in London or the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council does in Dublin, but to assess how well the Executive are doing on a suite of key metrics. There do not need to be dozens; it can be a series of key ones that are linked to Programme for Government outcomes. I imagine that getting waiting lists down would be one and that dealing with the crisis in special educational needs would be another. I imagine that some of the economic reforms that the Economy Minister talked about earlier today would be one. We think that giving the Fiscal Council the power in law to report on those metrics would be a hugely welcome step forward. Assuming that our amendment is taken, I ask the Finance Minister to agree to support it. If it is not taken, will she commit, first, to putting the powers of the Fiscal Council in law, and will she also agree that the Fiscal Council should, in addition, be given the power to report on Executive delivery? It would be helpful if she could make that commitment here today.

Thank you to colleagues for being patient as I have gone through two speeches, but this is important. We are compressing debate on the most important thing that we can do as legislators, which is to authorise the spending of money, and that is coming after years of not being here to do our jobs. We need to do much better than this process. I look forward to completing the rest of the debate later today and tomorrow.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin 4:00, 19 February 2024

I support the Second Stage of the Budget Bill. Let us be clear: the Budget that we have before us is the result of a harsh Tory-led initiative that continues to decimate our public services year-on-year. The Budget comes in the final weeks of the financial year, giving little to no opportunity to address or reverse the harm that has been done across all Departments. However, I commend the efforts of the Finance Minister, who has made difficult decisions in a difficult context to ensure that public-sector workers are at the heart of the Budget and, to the best of her ability, to offset the serious pressures that all Departments are experiencing.

It is known that the Assembly is united in the view that we are and continue to be underfunded on the basis of need by the British Government. We must continue to make our united voice heard in order to secure a more equitable and sustainable funding package, in strong opposition to the Secretary of State and the Tory Government's concerted effort to add to the huge financial burden that many families and households are currently trying to deal with. Our health service in particular requires significant investment, and that need continues to grow as trusts and the Department operate in the context of a deficit budget that could have been avoided had the budget proposal of my colleague and the former Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, in 2022 of £1 billion for the health service over three years been progressed. There is wide concurrence that a multi-year Budget would enable the health service to plan ahead and to deliver more stable and sustainable services, which cannot be done in the same way when operating under an annual Budget.

I am pleased that the Finance Minister and the Executive have prioritised public-sector pay, which will include our health and social care workers, and it is crucial that the Health Minister takes action to get that into the pockets of workers as soon as possible and that all workers get the fair pay that they truly deserve. However, there remains a huge plethora of issues facing our health service more imminently. Today, GPs have voted overwhelmingly for strike action next month, and significant challenges are being faced across primary care and our GP practices. It is key that every effort is made to recruit and retain more doctors to improve access to GP services. GPs face incredible burnout and are over capacity. Without proper investment to deliver on that, we will undoubtedly see the growing pressures on GP practices continue. Many have already had no choice but to close their doors, and the implications of that are felt across all of our communities and even more acutely in our rural communities.

Workforce is one of the most fundamental issues impacting on our health service, with thousands of staff vacancies across the North. That continues to contribute to unprecedented waiting lists. Whilst I anticipate that the pay settlement for workers that we, hopefully, will see in the near future will go some way to tackle that, it will require much more investment in the long term. If we want to attract staff to work in our health service and, most importantly, if we want to retain those staff to create stable and sustainable service delivery for patients and service users, we need more investment.

The availability of workforce will underpin the ability to deliver on many of the crucial strategies that continue to sit with the Department unfunded, including the cancer, mental health and elective care strategies, all of which are hugely important but, without proper investment, will inevitably be impacted. Patients simply cannot wait any longer. As waiting lists grow, the needs of patients will also continue to grow, resulting in even further increased pressures on our health service.

Properly funded services will ensure better pathways and better outcomes for patients, and we must work together to obtain the funding needed from the British Government. Every aspect of our health service is suffering as a result of 13 years of Tory austerity and the decision of the British Government not to provide a block grant that reflects need. Until that is addressed, our health service will struggle for a prolonged period.

The consequences of that also impact on our social care system, which is continually being diluted due to staff shortages and underfunding, with families finding it increasingly difficult to access the respite services that they need. It also causes major shortfalls in the provision of domiciliary care packages, which, in turn, puts additional pressures on our hospitals and services. The workload for unpaid carers is skyrocketing in the absence of proper and proportionate support.

The long-term impacts of not addressing all of these issues are already being felt and will be far-reaching, not just for our health service but across all Departments. The health and well-being of our people is paramount in enabling the creation of a prosperous society, and we need to see a fundamental acknowledgement by the British Government that they must deliver a more equitable funding package moving forward to ensure that our Ministers can bolster our public services, especially our health service, and properly deliver for the people of the North.

Photo of Diane Forsythe Diane Forsythe DUP

I thank the Finance Minister for addressing the House today. As we speak on the Budget Bill, it is important that a significant difference is noted and emphasised between this Budget Bill, which covers the approvals for the remaining six weeks of the 2023-24 financial year and the commencement of 2024-25, and the separate, important issue of the full debate and scrutiny of a complete 2024-25 Budget, which should be completed as soon as possible in the coming months and put in place to underpin the key priorities and objectives of the new Programme for Government. Today's Bill is being presented under accelerated passage, due to the circumstances of timing, to enable our Departments to function in the meantime. We are not where we would have wanted to be, and I trust that, in future, we will enjoy much more appropriate scrutiny of Budgets.

It is important that the Budget Bill passes to enable the operation of our Departments at this time, but it is not defining the future of our public spending. That remains the responsibility of the Executive and the Assembly as we move into the 2024-25 Budget process. The UK Treasury has indicated that the way in which Northern Ireland is funded will be altered, moving forward. However, we, unfortunately, remain in a position where the details of that incorporation of a process and a model that appropriately reflects Northern Ireland's true need has not been concluded.

I hope that we receive an improved financial position moving forward and, on that basis, that we can effectively plan for the future delivery of Northern Ireland public services in the 2024-25 Budget process.

I note that the Budget Bill also affords Departments the ability to commence 2024-25 spending at 65% of Vote on Account until a new Budget is adopted. Again, I note that that is necessary to enable the Departments to function, but it needs to remain a priority to develop the new 2024-25 Budget as soon as possible in order to capture the priorities of the new Programme for Government and put us in the best place to deliver them in the years ahead.

I have a question for the Minister to address at the end, if she pleases. One matter of particular importance is the payment of public-sector workers across all sectors and divisions. Can the Minister assure me that this Budget will make full and proper provision for all the vital members of staff in our public services, without whom our public services could not function? If not, for which groups of workers will it not be guaranteed?

I also want to make a critical point about context. It is vital that we consider this Budget, and, indeed, the next, in the proper context of our funding from Treasury. The Hillsborough proposals, adjusted slightly by the Treasury letter of 13 February, are very important. There are two major problems. First, the Hillsborough package is logically an unsustainable arrangement, both in recognising the need to fund Northern Ireland to need from 2024-25 onwards and in recognising the need to provide funding for two years to plug the gap arising from the impact of being funded £3 billion below need in two consecutive years from our baseline funding. We are effectively funded to need for 2024-25 and 2025-26. That means that we will be funded to need in those years but will again plunge below need in 2026-27. Secondly, although the Government have moved some way on recognising need, subject to the problems set out, they are hoping that we will settle for an arrangement that involves just one, half-baked aspect of the protection that Wales has enjoyed and continues to enjoy. To protect its block grant funding from falling below need, Northern Ireland must fully benefit from both aspects of the protection that is afforded to Wales. We need a fiscal floor, defined need and an uplift.

The UK Government's funding of Northern Ireland is an urgent issue and needs to be addressed. We are facing critical challenges with health, education, the economy, childcare, agriculture, infrastructure, an increase in our minimum wages from 2024-25 onwards and many more issues. We need to put in place a multi-year Budget for Northern Ireland to deliver for everyone here as soon as we practically can.

Today, I support the Budget Bill to enable Departments to be able to function. I also support the need for the Assembly to prioritise and deliver on the new Budget as soon as possible in order to underpin the new Programme for Government.

As to the amendment, I note that recognition of the Fiscal Council is an important issue. I believe, however, that it deserves a full piece of its own. To add to the Member's point, its ability to have full scrutiny and power is very important, and it should be addressed as an item on its own.

Photo of Eóin Tennyson Eóin Tennyson Alliance 4:15, 19 February 2024

I rise on behalf of the Alliance Party to support the Bill. At the outset, I welcome the Minister to her place and congratulate her on her new role. I very much look forward to working with her in my position as a member of the Finance Committee.

As I indicated to the Committee earlier today, I am content that the Bill proceed by accelerated passage, recognising that, if it were not to receive Assembly approval and Royal Assent swiftly, Departments and other public bodies might have legislative difficulty in accessing cash not only in the closing weeks of this financial year but in the early months of 2024-25. We all recognise, however, that the position in which we currently find ourselves is entirely unsatisfactory. I am conscious that, in normal circumstances, the Minister and the Finance Committee would have been intricately involved in shaping and scrutinising this Budget from the outset, through the Main Estimates and monitoring rounds, right up to finalisation and, ultimately, this Budget Bill. Instead, in the absence of a functioning Assembly and Executive, and for the fifth time in the past seven years, the 2023-24 Budget was laid at Westminster by the Secretary of State, without the input of locally elected and accountable Ministers and in the absence of any meaningful scrutiny or debate in this place. That is not a position that any of us should be prepared to countenance or grow accustomed to. It is an appalling dereliction of duty, and it is simply not good enough.

Those repeated cycles of political abeyance have not been cost neutral. Swingeing cuts have had a devastating impact on the people we all represent. Too often that burden falls on the most vulnerable in our community, from cuts to holiday hunger payments to the withdrawal of the Happy Healthy Minds counselling service and some of the worst hospital waiting lists anywhere in western Europe. The harm arising from decisions taken in an attempt to live within the Secretary of State's Budget will not be undone in the remaining six weeks of the financial year. Nonetheless, the additional funding that has been provided will offer much-needed relief to public services and to public-sector workers, who have been immensely patient in challenging circumstances.

It is important, however, that we remind ourselves of the context in which the Bill is being introduced. Under the Conservative Government, following a decade of austerity and a botched Brexit, the UK's economic growth has stagnated, consumer prices have increased sharply and living standards have fallen, while the UK's tax burden is set to reach a post-war high. The Chancellor's autumn statement contained precious little by way of targeted support for the most vulnerable and, instead, prioritised tax cuts over public spending. Just last month, the IMF warned the UK Government against further tax cuts, calling instead for a focus on investing in public services and reducing debt; a call that I will echo. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) also highlighted a lack of detail in government returns regarding spending plans, suggesting that it would be — I quote — "generous" to call the forecasts "a work of fiction". That is an unprecedented intervention.

The consequences of Tory mismanagement are plain for all to see: households, businesses, public services and, indeed, the devolved Administrations are all under huge financial strain. Unlike Scotland and Wales, however, Northern Ireland faces the additional and unique challenge of having been funded below its independently assessed level of relative need. It is welcome that, after much prevarication, the UK Government have finally conceded that inequity, following negotiations with the Executive parties. The principle of fair funding, based on relative need, was established in an agreement between the UK and Welsh Governments in 2016. Significantly, that arrangement was arrived at in Wales in advance of the Welsh Government's breach of its funding floor.

The UK Government have provided £559 million for what they refer to as "overspend pressures". That amount, which accumulated largely under the Secretary of State's stewardship, is deferred for two years and written off only if certain conditions are met. However, we must be absolutely clear: this is not an overspend; it is a product of that very underfunding. That the Government now seek to attach punitive revenue-raising conditions in order that Northern Ireland simply receives the funding that it is owed is demonstrably unjust and unfair. Indeed, the timelines set out by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury are unrealistic and risk setting back financial sustainability rather than enhancing it.

Further disparity arises when we scratch the surface of the proposed needs-based factor, which does not operate as a Welsh-style fiscal floor. In fact, it is not a floor at all but a ceiling. Estimates suggest that it could take between 20 and 50 years to return to a point below which we should never have been allowed to fall in the first place. Failure to properly baseline the floor will have a further scarring impact on our public services, with underfunding continuing long into the future and a dangerous and irresponsible cliff edge looming in 2026.

In addition to securing appropriate baselining, the level of any floor is critical. My party has long contended that the 124% touted by the Government does not take adequate account of the justice need in Northern Ireland. The time period over which average policing and justice spend, relative to England, was assessed significantly underestimates objective need, focusing on a period during which the budget was disproportionately squeezed and is further obscured by COVID-19 spending. It is our view that the period during which policing and justice spend was ring-fenced, between 2010 and 2015, offers a more reliable reflection of the UK Government's revealed funding preference and, therefore, should form the basis for deriving relative need. That would lift overall relative need to 127%, and there are strong arguments that, by incorporating taxable capacity and benefit rate sensitivity, it could and should be even higher.

I am sure that Members from across the House will agree that the work of the Fiscal Council has been indispensable in informing the public debate on the issues. At a time when we are aiming to reform our public services, we must also reform our approach to scrutiny and ensure that the council is now placed on a firm statutory footing. In doing so, there is a strong argument that the council should also be empowered and equipped to assess and make recommendations in respect of the cost of division. Estimated to be anywhere between £400 million and £800 million every single year, dealing with that cost is the gateway to transforming not only our finances but our society.

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

I agree with much of what the Member is saying. We talked about the Fiscal Council having the power to report on a whole range of things. That could, and should, include the cost of division. Does he view with sympathy our amendment, which seeks to put the Fiscal Council in law and give it powers to report on public services?

Photo of Eóin Tennyson Eóin Tennyson Alliance

I have great sympathy with the amendment. I have set out very clearly that I agree that the Fiscal Council should be placed on a statutory footing. I am not sure that the Budget Bill is necessarily the best avenue by which to do that. It remains to be seen whether the amendment is within the scope of the Bill. However, I understand that the Department of Finance has been doing work on that, and I ask the Minister to prioritise the bringing forward of legislation in that sense.

Although the UK Government's financial offer does not, in and of itself, provide long-term sustainability, it offers space and time for further substantive negotiations on our fiscal framework ahead of the next spending review. As attention turns to those discussions, it would perhaps be useful if a degree of independence were also brought to that process. That is why Alliance has called for the establishment of an independent commission, drawing on the experience of the Holtham, Calman and Smith commissions, to be tasked with independently adjudicating, assessing and setting out evidence-based recommendations with regard to our funding formula and additional powers and flexibilities that may be granted to an Executive as part of a broader fiscal framework. I would welcome the Minister's thoughts on that proposal.

Achieving sustainable finances will require a change in not only the quantum of funding that is available but our financial governance. We must, at the earliest opportunity, return to multi-year budgeting in the next spending review. That must be accompanied by increased multi-year flexibility and carry-forward to avoid haphazard use-it-or-lose-it mentalities in Departments and a commitment from the Government to work with us rather than against us to address financial unknowns, such as the PSNI data breach and McCloud.

There must also be a serious engagement on the further devolution of powers to ensure that, when we discuss revenue raising, we do it in a way that protects the most vulnerable and is progressive and fair. Only then will we be in a position to offer the stability and certainty necessary to transform our public services, our health service, our education system and our economy.

Finally, although I welcome the space that has been granted for Ministers, the Finance Committee and the Assembly to have scrutiny of the 2024-25 Budget by increasing the Vote on Account, I reiterate the need for the Main Estimates to proceed as quickly as possible. As Members have already referenced, many public bodies are operating on budgets that are already insufficient and have recruitment freezes in place, so it is imperative that they have certainty at the earliest opportunity. I am sure that the Minister appreciates the urgency of that.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

References have been made to an amendment. It is up to the Speaker to agree that that amendment will be accepted and that it is within the scope of the Bill. I appreciate that Members jump up and down to give way; that is their prerogative. The amendment has not been accepted, but it is being spoken about as though it has. I remind Members that it has not been accepted yet.

Photo of Phillip Brett Phillip Brett DUP

At the outset, I congratulate you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, on your appointment. I am sure that you will bring the trademark of a north Belfast woman to the role: very firm, but fair. I wish you well in that role. I also welcome the Minister to her role.

My initial remarks are on behalf of the Committee for the Economy. The Committee, like all other Committees, has had very limited time to consider these matters. It is notable that the usual documentation, such as the spring Estimates and the Estimates memorandum, has not been provided. It is, therefore, difficult for me to fully reflect all the views of Committee members at this stage, but I will endeavour to do my best. I understand that advances from the Consolidated Fund, under article 6 of the Financial Provisions Order, may be coming close to exhaustion. Thus, the Committee would be interested to know what, if anything, in the Department for the Economy that money covers. Perhaps, the Minister will, in her response, set out what aspects of those finances are close to running out in the Department for the Economy.

I turn to public-sector employee pay, and the Economy Committee has a particular interest in a pay settlement for FE lecturers. I would be grateful if the Minister could address that in her remarks.

In recent press statements, the Executive advised of some welcome allocations for those public-sector pay disputes from the UK Government. Can the Minister outline whether those will be settled within the remit of the Department for the Economy by the end of this financial year?

On behalf of the Committee, I am keen to know whether the Minister recognises that any delay in settlement might result in Treasury trying to claw back some of the finances in this year. The Committee is concerned that that could take place. On the wider economic impact of Executive spending, in the past, contractors have complained about departmental capital surges. That is where Departments' capital spending profiles have been very much weighed towards settling at the end of the financial year. I am sure that the Minister will agree that those capital surges, where Departments appear to be holding off on spending, are not conducive to steady economic growth, which we all want to see.

That concludes my remarks as Chair of the Economy Committee. I just want to make a few remarks as a member of the Finance Committee and as an MLA for North Belfast. As we are authorising funding of 65% for many Departments, there are a number of issues that my party and I would like to see sorted as soon as possible, particularly in relation to the pay settlement. Our party is determined to ensure that our education support workers receive the pay settlement that they deserve. I think that we speak on behalf of all Members when we say that we recognise the valuable role that our non-teaching education staff play, be that in special educational needs provision or in the classroom.

As a North Belfast representative, I also want to see further funding awarded to the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice. We will press for that now that funding has been made available. Like many constituencies, North Belfast has, as, I am sure, the Principal Deputy Speaker will concur, an amazing community sector. Now that the accounts have been agreed, subject to the will of the House today, we want to ensure that that sector gets the certainty that it deserves.

As Chair of the Economy Committee and as an MLA for North Belfast, I support the Bill's passage today.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin 4:30, 19 February 2024

I will speak as Chair of the Committee for Communities initially and then make some remarks as a Sinn Féin spokesperson. In the first instance, I welcome the Minister to her new role. We look forward to working with your Department, Minister. I also look forward to the opportunity in the Committee to scrutinise future Budgets, and I acknowledge and note your comments on that today. Indeed, the Committee looks forward to being consulted on next year's Budget, being involved in the decisions on future spending and setting priorities for funding. Consequently, we anticipate hearing from the Department in detail about its spending plans for 2024-25 in the weeks and months ahead. In the interim, as the Committee agrees its forward work programme and looks to the responsibilities in the portfolio of the Department for Communities, we will be keen to hear from the Minister today on the settlement for the Department in both the short and longer term. The Communities Committee considers a broad range of issues, such as housing and homelessness; social security; energy poverty; social inclusion; charity regulation; liquor licensing; gambling regulation; language; sports; and heritage. It clearly spans a huge range of interests and will require significant resources in the time ahead.

I would now like to make a number of points in my capacity as a Sinn Féin MLA. In acknowledging the challenging fiscal circumstances that the Assembly finds itself in, particularly following a Tory-imposed Budget last April, it is clear that there will be extreme challenges for all of us around the Chamber in the time ahead. I welcome the Minister's statement today and, in particular, the allocation of £688 million for public-sector workers. It is important that we acknowledge the crucial nature of the work that our public-service workers carry out and, indeed, their right to fair pay. I certainly hope that they will have clarity on final pay awards as soon as possible.

It is clear that the financial package that accompanied the restoration of the Executive will, undoubtedly, fall far short of what is required across all Departments. It is unfair and unrealistic to ask people to contribute more to pay for services at a time when they are already paying more to meet their basic needs and experiencing increasing difficulties in accessing public services, such as the waiting lists that we see in the health service. Those services have been negatively impacted by many years of underfunding and underinvestment, something with which we will continue to struggle.

As I mentioned, the Department for Communities is a huge and varied Department. It supports some of the people in our communities who have been rendered most vulnerable as a result of disadvantage. It is responsible for the Supporting People fund; social security; housing; welfare mitigations; social strategies including, crucially, the anti-poverty strategy; sports; culture; arts; and local government.

