Budget 2024-25

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 28 May 2024.

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Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly approves the programme of expenditure proposals for 2024-25 as announced by the Minister of Finance on 25 April 2024 and set out in the Budget document laid before the Assembly on 20 May 2024. — [Dr Archibald (The Minister of Finance).]

Photo of Phillip Brett Phillip Brett DUP

Before I begin my remarks as Chair of the Committee for the Economy, I will pay a couple of tributes. Mr Mike Nesbitt has been an excellent and articulate member of our Committee and will be sorely missed when he takes up his new office. I also welcome the return of the Minister for the Economy to his post after his bout of ill health. The Committee looks forward to continuing its enquiries with the Minister.

I can advise that officials from the Department for the Economy recently provided an oral evidence session on the 2024-25 Budget. Owing to the compressed timescales and the continuing internal departmental allocation process, however, the Committee struggled somewhat to track changes in spending precisely from 2023 to 2024. The Committee awaits further clarification on a number of matters, and we hope to have that clarification before the next Budget Bill is introduced.

The Committee was relieved to note, however, that the opening position for the Department for the Economy's budget lines and its key arm's-length bodies (ALBs) appears to be largely similar to that of last year. The Committee will, of course, be interested in the outcomes of monitoring rounds and the allocation of capital, particularly to the higher education sector. Members welcomed assurances from officials about funding for apprenticeships and skills, despite the long-term lack of clarity on the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF).

Another considerable pressure in the Department was the pay settlement for further education lecturers, which is something that all members of the Committee were keen to see settled. I think that I speak on behalf of the Committee in welcoming the Minister's work and the Executive's commitment to settling that dispute.

The Committee looks forward to the new model for the delivery of further education contributing successfully to the 10X economic strategy and the vision that the Minister has outlined. Finally on the Committee's considerations, we have sought clarity on annually managed expenditure (AME) and on the revised renewable heat incentive (RHI) tariffs and the future of the scheme. Perhaps the Minister of Finance, when summing up, will inform the House where her Department's consideration of that business case sits.

I will now speak briefly in my role as a DUP MLA for North Belfast. There is no doubting that this is a difficult Budget, that every Minister in the Executive could have spent additional funding and that funding overall has been reduced as a result of the UK-wide reduction in public spending. Those are not new facts but facts that have been articulated for some time. It was not this party that came out of the Hillsborough talks to say that the financial package secured would sort all of Northern Ireland's ills, and it was not this party, when calling for the restoration of Stormont, that said that there were millions of pounds in the Stormont bank account ready to be paid into people's pockets.

I welcome much of what is included in the Budget, however. I welcome the settlement of outstanding pay awards for our hard-working teachers, FE lecturers and other public servants; the introduction of much-needed support for our childcare sector to help families across Northern Ireland with soaring bills; and the progression of the subregional stadium funding, which will ensure that football clubs the length and breadth of Northern Ireland receive the facilities that they deserve.

The alternative to supporting the Budget has been clearly articulated by the Minister of Finance. We would put in jeopardy day-to-day services; we would remove the £25 million support for childcare; and there would be no agreement to continue with the priority of getting a pay settlement for our Education Authority (EA) support staff. That is the reality of the situation that we face.

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

If the Budget were voted down today — I do not think that it will be — that would not prevent the Minister from spending the money. There has been political agreement on the priorities, such as they are, but this is not a Budget Bill. It does not affect the legality of spending.

Photo of Phillip Brett Phillip Brett DUP

The Member will be aware that the House set a trajectory through the Vote on Account that the Executive want to follow.

I will respond — it happens rarely in the House — to some of the legitimate charges that have been levelled against other Executive parties by the official Opposition and, indeed, the unofficial Opposition in the Executive. I agree entirely with the leader of the Opposition about the need for strategic plans. Those have been articulated by our Minister for Communities in relation to tackling the housing waiting lists across Northern Ireland and by the Minister of Education as to how we tackle the crisis facing our special educational needs (SEN) sector. I was going to say that I look forward to the leader of the Opposition's alternative Budget, but, in fairness to him, he continues to tell me each week about how we can save £2·5 million by removing long-haul air passenger duty (APD). I am sure that the rest of the Members from the SDLP who speak will outline their alternative Budget to the House this afternoon.

I agree with the Chair of the Health Committee: it is disappointing that, to date, no strategic plan or prioritisation has been set out by the Minister of Health. I and Members from all parties recognise the difficult role that Minister Swann has. We, as a party, supported the Minister's return to that office. I hope that he will continue to serve in that office long after the general election. When the new Minister takes office, we need to see a strategic prioritisation for that spend.

I disagree with the UUP finance spokesperson, who indicated that no self-respecting MLA could vote for the Budget. I do not doubt the sincerity or commitment of any MLA in the Chamber. I believe that every Member wants to deliver the best possible services for those whom we are honoured to represent. The Budget is difficult, but we were elected by the people of Northern Ireland to make strategic decisions in their long-term interests and to deliver for them.

I commit myself and my party to continuing to fight for a better deal for the people of Northern Ireland. The Budget represents important progress in that regard. Together, the House can send a strong message that we will stand up for working families across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I speak as a Back-Bench MLA. I begin with a quote from another Member:

"I am not going to impose cuts which will have such a negative consequence that it will damage the health of the Northern Ireland population ... I will make cuts, but there are certain services that I will not make cuts on, and the consequence of that is, we will break the budget by tens of millions of pounds unless more money is allocated to health".

Those were not my words, Mr Speaker, but yours, when you were Health Minister in 2014. I applaud you for the stand that you took then. You, of course, were correct, but it is worth noting that you were removed as Health Minister a month later.

Sadly, funding for health and other public services has continued to be squeezed since then. The repeated stop-start nature of this place, combined with the failure to agree a multi-year Budget for almost a decade, has starved our health and social care system of the certainty and stable leadership that it so badly needs. We all agree, across the Chamber, that Northern Ireland is underfunded. At the same time, there is an onus on us to make the very best use of the resources that we have and to protect the most vulnerable. That is why I and so many patients and health service workers took reassurance from the public statements before and after the restoration of the Executive that the health of our people would be prioritised. Yet, this Budget does not achieve that.

Several other Departments, such as Education, Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Justice and Infrastructure, are all receiving proportionally greater increases to their general allocations than the Department of Health. To those who claim that this is about party politics or elections, I say this: do not judge me by your standards, because this is too important for games. People can debate figures all day long, but the fact is that the Department of Health's budget has been cut by over 2% compared with where it stood a little over a month ago. That fact was recognised in the report published by the Fiscal Council only a number of weeks ago. That is the exact opposite of prioritising healthcare. Let me give an illustration: I received an in-year allocation in the last financial year to pay for the uplift in pay: is anyone seriously suggesting that that uplift is taken off our workers this year? Of course it will not be and cannot be, but that is the implication when people talk in such basic terms.