I welcome the resource and capital budget allocation for DFC, which will, hopefully, bring some certainty and stability to the Department. I also welcome the £6 million for social housing, the £6 million for the NIHE Decent Homes Standard and the £1·2 million for the cladding scheme. It is clear, given the ongoing housing situation, with 45,615 applicants on the waiting list and 4,422 households in temporary accommodation, that significant pressure is being placed on the Housing Executive budget for homelessness prevention work. It is projected that 23,557 new social homes will be needed for 2022-27. Any reduction in delivery will have a detrimental effect on meeting that target. It would force more households into homelessness and temporary accommodation and, indeed, place further pressure on our statutory services.

It is vital that we continue to speak with one voice and challenge the funding formula used to allocate the Budget here. We also need to prioritise our public services and support for those who need it most. That is certainly what I will do as a member of the Committee for Communities. I support the Bill.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. I congratulate you on taking up your post. I do not think I have had the opportunity to do so. I also congratulate the Finance Minister and look forward to working with her.

As other Chairs have said today, due to the urgency and limited timescale for the Bill, the Committee for Infrastructure has not yet had any opportunity to consider the Bill's provisions or assess the Department's capital and resource requirements for what remains of this financial year and into 2024-25. I understand the reasons for that, but it means that my comments in my capacity as Chairperson will be limited.

I am confident that the Department's financial needs will be an area of particular interest for the Committee in coming weeks, as we shape and develop our forward work programme and seek to understand the Department's immediate financial position and gain a more comprehensive understanding of the longer-term position. I am sure that, like me, other members of the Committee will actively participate, as we undertake our work, by fulfilling our advisory and scrutiny functions, which are underpinned by the aim of ensuring that the public services provided by the Department for Infrastructure are delivered to the standards that we all rightly expect.

Whilst recognising that the amount of preparatory work required to bring forward the Budget Bill is significant, the need to maximise our finances must be at the heart of everything we do. To achieve that, Committees need to be actively involved and engaged to contribute to the process. We need to be consulted, and we need our views to be sought. I understand and accept the need for the Bill to progress without delay to ensure that Departments have legislative authority for what remains of this financial year and for the few months of the next financial year

I will now make some remarks as the DUP MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. It will come as no surprise that I want to champion my area as regards infrastructure and all the other pressures that need to be met. There are many key areas of infrastructure that need investment to improve and grow our economy, meet the challenges of climate change and create better communities.

I was pleased to hear the Finance Minister make mention of some of the needs of our Infrastructure Department. Infrastructure accounted for 3·3% of the departmental allocations in the resource budget for 2022-23. To grow the economy, create the better communities that we need and deliver health transformation, we need investment in infrastructure; it is one of the key things underpinning all of this.

Translink and Northern Ireland Water are two areas within the remit of the Minister for Infrastructure that need huge investment. The COVID pandemic had a severe financial impact on Translink, with loss of revenue from reduced passenger numbers. Adequate public transport is needed to encourage people to move to greener ways of travel. Government policy must work through all the Departments. While Northern Ireland Water continues with price control 21 (PC21) commitments to stop constraint areas, more needs to be done. This week, the Committee for Infrastructure will hear directly from Northern Ireland Water about the challenges that it faces. Ultimately, however, investment in networks is key: without it, construction cannot go ahead, and the public will see significant deterioration in their public services.

I welcome the commitment of £16 million for road structural maintenance, bus and rail capital projects and water and waste water infrastructure. However, given the capital pressures facing the Department, that will not stretch far. In my constituency, there is a pressing need to progress major road projects. One example that would unlock Fermanagh — Enniskillen in particular — is the immediate progression of the A4 southern bypass. I am keen to see that happen in my constituency. It will help to reduce congestion in Enniskillen — a fantastic town, Minister, if you have not already been — and boost our local economy greatly.

We need adequate funding for Northern Ireland for the many projects that Members in the Chamber will have and that our Executive will want to see driven forward. The Northern Ireland Fiscal Council rightly pointed out in its report last week that this part of the UK faces a:

"‘cliff-edge’ drop in funding in 2026-27".

It was welcome that one of the very first actions in the Assembly Chamber was that we all committed to ensuring that the Treasury provides Northern Ireland with a more sustainable level of funding. I thank my friend Gavin Robinson, deputy leader of the DUP, who championed that over many years, making sure that the issue of the funding received by Northern Ireland was brought to Westminster. To meet the challenges and work on the cross-departmental issues, we need funding not only to stabilise but to transform our services. That being said, I support the Bill.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

I welcome you to your new role, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker.

I rise as the Chairperson of the Audit Committee. As the Committee has not yet met — our first meeting is planned for 6 March — I wish to make it clear that I am not reflecting the views of the Committee today. However, I feel that it is necessary for me to make a short contribution about the Bill, as well as about the wider budgetary process.

The main role of the Audit Committee is to scrutinise and agree the budgets and estimates of the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) and the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission. The Committee fulfills that function in place of the Department of Finance in recognition of the independence of those non-ministerial bodies. Given the Minister's request for accelerated passage for today's Bill and the timescales for the 2024-25 Budget, it is likely that there will not be time for full and proper consultation on this Budget or the next Budget. Although I understand that much of the background to the timescale for today's Bill and the short timescales for the Vote on Account and the Budget process for 2024-25 does not lie at the door of the Minister, it is still her Department that has brought today's Bill forward without proper consultation. I hope that that will not continue in the future.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:45, 19 February 2024

I thank the Chair of the Audit Committee for giving way. I asked him to do so in order that I could make a point that will, I think, be important to his Committee. A statutory body that his Committee scrutinises, the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO), wrote to the Finance Committee today to say that it is very concerned about its allocation, which is just a rollover from the previous financial year. I want to mark the Member's card in that regard, because his Committee will have to do work on it. The Audit Office is worried about its ability to carry out its critical audit and public service scrutiny work.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

I thank the Member for his intervention.

The Audit Committee has a statutory function to consider and agree the Estimates for the NIAO, the NIPSO and the Assembly Commission. As the 2024-25 Budget will ultimately be reflected in the Main Estimates, it is clear that the Audit Committee will still be able to carry out its scrutiny role. However, for the record, the Audit Committee expects to be afforded the opportunity to deliver its functions as part of ongoing and future budgetary processes. With that in mind, I look forward to early engagement between the Minister's Department and the Committee. That concludes my remarks in my capacity as Chair of the Audit Committee.

As health spokesperson for the Ulster Unionist Party, it would be remiss of me not to make a few comments on the situation that faces our health service. A debate on waiting lists will take place in this place tomorrow, but we need to bear in mind the huge, sometimes life-changing, consequences of the disruption that gripped the Department of Health's budget this year. Really difficult decisions were taken, some of which, I suspect, none of us as politicians would ever have taken. For instance, the reduction in quarter 4 funding for targeted waiting list initiatives has been hugely damaging. Thousands of people missed out because of the reduced activity, and, unfortunately, despite the system's best efforts to protect people and prioritise red flags, it is a simple matter of fact that some patients will have come to greater harm.

Although I am certain that the Minister has been urgently reviewing what is possible in the short time that remains of this financial year, in reality the scope and scale of what is deliverable before 31 March is limited. Fundamentally, however, if we are ever to get to grips with the challenges weighing down on our health service, we will need a workforce that is appropriately remunerated. It is a matter of huge regret that the previous optimism, when all parties agreed the principle of restoring and retaining pay parity, was so cruelly dashed only two years later with the collapse of the Executive and any prospect of a multi-year funding settlement.

The health service, like so many other public services, has been hugely affected by rolling industrial action, but that action could have been avoided if we had had a functioning Executive and Assembly in place. I very much welcome the confirmation of funding from the UK Government for public-sector pay, but, as an Assembly, we urgently need to realise that, until we are able to put in place a more coordinated approach to pay, there will be a huge impact not just on staff morale but on patients' welfare.

We could spend hours talking about our health service, as needs must, but as the outcome of the spring Estimates laid out, what the health service really needs is certainty about what is and is not deliverable and about what funding is available, not just today or next week but next year and the year after. Annual budgets will not provide the foundations required for the genuine and sustainable health and social care transformation that the people of Northern Ireland deserve.

Photo of Nick Mathison Nick Mathison Alliance

I rise to contribute in my capacity as the Chairperson of the Committee for Education, before making remarks as the Alliance Party's education spokesperson.

The Deputy Chair of the Committee and I have been in post for just a fortnight, and the Committee's membership was confirmed just a week ago, so the Committee has not had much opportunity to form a detailed view on the Bill. It was able to set out some of its key priorities at its first meeting, however, and they are relevant to the debate. That first meeting took place last Wednesday, and it was great to welcome members to it. All of them expressed a clear and deep commitment to improving outcomes for our children and young people. I emphasise that, when we consider the education budget, we must keep at the forefront of our mind that investment in education is an investment in children and young people, while a failure to invest lets down the very people whom the education system is set up to serve.

We were not presented with a first-day brief or a Budget briefing at the first meeting of our Committee, but we look forward to having a series of meetings in which we will be able to address departmental priorities, beginning this Wednesday with our first briefing from the permanent secretary and his officials. I look forward to working with the Committee in the weeks ahead on scrutinising the budgetary position in detail.

I note from the Finance Committee's meeting today that, without accelerated passage of the Bill, the risk that the Department of Education would run out of money had been identified. On behalf of the Committee, I ask the Minister, as Phillip Brett did earlier, to provide a bit of clarity on exactly what the potential impact on education spending would have been had the Bill not come forward today.

The Finance Minister has advised that the allocations will address forecast overspend in the Department of Education, that all ring-fenced resource DEL will be met and that that resource DEL will go towards settling pay deals. The Committee has not been briefed in detail on any of that work, but I make it clear that it was very clear in its first meeting that it wants to prioritise delivering fair pay settlements for our education workforce. We have committed to that by ensuring at our first meeting that the teaching unions will attend and that, shortly after, the non-teaching unions will brief the Committee. It is absolutely vital that we appropriately remunerate our teaching workforce and find a path out of the ongoing industrial action in our schools.

I understand that Statutory Committees would normally expect significant consultation to allow them to exercise their function of Budget scrutiny, but, with the return of devolution at rapid speed, which was far from ideal, and with every stage of the Budget Bill being scheduled to pass within two days, it has been impossible to carry out that work. It is improbable, as many Members have highlighted, that the Bill will receive the appropriate or ideal scrutiny that it should be afforded. The Bill has arrived with a lack of background discussion and information. It will cover Departments until the end of the financial year and bring forward the Vote on Account, but that is all in the context of no consultation or engagement with Committees. That is a regrettable situation, but I welcome the Minister's confirmation that there is no intention to treat that as a precedent.

The Deputy Chair and other members of the Committee will perhaps give their perspective over the course of the debates, but I emphasise that the Committee wants to begin its work with a constructive start. We will be questioning officials in the weeks ahead on some of the shortcomings of the accelerated passage process, but, as Chair of the Committee, I welcome the Bill as a necessary first step in the work of this Administration.

I will now make some remarks as an Alliance Party MLA and, specifically, as our party's education spokesperson. I support the Bill, and I will refer specifically to the budgetary context for education and the Alliance Party's priorities in that regard as we look forward.

Education in Northern Ireland is in a state of crisis. That crisis is largely a crisis of funding. Education, which in any functioning society should receive strategic and prioritised investment, is in Northern Ireland chronically underfunded. Across the board, that seems to be something on which the parties in the Chamber can agree. The 2023-24 Budget, pay pressures aside, had an estimated £300 million funding gap for education, and that has had a profound impact in the past year on school budgets and on capital investment in the school estate and infrastructure.

It is therefore vital that, in the coming financial year, we address the funding gap. Education needs a budget that reflects the need for strategic capital investment, not least in the area of special educational needs (SEN) but also to address the maintenance backlog in our schools. Future Budgets need to address the widening disparity in per pupil spend in Northern Ireland. By the calculation of the independent review of education, the annual gap is in the region of £155 million compared with per pupil spend in England, so the challenge is by no means a small one.

Given the substantial financial pressures experienced in education in this financial year, it is vital that the Executive receive from the UK Government a funding settlement that properly reflects our objective need. Failure to fund education in line with need punishes only our children and young people, and it is a failure to invest in our future growth and prosperity.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Chair of the Education Committee for giving way, and I congratulate him on the elevation to that role. Does he agree that the continuous collapse of this place and the political failure have added to the pain that our children have endured? While there is a budgetary issue, there is also a political failure, which is very obvious when it comes to education in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that it is time for everyone in the House to commit fully to proper investment in education and, indeed, our children's future?

Photo of Nick Mathison Nick Mathison Alliance

I thank the Member for his intervention. I will come to those exact points as I continue my remarks. There is no doubt that the continual cycle of the collapse of the institutions does nothing to deliver for our children and young people. It is beholden to everyone in this place to commit to removing the veto from politics in Northern Ireland on that basis.

I turn back to my remarks in relation to a funding settlement that reflects our objective need. Alliance has been very clear in all our contributions on the issue that that needs-based adjustment needs to be more in the region of 127%, which my colleague Eóin Tennyson referenced, to better reflect that need. I assure Members that we will continue to make that case, not least so that the investment required in our schools can be made in the future.

In addition to my comments on teacher pay when I spoke as Chair of the Committee, it is vital that the Finance Minister makes an urgent decision on the pay and grading review for non-teaching staff. I have already submitted a question to the Minister in that regard, and we do not have a clear timescale as to when that will be delivered. I will welcome any detail that she can provide today on that issue, because if we fail to address the huge issues around pay and terms and conditions for our non-teaching support staff, it is very difficult to see how we can avoid further hugely disruptive industrial action, which has only the outcome of impacting on our children and young people and, in particular, our children who attend special schools.

I will make a further comment on capital investment in education. While any moneys coming to education for capital projects via the UK Government's financial package will be welcomed, and I will be the first to welcome them, concerns have been raised that the UK Government will seek to reheat previous funding streams such as funds from 'A Fresh Start'. They were previously earmarked for shared and integrated projects. Many schools across Northern Ireland are relying on that pot of funding for their new buildings and extensions. Any loss of access to that funding would be an entirely retrograde step in my view. I ask the Finance Minister, as we look to future Budgets and future resource that will be available to the Department of Education, to provide urgent clarity as to the position around Fresh Start funding, specifically in relation to the financial package from the UK Government, and to clarify what assurances she can offer schools that their projects will not be jeopardised.

We should not just seek to ensure that education is appropriately funded. We should, of course, do so, but there is an urgent need for the reform and transformation of education on multiple fronts. Investment without reform will not deliver either financial sustainability or the excellent system that our children deserve. I will highlight a few areas of priority that it will be vital to address if we are going to deliver financial efficiency and sustainability.

I highlight SEN services. They must be properly resourced, but they must also be transformed to ensure that there is a clear focus on early identification of need, meaningful early intervention and a commitment to deliver SEN education in line with the very best international practice.

Our system of area planning needs to be overhauled to transform it from the cumbersome and, at times, unnecessarily competitive system that we have today and to ensure that it is open, independent, transparent and focused on the needs of local communities. It must work to promote new models of school management that deliver sustainable schools, where children from all communities are educated together in the classroom. The Department must take seriously the financial impact of our divided school system and take clear steps to address it systematically. A proper audit of the cost of division in education is long overdue, and if the Education Minister is listening to the debate, I urge him to take that forward.

Tackling educational disadvantage must be prioritised, yes, through investment — I will be a strong advocate for proper investment to deliver the recommendations of the 'A Fair Start' report — but we also need to look seriously at the systemic factors that widen attainment gaps between the least well-off pupils and their better-off counterparts, not least the impact of our system of academic selection.

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

We are all aware of the financial pressures facing education this year and into next year. They have been building year-on-year for some time. As Daniel McCrossan highlighted, that has not been helped by our history of stop-start government in Northern Ireland, which has made the delivery of multi-year Budgets and proper strategic planning in education impossible, representing a failure of our children and young people.

I urge that, today, as we consider the Budget Bill, we make clear our commitment not just to delivering sustainable finances for this place but to ending the role of the veto in our politics, giving the public the reassurance that they need that we have a stable Administration as we look to the future. We must reform these institutions, if for no other reason than to provide the stability that the public so desperately need. I will always argue for sustained and radical investment in education for our children and young people, but we also need a plan to deliver not just investment but meaningful transformation that will give us a modern, progressive and better-integrated education system that serves all pupils, regardless of economic background, and delivers equality of opportunity for all.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance 5:00, 19 February 2024

Deputy Speaker, I formally wish you well in your new role, and I pass on my best wishes to our new Finance Minister.

I will speak first on behalf of the Committee for the Executive Office. While the Executive Office has a relatively small budget of around £182 million, most of that is earmarked, so there is only a small amount of baseline funds to play with. Trying to make savings of £10 million out of the £76 million available has, no doubt, been a tall order. Only so much freezing of recruitment and 10% top-slicing across the Department and its associated arm's-length bodies can be undertaken before important areas of delivery, such as good relations funding, are cut. That emphasises why detailed scrutiny of the Budget is so important to the Committee, and accelerated passage deprives us of that.

The extent of the Vote on Account — almost two thirds of the intended spend for 2024-25 — is also a matter of concern. It is the role of the Committee to discuss in detail how the Department allocates resources and to provide views on how money should be spent. The Committee needs time and space to examine and consider the options open to use resources effectively and to provide value for money.

There will also be new areas of expenditure, ranging from the full implementation of free period products — the legislation that was passed in the last mandate — through to the appointment of the language and identity commissioners. Those extra costs will also have an impact on how the Department cuts its cloth. Indeed, the Committee looks forward to being consulted on next year's Budget and being involved in the decisions made on future spending and on setting priorities for funding. Consequently, we anticipate hearing from the Department in detail about its spending plans for 2024-25.

I will now make a number of points in my capacity as an individual MLA representing the Alliance Party. A notably high share of the Executive Office's spending is annually managed expenditure, and I do not expect to see that change imminently. There are already commitments from the end of the last mandate, as I noted. My party and I trust that, in addition to those commitments, we will imminently carry through the recommendations for the appropriate standardised payment for mothers and adoptees arising from the mother-and-baby homes scandal, plus implementation of the tackling violence against women and girls strategy. I should add that one of my overriding concerns for the current financial year — this is shared by many respondents to the consultation on the Budget equality impact assessment — is the loss of skills in the voluntary and community sector arising from programme cutbacks.

It is fair to say that my party and I are somewhat concerned at the state in which the Executive Office finds itself after two years of boycott, and there will need to be swift work to correct that. It must be emphasised that this is not remotely the fault of officials in the Executive Office. While the absence of Ministers created difficulties for all Departments, it made the effective operation of the Executive Office almost impossible. That would have been the case even at the best of times, but, in fact, particularly in recent months, we have been fairly close to the worst of times. In particular, the absence of a permanent secretary since September meant that no decisions were made. The transfer of the functions of accounting officer to the deputy secretary is not optimum, and it is my strong view, and that of my Alliance Party colleagues, that a permanent secretary should be put in place swiftly so that the functions of accounting officer can rest where they are supposed to rest for the next financial year.

We also want to see greater financial clarity from the Executive Office once the new permanent secretary is in place. Currently, we are, effectively, assessing programmes and impacts rather than overall departmental performance. We do not want to be in the same position this time next year. It is hoped that the direction of Ministers and a permanent secretary will mean that there is leadership in setting a transparent Budget in time for the 2024-25 financial year and beyond and that, next year, we will have a series of updated strategies and consultations to work off as we evaluate the Executive Office's performance.

Put simply, we have a lot of catching up to do over the coming months to make sure that the Executive Office's contribution, be it to victims, good relations, public-sector reform, international links or whichever of its many vital areas of work it covers, provides maximum value and maximum benefit.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I welcome the Minister. Regrettably, I will probably have to slip out in 10 minutes or so to our all-party group (APG) meeting. Sadly, you will have to step down from the all-party group, but I thank you very much for your work for the APG on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and everything that you have done. I congratulate you on your new post. I am glad that we have somebody in the role who understands science, technology and maths. That will be particularly appropriate.

That is probably as good as it will get, Minister, as you would imagine. As an ex-Chairperson of the Finance Committee, I have looked at the process today, and I am nervous about what has happened, as, indeed, are many of us who are familiar with what has gone on in the past. I noted that you said in your remarks that there is a real concern about this because we are likely to run out of cash. The Committee had briefings from officials about concerns that the Education and Communities Ministries would run out of cash and the real problems that that would create. Last Wednesday, we were briefed by officials that overspend was somewhere in the region of £400 million and that they were having to reach out to take money from the contingency fund to help to pay for Civil Service pensions. There is obviously considerable concern in the Civil Service and Departments about our financial position. It should concern us all, though, that we have heard time and again that we are not in a position to compare the figures with the Supplementary Estimates. Normally, what would happen at this stage is that each of us would reach into the Supplementary Estimates and pull out figures to compare them with where we actually are and what we should be doing.