I said at the beginning that I could spend a further £135 million on critical activity to tackle hips, knees, cataracts and many other procedures. If funded, I had also planned to reinstate a reimbursement scheme, following the success of the previous cross-border scheme. It feels as though almost every MLA has either mentioned it or asked me about that over the last number of months. Overall, almost 70,000 people would have benefited. The full details were shared with the Committee a number of weeks ago and were included in the Department of Health's elective care framework document that was published at the end of last week. However, once again, when push came to shove, the only targeted funding for the waiting lists that the Department of Health received was the £34 million that, we already knew, we were getting from the UK Government: not a penny more and not even half of what, I said, I needed to keep up with red-flag and time-critical demand. That is the reality of the Budget.

There is little point in demanding maximum action to tackle waiting times and, at the same time, tying the Department of Health's hands behind its back. Likewise, I am sure that some of the very people telling me and the Department to suck it up and accept the Budget will soon be urging the Department of Health to increase spending on a plethora of health issues. In the budget assessment that the Department of Health commissioned following the initial Executive agreement to the Budget last month, it is clear that the remaining £189 million deficit will be resolved only through high and catastrophic impacts to essential services. Again, those are not my words or descriptions but, rather, how our health trusts have described the consequences.

I fully accept that every pound given to the Department of Health is a pound less for somewhere else, but, frankly, not all need or level of risk is equal. That reflects the wider concerns with the budgetary process that I have sought to highlight in my discussions with Executive colleagues. The process is fundamentally flawed.

A Member:

Will the Minister give way?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I want to make way.

It is based on individual Departments identifying inescapable pressures; yet, Departments use different assessments of what constitutes a pressure. I fully believe that an assessment based on the principle of reducing harm would have led to a different Budget outcome. It is my assessment, as Minister of Health, that the Budget, as presently set, will result in serious and potentially irreparable damage to health and care services. Mr Speaker, I do not say that lightly, nor did you in 2014.

In voting against the Budget today, I am conscious that I am not complying with the ministerial code. I do not do that easily, but I have a greater responsibility to defend and protect vital services, to stand up for patients and staff and to oppose cuts that will cause real harm.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I am trying to make progress.

As the chair of the BMA GPs committee said only this morning:

"No Health Minister could support this Budget in good conscience".

I agree with that, and that is why I will not do so. The ministerial code requires Ministers to:

"support, and to act in accordance with, all decisions of the Executive Committee and Assembly."

I have to say that I did not always see evidence of that during the pandemic. Collective Executive decisions were publicly undermined within hours, and, of course, Executive COVID restrictions and guidelines were blatantly breached —

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

— by other Ministers.

Mr Speaker, on my final day of office, can I just say that it has been an honour of my political life to twice serve as Minister of Health? I am absolutely certain that Mike Nesbitt will serve with similar commitment and pride.

Photo of Cathy Mason Cathy Mason Sinn Féin

When the Assembly returned, parties came together in agreement and acknowledged that the British Government have underfunded this place. That collective acknowledgement is hugely important, and that unity among parties strengthens our Finance Minister's hand when she negotiates with the British Treasury in the interests of people here. It is in that context of historical underfunding, however, that this discussion on the Budget takes place.

Although the Assembly has been back for only a short period, at the Education Committee, we have sifted through briefing after briefing with a similar message at their core: the system is not getting the level of resource that it needs to deliver the level of service that we want and expect for our children and young people and for those whom we charge with educating and nurturing them. While the Education Minister has an important responsibility to prioritise the resources that he has, there is only so much that he and the Finance Minister can do, given the chronic underfunding of our public services by the Tories in London. I commend both Ministers for working together to try to find solutions, particularly on fair pay for our education workers and the outstanding pay and grading review. Those workers are vital to the running of our education system. The system cannot function without them, and they need proper pay and conditions to be sorted immediately.

I will refer to a couple of other issues in education that point to the short-sightedness of failing to fund the system properly. Sinn Féin was highly critical of the actions taken in the absence of an Education Minister. Funding for vital programmes was slashed, cutting the holiday hunger grant, ending the Healthy Happy Minds programme and stopping the provision of free digital learning devices for our most disadvantaged. In a system that is not resourced properly, it baffles me that officials would not seek to protect and prioritise the most disadvantaged. When we do not fund those wrap-around supports and we fail to invest in early intervention, we end up paying for it in the long run. The evidence on that point is clear.

Moving forward, however, it is hugely positive that we have an Executive in place, with locally elected Ministers taking decisions. My Sinn Féin colleagues on the Education Committee and I have taken the opportunity to challenge the Education Minister on his responsibility to identify and set out his priorities for his Department. As the party's lead on childcare and early years, I welcome the recent announcement of the initial £25 million investment that puts the wheels in motion to begin to make childcare more affordable for parents, support struggling providers and create more spaces for children with additional needs. Transforming childcare was a day-1 priority for Sinn Féin and the Executive, and, while there is much more work ahead, this is a step in the right direction. We now need to see clear plans to address educational underachievement and transform provision for special educational needs. The key is early intervention. All the evidence tells us that investment at the earlier stage of a child's journey is far more impactful. That is why prioritisation is so important.

Many of the issues that we want to see action on are cross-cutting. One criticism from the Assembly over the years has been that Departments often act in silos and do not talk to each other. It is important to make the point that, where shared objectives exist, Departments should work together and share funding and other resources to achieve them. It just makes financial sense. It is a good approach to policy, and, at the end of the day, that is what people want to see: their political representatives working together in the interests of all.

I thank the Finance Minister for her statement and her efforts thus far in what are extremely challenging financial circumstances. I look forward to working with others right across the Chamber to support our children and young people and their families.

Photo of Nick Mathison Nick Mathison Alliance

In the first instance, I will speak to the 2024-25 Budget debate as the Chairperson of the Education Committee.

The Committee has, unfortunately, had less engagement around the 2024-25 Budget process than it would have liked, making effective scrutiny difficult. The Department had outlined substantial pressures before this Budget was allocated, and those were set out as being in the region of £900 million for 2024-25. However, we have been given very limited detail on the full background to those pressures, and a full Budget briefing has been offered to the Committee only for a date after today's debate. That is unsatisfactory, and Committee members have expressed concern about the Department's lack of engagement on these issues.

Whilst the amount of non-ring-fenced resource DEL awarded to Education has increased by £297 million from the starting point last year, the Committee understands that at least £166 million of that will be absorbed by the implementation of teaching pay awards, and, combined with the exponential rise in the cost of SEN provision, it means that, in reality, the Department is likely to once again face substantial pressures in the year ahead. Capital DEL has also seen an increase. However, given the rising cost of construction, the long backlog of maintenance needs across our school estate and the very competitive list of capital projects vying for resource, it is unlikely that that increase will meet the needs of all stakeholders in the sector.

The Committee has focused its work, in the main, on three key areas: SEN; tackling educational underachievement; and early learning and childcare. In the year ahead, despite the challenging financial position, the Committee hopes to see investment in those areas, with a commitment to deliver a programme of long-term reform being considered essential in the area of SEN.

I will now make some remarks in my capacity as an Alliance education spokesperson and MLA. We are, as every Member, without exception, has referenced, facing a hugely challenging budgetary position, owing largely, in my mind, to a prolonged period of austerity combined with our system of stop-start government here. It is beyond doubt that the absence of an Executive in recent years and periods of political uncertainty have significantly disrupted the Budget process here. Once again, we are scrambling to pass legislation that has received minimal scrutiny and oversight, and another period of suspension has left us voting on a Budget that is being passed at a rapid pace — not circumstances conducive to a proper review in the Chamber or in Committees. All parties must commit to reform of these institutions so that this never happens again. I fear, however, that some parties remain wedded to the destructive power of the veto in this place, perhaps while paying lip service to the need to do things better.

Despite that context, not passing this Budget would create further and unsustainable uncertainty for public services and disrupt ongoing engagement with Treasury. As other Members said, that engagement is crucial if we are serious about updating our funding formula and our fiscal framework to be reflective of need. Like all Departments, Education —.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Thank you very much for giving way. The Member will be aware that we have already heard from the First Minister today that the likelihood of less engagement with central government during the period of purdah for the Westminster election means that that is not likely to happen. If that is the case, how are we to get any movement or progress?

Photo of Nick Mathison Nick Mathison Alliance

I thank the Member for his intervention. Yes, the pre-election period that we are moving into will present challenges in that regard, but I do not see how voting down a Budget today will help public services in any shape or form. It does not seem to me to be a constructive response to the difficult position that we find ourselves in.

I will go back to my point. It would create uncertainty for public services and, yes, given that context, make ongoing engagement with Treasury difficult.

As I mentioned, we are seeing an issue with strained budgets in all Departments. Education is no exception, but we are yet to see the Education Minister outline his commitment to transforming our system in any meaningful way by bringing forward a programme of reform. We absolutely need a better funding settlement for Northern Ireland — I think that every Member of the House agrees with that — but devolved Ministers must do their part. We need a plan to develop a truly inclusive education system that is not divided along community, socio-economic or supposed academic lines, but the Minister has been clear that he has no intention of bringing forward an audit of the cost of division across any of those lines and how they impact on his Department. The independent review set out a suite of measures that could be transformative in our education system and deliver the best outcomes for our children and young people more efficiently, but I see no urgency from the Minister to prioritise any work in that space. That needs to change in the year ahead, and I urge the Minister to take forward urgent work in that regard.

Many debates in the House have referenced the need for Departments to work together over the course of the mandate to deliver meaningful early interventions. Nowhere is that more relevant than in Education. As we look at this hugely challenging budgetary position, we see that it is vital that the Education Minister clearly sets out how he will avoid late, wasted interventions in Education and fully utilise the Children's Services Co-Operation Act. We need a clear plan for how he will work with and pool resources with colleagues in Departments such as Health and Communities in particular to ensure that necessary and, ultimately, money-saving interventions are made in the areas of SEN, early years, tackling educational underachievement and the promotion of mental well-being in schools. Again, I call on the Minister to clearly set out his plans in that regard for the year ahead.

I cannot comment on the Budget without mentioning the lack of funding for the pay and grading review for non-teaching staff. It was profoundly disappointing that the Finance Minister was unable to find the resources to fund that in the Budget announcement. I ask her for an urgent update on the engagement with Treasury in that regard and on how the entry into the pre-election period will impact on those deliberations. Ultimately, the pay and grading review sits with the Education Minister. He needs to clearly set out how he will resolve the impasse. It is an area that his Department is responsible for, and it affects every single school and thousands of staff members, so we need to hear from him on how he will address the crisis.

Ultimately, this is not a Budget that anyone wants to vote for. It gives no one here any pleasure to do so. It reflects the dire position of our public finances and shines a light on the impact of Tory austerity, years of stop-start government and the lack of commitment over many years to public service transformation, but we do need a Budget.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Nick Mathison Nick Mathison Alliance

All Members must show a commitment to a responsible approach to public finances and support that today.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Ms Bunting is not in her place, so I call Colin McGrath.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

We are being presented with a Budget today that, let us face it, is not going to cut it. It is not going to solve the problems that the public sector faces, and it is not going to deal with the challenges that our communities face. Speaking as our party's health spokesperson, we have seen for too long that waiting lists are getting longer and waiting times are getting longer. Every sector of our health service has attended the Health Committee and detailed how budget cuts are impacting on and resulting in poorer outcomes for people and a bleak future.

We are seeing the collapse, in places, of our primary care sector, our community pharmacy sector and our NHS dental care. While it was always understood that there would be no silver bullet to resolve those matters overnight, the bottom line is that, when I look at the Budget, I feel that we could do better. For example, where is the money for transformation to allow the Health Department to keep some of the money that it spends and reinvest it in the Department? Where is the cross-departmental working? Health stretches beyond the Department of Health. One only has to look at the mental health challenges that face our young people, how they face them in schools on a daily basis and the impact that that has on their education and their future. That is just one example.

What about our community and voluntary sector? One only has to look at the community and voluntary sector to see that the Budget will obliterate it. What will the cuts achieve in the community and voluntary sector? It can take the money that it is given through the Health Department and turn every pound into much more money through what it can attract from other funds and the voluntary nature of its work. It can make that money go much further. However, unfortunately, all that we will do with the Budget is copper-fasten the fact that we are driving a coach and horses through that work, removing the core funding from the sector.

Sometimes, with Health, it feels that the only operation that the Executive manage to successfully deliver is that of cutting off their nose to spite their face. Our health trusts, for example, are being asked to make cuts like we have never seen before, with 400 fewer acute beds, 1,200 fewer staff, a million fewer hours of domiciliary care and 500 fewer care home beds.

What will our health trusts look like after the Budget?

We know that the Tory Government have slashed the Budgets that have been made available to successive Executives over the years, but let us not hide the fact that the decision-averse political parties that have dominated those Executives have refused to take decisions unless they simply meant spending more money. Everyone knows that that policy will not work in the long term, can work only in the short term and needs to be reversed. Otherwise, that type of fiscal mismanagement simply drains the public purse.

The public purse is in a drought. There is nothing left in it, yet the bills keep mounting higher. One can only hope that the decisions that are taken for another place on 4 July will see a different type of independence, because the independence that I want to see is from austerity. I want to see a change in policy that means that we will see investment in public services here and a recognition of the desperate state that we have been left in through the poor management of public funds by Executives. I truly believe that only a Labour Government will deliver that and that defeating the Tories will be paramount. Turning up in Westminster to boot them out will be a critical task. Finance Minister, others will have to do that for you, because your colleagues refuse to turn up to kick the Tories out.

Over the last period, we have heard of fiscal floors, fiscal ceilings and fiscal promises, but, when I look at the landscape of the finances that are presented in this Budget, I fear that little will change. One of the saddest elements that will remain consistent is that Ministers will continue to work in silos — protect thy budget and rob everyone else's — if they hang around long enough to be able to do that. That is not the form of joined-up government that a responsible and mature democracy requires.

The London Government are evidently not providing enough for the North's Budget. As ever, the Executive prove that they are incapable of managing those funds fairly and equitably. Once again, Ministers have displayed immature, childish and selfish approaches to budgets, refusing to work with others and merely trying to deliver their own work. A detailed Programme for Government would help to address that, but we are still waiting, because we have to remember this: "Let's not be in a hurry".