It is obvious, Minister, that you are aware, because you have been told by other Ministers and Departments, where the pressures and pinch points are, but we are not aware of that information. We have not been made aware of that information in the Finance Committee, and, from what I have heard from Chairpersons of other Committees — I have heard from the Committees for Education, Infrastructure, Audit and others — they are not aware either. Minister, if we are to make this work effectively, which we all want to do, we need to be aware of the information. If you have that information, Committees should have it as well. We are not setting out to deliberately trip you up. Trust me: I am not. I know what it is like, and I have seen the parlous financial situation that we are in. However, we are not in a position to help you unless you give us the information that we need. Bear in mind that, during the last short period that we were here, we, particularly in the Finance Committee, looked at improved reporting procedures so that there would be greater transparency. I do not feel as though we are getting any transparency at all at the moment. If you were being honest with yourself, Minister, I do not think that you could say that you were getting the transparency that you need to make the decisions that are out there.

We are being asked about a Vote on Account to 65%. We are being told that the reason that we need to do that is the difficulties that there are in forming the budgetary process. One thing that I would like the Minister to address in her remarks — I think that it has already been raised by the Leader of the Opposition and other Members on these Benches — is the state of the discussions with Treasury. What is the state of the discussions that, you said, you were going urgently to have with Treasury? We are being asked to approve a series of budgetary positions without knowing what the outcome is likely to be. We have not been told what the pressures are and where they lie. We have been told that there are considerable problems, but we have not been given detailed information. We have no Supplementary Estimates, even though, obviously, the Civil Service must have got the figures from somewhere. It is drawing money from the contingency fund, so it must know how much of those moneys there are. It must have ideas of what the budgetary positions are. We do not have that information, yet we are asked to sign off on a cheque for £18 billion. I will say that again: £18 billion. We are asked to sign off on that to keep our vital public services going. For how long? Is it for three months, for four months, until the summer recess or until after it? Do we know? We have not been given that information. We have to have that if we are to effectively help, support and scrutinise.

The people of Northern Ireland are, frankly, jaundiced — that is the politest word — about this place and what we do. One of the reasons for that, which we saw with RHI and all sorts of things, is that we have no real method of controlling our public moneys. Time and time again, we are caught out. I know that this might be a spotter sort of thing — the learned Mr Allister KC is not here — but one of the things that we brought out last time is that, when we look at the lines in the budgets and accounts that come before us, we, like a good set of auditors, should always check the small detail to see if it adds up. One of the things that we used to look at is what is called the "black box". Some of you will not be aware of what the black box is, but it is a method of accounting procedures. The figure should be no more than £1 million. That is the maximum that it is supposed to be, as laid out by the Audit Office. Last time we had a look at the black box, it was £1 billion, which was, obviously, completely off the scale. This time, it is £28 million. Therefore, by a factor of 28, we are out on even the basics. The Minister's officials are here: maybe they could beaver away and come up with some of the answers on that, because, frankly, it is not acceptable. People who want to see Northern Ireland run well need to understand that the accounting processes are being done correctly.

Here is the situation. We do not know what the outcomes, the out-turns or the pressures are. All we are being told is that the whole thing will come collapsing down around us. We have been given none of that information. Minister, I trust you; I do. We should trust the Finance Minister with the finances to deal with the situation. However, I need to be assured that you are getting the right information. Many of the finance spokespeople present were in regular communication with the Department of Finance up to Christmas. The parties that were likely to be in the Executive and, indeed, the Opposition were invited to those meetings. There was a large degree of clarity about the positions and pressures. Indeed, it was probably sufficient for us to start making a judgement about the real issues that we would have to deal with when we got to the Programme for Government. All that stopped just before Christmas. We are now through the next quarter. I cannot, in all honesty, say that I have a handle on where our finances are. I cannot see where the moneys are coming in and coming out.

I am told that we have real pressures. The Health Minister tells me that we have real pressures, and I believe him. We have real pressures on teachers' pay, on public service pay and all over the place. We do not have any figures. I look around at the Committee Chairpersons, and nobody is saying, "Steve, you are wrong", or, "Will you take an intervention? I know what is going on". You do not. Feel free, please. Not one of them is saying that.

We do not have that degree of information. If we are to do our job effectively, we have to understand that and do that.

Minister, I encourage you to be as open as you can or even to go the extra step. We should have the information that you have. If we are to continue to build trust and make sure that we have a Budget process and a Budget that is working, we need to know that. Our party will support the Budget, but we are doing that because I trust you when you tell me that we are going to fall off a cliff. I am doing that in good faith, because I do not know that. What I know, however, is that we have moved into unprecedented territory. When I say that we have a Vote on Account of 65%, that should scare the living daylights out of every MLA here, and it should scare the living daylights out of every Department. We are handing over a cheque for £18 billion, the details of which we do not know. That is not a great situation for us to be in, Minister.

I hear your commitment. I would love to make sure that we will have the spring Supplementary Estimates. One of your officials told us today that we would have them by the end of March. I want to make sure that that happens, and I would like to hear from you a commitment that that will happen. If it does not happen — I have my concerns about that — we need to have answers about what we will do about that. Frankly, this is untenable, and we cannot keep on going the way we are. I wish you all the best, Minister. I will be supportive of you: you know that I will be. I trust you, but you need to get on with it.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 5:15, 19 February 2024

I thank the Member for that, but it is an opportune time to remind all Members that remarks should be directed through the Chair.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

I speak as a Sinn Féin MLA, although I am Deputy Chair of the Committee for Education. The Chair of the Committee covered most of the remarks that I would have made if I had spoken as Deputy Chair.

Sinn Féin wants an education system that delivers for all and leaves no one behind. We believe that education should be underpinned by equality. Our education system should equip all children and young people for life and allow them to pursue their dreams and goals without barriers. As Sinn Féin's education spokesperson, I want to comment on the ongoing funding crisis in education, which has taken place against a background of years of Tory austerity and chronic underinvestment.

Sinn Féin continues to prioritise important issues in the education system, including tackling underachievement, special educational provision and improving early years. I thank the Finance Minister for the £688 million pay award for public-sector workers. Our hard-working teachers and non-teaching support staff, like all public-sector workers, deserve fair pay and conditions, and I am hopeful that those can be delivered in the time ahead.

The independent review of education recently published its final report, 'Investing in a Better Future'. The report notes that education in the North is highly underfunded, largely as a result of historical and systemic spending cuts. The crisis directly affects learners and the workforce. Many of the report's recommendations can be delivered only with additional funding. Recurrent funding for the Department of Education has reduced in real terms by £145 million — that is 6% — over the last 11 years, while the pupil population has increased by 7%. During that time, per pupil funding reduced in real terms by around 11%. The funding provided for our children and young people is lower than that received by those in other regions.

The British Secretary of State created this difficult Budget, resulting in Departments making the decision to live within it. The Department of Education has made cuts to programmes that disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged children and young people. We had cuts last year to programmes like holiday hunger, Happy Healthy Minds, digital devices and so on: the list is lengthy. Not only is there not enough funding for education but, when cuts are made, they disproportionately affect the children who are already most disadvantaged. Further cuts to the education budget could have had a detrimental impact on a wide range of areas, including the day-to-day running of schools, special educational needs support, school transport, youth services and school builds. The Irish-medium sector also needs to be properly funded. At the moment, there are severe difficulties in regard to accommodation quality, and resources that are generally available to English-language schools are not available in the Irish language. The supply of teachers is creating difficulties in the Irish-medium sector as is the lack of expertise from specialists, such as educational psychologists who have fluency in the Irish language.

The funding gap in education needs immediate attention, but there is also the need for additional long-term investment in education.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Thanks very much to the Member for giving way. The Member was talking about additional resources, and one of the key things for Irish-medium schools is the lack of exam papers, because they are not even produced for those children. Does the Member agree that we need to put investment into their exams as well?

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Absolutely. I could not agree more. Much of the written material that goes into mainstream schooling is not translated into Irish. An extra burden is placed on teachers in the Irish-medium sector to translate papers that are given to the Irish-medium sector in English.

The Fiscal Council's assessment of the financial package supports the position that the Executive are underfunded on the basis of need. The financial package does not address our historical underfunding in a sustainable or long-term way. The British Government need to engage meaningfully and urgently with the Executive and the Minister of Finance to address that underfunding, including the chronic underinvestment in our education system.

Photo of Nuala McAllister Nuala McAllister Alliance

Thank you, Deputy Speaker. This is the first time that I have been in the Chamber when you have been in the Chair, so I congratulate you on taking your role.

I will try to keep my remarks short, but there are a number of areas on which I want to speak in particular as health spokesperson for Alliance and as a member of the Policing Board, as well as in my capacity as an Alliance MLA. I recognise that today's debate is not a vision for the future, and we must be clear on that when we make our representations to the public. None of us in the Chamber would want to be here today if this were the vision for the future, but, unfortunately, after more than a decade of Tory austerity, we are where we are and must deal with the public finances as they stand. They were obviously not helped by two years of the Assembly's not sitting. Out of the previous seven years, we have had too many years where we have not been able to make decisions for the benefit of all of the people of Northern Ireland. However, moving forward, I look forward to the Minister highlighting the case with the Treasury and with our Departments for how we can realise that vision for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.

I want to move on to talk about how we landed in this position. Over the past two years, we have placed our permanent secretaries and civil servants in untenable positions, where they have had to take decisions that they, frankly, should not have taken. Unfortunately, we landed in a place where it seemed that everything that was not placed on a statutory footing was up for the chop. A number of MLAs have spoken about Happy Healthy Minds and about holiday hunger. We also had the Engage programme. A number of programmes in the Executive Office could not be fulfilled, not just because of the lack of an Assembly but because of the funding allocations.

When we have cut funds to non-statutory obligations, we have essentially shifted the burden. In the Chamber last week, I spoke on the issue of mental health in particular. When we cut the community and voluntary sector, the burden is placed back on the statutory sector.

As an example, I will talk about holiday hunger. The two-child cap on households in Northern Ireland has plunged so many families into poverty. In North Belfast, my constituency, over 1,000 households are affected by the cap. So many of those families relied on the holiday hunger programme in order to feed their children. We are talking about feeding children in 2024. Now that they do not have that safety net, those families have had to rely on other services in our community. When we did not see further expansion of multidisciplinary teams or Sure Start, more and more families were put on waiting lists and so turned to other statutory and community organisations. Again, it is not just about cutting services but about shifting the burden elsewhere. When we do not have mitigations in place, we see waiting lists increase across health and education, more families in distress and more pressures on our statutory services.

Despite having the youngest population, Northern Ireland spends more per head on health and social care than anywhere else in the UK, yet our system is crumbling. It is not getting any better. It is overly bureaucratic and delivers by far the worst outcomes for waiting times, for diagnosis as well as for treatment. We want to ensure that what we spend is not spent on a failing system but on a system that is transformed, but we cannot achieve that transformation without ensuring that we have sustainability in the immediate future. That is why we need to ensure that, moving forward, our health service is put front and centre of that transformation. We need to ensure that we can rely on our workers by not driving them out of jobs, by paying them correctly and by valuing the work that they do in the service by ensuring that there is adequate provision in each of our disciplines.

Last month, I stood on the picket lines with many of our healthcare workers, education workers and Fire and Rescue Service workers. Those people chose their vocation because it is something that they are passionate about. If we want to ensure that people who are passionate about their role stay in that role, we need to pay them correctly. I understand and can see that we cannot go entirely in the direction in which every single worker and union wants us to today, but, by ensuring that we progress this Bill and outline our vision for the future, we can lay down the right marker to be on that forward trajectory.

It is not just me, as Alliance spokesperson, or Members right across the Chamber who speak about the capacity of the health sector and the pressures that it is facing. That is coming from the sector itself. Many organisations out there speak directly to us about what they want to see when it comes to our health service's finances. The Royal College of Surgeons has said time and again, "We need three-year budgets. Recurrent funding is critical. We need £200 million every year for five years if we are to cut long waiting lists for good". The British Medical Association (BMA) has said, "We are frustrated by the slow pace of transformation and reform of health and social care in Northern Ireland. Plans have been made, but implementation has not followed". Cancer Research UK, while waiting for the full funding and implementation of the cancer strategy, has said that it has been disheartened, and much more, for so many people affected by cancer that, two years on, so little has been progressed.

When we speak today in the Chamber, it is not just about us as MLAs representing our constituencies. We are representing the entirety of Northern Ireland and the many allied health professionals and organisations that do their work, day in, day out, and know just what is right for the health service.

I will now speak a little bit about the justice budget. In the past 12 years, the health budget has grown by 70% and the education budget by 45%, yet the justice budget has seen just an increase of a little over 3%. The policing budget takes up 70% of the justice budget, but it is just one element of the criminal justice system. If we are to have a fair and expeditious justice system, we need to fund it in its entirety. Mr Deputy Speaker, you and I know from sitting on the Policing Board that there are inescapable pressures when funding the justice system, but if we are to see a true and fair allocation of the entirety of the justice budget, we need to see that happen across the board.

We want to ensure that those facing the front-line pressures, whether in justice, health or education, are not the first people to be withdrawn across Northern Ireland. We can do that only if we have a Budget that is a vision for the entirety of Northern Ireland.

As I said when I made my first remarks, we are not where we wanted to be, but, unfortunately, given where we have landed, we need to ensure that we have a safety net for the Departments moving towards the end of the financial year. For that reason, we support the Budget Bill today, but we look forward to working with the Minister of Finance to ensure that we can realise the potential for the entirety of Northern Ireland moving forward.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin 5:30, 19 February 2024

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

[Translation: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.]

I begin by welcoming you to the role of Deputy Speaker.

I thank the Minister for bringing the Budget Bill to the Floor of the Assembly. I thank my colleagues in the Finance Committee for agreeing to its accelerated passage in the exceptional circumstances as well. Urgency is required to ensure that the Budget Bill passes through the Assembly and receives Royal Assent as promptly as possible. That is to make sure that Departments do not reach the limits of the cash allocated to them through the Budget that was set by the Secretary of State in April 2023. As we know, those allocations fell well short of the funding that Departments need, and we saw the devastating impact of that Budget on many of our public services. As a result of the previous Budget, Departments will reach the cash limit much earlier than usual, and we need the Budget Bill to progress so that Departments can continue to access the cash that they need to deliver services for the remainder of the financial year.

We have waited far too long for the opportunity to come to the Chamber and debate a Budget Bill that will bring much-needed stability to our public finances. The Bill's being debated today is an important step in finally addressing the chaos that has been a feature of the past 18 months of Tory misrule, both for our public finances and for our ability to deliver decent public services. Let us have no doubt that the difficult financial position that we find ourselves in today is a direct consequence of the underfunding of Budgets by the Tory Government. In the past year alone, Tory underfunding has delivered cuts of up to £1 billion to our public services.

As elected representatives, we see every day the impacts that those cuts have on our communities, and many of those have been mentioned here this afternoon already. It is utterly reprehensible that Tory cuts inflicted so much hardship on the most vulnerable in our society, many of whom were already struggling due to the cost-of-living crisis. The £3·3 billion financial package that was agreed is, of course, very welcome, but, as many others have stated, the funding package will only plug the gaps left by the years of Tory underfunding and is simply not enough to deliver long-term sustainability.

I welcome the announcement from the Finance Minister last week that £688 million has been made available for public-sector pay. Our public-sector workers have waited long enough for fair pay, and that money now provides an opportunity for deals to be reached. I am delighted that the Minister made that a priority. However, it is worth noting that the pay negotiations associated with the money, earmarked for public-sector pay, could be jeopardised if the Bill was not to progress. Voting against the Bill could, in fact, be voting against a fair pay deal for workers.

It is hugely significant that the very first act of the restored Assembly was a united call from all the parties for a new fiscal framework that would ensure that funding be provided on the basis of need and that our finances be put on a sustainable footing. Sinn Féin is ready and willing to work with the other parties to achieve fiscal sustainability in the longer term, but we must be given the time and space to consider all the options that are available to us. In the meantime, I thank the Minister for bringing forward the Budget Bill to deal with the immediate pressures facing us, and I urge Members to support the passage of the Bill through the Assembly.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I rise to speak again in a Budget Bill debate. From my recall of all the debates on finance and Budgets that I have taken part in, there has never been a satisfactory process in order that this place can scrutinise properly a Budget Bill and the finances of the Executive. We are no different today with this Budget Bill.

Under normal circumstances, the Committee would have had much more time to scrutinise the Bill, which would have followed on from the usual Estimates process and the Vote on Account. Those processes would have given a clear indication of the Budget's direction of travel. This Bill simply makes provision for Departments and arm's-length bodies to remain funded until the end of the financial year, as well as setting a 65% Vote on Account for next year's Budget and allowing movement between the Consolidated Fund and the Departments and their arm's-length bodies for the 2023-24 and 2024-25 financial years.

I always take exception to Standing Order 42(2), which gives the Finance Committee the power to grant accelerated passage, as opposed to Standing Order 42(3), which gives the Assembly that power. I always take exception to being asked whether appropriate consultation has taken place. On this occasion and on many others, that is simply not the case, so I have a problem with that question being asked. It is not true to say that there has been appropriate consultation. However, we also realise why the Bill needs to proceed via accelerated passage. Worse than that, Standing Order 42(5) has been suspended, and accelerated passage has shrunk from 10 days to two. We are not in a very good or comfortable place. Not only are we, as an Assembly, not in a very good or healthy place, how can the Executive be? Ministers have been in post for only a matter of days, and we already have a Budget Bill before us. There is nothing strategic about that. However, I understand why: there are Departments that will run out of money.

Earlier today, I was interested in an answer that the Economy Minister gave to a question from Claire Sugden. He said that Ministers had been asked where they cannot spend money, rather than where they can. We are in a very bad place. That brings me to the briefing that we received in the Finance Committee today from departmental officials. They told us that two Departments in particular — the Department for Communities and the Department of Education — are at risk of running out of money before the end of the financial year. Think about what that means. By the way, Education and Communities are both under DUP Ministers. Think about the Department for Communities. When I asked whether it was about running the Department, the answer was no. It is about delivering the benefits system, including personal independence payments, DLA, universal credit and all those benefits that are sprinkled down to support our most vulnerable. That, basically, is the position that we are in. I do not want a message to go out that, now that the Executive are back and the Assembly is here, all is well and everything will be rosy. Quite frankly, it is not.

It is quite clear that the biggest burden on our Departments is the pay settlement. That is about right, because we need to invest in people. We need to ensure that, as the money sprinkles through the Departments, all pay settlements are resolved, not just those affecting parts of Departments or some workers and staff. I have a real issue — it has been raised here today — about non-teaching staff, bus drivers, classroom assistants and cooks. All of that worries me. We should look at not just the front-line services but all the ancillary services, and support those people. I hope that the Minister takes that on board. I do not know how much the Finance Minister deals with the Education Minister and the other Departments in those negotiations, but we have to be mindful of that in the Assembly when we scrutinise those things.

I go back to the point that I have made endless times before. We are publishing and agreeing a Budget, yet we have no sign of a Programme for Government and no sign whatsoever of a strategic direction, so how can we really evaluate the need out there when we are doing this back to front? If we had time, we should have a Programme for Government that is then funded through our Budget system. We cannot get to that place. To be fair, we have never been in that place. Basically, what we have done with the Budget is pack £18 billion, wrap it up in black boxes, as Steve Aiken said, into the back of a car and release the handbrake. We do not have a satnav, a direction, an outcome or a place to go to yet, and we have just released the handbrake. That worries me. It should worry us all with regard to the detail.

What also worries me is that some in the Chamber think that it is a good idea to have additional fiscal powers. Really? You want additional fiscal powers when we do not even get to see the detail of a Budget that we are being asked to pass and that will distribute 65% of next year's Budget. Without seeing the Vote on Account and without seeing the detail, that is worrying.

What about our charitable sector? What about the organisations that do sterling work out there and do it far better than government ever could? What about funding for them? What about infrastructure and capital investment? If we do not get our act together — we have never had our act together on infrastructure — people will die. It is not just health-related spending that saves people's lives. People die when we do not invest properly in our infrastructure. We have not done that — ever.

I have heard many people talk today about big, bad Tory austerity. I get that with regard to how the Tory party has governed over the past number of years. However, you cannot really talk about big, bad Tory austerity on the one hand when, on the other hand, our Departments hand money back. How can you talk about austerity and not having enough money when the Department of Health and others — this is not just the Department of Health — hand back millions? We have to get real in this place. The Departments here do not spend money well — they do not.

Photo of Eóin Tennyson Eóin Tennyson Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way, and I appreciate the point that he makes around the risk of underspend at year end. In fact, that was an issue that I raised in the Finance Committee earlier. Does the Member agree that, given the cycle of stop-start government that the DUP and others have subjected us to, strategic spend is not always possible and that we need multi-year Budgets and multi-year flexibility in carry forward in order to realise that potential?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for his contribution, because he makes a valid point. Stop-start government does not always work or should not work. It hurts people; I get that. Parties over the years have made strategic political decisions on that stuff. However, I can tell you this now: even when we do have government, it hurts people. For two years, when the Assembly was up and running, it hurt people. It closed businesses down; it ruined livelihoods; it closed our schools; it deprived our children of their education; and it stumped development in our toddlers. All in all, the Assembly sat like a zombie Parliament and let that happen.