Once again, we see a Budget that papers over the cracks rather than being a planned and strategic investment and dealing with the root causes of our problems. With this Budget, people will get sicker; poverty will not be challenged; inequalities in society will not be addressed; the school estate will continue to crumble; potholes will increase and get deeper; farmers will get little support; the housing crisis will continue; and many in the public sector will continue not to get a fair day's wage. With all that, the Executive still expect the House to support the Budget.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:15, 28 May 2024

I thank the Member for giving way. Does he accept that any cuts to domiciliary care, difficult though it is at the moment, will result in one thing: increased pressures on the NHS? There will be increased use of contingency beds, more people requiring funding to go into nursing homes and more people, ultimately, winding up back in hospital.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

Absolutely. That is what will happen with the circular nature of the Budget unless we break that circle and make sure that we are not creating more problems as we try to solve them. Domiciliary care is an example of where, if we do not intervene, we will not fix problems and will put pressures elsewhere.

It is not raining here. I am not getting soaked, but I can hear the distant rumble that things are going to get better, but not with this Budget.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

For a moment, Colin, I had a flashback to Nichola Mallon, who was in the Executive and also voted against, when she spoke about potholes and all the rest, but we will say nothing. She still voted against the Budget and asked for more money. That is constructive opposition.

I will focus on the fact that a lot of Members have said that they are deeply unhappy with the financial situation and that the onslaught of Tory cuts — those are my words and probably not what some would say — has had a massive impact on Budgets here. There has been a recognition that the British Government have consistently funded the Executive well below levels of need. That is accepted, and, thankfully, Caoimhe Archibald, the Finance Minister, will continue to keep the pressure on the British Government on behalf of the Executive to ensure that the funding disparity is addressed.

We also need to look at alternatives by raising our own money. Those alternatives are not introducing water charges, introducing prescription charges, taking bus passes away from pensioners or stuff like that, but we need a proper discussion about how this place will be continually funded. From what I have heard, I have concerns that, whatever British Government are next, this place is not their priority. This place has never been the British Government's priority, and people need to be honest about that.

There is also no doubt in my head that the interim fiscal framework, which, again, the Finance Minister secured, was a game changer, by ensuring that, for the most part, the funding in the Budget must meet the level of need and, hopefully, be above it. That is where we need to go.

As it stands, we will get slightly more money in the short term. For me, however, and for each of us on our Committees, our interests and the pressures that we face mean that we will say similar things, yet we will come away from the debate thinking differently. For example, when I look at the Department of Health, having heard what the former Minister — well, he still is the Minister — had to say about his priorities, I did not hear mental health mentioned. I did not hear domiciliary care mentioned. I did not hear about the reinstatement of moneys to Women's Aid, which represents the most vulnerable women in our society. They are vulnerable as a result of domestic abuse. It is a political decision not to fund that work, so let us not be fooled.

Regardless of what chair of what group has said what, we need to take decisions and own them. I do not see any Ministers being happy with the budget that they have got. We can agree on that, but what I have found disappointing, if not uncomfortable, is what I hear from the Ulster Unionist Party. I see Mike Nesbitt staring straight at me, so I will stare straight back at him. I would like to see him get his portfolio of money and make decisions on what, he feels, are his priorities so that we can scrutinise him on that basis. Instead, what we have is a petulant response: if you do not get what, you feel, you need, you will vote against. That is not political maturity. I smell an election, and that is why I am completely disappointed. To be frank, Robin has always risen above that nonsense, but he did not do so today.

In the long term, I also want to see what official opposition to the Budget will look like. I hear what we are all doing wrong and what we all need to do more of, but I see no proposals at all coming from the Opposition, despite being here for 100-odd days.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

No, thanks, Mark. The fact is that the Opposition are funded to do all of that, maybe not to the level that they need, but they certainly have the resources. What do we get? Faic.

[Translation: Nothing]

We get nothing.

I would like to see TEO Ministers continue to address the inescapable pressures that they have talked about. They want to see an end to violence against women and girls. We have all made commitments around historical institutional abuse and around the mother-and-baby institutions. Some of us are making commitments to equality, while others see good relations as a priority. Either way, we cannot lose sight of the communities that are working really hard all year long, all week long and all weekend long to keep the peace. Unless they are funded, our summers could be completely different.

We also need to be honest about the money that we put into the private sector, particularly in health and social care. Domiciliary care is the lowest paid and last thought of. Own it — absolutely own it. You give GPs three times out-of-hours, paying them through the private sector, but, yet and all, you will not increase the mileage for a domiciliary care package. It is disgraceful. Own that as well. Own the fact that we need to have a more collegial approach to arguing for more money. It is not just about a motion: actions speak louder than words. I would like to see us looking at the ways in which we can put our profiles forward. Make your political decision, put your financial objective and priority forward and stand over it, instead of hiding behind someone's back.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Having listened to the debate, I think that all of us in the Chamber, particularly those on the Health Committee, would like to see a slightly easier Budget for all Departments but particularly for Health. We are aware of and acknowledge the people who are on long waiting lists and the number of people who require urgent treatment. In reality, however, we also know that the cake is only so large. We have other Departments with pressing priorities. While it is a challenging Budget for every Department, it is beyond dispute that Health gets over 51% of the total Budget.

The Minister of Health stated, in correspondence to the Committee, that he wanted an extra £1 billion but would settle for £800 million. Incidentally, the Committee took significant exception to some of the Minister's correspondence to the Committee being briefed to the media before it was released to the Committee. I understand that only an additional £958 million was available, so we were never going to reach £1 billion additional for Health in one year. Did the Minister seriously think that he would get £800 million out of £958 million, with all the pressures that there are in education, the economy, infrastructure and other sectors? It is difficult for the Minister to claim that others have not prioritised Health when he received the majority of the additional funding available and when Health obtains a majority of every pound allocated by the Executive. Indeed, the director of public spending at the Department of Finance said:

"As a result of the ongoing prioritisation of Health, the allocation of a further £472 million in this Budget will see the Department of Health's baseline funding increase by almost £2 billion since ... 2020."

That inevitably brings us to two significant questions: where will the additional money come from, and how can the Minister and, indeed, his party, say that he will not vote for the Budget, will resign and will install a colleague who will then have to implement the Budget? These are strange times. The previous Member to speak might have been accurate in her diagnosis of the problem.

Some of the material from the Department of Health has been a little disingenuous, seeking to compare the starting position for 2024-25 with the overall closing position for the previous year. The Minister and his officials are well aware that significant allocations will be made over the year in monitoring rounds; indeed, the Minister's proposed amendment seems to satisfy that assumption.

In his letter to the Health Committee yesterday, the Minister pointed to various elements of health delivery that may be impacted on by the Budget, but he did not prioritise any of them, and the Health Committee has not yet seen the detailed spending plans for Health. The Minister indicated that £135 million could make a real difference to waiting lists, but he can invest that sum if he chooses, by prioritising it over other spend in his Department from his multi-billion-pound annual allocation.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

The Member makes a valid point, and she will be aware that waiting lists are very important. An awful lot of people who are on waiting lists contact us regularly, and we have seen zero plans for how we will spend the money that has been given. Surely, that should be the focus of whoever is going to take the Health Ministry, rather than playing politics with people's lives on this.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I certainly agree with the Member. One of the things that we have managed to avoid in the House, particularly during the period of COVID, has been playing politics with health. We are in a place that is deeply regrettable, and we need to see detailed plans on how the significant budget will be spent.

On top of that, Ministers and other Assembly Members struggle with the fact that the Health Department assumes that it will be given an automatic increase year-on-year-on-year. We need to deal with that, and, on the Member's point, we need to actually get to the stage where we see significant transformation in health. For significant transformation to occur, there will have to be a re-prioritisation of how we deliver health, so we need to see the Minister's plan. In the House on 15 April, I asked the Minister when he would publish his plan for the reorganisation of hospitals and services. He replied that he would bring it forward:

"within the next couple of weeks." — [Official Report (Hansard), 15 April 2024, p38, col 2].

That was six weeks ago, and we still have no plan.

The multidisciplinary primary care teams, including social workers, physiotherapists and mental health practitioners, are key to the transformation and are part of the Bengoa Delivering Together programme. Initial funding for those teams came from the DUP confidence-and-supply agreement, and they were to be rolled out Province-wide. It is hard to fathom that something so fundamental to transformation has been allowed to wither on the vine, with all the difficulties that that contributes to general practice. Again, that is an investment that should have been prioritised and elevated above other projects or schemes that are not fundamental to transformation. From talking to GPs and their representatives, one of the things that we absolutely understand is that, if we are not going to transform primary care —

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

— we will still have difficulties in secondary care.

Photo of Peter McReynolds Peter McReynolds Alliance

Mr Speaker, I welcome you back to your post.

I rise on behalf of the Alliance Party to make some comments on matters relating to the expenditure proposals for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, as laid out by the Finance Minister this month. I start by commending the AERA Minister on his work so far in committing to tackle our climate and environmental challenges. The environmental crisis that we are experiencing in Lough Neagh, in particular, presents a significant challenge not only in the current financial year but on an ongoing basis due to budgetary constraints. The required work and statutory commitment to climate action may result in other important strategies and programmes being put on hold or delayed due to budgetary constraints. It is evident that prioritising more immediate short-term concerns such as waiting lists has its benefits. There is no doubt that many areas of our public services require urgent attention and expenditure. However, failing to adequately fund environmental protection will result in significant costs in the future. Those costs will have not only economic but social implications, and, of course, they will have environmental implications.

At last week's RSPB event in this Building, entitled Nature Can't Wait, the recent biodiversity intactness index was referenced repeatedly. That index is a tool for identifying the amount of nature that a country has lost over time, and it placed Northern Ireland twelfth from the bottom out of 240 countries. That is 228th and the lowest in the G7. Improving that level of depletion demands immediate investment and resources. The Department responsible for the environment must be in a position to formalise the many overdue policies and strategies that have remained stagnated alongside the Assembly's collapse, such as the biodiversity strategy, the marine strategy, the peatland strategy and the clean air strategy. Many of those awaited strategies relate directly to climate change and are, therefore, crucial to protecting the natural environment. Implementing those strategies will require dedicated resources and expenditure.

I welcome Minister Muir's recent agriculture commitments such as the farm support and development programme. The programme offers initiatives, packages and measures aimed at promoting the economic and environmental sustainability of Northern Ireland's important agricultural sector. The rural affairs aspect of the AERA brief continues to require funding for various initiatives. Those include the development and implementation of social enterprise support programmes tailored to rural areas, with a focus on improving health and well-being, addressing rural poverty and combating social isolation by connecting rural and urban communities.

The funding package proposed for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is insufficient to sustain progress and take the necessary steps for a more environmentally friendly and cleaner future across the sectors governed by DAERA. The contrast between what Minister Muir bid for and received is stark: £95·8 million bid for versus £15·2 million received. The Minister is now reprioritising within that context.

Many in the Chamber have mentioned this point already but it needs to be repeated: Northern Ireland requires better financial governance. That includes the implementation of a more effective funding formula and the establishment of multi-year Budgets to ensure stability and progress in our financial management.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Members, before I call the next contributor, I wish to advise you that I have been notified that the proposer will not speak to her Adjournment debate topic on the new building for Bangor Central Integrated Primary School today. Members of the Business Committee have been informed.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

I begin by thanking Minister Archibald for all the hard work that she has put into bringing forward the Budget, particularly given the very challenging circumstances that we find ourselves in.

It is a hugely welcome development that the Executive have agreed a Budget for 2024-25. That will provide some certainty and stability and allow Departments to plan. As some Members have pointed out, this is a single-year Budget, which is far from ideal. Unfortunately, as we are in the last year of the current spending review, a multi-year Budget was not possible. However, as we move into a new spending review period, a multi-year Budget is vital to allow Departments the space that they need to plan ahead.

This Budget is challenging for all Departments, with no Department getting all the funding that it wanted. Almost £1 billion of resource DEL was available for allocation set against bids totalling £3 billion. It was a similar picture in capital DEL. Within the allocations, Health was prioritised as it received over 50% of the available funding. Indeed, Health has received an additional £1·6 billion. That underlines the point that Health is a priority for Sinn Féin, even when it has limited resources.

The Budget aligns with the key priorities that were set out by the Executive parties and are expected to be in the Programme for Government. That includes £25 million being set aside for childcare and money for transformation. However, the financial situation remains difficult as a result of Tory austerity. For a number of years, the North has been funded below its level of need. That has been accepted publicly by the British Government. When the Assembly was down, the British Government brought chaos to our public finances. Under Tory rule, the 2023-24 Budget delivered cuts amounting to £1 billion, decimating our public services in the process. Those cuts had a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable in our society, many of whom were already struggling due to the cost-of-living crisis. This Tory Government could not care less about people here, and many will be looking forward to seeing the back of that Government.

The interim fiscal framework that the Finance Minister has secured is a game changer. The agreement sets the fiscal floor at 124%, meaning that the North will be funded at or above its level of need in future years. That is a radical change to how the North is currently funded and will help us to mitigate British Government underfunding in the future. The new interim framework also alleviates the concerns about the cliff edge that was coming once the financial package had been spent in 2026, as the fiscal floor will be baselined at the relevant spending review period.

We need to see greater Budget sustainability. The Minister is working on a report that will set out a path to achieve that. The report should include proposals that will allow us to have more control over our Budgets. The current system gives the Treasury, which is not accountable to people here, far too much of a say over our finances. That is not fair or democratic. Sinn Féin would like to see greater flexibility around Budgets, greater borrowing powers and more fiscal devolution.