Where in this Budget —.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. I know that he is very passionate about that area in particular, but it is a bit peculiar to listen to the Member talk about a zombie Parliament when his party has been a senior partner in that Government for many years. Surely a lot of responsibility lands at your feet.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP 5:45, 19 February 2024

The Member mistakes me: I am talking about the Assembly being a zombie Assembly, not the Executive. The Executive make decisions, and they have been hurtful. My party has stood up against and voted against those decisions many times and has sped up the return to normal.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I was on the former Health Committee, as you are aware, along with two of your DUP colleagues. Nobody was happy with the way in which the coronavirus regulations legislation was brought forward, but we voted for it consistently because we knew that it was in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. Hansard will reflect that.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Before we continue, I ask Members to return to the debate on the Second Stage of the Budget Bill, please.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I am sorry, but it is not good enough for Members to say, "We didn't want to do this", and, "We didn't want to do that", when you caused so much hurt to our people out there.

From September 2017 to June 2018, 1,731 pupils had an absence level of 50% or greater, with 523 pupils missing over 80% of school. That changed dramatically with lockdown philosophy. The absence levels for pupils from September 2021 to June 2022 show that 4,000 —

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I intervene again to ask the Member to return to the Budget Bill debate.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I raise those figures because, frankly, I see nothing in the Bill that recovers the hurt caused by the last Executive and the Assembly, which did not scrutinise and do its job properly. Where in the Budget Bill do we see an acknowledgement that hurt was caused and that we could have done it differently and a plan for how we fix it? Nothing in the Budget Bill fixes the hurt that was caused by the previous Executive, when the Assembly should have been scrutinising them.

Given my lack of faith in this place to scrutinise bad legislation, you can understand my nervousness around allowing a Budget Bill to allocate 65% of next year's Budget without seeing any real detail, strategic vision or direction as to how we will proceed. That scares me. Frankly, if it does not scare me — for the benefit of Hansard, I see Members around the Chamber laughing. How funny it is. We have hurt people, destroyed businesses, hurt children's education and hurt toddlers' development, yet people think that it is funny. That is the state of play as we see it.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way for the second time. I am just looking for some clarification: is the Member still in the DUP, because he is criticising his own colleagues, or am I living in a completely different place?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I ask, once again, that we return to the clauses of the Budget Bill, the subject of the Budget Bill debate, which is what this session of the Assembly is discussing.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Yes. I will, Mr Deputy Speaker. I respect your ruling.

The Member must realise that the Assembly is a different place from the Executive. When decisions are taken —

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

It is. It is a different place. When that is blurred — this man is now a member of the Opposition. From what I see, there is more opposition in my little finger. The Opposition said today that they were not happy with accelerated passage, and then they abstained. What sort of opposition is that? Deadly. There is more opposition and more scrutiny in my little finger than we see in the official Opposition. I look forward to seeing them up their game as we go along with this procedure and process.

The fact remains that we do not see enough detail quickly enough to be able to make informed decisions around the Budget for this place, and that will hurt our people. At the minute, there is no strategic vision whatever. We have lifted the handbrake from the vehicle, and it is running down the hill. We have done that simply to make sure that some of the Departments — not just the two I mentioned; there will be others — do not run out of money. What I really worry about, however, is what we will put in place for the next financial year if we have already allocated 65% of that Budget. It seems to me that the Finance Department officials are not that hopeful that there will be a Budget in good time for next year, given that they have allocated 65% and say that that will take them well into the summer recess. It looks like a rocky road with regard to finalising strategic streams of finances to our Departments to ensure that we cover the costs and burdens.

Another important issue relates to some of the decisions that the last Assembly made. I name the climate Bill, which was costed at billions of pounds — £2·3 billion was reported in the press at the weekend. Where is that factored into this Bill? Where are the burdens of the past — of the previous Assembly and Executive — factored in? Where is that costed? That is a massive question that the Assembly cannot yet answer. Not only can the Assembly not answer it; the Executive cannot answer it either.

There are many issues going down this road that I really worry about. We in the House should be assured that we will have to take a lot of difficult decisions. I hope that all the parties in the Assembly will scrutinise this properly to ensure that we do not hurt people, as we have in the previous two years when the Assembly and Executive were not running. I hope, but we will wait and see.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I feel like I am in a twilight zone after that, but anyway.

I am glad that we are here debating this step to release funding for Departments. That our financial allocations are being made here, not in Westminster on the whims of a Tory Secretary of State, is good news and will be sheer relief for people in communities across Northern Ireland. However, a point that has been well made many times today is that this is not the way that any of us want to do business. Rushing a Budget Bill through by hyper-accelerated passage, however necessary that may be, is by no means good for governance, nor is it appropriate for the proper understanding on the part of MLAs or of the public of the financial plans of the Executive and of how we will spend money in the first few months of the year.

That lack of scrutiny and accountability is totally perverse. Indeed, the whole process of this Budget Bill is a symptom of the dysfunction of our politics and a consequence of the failure to govern this place over the last two years. Those of us who believe, as I do, that any new fiscal framework must include greater fiscal devolution should also recognise that it is harder to make that argument in a convincing way when the constant threat of collapse threatens to undermine the ability to properly manage our finances. That is another reason why fiscal sustainability is dependent on political sustainability.

The process is also symbolic of the perverse lack of transparency and opaque decision-making that has clouded this place for so long. For too long, outcomes from our politics have been muddled. Looking at any area of public policy, we see report after report being issued but a lack of serious accountability for delivery. Just in my constituency, there have been promises, reports and strategies but no delivery. It appears that the Executive's homework simply never gets marked, and our public debate never seems to get round to interrogating the impact of our public policy decisions. Some of that, of course, is because this place is up as much as it is down, but, whatever the reason, the public are losing faith in our ability to deliver outcomes. From the patients waiting in chronic agony for their first appointment with a consultant to the parents waiting for their child's special educational needs assessment, families rightly wonder what their Government are achieving and what progress we are making on the issues that they care about.

In this new mandate, we must change how we do business. From the state of our school estate to the quality of our roads, Northern Ireland faces a multitude of challenges that have their roots in poor government, chronic underfunding and political dysfunction. The least that the public should be able to expect from their politicians is accountability and the ability to judge delivery against objectives. That accountability is undermined when the processes are rushed, especially when it comes to public spending. Scrutiny and accountability must also be improved through the proper and full Budget process later this year. The Budget must be linked to an agreed Programme for Government and closely aligned with clearly measurable strategies and policy objectives. Now that we are back at work, we must get on with demonstrating delivery. Everyone in this place wants to see that take place, and we must put in place the structures to ensure that it is able to take place forthwith.

Photo of Danny Baker Danny Baker Sinn Féin

Infrastructure has a vital role in building and connecting communities. The right infrastructure allows our communities to truly thrive, prosper and achieve their full potential. As a member of the Committee for Infrastructure, I will comment on the Budget from that perspective and on the importance of having locally elected Ministers in office.

My party continues to prioritise the much-needed A5 road scheme to save lives and deliver a road that is fit for purpose. This morning, I spoke about the importance and value of Casement Park. I thank the Finance Minister, Dr Caoimhe Archibald, for the £688 million funding award and welcome the fact that funding has been allocated to afford workers the pay rise that they deserve. I hope that Translink and the union can come to a speedy conclusion.

I welcome the additional £16 million capital for infrastructure, which will go towards road repairs for those in most need. I also welcome investment for NI Water for much-needed water and waste water capital projects and funding for our public transport network to go towards zero-emission buses. I welcome the Minister for Infrastructure's swift commitment to improving our roads by finding the additional £1 million last week and prioritising within the £16 million. Unfortunately, as things stand, potholes plague roads across the North; the quick intervention will help make our roads safer. Our bus and train staff work tirelessly to ensure that people can depend on our public transport, while Roads Service staff are on the front line of ensuring road safety and fixing roads with the limited resource that they have available. Those are just a few examples of the exemplary work of our public-sector staff, people who have had to take industrial action to demand fair pay and good conditions.

Infrastructure is an economic driver, but is also vital for social mobility, inclusion and accessibility. Those are priorities for Sinn Féin, as is tackling climate change and working to address flooding. We need to invest in better roads, active travel and biodiversity. Our public services have been completely decimated by more than a decade of Tory austerity and cuts. In reality, that means a massive road maintenance backlog; a water and waste water system that constrains development across the North; long-awaited capital projects facing delays; and essential public services such as community transport and public transport being left on the back foot. Sadly, I am naming only a few examples. The fact that we are and have been severely underfunded is agreed across the board. Importantly, the Fiscal Council agrees with the Executive that they have been underfunded.

Last year, the British Secretary of State threatened the public with the introduction of water charges. That is the last thing that workers and families need during a severe cost-of-living crisis. I welcome First Minister Michelle O'Neill's statement last week on that, reaffirming that water charges will not happen on her watch.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. Will he provide clarification on his party's position, particularly given that it has the Department for Infrastructure, the First Ministry, the Department of Finance and the Department for the Economy? Was it not his colleague Chris Hazzard who, when he was Minister for Infrastructure, installed a lot of water meters across Northern Ireland?

Photo of Danny Baker Danny Baker Sinn Féin

I will be honest with you: I do not know the answer to what you are asking. We do not support water charges — that has been made clear — but, particularly on what you said about Chris, I do not know the local issue.

A chairde,

[Translation: Friends]

I support the Bill, but there are challenging times ahead, and we need to continue to work together to prioritise the needs of the public and to protect everyone from the cruel and shameless Tory cuts that we continue to face.

Photo of Joanne Bunting Joanne Bunting DUP 6:00, 19 February 2024

Mr Deputy Speaker, I beg your indulgence, first to congratulate you and then to place on record my acknowledgement of the second anniversary of the passing of my friend and colleague Christopher Stalford. He may no longer be with us, but he will never be forgotten.

I declare an interest, in that I have a close family member who works in the legal profession.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate as Chairperson of the Committee for Justice. The Committee has not yet had an opportunity to undertake detailed scrutiny of the Department's budget or financial position and has therefore not been able to consider in detail the matters covered by the Budget Bill. We did, however, receive an overview of the Department's work from the permanent secretary at our first meeting last week, and Committee members took the opportunity to discuss some budgetary matters with him then. It is in that context that I make my remarks.

The non-ring-fenced resource budget for the Department of Justice for 2023-24 was £1,157 million. That meant that it began the financial year with pressures amounting to £149 million. The PSNI accounts for 65% of the Department's budget, but add to that the Prison Service, the Courts and Tribunals Service and legal aid — four key areas of the justice sector — and that figure rises to 95%. That leaves little room to reduce spend in order to balance the budget in a way that will not have consequences for the delivery of vital services.

In the course of the year, the projected overspend was reduced to £35 million by slowing spend across the justice sector. That included suspending PSNI recruitment and not recruiting prison officers. There are obvious consequences from such measures that have had to be taken. The non-recruitment of prison officers comes against a backdrop of an increasing prison population. Current staffing levels are for a population of 1,450 prisoners, but over 1,900 people are in custody, and that number continues to increase. The ability to provide effective rehabilitation to an increasing population when the service is understaffed will therefore be diminished. Members also made the point that a significant amount of valuable rehabilitative work is carried out by the community and voluntary sector, which can often be among the first in line when budget cuts are necessary.

The Committee also heard that the number of police officers is projected to be just over 6,300 by March 2024. That is the lowest number of officers since the formation of the PSNI and is well below the "New Decade, New Approach" target of 7,500 officers.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. She raises a very important point about the funding of the Police Service. Will she join me in offering support to officers, who come under threat every day in our communities, particularly in my constituency, where Detective Chief Inspector Caldwell nearly lost his life as the result of an attack? That is unjustified and unacceptable at any time, and we support our local officers on the ground in doing the work that they do.

Photo of Joanne Bunting Joanne Bunting DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. Yes, I am certainly content and happy to be associated with those remarks.

The Department's allocation of capital DEL for 2023-24 was £129 million. Of that, £37 million was returned in-year owing to slippage in projects, most notably the police college. The Department received £11 million in-year for legal aid pressures, and the allocation of £75·3 million non-ring-fenced resource DEL and £4·9 million resource DEL in the Finance Minister's announcement of 15 February is to be welcomed. While pay awards still have to be finalised, that may mean that the Department does not finish the year with an overspend.

I understand that it is important that the Department live within its budget, but the impact of the measures that it has taken to get here must not be underestimated. Examples such as those that I have just outlined should be a cause of concern for us all.

I will now talk about the next financial year. The Committee was advised that a flat-cash scenario would leave the Department facing estimated pressures of almost £430 million, which equates to 37% of the Department's baseline. That is a planning assumption, and a flat-cash scenario is by no means certain. It could indeed be worse than that. The Department's work is demand-led, and those costs are inescapable. The Committee heard that one of the outworkings of such a Budget settlement would be that the PSNI would not be able to work towards increasing the number of police officers, which, as I mentioned, is at its lowest-ever level. Work is ongoing to determine the optimum number of police officers, but it is expected that the outcome of that work will show that it should be significantly higher than it currently is.

Most, if not all, of us will agree that preventative and rehabilitative work is much more fruitful than reactive work and, indeed, may actually reduce costs in the longer term. Where the justice system is concerned, that often involves collaborative working with other Departments. As an example, Committee members heard about a prison population oversight group that is looking at ways both to reduce the number of people going into prison and to ease the pathways of those leaving prison. The group currently includes representatives from the health sector and, in the future, will likely include representatives from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. That is to be welcomed. The Committee is keen to hear more about that and other innovative practices that will impact positively across the justice sector.

During discussions with the permanent secretary, I raised concerns about the extent to which people are engaged in the justice system when they should not be. When the previous Justice Committee undertook scrutiny of the budget, it noted that parts of the system play important roles in the delivery of health and social care outcomes. In the main, those are non-statutory functions that aim to meet the needs of individuals that are otherwise not being met, and they were often done with or on behalf of another Department. At that time, the Committee questioned why some or all of the funding responsibility rested with the Department of Justice, when some of the services were clearly linked to another Department's remit. It emphasised that a more collaborative and joined-up approach to funding those services was required. I expect that that will be a key area of focus for the new Justice Committee.

While the discussion with the permanent secretary at our meeting on Thursday was a general overview of the work of the Department, it kept returning to the impact that the financial position is having or will have on service provision. Over the coming weeks, the Committee will take evidence from various directorates in the Department, its agencies and non-departmental public bodies. That will include the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service and the probation service, among others, and we will, no doubt, hear directly about the effect that it is having on their important work.

The Committee obviously has not had enough time or information to enable it to make a collective decision, but it is fair to say that members indicated that they had concerns about various matters during our discussions with the permanent secretary. We will have the opportunity to consider those in much greater depth in the coming weeks.

I will now speak in my capacity as an individual MLA. Since being appointed DUP spokesperson for justice this time last year, I have made it my business to familiarise myself as far as possible with the sector. It is a fascinating and multifaceted area of work, but there are some stark realities for the House and for society as a whole. The cold hard facts are that the Department of Justice will face £430 million of unmet pressures, which equates to almost 40% of its budget. There are no further savings to be made. Decisions now may involve moving money from one budget line to another, but there are no savings to be found, and there are consequences to such decisions. None of that is in the Department's control. As I stated, 95% of its budget is demand-led.

In the past 12 years, as other Members have stated, the budget for the Department of Health has increased by 70%; the Education budget by 45%; and the Justice budget by 3%. When Education and Health fail, the justice system should be the last resort. Increasingly, however, the justice system is not the last resort but the daily reality. It is clear that the justice system is picking up the stresses from the rest of the system. It is important to note that the majority of people going through the criminal justice system have complex needs and are likely to be dealing with addiction and trauma. There are people in police cells because there is nowhere else that is safe for them to go. People are in prison for the same reason. Custody is not the place, and that takes us back to the issue of "right people, right care", about which we have heard so much of late. We are reaching a point at which, without question, public safety will be impacted. Prevention is always the aim, but, in order to do that, there must be investment.

In my remarks as Chair, I mentioned four key areas, and I wish to elaborate on them to give Members the picture. I will start with the PSNI, which accounts for 60% to 65% of the DOJ's budget. Debate about the number of officers is valid and worthy, but it merely scratches the surface. The NDNA agreement made it clear that there would be 7,500 police officers, but we find ourselves with the lowest number of officers since the service began. It is of further note that, over the past number of years, the police's budget has been cut to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds. It has been cut to the bone, one might say, and we are now in circumstances where the service may become unrecognisable to the public. The conversation has moved from planning and modernisation and turned to cutting services and what may realistically be provided. The service is now looking at a new operational model and at further cutting services that had already been cut. The previous Chief Constable sounded the alarm, as has his successor. Both men were and are faced with conflicting choices between their statutory duties as accounting officers and their legal responsibility to keep people safe. That is in circumstances where, unlike any other force in the UK, they are not permitted to hold reserves, not allowed to borrow and find it impossible to plan strategically on the basis of an annual budget.

I also want to point out that, in the last mandate, the House passed a raft of new laws. However, the finance did not follow the function, and, in many cases, the police just absorbed the financial cost of implementation and received no additional allocation of money. The police are increasingly becoming the first port of call in the absence of all others, but remember: they often have to face the Police Ombudsman for their trouble. For example, if they attend a call on behalf of the Ambulance Service or if they come upon a person who is unwell on the street, should that person die, the incident will be reported to the ombudsman and investigated. Officers often spend entire shifts in A&E. As society is increasingly suffering from complex needs, the PSNI is becoming embroiled in work that is not for the police and for which they are not appropriately qualified. That is the reality facing the police, and there is a consequential impact on morale and sickness levels. The strain is showing, and a considerable number of officers are seeking to leave, often scarred physically or, indeed, mentally as a result of what they have seen. They are the people who run towards danger as all others run away. They are the people whom we rely on to keep us and our communities safe, and the public will take a dim view if the service is grossly underfunded to the point where it will take decades to recover. That is what we face.

I will turn to the Prison Service, where the picture is similar. The prison population is approaching its highest number ever and is expected, within the year, to reach 2,000 prisoners. It is built for circa 1,500 people. The population has grown to such an extent that not only are some prisoners doubling up but old blocks have had to be reopened to house them. That is exacerbated by huge numbers on remand or in receipt of short sentences, and the reoffending rate has risen to 40%. While prison officers are being recruited, the stretch is such that the rehabilitation of prisoners is significantly impacted, all of which impacts on wider society in the long term.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. She mentioned prison officers, and one of the issues that the Finance Minister deals with is Northern Ireland Civil Service HR. There is a considerable issue with prison officers, particularly with HR services that are being provided by NICS HR. Will the Member agree that that is one of the key areas that need to be sorted out? It is not just a question of finance; it is a question of leadership from the Civil Service.

Photo of Joanne Bunting Joanne Bunting DUP

I thank the Member for his contribution, and I concur.

Over 50% of prisoners have addiction issues. Among the female prison population, a significant number have highly traumatic backgrounds. Among young men, there are high levels of anxiety, depression and an inability to control their emotions.

While some people may argue that they are criminals, and that can certainly be said of some, the facts are that many of them are unwell and in the wrong place. They need healthcare. Moreover, we need people to emerge from prison rehabilitated and able to rejoin society in a responsible manner, not to cause risk to the rest of us and not to reoffend.

Recently, I visited Magilligan prison and Hydebank Wood Secure College, and Maghaberry will follow. Magilligan is an old World War II air force base that was always supposed to be used as a temporary measure. We are long past the point where Magilligan is a temporary measure. It is apparent that the need for capital works is substantial, but people there know that it is not coming, so, instead, they are opting to do what they can in a piecemeal fashion, which is just doing their best to make it work — likewise, at Hydebank. I should caveat all that by saying that I am not soft on crime, but, when people who are mentally ill and seriously disturbed are put in prison because there is nowhere else suitable for them to go and when there are female prisoners in their eighties who essentially require nursing care, we have to start to rethink. There are no female-only hostels that are approved by the Probation Service. Unsurprisingly, the three biggest issues that the service faces are mental health, addiction and trauma. In the first three months of last year, the service used up its annual addiction services budget. In three months, it was gone.

Significant modernisation and capital works are required across some parts of the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service estate, some of which is listed, which invariably adds to the costs, but the longer the work is delayed, the more it will cost in the long run. I have met the Bar Council and the Law Society. I know that the Chamber has not always been sympathetic to them at times, but in few other sectors would people be permitted to wait 12 to 16 weeks for payment, some for work that was completed a year or more previously. Those delays could be the difference between a practice surviving and having to close. Many in the legal profession are on their knees, and, no doubt, firms will close. We should not forget that those practices are small businesses. They contribute to the economy. They are on our high streets and employ our constituents. Yet, legal aid payment is not their only struggle. Beyond the big five, they are finding it impossible to find graduates to take up roles in any area of law beyond corporate law, because people want a career, prospects, a good salary and not to have to go to a police station at 3.00 am to conduct an interview. There are weighty issues facing the legal profession, and, as a result, our society, because, at the worst of times, everybody is entitled to a defence and due process.