Finally, I thank the Minister for sending her officials to the Finance Committee meeting last week to brief members on the budget outcome for her Department. Like the budgets of other Departments, the Department of Finance budget is extremely challenging, with a 6·4% reduction in resource DEL from 2023-24, excluding earmarked items. By proposing such a significant reduction to her Department, the Minister has led by example, which is the correct approach, given the scale of the challenges faced by all Departments.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

We have heard from the Finance Minister today and repeatedly over the past number of weeks that this a challenging Budget. We hear that day in, day out, but what does it actually mean? It seems to mean that the envelope is far too small, and challenges come with that. Nobody is arguing that we have enough money. We know that we do not have enough money and that we are fighting hard to try to get Northern Ireland funded to its relative need. I applaud the Minister's work with His Majesty's Treasury on funding us to our relative need. Going forward, it is vital that we ensure that Northern Ireland is funded according to need.

When it comes to this challenging Budget, we know that the envelope is too small, but where is the strategy? Where is the strategic vision to get out of this and make sure that the money is spent appropriately for our people? Not having a Programme for Government allows parties to act irresponsibly around that. They can decide willy-nilly that they will not vote for a Budget, because doing so has no impact on the Budget. The SDLP did it for years. It complained about and voted the Budget all the time. We are seeing a repetition of that from the Ulster Unionist Party. It is sad; it really is.

When we need to step up and be responsible in how we act and spend money, it is sad that we can see that the Ulster Unionists are failing us — not only us, as a House and an Executive, but the people. Many people are waiting for procedures. Many are in chronic pain, which is unbearable, but, instead of the Health Minister stepping up to the mark, he is running away. In many ways, we have heard repetition today and over the past number of weeks. Again, the Minister is deploying fear that will hurt people, as it did during the pandemic. The Minister says that he does not have enough money and that the impact will be "catastrophic", a term that is up there with "biblical proportions".

Let us look at the Department of Health's record. If we throw more money at Health, what will we get? According to the Northern Ireland Audit Office report, 'Budgeting and Accountability', in 2018-19, the Department of Health underspent by £32 million, £26 million of which was non-ring-fenced resource DEL. In 2019-2020, there was an underspend of £69 million, £55 million of which was capital DEL. In 2021-22, the underspend was £25 million, and almost all of it was non-ring-fenced resource DEL. In 2022-23, there was an underspend of £27 million, £23 million of which was resource DEL. The Department has handed back £153 million over the past five years. How is that for a track record? How dare the Minister then ask for more money that he will not be able to spend, whilst there are people — our constituents and even some of our family members — who are waiting in chronic pain, unable to get the procedure that they need?

Where is the strategy? Where is the focus? Where is the vision? The vision seems to be on South Antrim. That is his prerogative, but do not then come to the Assembly and Executive and try to run amok when there are people who, although I may disagree with their spends, are at least trying to make a go of it. At least they are here in the Chamber, making a go of it in the knowledge that their budgets are tight. Yet, we have a Minister who is running away when his Department has failed miserably to spend all the money that it has been allocated over five years. That is the nonsense, Mr Speaker. That is the nonsense. The deployment of fear, which will hurt people out there, is nothing but a sham fight.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Yes, I will.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

I thank the Member for making that point about the deployment of fear. I could do that with waste water treatment. Earlier, I made the point that people turning on their taps and getting good-quality water is a bedrock service. If we do not fund that properly, we will see more problems in our health centres and things like that.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for her contribution. She is absolutely right. If we do not get to grips with our infrastructure — water, waste water, rivers, waterways, roads, railways and everything else — and fund it properly, people will die, people will become sicker and people will become less fit, which will put a burden on the health service. There is more than one way to prevent sickness and to encourage fitness and well-being. Infrastructure is a key asset.

We have a very challenging Budget. I genuinely wish all the Ministers well with their challenging budgets. Their envelopes are small, but more money is coming. We have to put this in context: this Budget is 7% higher than the Secretary of State's initial Budget for 2023-24, with a commitment from the Government that more money will come through the June monitoring round. It is challenging, but it is doable. If we had a strategy and a Programme for Government that fit the needs of our people, we could spend that money wisely, better than we have in the past and, especially, better —

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

— than the Department of Health has spent its money over the past five years.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. My comments will be made in the context of the minimal information that the Committee has received, which provided it with limited opportunity to scrutinise the DAERA budget.

In February, the Committee received a briefing from DAERA officials on the budgetary pressures of 2023-24 going into 2024-25. The Committee held an extra meeting in early March with Minister Muir to hear his priorities and discuss the budget pressures. I highlighted those pressures and the Committee's initial concerns in the Chamber on 9 April. Those concerns included tackling bovine TB, implementing the Windsor framework, rural development funding and climate action. The Committee is still waiting to see the draft, costed climate action plan and environmental improvement plan. We expect to see funding prioritised for that, along with the necessary science and innovation.

At its meeting on 2 May, the Committee considered a written briefing from DAERA on the resource DEL and capital DEL bids that were submitted to the Department of Finance. The Committee noted that DAERA has submitted new resource requirement bids to the Department of Finance of £95·8 million, which includes £23·8 million for the delivery of the bovine TB programme; £22·1 million for the delivery of the environmental improvement plan; and £33·4 million for the delivery of the farm support and development programme. On capital DEL, DAERA submitted new requirements bids of £155·2 million to the Department of Finance, including £300,000 that had priorly been committed for digital transformation; £101·6 million of inescapable costs; and £59·7 million of high priority costs. The written briefing went on to state that the Department of Finance had agreed allocations for DAERA of £577·3 million of resource and £95 million of capital DEL. These allocations, of course, include DAERA's earmarked allocations. DAERA advised the Committee that officials are working through the implications of those allocations for an oral briefing scheduled for 6 June. However, that has made it difficult to input meaningfully to today's debate.

The Committee has continued to hear from officials and stakeholders to build a picture about where the focus of our scrutiny will need to be. The Clerk made a number of requests for a briefing before today but was advised that officials would not be in a position any earlier due to the work needed to consider the implications of the allocations.

In order to be in a position to send a Committee response to the Finance Committee on 17 May, we turned to the Fiscal Council's assessment of the Budget to shed some light on the situation. The first point that we noted was that, as one of the relatively big-spending Departments, DAERA has fared worse than the average. The Fiscal Council's assessment showed the departmental resource requirements, including those earmarked, as £658 million, versus the allocations received of £577 million, which is 88% of the requirement.

The Committee also noted that the proportion of submitted non-earmarked bids met was only £15 million, which is just over 15% of the £96 million that was requested. The Committee will in due course investigate the impact of the shortfall in non-earmarked bids with officials when we see them on 6 June. The capital bids from DAERA, including earmarked bids, were £155 million, of which 61·2% are marked as inescapable and pre-committed. The £95 million, which is the total allocation highlighted in the assessment, is well below £155 million. The Committee will also investigate the impact of that shortfall with officials.

At the meeting on 23 May, the Committee considered the Budget paper from the Minister of Finance, and noted the figure for DAERA's high-level spending areas. As the Minister stated in her introduction to the paper:

"The ... reality is the demands on our finances far outstrip the funding available", and

"The scale of the challenges facing us won't be fixed by one Budget."

I wish that I was standing here with more insight and scrutiny from the Committee to support and assist DAERA, but that has not been possible for today's debate. The Committee looks forward to taking those issues forward with the Minister and the officials on 6 June.

I will comment briefly as the AERA spokesperson for the Ulster Unionist Party. There is a common theme running through today's debate, and it is that Committees have had no or very little opportunity to scrutinise the departmental budgets. We all face that difficulty, and I have heard it regularly about Health, but it is no different to any other Department. That makes it very difficult and almost impossible to have a proper debate today. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has significant finances to secure for bovine TB, the agri-support programmes, the environmental improvement plan and, of course, the big issue of climate change. An estimated figure of £2·3 billion will be required by Departments over the next three years to implement the outworkings of the Climate Change Act, but I have been informed that the Department of Finance did not allocate any finance to Departments in the Budget to implement or support that. That is hugely concerning.

Finally, I noted some of the comments about the Department of Health and some of the motions tabled earlier in the mandate about junior doctors' pay, the implementation of the Autism Act, a new residential rehabilitation unit in Belfast, an increase in the number of foster carers, an updated action plan to tackle the waiting list crisis and a fully budgeted women's health strategy, none of which were costed. I was pleased to hear Mr Frew mention the Programme for Government.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Time is up, Mr Elliott.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

Maybe he will mention that to the deputy First Minister.

Photo of Joanne Bunting Joanne Bunting DUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak as Chairman of the Justice Committee, and I declare that I have an immediate family member who works in the legal profession.

The fact that we are discussing a one-year Budget will come as a disappointment to many. Since our return, we have heard numerous calls for multi-year Budgets. It is also disappointing that, since we have not yet received a detailed briefing, the Committee has not had the opportunity to undertake in-depth scrutiny of the Department's budget or financial position for 2024-25. I am therefore not able to get into the detail to the extent that I would wish, and my remarks are necessarily based on broad parameters.

The Committee has held many oral evidence sessions with various directorates in the Department, as well as with a number of key justice organisations. Difficulties with the Department's challenging budgetary position were a consistent theme. As I have said during previous financial debates, the majority of the Department's budget is demand-led, taken up by the PSNI, the Prison Service, the Courts and Tribunals Service and legal aid. As a result, there is very little, if any, scope to reduce spend without impacting severely on the delivery of vital services. In fact, owing to cuts across the board, justice sector organisations are increasingly providing more and more vital services, but they are doing so with fewer and fewer resources. The justice system used to be the service of last resort, but, now, it is all too often becoming the first. We regularly hear that police officers spend inordinate amounts of time dealing with those facing mental health issues. Those people would be better served by mental health professionals, but it is often the police that are called. Those in crisis deserve better, and the police officers deserve better. We must work collaboratively to have any chance of addressing such issues.

When giving oral evidence to the Justice Committee, the then permanent secretary Richard Pengelly said:

"there are undoubtedly individuals who are currently in a prison establishment but should be in a mental health facility."

Given the pressures on the Prison Service, which I will come to, such a situation is unsustainable.

During an evidence session with Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI), the Committee was told that its budget had decreased by almost 10% in 10 years. We were told that if CJINI's budget remains similar to what it is at present, it will be unable to conduct a prison inspection in 2025. That is most concerning, given the continuing increase in the prison population, concurrent with ongoing issues with the numbers of prison officers. As I said during a debate on the Budget Bill, current staffing levels are for a population of 1,450 prisoners, but there are around 1,900 people in custody, and that number continues to rise.

Victims of crime and the services that they receive are also being impacted on by financial constraints. The Committee heard from the Commissioner Designate for Victims of Crime, who stated:

"Despite our numerous strategies and fine words, the sad reality is that, when the system is stretched and staff and budgets are under pressure, it is victim care that suffers."

It is intolerable that victims of crime suffer because of the dire financial situation that we are in.

I mentioned legal aid spend in my opening remarks. During an evidence session with the Law Society and the Bar of Northern Ireland, members were told that slowing down the payment of legal aid fees as a budget management tool has forced professionals to leave the Bar or to shift from doing legal aid work. We were informed that that disproportionately affects younger professionals and women and that it could close firms and threaten access to justice for many across Northern Ireland.

When the Lady Chief Justice briefed the Committee, she stated, in reference to the Department's budget:

"there is now a significant risk to the ability to deliver services to support the administration of justice, which will have ramifications ... for the provision of fair and expeditious justice for citizens."

The Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI) also raised concerns about the impact that funding constraints will have on the delivery of its services.

When the Chief Constable briefed the Committee, the first thing that he spoke about was the PSNI's precarious financial position. He described it as:

"the cause and effect of everything that we can or cannot do."

He informed us that, since 2010, the PSNI budget has decreased in real terms by 30%. Again, that is an unsustainable situation.

The Committee has not yet had the opportunity to undertake in-depth scrutiny of the Department's budget or financial position for 2024-25 because we have not yet received a detailed briefing on it. Hopefully, that situation will be rectified during the Committee's forthcoming briefing.

However, it should be clear from my remarks that the areas of the justice system not, in some way, impacted by the current financial situation are negligible.

Speaking in my private capacity, as I stated, I find it difficult to pass comment on the Budget other than in generalities, given that, in an unconventional move, we are faced with a Budget debate prior to being briefed on it by our home Departments. However, in the throes of the discourse surrounding it for several weeks, one thing has become abundantly clear: the debate around Northern Ireland's Budget cannot and must not be focused around one Department alone.

Nobody can manage on the allocation that they have been given. That is why we in the DUP press for a review of the funding system for Northern Ireland. However, everybody else knuckled down with what they had, determined to work through it and do the best they could, hoping for something in monitoring rounds. Not so the UUP, who would soak up every additional penny and more besides. For years, the Department of Health has absorbed half of Northern Ireland's Budget, yet currently the position in the health service is worse and spiralling — not, of course, through any fault of those on the front line. The cry for £1 billion "just to stand still" is absurd. Health has already had an additional £1 billion over two years. Nobody else has had such a luxury.

A Member:

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Joanne Bunting Joanne Bunting DUP

I will not.

The Department of Justice's flexibility is extremely limited and the bulk of its Budget is allocated to inescapable pressures but it has sacrificed for Health. The justice system is already picking up the pressures from the Department of Health until it is almost at breaking point itself. At the Committee recently, we heard from the Chief Constable that the PSNI is attending 500 calls a week on behalf of the Ambulance Service. Let there be no doubt that people are being put through justice services when they should be in healthcare. The answer lies not in perpetually throwing more and more money but in taking decisions and making tough choices. Load the front lines and do away with bureaucracy and a top-heavy system of multiple layers of management. It is hard, it is unpleasant and it may be unpopular, but it is the job that we were elected to do.

Despite repeatedly asking, I have not been able to ascertain the detail of areas for discussion between —

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Joanne Bunting Joanne Bunting DUP

— the Health and Justice Ministers, or at the highest strategic levels within their Departments, around their plans for collaborative working.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I will speak primarily from the perspective of a Sinn Féin member of the Economy Committee.