I want to move to a subject outside of Justice: the proposed closure of Castlereagh college as a result of a lack of funds for capital work. That is a shortsighted, discriminatory and regressive proposal. In over 20 years, at least seven or eight reports have been written about the under-attainment of Protestant working-class boys, and the proposal is to close a college in their heartland that has a long and illustrious history of bringing back to education those who were disenfranchised by it through their experience in school. The college has given many young people opportunities because of a different way of learning. Moreover, if our economy is to grow, the teaching of skills is essential to that growth. To remove the most accessible college that Belfast Met has, when there is insufficient space to accommodate those classes in other campuses, is appalling, regressive and detrimental to Northern Ireland plc at a time when contracts are being awarded to firms such as Harland and Wolff.

In conclusion, I reiterate the need to move to three-year Budgets as quickly as possible. Those in the community sector who do invaluable work in our constituencies are having to spend a great deal of their time seeking funding for their posts when they would rather focus on their projects. Moreover, nobody wants to go into the sector because of the instability and difficulty in accessing credit and mortgages. It is time that we moved to help them, stabilised their employment prospects and allowed for strategic direction and planning in order to ensure best value.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance 6:15, 19 February 2024

May I take the opportunity to congratulate you for the first time, Mr Deputy Speaker, in your new role? I also congratulate the Minister on her appointment. I worked with her in the Economy Committee during the previous mandate, and I have a great deal of respect for the work that she did and the way in which she chaired that Committee. She will bring her depth of understanding to the new role.

I will speak as the justice spokesperson for the Alliance Party on how the Budget will affect the Department of Justice. As the Committee Chair pointed out, since devolution, the Department has been chronically underfunded relative to other Departments, as recognised by the Fiscal Council. As many Members said about the whole budgetary situation in the Assembly, the Department of Justice has been further hampered by single-year budgets. A clear message is going out this evening about how we budget in the future: single-year budgets are clearly not the answer.

The stark realities that we face in the 2023-24 Budget mean that the Department of Justice's opening pressures amounted to some £149 million, driven by escalating demands on policing, legal aid, prisons and youth justice, pay pressures and inflation across the justice sector. It is crucial to understand that the vast majority of the Department of Justice's budget is truly inescapable. Staff costs and statutory commitments consume nearly all the available resources, leaving less than 1% for discretionary spending.

Over the years, a cost recovery model has operated successfully and delivered significant reforms, despite the noose around the neck of the Department of Justice's budget. However, it is clear that we have reached the point where potential savings would automatically raise costs in other areas. One of the best examples of that is the introduction of GPS tagging as opposed to the current method of tagging. That would help us with the prison population and with remand prisoners; it would do all of that. It is technology rich and expensive to deliver, but the reality is that, if it keeps people out of prison cells, it is a cost saving to us. However, the Department does not have the budget to deliver it.

I recently joined the Chair of the Justice Committee on her visit to Magilligan prison and saw at first hand the challenges of working in what is effectively a World War II airbase, with Nissen huts that have not changed in any shape or form from the day and hour that they were built. However, the services that are delivered across that prison, by staff who are dedicated and governors who really want to make a difference, are absolutely amazing. We met and spoke with prisoners who were impressed by the way in which they were being looked after and cared for in that environment.

Since January 2021, the prison population has surged by over 30%, leading to the necessity of doubling up prisoners in cells and the reopening of facilities that, quite frankly, should have been demolished. Those facilities are still standing and are being used, but they are far from adequate. I cannot emphasise enough how impressed I was on my visit to that prison by the work that is being done there. It is vital that we secure sufficient funding to deliver not only the work that is going on but the plans that it has for the future.

The situation significantly hampers the Minister's ability to implement effective rehabilitation strategies and subsequently reduce offending and reoffending rates, and that is what this is all about. When people are housed two to a cell in those conditions, that undoubtedly limits their rehabilitation opportunities and hinders successful reintegration into the community. In 2022, our Justice Minister, Naomi Long, approved an increase in operational staff levels by 56, from 1112 to 1168 — a move reflected in the 2023-24 Budget. However, the surge in the prison population, driven by complex factors like extended remand periods due to judicial delays and pandemic-induced backlogs, poses a threat to the stability of the prison environment. As has been said, we predict a higher growth in the number of prisoners entering the prisons.

The success of rehabilitation and resettlement programmes is seriously in jeopardy if we cannot get a grip on the situation. Those programmes are vital for public safety, and this is an area of significant concern that I hope we in the Justice Committee will be able to investigate in greater detail. A budget to deliver change will deliver hope and better prospects for the whole of the justice family.

Legal aid, which is a fundamental and yet underfunded component of access to justice, remains inadequate and inadequately supported. Despite its demand-driven nature, it has consistently been underfunded, leading to delays that affect not only the legal profession but the very essence of the delivery of justice. All areas, including probation, juvenile justice, the courts and tribunals, and victims, are suffering as a result of the constraints on the Justice Department's budget.

As has been mentioned, a critical area of concern is the budgetary reduction for the PSNI. That reduction not only hampers the PSNI's ability to meet its operational needs but means that the New Decade, New Approach commitment to increasing police numbers to 7,500 is an unfunded pledge and has now become unobtainable. Currently, the number of police officers is expected to peak at 6,358, which is a shortfall that will undeniably compromise policing effectiveness. That is something that we see in the community day and daily. I meet community officers regularly in my constituency office, and I see them when I am out and about in the constituency. Unfortunately, there is such a high turnover that the whole purpose of the programme of getting to know their communities, getting to know the nooks and crannies where young people hang out and getting to know all the key players in the community is lost because they are moved on to other duties so quickly.

As we look ahead, it is imperative that the Budget Bill represents more than a stopgap financial solution for the relatively small levels of investment. The Department of Justice can deliver a stable and effective justice system if the Assembly, going forward, and in the Budget to follow this Budget, provides sufficient funds to do that. We can provide a safe and fair community for everyone, across all the systems of justice, if we just have the resources to do it.

Let us remind ourselves that our discussions today are focused on the current 2023-24 Budget, but I look forward to seeing many of the issues that I have raised this evening being tackled through the scrutiny of the Justice Committee and being dealt with by the Minister of Finance when it comes to the future Budget and the negotiations that she will have with the Treasury and others, and around the Executive table. Certainly, this evening, I am heartened by a lot of the comments that I have heard in the Chamber about how parties are willing to work together to deliver better Budgets, better finance and better resources for all the citizens of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Like everybody else, I welcome today's important business and the Second Stage of the Budget Bill, which has been introduced by the Finance Minister. We find ourselves in the current situation of having to introduce this Bill because of the approach that has been taken by the British Government and the Secretary of State over the past while. The Finance Minister has introduced this Bill, and it was essential that she did so, as it provides much-needed relief for our public-sector workers and eases the urgent cash-flow pressures on Departments that we have been hearing about today. I am glad to say that her announcement last week of £688 million was the first decision that the newly formed Executive have taken to prioritise public-sector pay. That is positive and to be welcomed.

Many of us stood with those workers on the picket lines just a few weeks ago, and I am glad that we are now back here in the Assembly, making decisions and living up to our commitments to them to prioritise that issue. I know that a lot of people have spoken today about the timing of the Bill, and things are negative as well. However, the resounding optimism that I heard from people on the picket lines — notwithstanding that there were pressures around their pay — reflected that they wanted us back in this Chamber.

They did want locally elected Ministers back in position, taking decisions on their behalf. Notwithstanding all the issues and difficulties that we will move through in the coming weeks and in the coming period, there is hope and optimism out there because we are in this Chamber and we do have Ministers making decisions. The fact that we are here discussing this — the importance of what is in this Bill to public-sector pay — shows that having local Ministers in place actually does prioritise local workers. Therefore, again, I am delighted that we are here. The next step is important, and that is that Departments engage urgently with local trade unions to negotiate and, importantly, conclude as soon as possible those negotiations to ensure that we can get the fair pay into people's pockets.

From my role as Deputy Chair of the Justice Committee, I know that there has been a lot of discussion of justice issues. Joanne Bunting highlighted in depth the issues pertaining to the Justice Committee and the Department of Justice. Last week, the Committee met to discuss the current budget issue and to look at the forward programme. Indeed, we met the Minister today. A key discussion in those meetings was that on public-sector pay, including for policing, prisons, probation services and the Youth Justice Agency. That is key for the workers who run those vital services.

A decade of austerity by Westminster was a political choice. It was a choice by the Tories to introduce a policy of cutting and running down public services, and that had a huge impact on services here and a knock-on effect on resourcing appropriate and safe staffing levels in the justice system and, indeed, across many of the Departments that we have been discussing today. We see high levels of vacancies as a result and a growing demand on our services, and that is placing unprecedented pressures on all aspects of our justice system to respond. That, of course, has a knock-on effect on access to justice and the speeding up of the justice system, leading to delays in completing cases within reasonable timescales, and, of course, longer bail and remand periods. Those are some of the big challenges that we will face over the next period.

We must ensure that we are funded on the basis of need, with a sustainability plan to ensure that we have an effective and responsive resource plan for public services so that we can move from a demand-led service towards prevention, collaboration and, importantly, integrated planning and implementation. Again, I welcome the Minister's action in writing to the British Treasury and Government on urgent engagement between them and the Minister and, indeed, our First Minister and deputy First Minister to look at our finances and our fiscal levers to ensure that we have the necessary tools to plan. This rightly builds on the work of the previous Finance Minister, who established the Fiscal Commission and the Fiscal Council for this very reason, recognising that we have been underfunded, that we urgently need to move to a multi-annual situation and that we need to address the wider issues that were brought up here today around workers' rights and, importantly, around tackling inequality and poverty.

Now is the time for action, and I hope that the Bill will pass its Second Stage today. Action is also needed from the British Government to sit with the Finance Minister and address these issues as urgently as possible.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 6:30, 19 February 2024

Members, as this is Brian Kingston's first opportunity to speak as a private Member, I remind the House that it is the convention that a maiden speech is made without interruption.

Photo of Brian Kingston Brian Kingston DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I welcome you to your role, and I wish you well in it. I also wish the Finance Minister well in her role. As this is my maiden speech, officially, I wish to say that I consider it a great honour and a great responsibility to have been elected to the Assembly by the people of North Belfast. I sincerely thank those who have given me that mandate and duty, and I am here to serve the well-being of all my constituents.

I wish to begin by paying tribute to my DUP predecessors who represented North Belfast in the Assembly. That is Nigel, Lord Dodds, William Humphrey, Nelson McCausland and Paula Bradley, all of whom I worked for. I also pay tribute to Diane Dodds, who represented West Belfast in the Assembly at an earlier stage.

I am honoured to follow in their footsteps.

I have lived and worked all my adult life in North Belfast and West Belfast, where we raised our children. For 20 years, I worked in community work in the Suffolk estate, on the Falls Road, in Rathcool, in the greater Shankill area, in upper Ardoyne and in Ballysillan. In 2008, the opportunity arose for me to work for Nigel Dodds MP from his Shore Road office, which I was very pleased to do. I went on to serve for 12 years on Belfast City Council as a councillor for the greater Shankill area. Those years included three years as the DUP group leader on the council and also my serving as Lord Mayor of Belfast in 2016-17, which was the greatest honour of my life. I note that there are five other former Lord Mayors of Belfast currently serving in the Assembly. There is just one currently present in the Chamber. I think that the others have all left.

My motivation as an elected representative is essentially the same now as it was when I was in community work. That is to be a difference maker, to help make positive things happen — things that improve people's lives, their opportunities and their local community — and to tackle issues that are having a negative impact on people's quality of life. I want the greater Shankill area in North Belfast to be the best that it can be, a place where people are supported and enabled to achieve their potential. It is a pleasure to work alongside many people in various sectors who share that goal and to encourage cross-sectoral working among voluntary sector groups, statutory agencies and the private sector.

As an elected unionist, I am passionate about promoting and defending Northern Ireland's place within the Union, playing our full role within the United Kingdom and also maintaining positive relations with the rest of this island, Europe, the Commonwealth and the wider world.

North Belfast has many positive assets, from Premiership football teams, the superb new Ulster University campus at York Street and the many excellent schools that are involved in shared education through the North Belfast Area Learning Community (NBALC). We have half of the Belfast harbour estate, which is a key driver of our economy, including its impressive City Quays development and the new film studio at Giant’s Park. North Belfast has an acute hospital at the Mater, a range of business parks, industrial areas, shopping centres and retail hubs, significant community sports facilities, parks and the beautiful Belfast hills from Black Mountain to Squires Hill, Cave Hill and on to Carnmoney Hill.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

I see that the clock is not running, so I have time to mention briefly some of our North Belfast luminaries: Sir Kenneth Branagh, Sir James Galway, Ciarán Hinds, Eamonn Holmes, Anna Burns, Norman Whiteside, Carl Frampton and, of course, the late, great Frank Carson. It was the way he told them. North Belfast is often seen as being like a patchwork quilt of different communities. There is a growing and strong willingness and determination among the various parts of North Belfast to work together for the mutual benefit of all our people and to tackle negative issues that arise. I will always support those collaborative efforts.

My constituency office is constantly busy, assisting constituents with issues of concern. I thank my office staff of Naomi, William, Mary and Jordan for their public service, as well as our team of councillors and my colleague Phillip Brett MLA.

In my role as a local parliamentarian and legislator, I will continue to push for quality statutory services and for the right interventions and investments that will address the needs raised by my constituents across a wide range of issues, such as housing, the local environment, education, health, training and employment, economic development, infrastructure and inward investment, all without crippling their personal and household finances through excessive taxation, which is relevant to today's debate. It is my responsibility, along with others, to provide the best standard of representation for North Belfast people, to speak up for them and to ensure that their concerns and voices are heard and heeded.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I was going to welcome the Deputy Speaker, as it would have been the first time that he was here when I spoke, but there is no need to do that now.

I put on record my remembrance of the late Christopher Stalford as well. I remember him fondly. The first time that I met him was in the audience at a TV studio; he was only 17 years old at that stage.

I also congratulate Mr Kingston on his maiden speech. We heard all about North Belfast, including some unusual things that I was not aware of. It was quite interesting, Mr Kingston.

I welcome the Budget Bill. It is interesting that many Members spoke as a representative of a Committee or as a Committee Chair, but, as my colleague Mr Aiken pointed out, their comments did not have very much to say about their Committee or what was happening; it was just a wish list. I could say the same for the Agriculture Committee, because most of it is just a wish list of what the Committee would want to see being developed. That is not the fault of the Committee Chair or the Committee; it is just that we do not have the information at this stage, and that is a difficult issue for us with the Budget.

I listened to Mr Frew make the most convincing case not to have a Northern Ireland Assembly. I thought that he did it exceptionally well. What his intentions were behind that, I am not exactly sure. However, I put on record that, after listening to Mr Frew, I am very pleased that I was not here during the previous mandate. It seems to have been a terrible mandate for what went on or did not go on and for decisions that were not made or were made against the widespread will of the people of Northern Ireland.

I could add to the wish list. A number of Members have spoken about the £18 billion almost blank cheque that has been given to the Finance Minister. Obviously, the Finance Minister has to decide where to distribute that as well, and there will be compelling issues. I heard Ms Bunting talk about policing and justice, and she gave very deliberate, distinct and clear messages. I heard many others talk about education and health. They all have significant priorities, and the Executive will have to make decisions on those priorities along the way. My issue, at this stage, is the lack of consultation and scrutiny. As Committee members or, indeed, in the House, we have not been able to scrutinise those particular issues.

I want to make a case — everybody else is doing it — for issues such as TB eradication in the agriculture sector. I am sure that Minister Muir will make that case. Instead of our eradicating that terrible disease, it is getting worse; the numbers are going up, and the public bill is going up every year. On forestry enhancement, there seems to be a fallback on the amount of forestry that we are planting every year in comparison with the targets, and I want to see that enhanced. We have huge issues around Lough Neagh: everybody knows that; we have already debated it. The Mobuoy environmental issue in Londonderry is another critical issue that could be as big a disaster as Lough Neagh, if it is not at that point already. At the weekend, I raised the issue of climate change and the £2·3 billion bill that will face Departments up to 2027. That is only three years away: £2·3 billion, and we thought that we got quite an amount from the UK Government when we got £3·3 billion.

Where is that money coming from? I do not know whether it is included in the Budget or not. That is the same for the other issues that I have talked about such as those in policing, justice and education. The problem is that we just have no idea.

I have heard mention made of the A4 southern bypass in Enniskillen. That is a shovel-ready project that is part of the mid south west growth deal. I am sure that the Finance Minister and the Minister for Infrastructure will want to move that quickly because it is ready to go. I hope that that will come to pass in the not-too-distant future.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 6:45, 19 February 2024

I thank the Member for giving way. I am the bearer of good news. The Member might not have seen his emails because he was busy preparing his speech, but a written ministerial statement has come in from the Finance Minister this evening about releasing funding for the A4.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I really appreciate that. It is not often that I hear such a positive intervention from the SDLP Opposition. That is really positive news. I thank Mr Durkan for his kind intervention to break the news to the House. That is good news, and I appreciate that decision from the Finance Minister and the Minister for Infrastructure.

We need to settle on the budgets. Mr Aiken said that we need to carry out our scrutiny role. I would like to hear from the Minister, when she makes her winding-up speech, when Committees will get more detail so that we can scrutinise it much more. We also need the opportunity to make suggestions. I support the Bill now because it has to go through to keep Northern Ireland running. It is important that we do that for everybody' s sake, including teachers and health workers, so that they can get their pay increases. It is also about getting potholes fixed, getting our children taught in schools and making sure that we have policing on the ground. Those are important issues. I will leave it at that.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I am thankful for the opportunity to address the House on the Budget 2023-24. I will speak as Sinn Féin's spokesperson on agriculture, as a representative of a large rural constituency and as a member of the AERA Committee. I have a keen interest in achieving the long-term economic growth of our communities, rural and urban. It is welcome that the Executive are prioritising public-sector pay with an allocation of £688 million for our hard-working public-sector workers.

The DAERA statement on the 2023-24 Budget indicates that there will be major challenges ahead in meeting statutory and contractual commitments, with difficult decisions to be made. The threats that we heard recently from the Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, to impose new charges on farmers for bovine TB testing and future cuts to compensation for TB are punitive. It is clear that the Tories are pursuing an ideological agenda that is punishing farmers and the wider public. Farmers, as we know, already face a range of challenges. The Chair of the AERA Committee touched on some of them, particularly those to do with TB. The proposed additional charges will place an extra burden and stress on farmers and their families, who are already struggling.

The Tory Government have slashed the block grant, so we must ensure that there is no differential impact on the section 75 groups. At all times, we must work to ensure equality of opportunity. The DAERA resource budget for 2023-24 has ring-fenced funding of £328·5 million for agriculture, the agrienvironment, the wider rural economy and fisheries. However, there is no certainty beyond 2024 about the budget for direct payments. Even more worryingly, the Labour Party in Britain has indicated that there will be a reduced farm budget if or when they are elected.

As a consequence of leaving the EU, we are no longer part of the EU common agricultural policy. The funding model here is now different, with resource money coming from one pot provided by the British Government since EU exit and managed annually. As we know, agriculture is a pillar of the local economy, and agriculture and food processing are island-wide industries. The uncertainty about what will replace the agriculture budget post 2024 for farming families, the rural economy and the agri-food supply chain could threaten the viability of agriculture production and have a negative impact on rural communities. That same uncertainty goes for the rural development programme, which was 50% funded by the EU when we were in it. In contrast, our neighbours in the South of Ireland have certainty: they have a six-year multi-annual budget from the common agricultural policy. Farmers in the North will struggle to survive and compete with their neighbours across the border, where there is a level of certainty about direct payments continuing beyond 2024. Indeed, that could distort both our ability to compete with our neighbours in the South and the all-island market.

As a Sinn Féin MLA, I want to give a clear message to the British Government that we need to see the farm support continue post 2024 and a future budget ring-fenced, as was the case for the pillar 1 EU CAP payments. It is important to remind people who are not from a rural background that, preceding our leaving the EU, the single farm payment, which accounted for 80% to 90% of a farmer's income, came as a ring-fenced payment directly from the EU and was separate from our block grant. It is important to note that, when we were taken out of the EU, the UK Government promised that that lost EU funding would be replaced. That pledge needs to be stuck to. Certainly, I will implore the Executive, our Finance Minister and, indeed, the AERA Minister to ensure that that commitment is lived up to.

Photo of Sorcha Eastwood Sorcha Eastwood Alliance

I congratulate the Minister on her new role. Comhghairdeas agus ádh mór, agus lots of ádh mór.

[Translation: Congratulations and good luck, and lots of good luck.]

At the outset, I commend the AERA Minister, Andrew Muir, on his work to date in committing to tackle the environmental crisis at Lough Neagh. However, that presents a significant challenge not only in the current financial year but on an ongoing basis, due to the budgetary constraints that, I am sure, we are all aware of.

The same can be said for the necessary work and statutory commitment on climate actions, including the just transition fund. There is a real fear that other key strategies and programmes on issues such as animal welfare could end up being shelved or delayed, given the current and likely future budgetary position. There are also ongoing, crucial commitments on the agriculture and agri-food sectors and broader environmental issues. It is widely acknowledged that there are awaited strategies on biodiversity, the environment and peatlands, some of which relate directly to the climate challenge and all of which are about protecting our natural environment. They will require actions and, therefore, dedicated resource, particularly for interdepartmental climate commitments.

The rural affairs aspect of the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs brief continues to bring demand in relation to connectivity, rural isolation, access to services and addressing the urban/rural divide. The need for many future-proofing initiatives to be funded sustainably and dealt with in accordance with their cross-cutting nature and to ensure the necessary contribution across Departments must remain a high priority in current budget profiling and in future years.

The funding package accompanying the restored Assembly, while welcome, is not sustainable for maintaining momentum and the necessary actions for a greener, cleaner future across the sectors governed by DAERA. It will be a matter for future Budgets to ensure that DAERA is baselined and, indeed, built on.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

Today we are being asked to support a Budget. It is a complicated Budget that covers all areas of finance relating to many Departments and agencies. There are decisions, though, that need to be taken and people who need to be rewarded, not least our hard-working public-sector workers, who have waited too long for their pay awards. We are led to believe that the Budget might address the key issue of public-sector pay. We wait with bated breath to see whether all the pay awards that are outstanding and that have been allowed to grow and fester over the last 10 or more years will be sorted soon. As ever, I will make a brief reference to why those hard-working public-sector workers — the doctors, nurses, teachers, classroom assistants, civil servants and others — have had to wait. It is because, for five of the past seven years, this place has been collapsed and we have been left without an Executive or an Assembly. Yet, we are back again and cannot even get a straightforward answer or commitment from our First Minister and deputy First Minister that they will not collapse the institutions again any time soon.

It would be remiss of me not to also mention that we have heard today that junior doctors have voted for strike action. I am taken by how torn they were about taking that decision. They did not sign up to be medics to strike. They did not become lifesavers to withhold that service. However, they have been pushed and pushed, and they are now beyond the brink. I met them recently, and they told me that it is about more than just pay; it is about the conditions. It is about being able to get a hot drink at 3.00 am when you are in the middle of a 12-hour shift. It is about when they realise that they are one of the few medics who are on duty in a large hospital filled with very sick people. For some of them, it is just about having somewhere to store their coat or handbag safely and knowing that, when they are at work, their property will not be stolen. I hope that that can be addressed. I seek assurances from the Minister that finances will be made available to stop that junior doctors strike.

As a member of the Health Committee previously and again now and having been the party's health spokesperson for a number of years, I am concerned about many elements of the budget for the Department of Health. It will underscore a number of key cuts that will dive deeply into our communities.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member agree that the lack of investment in pupils with special educational needs has a detrimental impact on their health outcomes? Does he also agree that it is unacceptable that Northern Irish pupils receive less investment than their neighbours in Scotland and England and that we must see an urgent commitment from the Executive on those matters?

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for the intervention. As a former youth worker, I absolutely understand that, if we do not invest in our young people and give them the best possible start and opportunities, they will be impacted as they grow older, so I agree with everything that she has said.

One cut that seemed very cruel was the removal of the core grant scheme for the community and voluntary sector. The scheme had a budget of over £4·5 million that was made available to 62 groups. That was cut by 25%, so that only £3·6 million was made available. That was further cut by 50%, so that only £1·8 million was made available. That is not a cut; that is a decimation of our public funding for organisations that deliver on behalf of the most vulnerable in society. This Budget will lock in those cuts — cuts to organisations such as Action Mental Health, Age NI, Cara-Friend, Children in NI, the Down's Syndrome Association, the Eating Disorders Association NI, Home-Start and Include Youth, to name just a few.

We need to ask the Minister why, for example, the Women's Aid Federation has had its funding slashed. The funding was cut by the Department of Health, and that cut is now locked in by the Budget. I quote from the media:

"Sinn Féin has urged the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health to commit to the continuation of the Women's Aid Federation's funding, and even at this late stage, are calling for that action to be taken."

Minister, those were your words to the media just a few months ago. Will you, after publicly calling for the money to be made available, now make sure that that funding is available?

What about when we got representatives of 62 organisations together in the Senate Chamber a few months ago and challenged the permanent secretary about those cuts? All the political parties contributed to the video that marked that day.

Finance Minister, your colleague, the chair of the all-party group on children, who invited the permanent secretary to the meeting, said in that video:

"This funding needs to be restored".

We have already seen the disproportionate loss of funding for the most vulnerable in our society: the disabled. It needs to stop. We need to help everybody, and we need to work together. Will you, like your colleague, suggest that we should help everybody, including the vulnerable and the disabled in our society?

The Budget underscores the cut, copper-fastens the cut and delivers that cut. The Budget gives grounding for a 25% cut followed by a further 50% cut to the most vulnerable in our society. Mencap, MindWise, the Stroke Association and the Samaritans: cut, cut, cut. Is this Budget really the best start for the Executive? In places, it certainly is not. I call on the Minister to review the allocations and ensure that, in a £28 billion Budget, we are not damaging thousands and thousands of vulnerable lives in our community to save two million quid.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance 7:00, 19 February 2024

I welcome Dr Caoimhe Archibald to her post and wish her well in it. Having sat through a long debate, I note well the Minister's perseverance.

As has been reiterated by Members in this Budget Bill debate, the legislation provides legal cover for expenditure in 2023-24 — the current financial year — and reflects spending that has already occurred or that will occur in the first half of the new financial year. The 2023-24 financial paper must be viewed against the backdrop of the lack of an Executive and the role that the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office have played in the Budget allocation for this year, without monitoring rounds or transparency in relation to how much of the previous year's overspend has been repaid. That has led us to where we are today.

I acknowledge the extremely pressurised environment in which the Department of Finance staff — indeed, finance staff across all Departments — have worked over the last number of years, and I sympathise with them. As the Alliance spokesperson for communities, I have attended meetings with the permanent secretary, Colum Boyle, and his finance staff on several occasions. I thank them for their work and recognise the level of stress that they have endured while aiming to deliver the impossible task of meeting needs, political objectives and priorities in the context of an increasingly restrictive financial position.

The figures in the Budget Bill reflect the fact that we are again discussing a single-year Budget. Every day, I hear from organisations that work in partnership with the Department for Communities to deliver support for people who are in receipt of benefits or in housing stress, as well as for our sports and arts sectors, local government and those who work in other areas within the remit of the Department for Communities. Those people speak as one: they all need an end to single-year Budgets.

The lack of clarity about this year's Budget and future years' financial priorities has a negative impact on many of our arm's-length bodies and key partners, including those in the community and voluntary sector. We see many skilled people leaving the sector because they can no longer live under the pressure of an uncertain future. I ask all the Members of the House what Northern Ireland would look like if we had no funded community and voluntary sector. We would be in trouble. The concordat agreement with the community and voluntary sector is moot. Unless and until we have a sustainable Executive and Assembly, those working in the community and voluntary sector and our key partners will have no faith in this place or its commitment to meeting the needs of the community. I support reforms whereby we will never again come to the House at the eleventh hour to debate finances in this way. By updating the processes of the House, we could at last give everyone who has been elected to the House an equal vote and end the vetoes.

The Budget adds nothing new to the Department for Communities. While they are welcome, the additional amounts outlined simply patch over the fractures caused by a lack of sustainable finance. While all politicians from every party would like to debate how we are meeting need, the stark fact of the Budget Bill is that, over the past year, the most vulnerable continue to be left behind. During and immediately after COVID, Northern Ireland received additional moneys to cope with the pandemic. With the end of the pandemic came the end of significant levels of related resourcing, but we have not returned simply to pre-pandemic levels of financial support. The level of funding provided to Northern Ireland and specifically to the Department for Communities is not meeting need. For example, during the past year, the Department for Communities has not had enough money to start building the target number of new social homes, leaving more than 45,500 people in housing stress, which the Chair of the Committee for Communities, Colm Gildernew, referenced. During the past year, we have had a reduction in the money available for discretionary support and discretionary housing payments. More people are living in poverty, as confirmed in the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) 'Northern Ireland Poverty and Income Inequality Report, 2021-22' headline figures, which show that 16% of individuals are living in relative poverty and 13% in absolute poverty. That is a disgrace. Cutting support to such vulnerable people cannot continue into next year. During the past year, the cost to provide temporary accommodation for the rising number of people in housing crisis meant that the ability to invest in prevention of homelessness is nowhere near what any of us would want it to be. The Department for Communities has just about kept its head above water.

Northern Ireland can no longer afford to have such harmful single-year Budgets. This has to be the last year in which we have a Budget Bill for a single year. It reflects a lack of investment in our citizens. Northern Ireland is the only devolved region that has seen funding below relative need, as evidenced by the Fiscal Council. It is significant that the UK Government have now conceded that key principle. Indeed, the proposed 124% needs-based adjustment operates more as a fiscal ceiling than as a fiscal floor, slowly returning us to a point to which we should not have been allowed to fall in the first place. It is inconceivable that the UK Government would wilfully continue to underfund Northern Ireland on that basis. We are asking not for special treatment but for a fair funding settlement that is equitable with other parts of the UK. Fairer treatment will allow the Executive and the House to aim to meet the needs of citizens across my constituency of Strangford and across Northern Ireland. There are strong arguments that, accounting properly for justice needs and to deliver climate objectives, the fiscal floor should be at least 127%. Alliance has led the way in that regard, and it is welcome that the Fiscal Council acknowledged that argument in its most recent publication. I thank my colleague Eóin Tennyson MLA for his expertise and ongoing work in that area.

With the Executive restored, we have a stronger collective position from which to negotiate. As I have said before in the House, we should not look to put a ceiling on our ambitions for Northern Ireland, but we need to draw a baseline to ensure that people here no longer receive less investment than their counterparts in the rest of the UK. I accept that the UK is in a challenging financial period because of the impact of austerity, Brexit and cuts to public spending, but I do not believe that Northern Ireland should pay the price for the Conservatives' inability to deliver a fair Budget.

Through the work of the Committee for Communities, I see at first hand the level of deprivation that a lack of appropriate investment creates. I thank the many front-line workers and citizens who have spoken to me about how hard it is for those on the lowest income across Northern Ireland. Members will have read in pages 8 and 9 of schedule 1 to the Budget Bill the breadth of the Communities remit and how expenditure arises. All will be delighted to hear that I will not repeat that huge list, as published, but, for the record, the Department for Communities pays the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the Northern Ireland Library Authority, National Museums and Galleries Northern Ireland, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Sport NI, the Charity Commission, the Commissioner for Older People and many more. The Department also has expenditure and services including grants, loans, compensation, benefits such as special rules for terminal illness, discretionary support grants and loans, collection of debts, provision of youth and adult employment services and the various strategies that promote and protect socially excluded groups. It is a huge remit that requires a substantial level of investment to meet the needs of the Northern Ireland community.

While I am pleased to see that there has been an increase in the departmental expenditure limit of £15·5 million, there is a decrease in net resources for capital purposes of £10·5 million. Annually managed expenditure, otherwise known as "AME", has increased for net current purposes and net capital purposes, enabling, in this financial year, the payment of social security and other benefits, grants, loans, allowances and payments to people of working age, pensioners and people with disabilities and their carers, in accordance with the prevailing legislation and regulations. Put simply, it is money that comes across from Westminster, because Westminster sets the amounts.

The non-budget expenditure, which is the amount of expenditure through the social fund that is used for discretionary and winter payments, has been increased by just under £69·5 million.

In previous years, rather than waiting until the last part of the year, the Budget position was revised through in-year monitoring rounds from revised departmental spending plans. I can only guess how many Budget Bills I have spoken to in the House since I came here in 2016, but this year has been the first time that we have had no opportunity to look at the position, and, sadly, the Secretary of State has decided not to disclose the amounts.

In keeping its head above water, the Department for Communities has not been able publish and progress its range of social strategies. They include the anti-poverty strategy, the disability strategy, the active ageing strategy, the gender equality strategy, the sexual orientation strategy and the inclusion and social change strategies that should now be available to assist the Minister of Finance and the Executive to underpin a Programme for Government. I therefore ask the Minister of Finance to confirm in her response whether the Budget for 2024-25 will be underpinned by a Programme for Government that seeks to improve social inclusion outcomes for many of our socially excluded groups and whether she will consider the recommendations in the Department for Communities' social inclusion strategies that have been developed by expert panels.

I would appreciate the Minister's confirming whether she will include time in the process — time to enable Members and her Executive colleagues to identify priorities that will meet need — and whether, in future, she will seek to enable delivery through a multi-year Budget. Others have said, "This is very quick. This is terrible", but 65% of the Budget for next year has been laid down. That now gives us time for scrutiny of the future Budget.

It is becoming more difficult to accept that the Assembly continues to prioritise health and education without meeting head-on the reforms that are needed to provide sustainable service delivery, all while our housing stock desperately needs to be maintained. We have not even started to look at how a programme to retrofit social homes will be carried out. The waiting list for homes grows longer, and children and families still live in poverty. All of that has a significant impact on health and education.

We need appropriate time to plan a Programme for Government that will include the housing outcome, as previously promised. We need cross-departmental sharing of funds in order to deliver an effective programme of delivery for the next three years. This must be the last time that we debate a single-year Budget that limits our ambitions for Northern Ireland. I sincerely hope that the returned Executive will work together to deliver better for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Members, the Second Stage debate began at around 3.30 pm, and the Finance Minister has been here throughout. We have had three additional requests to speak since I came in. I hope that the list does not grow much longer, but we will facilitate it, if it does. I propose a 15-minute break for everyone, especially the Minister, and we will resume just before 7.30 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 7.14 pm and resumed at 7.29 pm.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Order, Members. We will resume the debate. I call Robbie Butler to make the next speech.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP 7:30, 19 February 2024

Given that I was late in adding my name to the list to speak, I will keep my comments relatively brief.

Minister, given the quantum of what is being asked for, in the Vote on Account in particular, accelerated passage should not normally be granted — there is probably agreement on that across the Chamber — nor should it be agreed in such short-term form. However, we are where we are, and public services demand that we act expediently. We need to examine, at all times, why we are in the position that we are in, having to make decisions in this manner. Predominantly, what has led to this position is the fact that we have had a two-year political veto exercised over the Assembly. We have form in that regard. We had a three-year veto between 2017 and 2020. Sadly, that type of experience does not add qualitative or quantitative benefit to our ability to bring any forensic examination to the accounts. Regrettably, the crisis that public functions and services find themselves in, which, in all honesty, is due, in part, to the underinvestment that we have spoken about for a number of weeks, is matched by our serial underinvestment in politics in the Chamber. As Colin McGrath of the SDLP pointed out, in five years out of the past seven, the Assembly has not sat.

If we set that aside, accept that there are cracks and gaping holes — not just those that affect our streets, pathways and roads — and look at the health and education systems in particular, we find that they have been hammered by underinvestment and the lack of proper politics in this Chamber. Most people would agree that education is one of the areas most deserving of transformation. An abyss has been developing, and not only in crumbling buildings. We see the wages of teachers and support staff fall woefully behind those of their compatriots across the other United Kingdom jurisdictions. Children from socially disadvantaged areas are still bound by a widening gap in educational attainment. Most worrying of all is the growing crisis in special educational needs.

While much could be said about the whole gamut of deficiencies and stresses in the education sector, Minister, I want to highlight a real-time matter that needs to be addressed without hesitation to avert a serious impact on the most vulnerable pupils. Many children who attend school daily do so with the expert assistance of a team of non-teaching wonder workers: from the morning pickup by the bus or taxi driver and the driver's assistants, right through to the school-meal cooks and those who provide one-to-one or broader classroom assistance. The reality is that if we did not have that team in place, many of those children would miss out on their school experience.

I do not believe that there is a single person in the Chamber, or indeed across the country, who does not recognise the financial hardship facing many in our public services. The need for fair pay and an equitable pay increase for those who provide essential services is recognised by all, but nowhere is it more pronounced than amongst educational support workers. Those people are paid some of the lowest rates across our public services. Regrettably, many of those workers feel undervalued and are looking elsewhere. Minister, we have already lost too many of those talented and dedicated staff; we cannot afford to lose any more.

Photo of David Honeyford David Honeyford Alliance

I congratulate the Finance Minister on her new role and wish her all the best.

I support the Bill. It is unfortunate that we do not have time to scrutinise it thoroughly, but I acknowledge the need to move forward apace after the past two years of suspension. As has been said, the Budget that we are discussing is for the current year and there are only a couple of weeks left of that year. However, I must mention a couple of things that are important now and will be essential in future. I speak as the Alliance Party's economic spokesperson and a member of the Economy Committee.

This morning, we heard the Economy Minister's statement, which contained some good news but also some really large economic challenges. I want to focus on our growth and opportunities, as well as those challenges. We should not lose sight of the fact that it is the business community that creates jobs. It increases the profits that are able to be reinvested in order to bring money into our economy, which creates prosperity. It is essential that we work together to create the conditions and give businesses the best platform — in sporting terms, the pitch for them to play on. We need to create the best platform that they can have to support the business community and allow all sectors to grow.

Given the added challenge that most of our businesses are small businesses or microbusinesses, which are spread across the region, I welcome the Minister's comments earlier around the spread of economic investment and talent around Northern Ireland. Being in the unique position of having access to the GB markets and the EU markets is something that we know about all too well. It has been in every news bulletin over the past while and it has been debated thoroughly here, and people here know about it. However, it is one thing for us to understand this opportunity: it is completely something else for the rest of the world to know about it and for us to be able to exploit the opportunities that we have in the rest of the world.

There is also a lot of work that needs to be done to support and encourage our local businesses to realise their potential to export and move outside the Northern Ireland markets and into the EU and the Irish markets. There will need to be significant investment in order to realise that growth. There is truth in the old saying, "Follow the money". It is easy to make statements and say words, but the real value and the heart of the priority will be where the money is spent. Where the Budget is allocated to is the heart of where we are going.

There are significant challenges in our economy this year and into the next, and I want to highlight a few of those. There are issues around energy transition and the reform of Invest NI and the changes that we need to see being brought through there. We need adequate funding for higher education, skills and all-age apprenticeships. While I am really encouraged by the Economy Minister's statement earlier, in which there was focus on growth in our economy and on tackling productivity, it is really important that, moving forward, the Department for the Economy has an adequate budget allocation that allows and enables reform, specifically in the areas that I have just raised. The reform of Invest NI and empowering the skills programme will require investment in the short term, but, if delivered, gives us the opportunity to deliver success in the longer term. We cannot afford to miss the opportunity that is in front of us now to transform our economy. It is essential that that happens, and we need to take that opportunity.

It is also important to stress that the growth of our economy is not limited to one Department. It is not just about the Department for the Economy: it includes not least DAERA but the Department for Infrastructure and the Department for Communities, which all have a role to play in economic growth.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. He mentioned the Department for Communities: be still my heart. I absolutely agree that shared budgets need to be there, but Northern Ireland has already missed out in this financial year on some of the crucial investments that the rest of the UK have had. Does he agree that we will be seeking for the Minister of Finance and the Executive to ensure that we never miss out on those opportunities to upskill our people here?

Photo of David Honeyford David Honeyford Alliance

Absolutely, I am happy to agree. I would be scared not to.


I am only joking. I jest. I am delighted to agree with that: moving to multi-year Budgets will be essential as we go forward.

That brings me to my last point, and I will finish where I started. The last two years of suspension need to be the last suspension. It is essential that, in future years, we have reform and that there are no more collapses of these institutions by either of the largest parties. Every year, we will have opportunities to deliver change and create more prosperity and a prosperous society for all of our people. We all need to be over the detail of how the Budget affects our Departments, not coming in with a rushed Budget every time the Assembly is restored. We have only had a working Assembly for two years out of the past seven years, and this stop-start Assembly has held back our potential. It has caused hurt in our community, and suspension leaves its own negative legacy. Not only does it damage the public's trust in these institutions, but it makes bringing about change even more difficult and more costly, as we start further back and need to do more to bring us forward. As the Alliance Party, we look forward with hope, but now is the time to draw a line and end the cycle of collapse. We cannot build the economy that we need by starting and stopping this place. We need to see the financial growth, the new jobs and the opportunities that all of us deserve.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

While it is important that a Budget is put in place to protect public-sector pay and deal with some of the other challenges that exist, this is just not the appropriate way to do business. People expect more from this House. They expect us to scrutinise on their behalf to ensure that they are getting a fair deal and the best possible deal with public money. Also, the lack of accountability that lingers around this place has returned, because, while we were out there, some of us trying to get back in again, we told the public that things were going to change. Here we are, in the first few weeks, the honeymoon of the return of the Assembly, and we are back to square one, with the same old, same old manufactured crisis met with temporary, sticking-plaster approaches.

I am sorry if that bursts the bubble of some of the Members who have spoken today, but the reality is that the public are depending on us. They are relying on us to be here, and the starting point should never have been a collapse of the Assembly. However, the reality is that, for five years, people were deprived of that necessary and essential representation. In the absence of this place, the block on my democratic right and that of others in this House to advocate for our constituents was allowed to go on for five years. That is unforgivable and unacceptable, and it has done untold harm to all our people collectively. In fact, they are united in their frustration, in their grief, in their pain and in their anger. However, they are also united in their hope for better from this place. That is why today, as we debate this Budget Bill without any proper scrutiny or drilling into the detail, people will be shocked that this Budget will be allowed to slide through as a stopgap measure because of how this place has been allowed to operate.

Does anyone remember this?


That was the clap that we gave our public-sector workers. When you look back on that, do you know how embarrassing that is, when we would not even pay them what they were entitled to get for years? It is despicable. They have had to stand on picket lines, when we needed them in hospitals and caring for our community, because they had no other choice. They were told that there was no money, and, now that this place has returned — thank God, and long may it be here — we need to do better by our people. Public-sector workers — health workers — should not be standing on picket lines to receive the pay that they are duly entitled to. This, to kill any myth, is not a pay increase. It is not a pay rise. It is a levelling up. They are getting finally what they should have got a long time ago and they deserve so much more.

When you look at some of the detail across the various Departments, you see that it predates the most recent collapse and, indeed, the first collapse, when Sinn Féin brought down the House. We have the worst track record on a whole range of areas. We are the worst when it comes to waiting lists. We have the worst level of investment in education and the worst level of investment in roads infrastructure. We have the worst level of care for older people.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. Will he agree that, every time this place collapses, our young people suffer as well? One of the many examples is that, currently in Northern Ireland, there is a cut to funding for children who have suffered significantly from sexual abuse. This is wrong, and there should be commitment and discussion from Ministers on that issue to ensure that this never happens again.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

That is one of the many, many areas that needs immediate attention.

That brings me to special educational needs. It is an area that the previous Education Committee, on which I was privileged to sit, scrutinised significantly and was promised that things would change. When the going got tough, however, the tough got going. This place just disappeared. What if, when the going got tough in our health service, our workers just decided not to go in? What if our teachers in classrooms, who were there during the toughest of times, looking after our children and young people, just decided not to go in? Special educational needs is a major crisis for this place, and it is a huge crisis for the education budget. The Education Authority and the Department of Education do not seem to have a handle on the problem. There is a huge and growing concern that, after many promises, they still have not learnt lessons. Guess what? Young people — the most vulnerable in our society — are being failed daily. Too many false promises are what is causing the problems in this place.

For all the worst possible reasons, we are chart-toppers when one considers some of the things that I have outlined. When we consider that this place and its population consists of six counties, 11 council areas and 18 constituencies, it is a ridiculous situation. This is not rocket science. What makes it even more unforgivable is that political parties think that the solution to any problem that we face is to go out that door and not come back in. Let us hope that that does not happen again.

When I talk about education, let us look at some of the cuts that have been made, because they are significant. The Budget locks them in. I attended many meetings with colleagues in the House who were outraged by all the cuts that were being implemented by permanent secretaries, civil servants and the Secretary of State. They were saying, "When we get back in there, we will sort it". I have read countless statements that contradict the positions of parties today. In the spirit of goodwill, I will not embarrass Members, but I will list some of the cuts. For example, an end to the Healthy Happy Minds programme. Mr Butler and other colleagues from the previous Education Committee will remember the importance of that funding: cut. An end to the Engage programme: cut. An end to the digital devices scheme: cut. An end to the Book Start Baby scheme: whoa, now there is something. Do you know that we are probably the only place that has cut that scheme? That is despicable.

There has been a pause on capital development. Some 28 new school projects have been paused, and 40% has been cut from the free period products budget. We debated and brought in that legislation, and we just cut it at the first hurdle. There is a 50% cut to the shared education budget. There is something to be proud of. There is a reduction in nurture funding from £70 million to £62 million; an end to school coaching programmes by the IFA and the GAA; an end to funding available to Young Enterprise to encourage innovation and development; a pause on a cashless scheme for schools; and a depletion of the funding available to the extended schools programme. The list goes on and on, and it is all locked in. The Budget today just copper-fastens cuts to all those things that we have listened to people talk about daily.

Photo of Eóin Tennyson Eóin Tennyson Alliance

The Member has said that, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Does he acknowledge that the SDLP was invited to participate in talks alongside all the other parties to negotiate a financial package and, when the going got tough, the SDLP got going and left others to do the work?

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. He needs to look up the definition of "opposition". We are not in the Executive, and we will not be a mudguard for anyone in the House any longer. We are going to start standing on our own two feet to call out the cosy-corner situation in the House. The reality is that people deserve accountability, and they have not had proper, accountable politics from this place for a long number of years. We are in opposition, and we will be constructive.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I recognise and welcome some of the Member's words, but, as the Opposition, he and his colleague have said some strong words against the Bill. Will they oppose the Bill?

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for raising that. You will note that I qualified what I said at the beginning by stating that public-sector pay is vital to ensure that our public services continue. That does not necessarily mean that we agree with everything in the Bill. There is a lot of it that Mr Frew does not agree with as an independent member of the DUP. However, the reality is that we need to do something about the mess that we are in, which was inflicted on us by the absence of political parties that had a responsibility to deliver for this place. That is what we are dealing with. It is not ideal. There is nothing romantic about Northern Ireland politics, let me tell you, and there is a lot of suffering as a consequence of the inaction or the action of this place when it comes to it.

The public pay settlement is a major issue, and it needed to be resolved. It is unforgivable that it lingered for so long and probably will linger for so long. Pardon me for being paranoid, but, when it comes to promises in this place, there is not a great track record of delivering on them.

I will move slightly away from education to healthcare. Has anyone visited A&E? It is an outrageous place to be if you are sick or unwell. Unfortunately, on multiple occasions over the last number of months, I have had to sit in A&E with a very unwell family member. When you sit and watch how the staff are overworked, underpaid and not working in good conditions, you understand why so many of them have little choice but to go elsewhere.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I enjoyed my time with him on the Education Committee, and I think that, with tonight's input so far, I will enjoy his performance in opposition.

Does the Member agree — I think that he will — in regard to the deficit that our health service has faced — not just the underinvestment but the political underinvestment when we have not had a ministerial lead, ministerial direction or the political leadership for the transformation that is needed in our health service — that there is a lasting trauma that impacts on the people of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I do, absolutely. Bengoa needs to be implemented; those reforms need to be put in place; and our health service needs to be a major priority for the House. I am clear about that.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way and for highlighting this very issue. I had occasion very recently to be in A&E with my mother. The first thing that you see is the pressures that the staff are under, but you also see police officers spending a lot of time in A&E. I spoke to one of them and said slightly jokingly, "You could probably get a job here". He said, "Yes, and in social services as well". Often, the police are the first responders because of the pressures on our Ambulance Service. That is the situation that we are in.

I say a big thank you, genuinely, to the staff in Causeway Hospital's A&E for their help and support on that night. It was a great relief to me and our family.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. My well wishes and, I am sure, those of colleagues across the House are with your mum. I hope that she has a full and speedy recovery, Patsy.

A&E in Derry is probably the worst possible example of what you would expect from our healthcare system. That has been recognised by senior directors of the Western Trust and by those who manage that difficult crisis scene daily. There are people in their 80s and 90s sitting on hard chairs for well over 24 hours, if they are lucky. There are no beds, and nothing is available: no privacy, no dignity, nothing. That is killing people. Do you know why, Mr Speaker? It is because people are choosing, even when they are sick and need intervention, not to go to A&E because it is so traumatising for them to attend what I have seen on countless occasions. My colleague Mr McGlone rightly points out that, at the weekend, there are police everywhere, accompanying people who are intoxicated or have mental health or addiction issues. They are sitting in the same space. There is no sufficient space for children with special educational needs in A&E. There is no space for people with dementia who need care, and their family members have to stand for hours, while their loved one sits there surrounded by chaos. Is that the vision we have for this place and our people?

There needs to be serious investment and intervention in our health system, because, at the very least, we should have dignity at all times.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have visited Daisy Hill's emergency department, and I have heard that Craigavon's emergency department is akin to what you have just described: there were seven police officers at one time in the corridor, with patients stacked head to toe on trolleys. The backs of the trolleys cannot even be put down. The patients have been stripped of their dignity. The nurses and doctors have been prevented from fulfilling their duties in a safe environment. Does the Member agree that that has to stop and that we need the cross-border healthcare initiative to be restored immediately so that we can ease the burden on our health system now?

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. He, too, paints a picture of our health service that is difficult to look at. The reality is that, because of a lack of funding generally in health services, no matter how sick you are or how complex your issue is, you go to A&E. If you ring your GP surgery and cannot get an appointment, you go to A&E.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Two wee seconds.

If you have a mental health or addiction issue, you go to A&E. No matter the problem, that is where you are sent, and it is leading to a major crisis in the care of our people. It affects countless older people in particular. It would break your heart to see that, after contributing to this society for a lifetime, that is how they are treated when at their most vulnerable. That is totally reprehensible.

Mental health and addiction services are also huge issues in all of our constituencies. I am sure that we have all had people in our offices who are battling with their mental health and cannot get the support that they need.

Do you want in on that point, Patsy?

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Yes. Thank you. You are taking me to where I was going to take you. The first thing is that people are winding up at A&E when they should be going to their GP. The second thing — this is a huge issue — is about mental health services: people with severe mental health or addiction problems are attending A&E. That is not the right place for them. Their problems are being compounded by having a lot of sick people around them. It is not a conducive environment for calming down a person who has severe mental health problems; nor is it a good environment for the rest of the people who are there with physical health problems. It is not being done in the right way. Does the Member agree that there has to be some sort of triaging system to ensure that people with severe mental health and addiction problems get help as soon as possible? Does he agree that A&E is not the best place for that help?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Will the Member take his seat for a minute? You are having a great debate about the health service, but this is a debate about the Budget. We should focus on finances rather than getting into the nitty-gritty. Even with the best will in the world, we will not fix the health service tonight.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Speaker, you are absolutely right, but all of those problems emanate from the fact that there has not been a proper budget for or investment in our health service. That is why we are talking about the problems. They are a consequence of fast-tracked, unaccountable budgets, such as the one that is to be rubber-stamped here soon. The reality for a lot of people is pain and suffering.

Mr McGlone made a very important point. When I was a student in Liverpool, no matter what the issue was, you could walk down the street to a service that was accessible to people. No one knows when their mental health might deteriorate; it can happen to anyone at any time or point. At that critical juncture, you need help there and then. You do not need an appointment in two weeks' time. People arrive at my office seeking that support and help, but the services do not exist because they have not been properly funded. If someone is not registered with a GP or with local mental health services, when I phone, we are told to ring an ambulance. That person does not want to go in an ambulance to A&E to sit in an area that will add to their deterioration. We need to fund those services properly, because people are losing their lives. They are desperate. We, collectively, have a responsibility to ensure that that is resolved, so we need to invest properly in our healthcare services.

The reality when it comes to accessing care is that there has been a failure to look after older people. Our hospital wards are filled with older people who cannot get domiciliary care packages. They might have no family support network, their needs might be too complex or difficult for their family or they might have a small family circle. A couple of the wards that I visited were filled with older people who would love to be at home. Those people are being failed miserably. All of us will be old some day — some quicker than others — but the reality is that, if the system is failing people at that point in their life when they most need help and support, what are we here for? We need to resolve those problems. Older people should not be treated in the way that they are being treated in our society. We need to give them the dignity and respect that they deserve.

I will quickly move on. The A5 costs lives every year in my constituency. There are stories of heartbreak and devastation everywhere you go. No matter which part of the road you are on, you see headstones, crosses and tributes to people who have died. People have been promised for over 50 years that investment in that infrastructure would happen. Every time there is a delay, people die. The least that people deserve is safe roads to travel on. I want to see and am hopeful that there will soon be a positive announcement on the A5, because it will save lives and unlock the economic potential of that part of the island. It is long overdue. I wait in anticipation and hope for a positive announcement from the Irish Government on that. I encourage the Minister to ensure that there is money for that in the Budget in order to ensure that, when we get to that critical juncture, the project that her colleague the Minister for Infrastructure announced is ready to go.

This week, we had an announcement from the new Minister for Infrastructure, John O'Dowd, that there is £1 million for potholes in roads. I welcome any investment in our road infrastructure, because it is diabolical, but £1 million will not get him out of Omagh. It is a serious problem. It is an extremely dangerous situation if, when travelling along any road, you hit a pothole. People are swerving on the roads to avoid potholes, and they end up causing an accident on the other side of the road. It is a major problem, and £1 million does not cut it. There needs to greater investment in our infrastructure.

That brings me to the final point. People in our communities are struggling on a daily basis. They want us to work together. They want us to stick with it when it gets difficult. They want us to find solutions to their problems. They want us to fund the health service properly. They want us to fund our education system properly. They want access to good housing. Young people deserve a future in this place that is much more than sticking a plaster over a problem until it falls off.

Today is regrettable, because we are just back to the same old, same old approach from Stormont: pass the Budget; no scrutiny; resolve a few problems; and create a mountain of many others. Let us get beyond that. The only way that we can do that is by making the commitment that my colleague Matthew O'Toole, the Leader of the Opposition, has requested from the First Minister and deputy First Minister: when things get tough, stick with it; find solutions; knock down whatever door is in front of you; and put our people first.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 8:00, 19 February 2024

I commend Mr McCrossan for his compelling speech. I look forward to, in a few minutes' time, holding the "No" door open for him as he votes against this wholly inadequate Budget. Let us see.

When I lift up the Budget Bill and turn to page 1, it is hard to escape the huge figure that appears there for our resources: £28,817,000,000 — it is good to be British, but it is never enough. That could say £38 billion, and there are Members who would demand more, particularly on the Sinn Féin Benches. They are past experts at spending everyone else's money. That is, in fact, their raison d'être, so that they can forever blame the Brits: "There is not enough money: blame the Brits". Sadly, there have been echoes of that from some on the unionist Benches. The DUP have joined in with their own Brit-bashing on the money front.

Yet, here we are, back in Stormont, on the foot of a package that Members accepted as the way forward. They bought the package. I am sure that we are all familiar with the Latin phrase, "caveat emptor" — let the buyer beware. Did they? No. They bought £3·3 billion as the way of getting the keys to the House, and they are not through the door before they are demanding more and more. Of course, as I said, that is the only purpose for which some of them exist, because they could never acknowledge that being a part of the United Kingdom is financially beneficial or anything like it. You have to own what you bought into.

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

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He mentioned that being part of the UK is financially beneficial. Does he agree with the UK's official budget, fiscal and economic forecaster, the Office for Budget Responsibility, which says that Brexit has basically reduced the UK's trading capacity and, therefore, its economy and GDP by about 4% in the long run, which obviously means much less tax revenue, which means much less money to spend on public services, including in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

No, I do not. Let us be clear. I hear all the time in the House about Tory austerity and the terrible Brits who do these terrible things to us. As has been pointed out tonight, this is a Budget that builds in those cuts. They are now Sinn Féin cuts. Sinn Féin is now taking ownership of the denuding of our education service, our health service and everything that goes with it. Let us have a bit of honesty about where we are.

There is no point in the First Minister and deputy First Minister speaking in front of impressionable four-year-olds in a playschool and equally impressionable BBC journalists, beating their chests and saying, "We'll not have water rates. We'll not increase rates. We'll not do this. We'll not do anything", when they accepted the very deal where the rubber will hit the road. The Fiscal Council has told you and anyone would have known that there is a cliff edge to that £3·3 billion. This is an Executive who are trying to blame everyone but themselves, when they are the people who bought into this. If they did not have enough money and if that mattered to them, why are they here? They would have been holding out. Some of them, of course, would be here for no money — £3, never mind £3 billion, would have done them, such was their anxiety to be here and to take ownership of Tory austerity, as they do tonight.

Then, we look at the challenges coming down the road. A former Finance Minister of the House tells us in today's 'Belfast News Letter', that the Climate Change Act that the House previously approved will impose a charge of £2·3 billion. Was any of that factored into those wonderful negotiations? The House committed itself, in its folly, to all sorts of expenditure arising from a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with a reduction in net emissions of at least 48% by 2030. A climate change commissioner has to be appointed, a public body has to be set up to scrutinise changes, and something else called a "Just Transition Commission" has to be established. That will all cost a phenomenal amount of money. Where was the negotiation to get that money? Where is that money coming from? It is all very well to say — we had this so much at the end of the last Assembly — "Let's push through all of these populist measures and populist private Members' Bills, but never cost them or worry where the money will come from." Of course, that is the typical Sinn Féin approach. In fact, the less money you have, the better, because the more you can blame the Brits. That is the mentality of the Minister and her party in the House.

As we go forward, we will see more of the dysfunctionalism of the Executive. Indeed, we had a classic example of that last week, when the Education Minister came to the House to make his first statement. We may have been in the Chamber, but the Minister was not talking to us: he was making a presentation — a plea — to his Executive colleagues, including the Finance Minister. He set out that he needed £500 million or £600 million — I cannot remember exactly — to fix certain things. He did not come to make an announcement that, "This is what I've got, this is what I'm going to do with it and this is how I'm going to fix things", as you would expect from an Executive Minister. No, he came to the House to address the Finance Minister and his other Executive colleagues with bids for his Department. That is the classic dysfunctionalism of the Executive. We are only beginning to see it, and we will see it more and more as Ministers make their siloed presentations.

This all comes down to a Budget that has locked in the cuts to date. The title deeds of those cuts have thereby been transferred from the wicked Secretary of State to the Finance Minister of Sinn Féin. That is where the ownership now lies, and that is where it will lie going forward. When public-sector workers and others find disappointment in what they are given and when our schools continue to be short of finance, let us put the blame where it belongs: on this Executive and on Sinn Féin in particular, who hold all the key economic posts. This is what they serve up to us tonight. It is little wonder that a minority of us refuse to vote for such a thing.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I have already said that the process that we are asked to endorse today — the spending of so much public money without knowing where it will all go or for what purposes it will be used — is totally absurd. It smacks of the new Assembly continuing in the same vein as its predecessors. There is a question over MLAs, especially those outside the Executive, having their say on the Budget Bill and being able to properly scrutinise it. We have been unable to do so. That is not to mention the members of the public who are constantly told that decisions are made on their behalf. There is no inclusion for them. The Assembly has failed the first test of its scrutiny role by rushing the Bill through earlier and being likely to pass it by tomorrow.

Over the years, we have heard a lot about the renewable heat incentive and the need to learn lessons about proper processes being put in place to ensure that public money is spent properly. Those calls have fallen on deaf ears. Too many times, I have heard in this stop-start Assembly, of which I have been a part, that accelerated passage is a special case or that there are extenuating circumstances, but legislation is being rushed through again today. Here we go again and again.

We are given mere hours to scrutinise it and are then asked to rush it through. It is a return to the way it always was at Stormont.

We know that a huge portion of the blame lies with the Tories and their cruel and unforgivable approach to funding public services in this place. The Tories have collectively gutted some £500 billion from public services since they came to power in 2010. That is half a trillion pounds of public money — a staggering figure — the loss of which has led directly to a spike in the number of people going to food banks, homelessness figures going through the roof and people in their millions struggling in poverty. The Tories' Budget and the consultations launched by Departments were essentially a hit wish list through decimated public services and working-class people.

I and my party welcome the announcement from the First Minister that water charges will not come in as a secondary, separate charge. However, there have also been suggestions for higher tuition fees, possibly limited travel for over-65s, and the reintroduction of prescription charges. They all hang over ordinary people like the sword of Damocles. I say clearly that, if the Executive proceed with any of those plans, people need to be ready to take to the streets to protest and campaign to resist such cruel measures. The DUP enabled the Tories all along by collapsing Stormont and by being attached at the hip for so many years. Now that Sinn Féin is in the Government, with ministerial portfolios, it should not do the Tories' bidding.

The Tories have the gall to talk about financial management and budgets here while the total level of debt in Britain is some £2·5 trillion. They have a mountain of debt but the cheek to lecture us. When selling the Bill, the Minister and her colleagues talked about the money that is set aside for public-sector workers. The first thing to be said is that, if there is an increase, whatever the detail is, it will have been won by the public-sector workers who went on strike last month in unprecedented numbers — 170,000 of them. People were told for too long about money trees not existing, but we knew that it was a spoof and a lie, and the workers did not buy it. They changed the narrative and shifted the terms of the debate. Anything extra that has been obtained is down to their fight, their strikes and their struggle, not to the clever words of politicians behind closed doors.

The Finance Minister stated in correspondence to the Finance Committee:

"It is regrettable that the Executive was not in a position to fund the full c£700 million of estimated pay costs identified by departments."

The question is this: who will lose out? Unite the union has already written to the Minister to clarify whether the £688 million pay package makes any provision for a pay and grading review sought by striking education workers that is six years overdue. The union has warned that if there is not enough money or not enough on offer, the workers will take strike action. That is a certainty, and I will back them if they take that action. As we have heard, they are some of the lowest-paid workers, who deliver essential work in difficult and challenging circumstances, especially with people who have complex needs.

Junior doctors are also appalled by the pay offer that they have received. Their wages have fallen by 30% over the past 15 years, a significant divergence of pay, but the DUP has said nothing about it. The BMA left its meeting with the Department feeling extremely disappointed and disheartened; it has been offered a below-inflation pay deal that will do nothing to recruit more doctors and stop people leaving these shores to seek and obtain greater pay. The Budget Bill fastens in those pay cuts. That alone should be a reason to vote it down. I thank our junior doctors for all their hard work over the years. If they are out on picket lines, I will stand with them, but will it not be absurd if Executive parties pass the Bill and then join the picket lines when people strike early next month? I hope that they do not.

The Budget contains some money to support asylum seekers and refugees, but it appears to be completely inadequate. Huge challenges are faced by our asylum seeker and refugee communities, and the Executive need to stand up and fight for them. The Executive need to challenge the rotten Tory hostile environment policies, not implement them. The Home Office needs to cough up money to ensure that asylum seekers are not evicted from their homes when they achieve settled status. I am long enough in the tooth to know that that will not happen without pressure from anti-racism groups, migrant communities and housing campaigners. It is not enough for the Executive to leave the Tories to it or to oversee their dirty work.

If all that the Executive do is implement Tory policy, it begs this question: what exactly are the Executive good for? Budget cuts are budget cuts, and it makes little odds whether they come directly from the Tories or from their enablers here.

I finish by inviting the Opposition to vote against the Budget Bill and join the socialist opposition and people who stand against the Budget for the reasons that I have stated.

Photo of Peter McReynolds Peter McReynolds Alliance 8:15, 19 February 2024

As the penultimate Member to speak this evening, at this late hour, I congratulate the Finance Minister on her new role and recognise her endurance. I thank her and the Infrastructure Committee Chair for their contributions.

It is fair to say that last week was challenging, with key issues already to the forefront in the Chamber, Committees having reassembled and Chairs having recovered, hopefully, after reading out what felt like hours of statutory rules to us. Since becoming infrastructure spokesperson for the Alliance Party, I have been fortunate to attend regular briefings with the permanent secretary, Denis McMahon, over the past year. I have heard about the significant budgetary pressures that his Department has faced, from staff vacancies to facilitating essential projects to maintaining current levels of service standards.

Today's Budget Bill is welcome, and we support the reason for its being brought forward unusually fast, as my colleagues have acknowledged. I will refer in my remarks to what it achieves within the broad remit of the Department for Infrastructure. The Bill demonstrates why we now need a sustained and recurring Government in place in Northern Ireland to deliver the budgetary support and security that the Department for Infrastructure requires.

In addition, I agree that we need to be able to scrutinise, but we also have to support the Minister for Infrastructure and his Department to be creative in their use of funds and to ensure that new ways of thinking are deployed to make money go further than before, as well as to support them to be able to invest more money in the short term in order to deliver more in future.

There are ideas that will ease budgetary pressures in the long run, such as improving our active travel offering, thus increasing the ease with which it is possible to move around without having immediately to resort to private car use, reducing congestion, improving connectivity in our communities, improving public health and making local areas safer. Working with Northern Ireland Water to ensure that it has the necessary funds to deliver water to our homes, and is able to make long-term strategic decisions in doing so, will save money in the long run that can be refocused further down the line. By working with Translink to ensure that our public transport offering is fit for purpose in the 21st century, there are huge opportunities, through the new Belfast transport hub, to reimagine Belfast city centre as a vibrant space to welcome visitors to Northern Ireland and to allow our citizens to move around it with ease.

Finally, we as a party have significant and grave concerns for capital funding. Understandably, resource pressures have overshadowed such projects, but it is essential that the Committee make sure that it is able to proceed and that we do not look back at the opportunities that could have been. The Alliance Party wants to see a radical improvement in our infrastructure in order to prepare Northern Ireland for the future. We want to modernise it by targeting spending to maximise social and economic benefits and by taking a responsible, long-term approach towards it. This Budget eases short-term pressure on the Department, and we look forward to supporting the work of the Minister and the Committee to deliver enhanced infrastructure across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I will attempt to be brief. I first join other Members in welcoming the Minister to her position and wish her well in what will be an important and, no doubt, challenging role.

I do not feel the need to rehearse the argument about how we are processing the Budget Bill. That point has been well made by many Members. I would like us to commit to this being the last time that we do it in this way so that, the next time that a Budget comes to the House, it will be a multi-year Budget, with plenty of time for us to scrutinise it. It is not only about a multi-year Budget but about a Budget that is closely aligned with the Programme for Government, and not only a Programme for Government but an outcomes-based-accountability Programme for Government that is focused on outcomes, meaning not just on the inputs and outputs of government but on delivering for our people.

I heard many Members say today, "We are failing our people". This evening, I think particularly of the community and voluntary sector, which had already suffered a huge blow with the loss of the European social fund moneys that the UK Government have not adequately replaced. The lack of certainty is now leading to a huge issue over job retention in that sector.

It is perfectly reasonable for a key worker to look to see whether they are getting their contract renewed for the next year, and, if there is uncertainty, they may see a nice, secure job in the statutory sector and migrate there, because they have bills and mortgages to pay, cars to run and children to bring up.

I will speak briefly about the two areas on which I speak for the party. One is the economy. I welcome the Economy Minister's statement earlier, and I wish him well in trying to achieve what I believe to be the holy grail of economic development: closing the productivity gap. At some of the meetings that I attended in the build-up to the return of Stormont, much was made of how we must collectively engage in additional revenue-raising. It seems to me that, actually, there is one very agreeable way to increase the revenue that we raise, which is to create more highly paid jobs, yielding more income tax, more national insurance contributions and more disposable income. That would lead to people buying stuff and so to more value added tax. If they were shopping locally, there would, of course, be more corporation tax from certain companies.

The other area on which I speak is policing. I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board. Over the past months, every week, I have heard the police talk about how the budget gap is impacting on service delivery. It is also impacting on morale. We ask the police to keep people safe, and we do so while the threat level is severe and while the attempted murder of DCI John Caldwell a year ago reminds officers and staff alike that they are not safe at any time. On or off duty, in the police station, on the beat, at home or in the shops: they are at risk.

We pass laws — we are quite right to do so — that place additional duties on the PSNI. For example, a Bill on stalking was passed in the previous mandate. That puts another duty on the PSNI, but do we accompany such duties with additional budget? No, we do not. We will have to think about that. Some Members made the point that the police are first responders and that they deal with a lot of medical situations. It was once put very succinctly to me by a senior officer: police officers operate defibrillators; ambulance crews do not carry handcuffs. The question is twofold. First, is that the right division of labour? We have to have that debate. If our answer is, "Yes, that is actually the best way to go about business", we must ask ourselves whether the budgets for the various agencies reflect the fact that we are asking one agency to do the work of another.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Member for giving way, because the matter is very close to my heart. The Assembly has seen multiple failures when it comes to the training college at Desertcreat, which should have been in place years ago. The reality is that, if we want to save money and to provide better public services and a better emergency response to save people's lives, there is that need for a tri-service response, whether it is the Fire and Rescue Service, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service or the Prison Service and the Police Service, because the jobs are multifunctional now.

The Member makes a really good point about the security risk to police officers. I started in the Prison Service in 1996. I think that my take-home pay was around £850 at that stage, but I had to check under my car every day that I held that job. Prison officers still find themselves with that security risk in 2024. Money does not pay you for some of the jobs that our people have to do. Will the Member reflect on that? He set out a good position on the Police Service in regard to the ongoing security risk, but Prison Service staff still face a similar threat.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank the Member for the intervention. I do not disagree with anything that he said.

I will finish by referencing Mr McCrossan, who was very passionate but, to my mind, very negative. I am very proud to come from this neck of the woods, this little postage stamp on the world map that some of us call "Northern Ireland" and some call "the North of Ireland". Yes, we can do better, but I believe that we will.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin 8:30, 19 February 2024

I put on record my thanks to Members, Chairs and Deputy Chairs who contributed to the debate on the Second Stage of the Budget Bill. It has been very useful to me, as Finance Minister, to hear the views of the respective Committees and Members on the important financial and economic issues that face us.

I will endeavour to respond to as many of the issues raised as possible in the closing moments of the debate and, hopefully, without another coughing fit. However, before I do that, I want to be clear again about the speed of the Bill's passage and the effect of that on the scrutiny of it. This is not the way in which we would choose to do business, but I am asking Members today to ensure that Departments get the funding that they need to continue to deliver public services until the end of the year and to deliver fair pay for public-sector workers.

The Chair of the Finance Committee, Matthew O'Toole, made the point, as did a number of Members, that the Bill legislates for cuts. I agree that the starting point for the Bill should not have been a Budget that was set by the Secretary of State; it should have been a Budget that was set by the Executive. There is no doubt that the decisions that Departments had to make to live within the Budget set by the Secretary of State have caused harm, and I will make it clear to the Treasury that the Executive's funding needs to be put on a sustainable footing and that that needs to include funding based on need. The Bill provides significantly more funding, obviously, than was in the Secretary of State's Budget, and, last week, the Executive agreed to allocations of £1·067 billion resource DEL and £83·5 million capital DEL. That included the £688 million for public-sector pay.

Mr O'Toole also referred to an amendment that he intends to table following this Second Stage debate. I will not go into that in detail until it is accepted, if it is accepted. Work is ongoing, with legislation being drafted, to place the Fiscal Council on a statutory footing. Given the Member's role as Chair of the Finance Committee, I know that he will be aware of the Department's plans in that regard, as those plans were detailed in the first-day brief provided by the Department.

Mr O'Toole also asked for a timescale for engagement with the Treasury on the financial package. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury wrote to me on 13 February setting out the details of the financial package. I have a number of significant concerns about the package as set out in the letter, and, on receipt of that letter, I wrote to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to highlight those concerns. I await a response to that letter, although I understand that last week was recess in Westminster. I also continue to seek an urgent meeting with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Diane Forsythe asked some questions about the package for pay awards. The Member is quite right: Departments identified around £700 million of pay pressures in 2023-24. The financial package provided £584 million specifically for pay, and I sought flexibility to put some of the £559 million that was originally provided for overspends towards pay pressures. As a result, the Executive were able to allocate £688 million for pay. Unfortunately, the funding provided by the financial package did not go far enough to fully address the pressures that Departments had identified, although we allocated as much as we could towards the pay pressures. The allocations agreed by the Executive provide funding envelopes for Ministers to begin negotiations with all the pay groups identified. Individual Ministers are now in the process of engaging with trade unions to negotiate pay awards for the various groups of staff. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the detail of those negotiations, including the funding for individual awards and individual staff groups. A number of Members referred to particular groups of workers. Those negotiations continue.

Eóin Tennyson talked about the need to address the underfunding and, specifically, about our level of need. I do not believe that the 124% needs-based factor that has been proposed by the British Government represents a fair estimate of our need. There is a wealth of evidence, from the Fiscal Council in particular, that that could — in my view, should — be higher. Those options remain unexplored. Whether it should be a job for the Fiscal Council or another independent commission to look at that, the issue can be debated further. However, it is clear that the British Government need to revisit the issue. As all Members will know, I have written to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury seeking an urgent meeting, and I will discuss that point with her.

Phillip Brett mentioned year-end underspends. In normal circumstances, the Executive would be able to carry forward a limited amount in year-end underspend under the Budget exchange scheme. That will still be possible this year for capital DEL. However, as the additional funding that is provided in the financial package is provided from a claim on the reserve, no carry forward will be permitted for resource DEL. I have made my Executive colleagues aware of that and have asked them to seek to avoid underspends. I also asked that Departments engage immediately with the Department of Finance should any issues emerge between now and the end of the financial year.

Mr Chambers and Mr O'Toole had an exchange about the role of the Audit Committee in setting budgets for independent bodies. In the absence of the Assembly, the Secretary of State set the budgets for those bodies. I appreciate that they were not happy with that. I agree that that is far from ideal. However, we have only a few weeks left of the financial year and limited funding available, so there is little scope to change that now. However, going forward, it will, once again, be for the Audit Committee to set the budgets for those bodies. I ask that, in doing so, obviously, the Committee take account of the wider public expenditure position.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for taking an intervention. She has a lot of questions to answer, and I appreciate her patience. My question is specifically about the Audit Office and its forward work programme. Can her Department correspond with it and give it a little bit of certainty? The control totals in the schedule to the Bill make it slightly difficult for that office to plan. I will leave that with the Minister or her officials.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for the intervention. I am sure that officials will make a note to pick up that particular point.

Nick Mathison asked about the impact of the Bill's not being passed. As I explained in my opening remarks, Departments are operating on the authority of the Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Act 2023, which the Secretary of State legislated for and which was based on his Budget that was set back in April. There is a risk that a number of Departments, including the Department of Education, could reach cash limits if the Budget Bill is not passed and does not receive Royal Assent as soon as possible. The impact of that would be that my Department would be unable to pay money out of the Consolidated Fund to any Department that has reached its cash limit. Obviously, that is not a situation that any of us want to risk happening.

Nick raised the non-teaching staff pay and grading review, as did a number of other Members. The business case to support the proposal for the implementation of the pay and grading review is still undergoing scrutiny and has not yet received expenditure approval. My Department has raised a number of questions about the original business case and is working through updated information that the Department of Education recently provided in order to ensure that such questions have been adequately addressed. I also understand that, in parallel, the Department of Education is continuing to engage with the Education Authority to review its cost estimates in order to ensure that they are accurate. That work is ongoing. As such, although I fully appreciate the importance of the role of the workers in that staffing group, which Mr Butler, Mr Carroll and others highlighted and which cannot be overstated, we need to ensure that appropriate scrutiny is completed.

Nick also raised the Department of Education's capital position. The £150 million Fresh Start funding package for shared education and shared housing has been repackaged into the funding that is available for allocation by the Executive. I understand that some shared and integrated education projects that were initially being considered to progress using Fresh Start funding have not yet become contractually committed, and it is now a matter for the Executive to determine allocations for Departments.

Mr Aiken raised a number of points. He raised concern about the use of the sole authority of the Budget Act, often referred to as the use of the black box. I covered that somewhat in my opening remarks and set out the range of services that that is being used for. He is absolutely correct: sole authority should be used only for items of expenditure that are to last for a short period or for which the level of expenditure is relatively small. It is absolutely correct that significant services involving significant expenditure should be legislated for properly by the Assembly. The Member will be aware, however, that it has simply not been possible for us to do that for the past two years.

Looking at some of the significant areas that are being delivered under sole authority, we see that, at the top of the list, is our mitigation of the British Government's welfare reform measures.

If the sole authority of the Budget Act is not used for this, our mitigation measures will cease, and that would obviously plunge some of our most vulnerable people and households into crisis. Absolutely, this needs to be put on a firm statutory footing now that the Assembly is functioning again. However, until that can be done, we must ensure that the most vulnerable continue to be protected.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Minister, the point was that, when I was the Chair of the Committee, it was reported that that figure should not exceed £1 million. That came from the Audit Office and also — I think, but I would stand corrected — the Comptroller and Auditor General. Those are real controls that should be there. It is not a question of sole authority being used. Those are the kinds of things that we should be checking on to make sure that it is being run properly. Going above that figure is not acceptable.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention. We have discussed at length today the extraordinary circumstances that we are in with this Budget.

Dr Aiken also expressed his dissatisfaction with the level of information that the Assembly has been provided with in relation to the amounts in the Budget Bill and the Vote on Account. It is regrettable that the timescales involved mean that it has not been possible to provide spring Supplementary Estimates to accompany the Budget Bill. That is purely down to timescales. Until I received a letter from the Treasury last Tuesday, I had no certainty on the funding available for 2023-24. The Executive allocated that funding on 15 February, and a statement was issued to the Assembly later that day. That statement showed the resource and capital DEL allocations to each Department. I set out in the statement that that included £388 million for overspend and £688 million for pay. As the Member will know, the spring Supplementary Estimates document is long and complex and not something that could be turned around in a matter of days. Therefore, while it is regrettable that that document did not accompany the Bill, if the Bill is to obtain Royal Assent before the Departments exhaust their cash limits, it needs to proceed on the timescale outlined.

The Vote on Account is quite simply a percentage of the provision in the 2023-24 Budget. It is intended to ensure that Departments can continue spending until such times as a Budget Bill, based on the Executive's 2024-25 Budget, obtains Royal Assent. As I explained in my opening remarks, the Vote on Account is intended to last until after the summer recess to ensure that not only the Executive but the Assembly have sufficient time to consider the Budget for 2024-25.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

It is a short technical point for our information. For the Bill to obtain Royal Assent, a statement about the Estimates has to be part of the information package that goes with it. If the Bill goes for Royal Assent but we are not going to get the Estimates until later, how are we going to apply those Estimates?

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

We hope that those two timescales will align to allow that to proceed in relation to the 2023-24 Budget Bill that we are discussing.

Joanne Bunting and Stewart Dickson raised issues around the budgetary pressures facing the Department of Justice. I welcome the points made by both Members regarding the budgetary pressure on the Department of Justice. I took account of those funding pressures in my written ministerial statement, in which I confirmed that the Executive have provided a further £75·3 million to help DOJ meet the remaining needs for 2023-24. That additional funding will provide the Justice Minister with funding to address outstanding financial pressures in areas such as policing, including pay. I look forward to discussing the Department of Justice's financial position with the Justice Minister as part of the Executive's consideration of the 2024-25 Budget.

Mr McGrath and Mr McCrossan spoke about what this Budget does. The Secretary of State put in place a Budget last April that caused damage across our public services. Many of us had been critical of that Budget as being deeply punitive. This Budget Bill secures the funding for Departments for the final few weeks of the financial year and delivers fair pay for public-sector workers. It will not undo the damage of that Budget, and no one claims that it will. This Bill is not setting the Budget for 2024-25 and future years. The Executive are now beginning the process of considering the 2024-25 Budget. Indeed, the Vote on Account in this Budget Bill is intended to allow the Executive and the Assembly to carefully consider the Budget for 2024-25.

Finally, Mr Nesbitt talked about our needing to have an outcomes-based Programme for Government, and I completely agree. It is important that that is the case, because it will help us prioritise how we spend our money.

Mr Speaker, we could all continue to debate these issues for some time, but I will draw my remarks to a close. I have tried to respond to as many issues as possible. As always, the debate has been wide-ranging and many significant points have been raised, and I am thankful to Members for that. It is imperative that the legislation debated today continues its passage through the Assembly so that public services can be delivered without delay or interruption. In conclusion, I ask Members to support the Bill, thereby authorising spending on public services by Departments for 2023-24 and into the early months of 2024-25 through the Vote on Account.

Question put. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 62; Noes 2


Dr Aiken, Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Mr Baker, Mr Beattie, Mr Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Miss Brogan, Mr Brooks, Ms Brownlee, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mr Delargy, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Donnelly, Mr Easton, Ms Eastwood, Ms Egan, Mr Elliott, Ms Ennis, Mrs Erskine, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Ms Forsythe, Mr Frew, Mr Gildernew, Miss Hargey, Mr Harvey, Mr Honeyford, Mr Kearney, Mr Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Kingston, Mrs Little-Pengelly, Mrs Long, Mr Lyons, Mr McAleer, Miss McAllister, Mr McGuigan, Miss McIlveen, Mr McReynolds, Mrs Mason, Mr Mathison, Mr Middleton, Mr Muir, Ms Mulholland, Ms Á Murphy, Mr Nesbitt, Mr O'Dowd, Miss Reilly, Mr Robinson, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Stewart, Mr Swann, Mr Tennyson

Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Ferguson, Ms Á Murphy


Mr Allister, Mr Carroll

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Allister, Mr Carroll

The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Mr O'Toole

Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Budget Bill [NIA 01/22-27] be agreed.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 8:45, 19 February 2024

That concludes the Second Stage of the Budget Bill. I remind Members that amendments to the Bill for Consideration Stage may be submitted in the Bill Office for up to one hour from now.

Adjourned at 9.05 pm.