It is important to state clearly, at the beginning of my remarks, as others have done before me, that the Executive have for years, and continue to be, substantially underfunded by the British Tory Government. That Tory austerity policy continues to have a detrimental impact on the Executive's finances, our public services, our economy and, ultimately, our workers and families. That the Finance Minister outlined in her opening remarks that bids by Executive members were three times the available allocation is a clear indication of the harm that Tory austerity is having on all our Ministers' ability to fund their Departments in the best interests of our citizens. These Tory cuts, as I suspect the Tories know, will always have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable, many of whom are also struggling due to the cost-of-living crisis. Families are struggling to make ends meet and businesses are struggling with increased costs. Those are the conditions, the constraints and the stark reality faced by the Executive and the Finance Minister in bringing forward this Budget. All that said, I welcome the fact that we have got to the point of agreeing a Budget, and I commend the Finance Minister for making that happen. Despite the ongoing challenges experienced by all Departments, the Budget will bring a level of certainty and allow for forward planning.

Speaking as a member of the Economy Committee, I welcome Conor Murphy back to the role of Minister and put on record gratitude to Deirdre Hargey for her contribution to the Department in that role over the past few weeks. I thank the Economy Department officials for their Budget briefing at last week's Committee meeting, and I echo and agree with much of what the Committee Chair, Philip Brett, articulated earlier in his remarks on behalf of the Committee.

I have to point out, as I did in a previous debate, that over and above the impact of austerity and funding shortfalls, the loss of EU funding as a result of Brexit will particularly hit the Department for the Economy, especially its skills programmes, apprenticeships and business support programmes. The British Government's Shared Prosperity Fund falls short, leaving the Executive £90 million short of the £195 million that was received when we were in the EU. British Government schemes such as the Shared Prosperity Fund and the Community Renewal Fund gave the Executive little, if any, scope to shape skills funding to the needs of businesses and workers here. I am confident, however, that the Minister for the Economy will use the limited resources that he has at his disposal effectively and as efficiently as possible to deliver the highly productive, zero-carbon, regionally balanced economy with good jobs that is set out in his economic vision. A strategic and focused approach will be required to ensure that it can make a meaningful impact on people's lives.

As we look to the future, we need the required fiscal levers and multi-year Budgets to enable long-term planning and proper investment in our people, businesses and public services. The Finance Minister has done a very good job recently in getting the British Government to recognise that we have been underfunded and in securing commitments that should give us additional funding as part of the interim fiscal framework. However, we in the North are often left to deal with the consequences of insufficient funding or bad decisions or inaction at Westminster. We are in a Westminster election campaign, but it should be clear to all of us that the best people to take decisions on behalf of the citizens who live on this island are politicians who are elected on this island, exercising power here in Ireland. We need the power, including fiscal power, and the sovereignty to do so. I look forward to that day coming.

Photo of Nuala McAllister Nuala McAllister Alliance

I will speak, as health spokesperson for the Alliance Party, primarily about the health issues in the Budget. Like many others, I recognise — it is not a secret — that the current financial situation is dire and that budgets are being squeezed across Departments. Health is no exception. Like many others, I have engaged extensively with organisations from across the health and social care sector that continue to relay the same message: we cannot go on with the status quo. However, I have no clear indication of how the Minister is planning to use his budget allocation. Although I am disappointed about that, the entire Committee is not overly surprised. Throughout the past number of months, the Minister of Health has voiced his dismay at the financial situation while simultaneously failing to outline any plans to address the lack of efficient spending in the Department. That approach has culminated in his party's choosing to loudly voice its opposition to the current Budget while failing to propose any meaningful alternatives.

That inability to problem-solve or prioritise has been duly noted by many of the organisations that I have met since joining the Committee. The key issue at play should be clear to all, when you consider that our health service has the highest spend per head in the UK yet consistently has the poorest outcomes. The problem is not the lack of resource; it is the lack of reform. The feedback from the sector is clear in that regard. The message from the Minister, his Department and his party is that the budget is not enough, but they are not catching up with the rest of us. It is not just about budget; it is about how you manage your spend.

I understand — all of us do — that there are inescapable pressures and that many require significant funding. However, that does not mean that there is not room to prioritise measures that will provide efficiencies and transformation of the service. We have been talking about transformation for too long. The Bengoa report has sat on a shelf since 2016. Despite all parties having signed up to the principle of transformation, we too often see members of those parties, including the Minister's colleagues, standing on picket lines, protesting against those values in practice. Alliance is not afraid to take difficult decisions that will, ultimately, lead to a more efficient and sustainable health service. I hope that other colleagues —.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member very much for giving way. She referred to the Bengoa report and almost said that any opposition to any decision in health is opposition to the principles of Bengoa. Does the Member accept that Bengoa cannot be a fig leaf for every closure or capitulation of service?

Photo of Nuala McAllister Nuala McAllister Alliance

I do not think that anyone claims that Bengoa is a fig leaf for anything, but we recognise that a holistic approach should be taken to reform. We cannot simply do it piecemeal. That is one of the issues that we have here. I hope that others will recognise that and that they will take responsibility when it is on their doorstep. Reform cannot be undertaken day by day; it has to be done holistically.

Ultimately, and understandably, if we want to stabilise our health service for the long term, we need to invest to save. Many Members across the Chamber have spoken about domiciliary care. We all recognise that we need to invest in domiciliary care, because not doing so means more spending, more time in hospitals and more money being spent on the system. There is no doubt that fully implementing all the strategies currently in the Health portfolio will take a long time and require a great deal of investment. However, that does not mean that we have to take an all-or-nothing approach. That is where we have a problem. No priorities have been outlined by the Minister or the Department.

I concur with the Chair of the Health Committee that, in each of the past few sessions of the Health Committee, we have simply not had enough information and, at times, conflicting information. When you get conflicting information from the Department itself, that makes for a rather difficult starting point on costing. Even when questioned last week, officials admitted that they have not even calculated workforce costs for consultants, specialised doctors and assistant specialised doctors. It is utter nonsense to think that a party, without access to the same data and information that the Department has, can provide that up front. Nobody in any other party is buying it, and nobody in the sector is buying it. I must also emphasise that, when it comes to the workforce, "The computer says no" attitude from the Minister and the Department is not the way to prioritise or negotiate anything. The workforce has to be the starting point.

I want to focus for a bit on the number of reviews, inquiries etc that we have had: the hyponatraemia inquiry; the independent neurology inquiry; the urology inquiry; the Muckamore inquiry; the funding of services that are not in existence or even being offered — I have raised some of this directly with the Minister and in Committee — the fighting of judicial reviews where the Department knows that it has statutory obligations that it is not meeting; and the children's services review, which sets out what needs to be done. There is one thing in common across all those things: we do not have action. We have delay. We have patients, or families of deceased patients, waiting constantly. We have had so many more work streams created within the Department to look at what can be done — after we have already had inquiries and reviews saying what needs to be done That is wasting time, wasting money and impacting on people's lives daily.

Deputy Speaker, I know the Minister does not need to be a health practitioner, but he needs to listen to health practitioners and take on board their advice. When questioned, he would not even commit to meeting relevant bodies with regard to reconfiguration and transformation. Those bodies have the experience and advice on how it can be done more efficiently.

In closing, Deputy Speaker, to reiterate what many have said today, this is not the situation we want to be in. However, instead of running away and refusing to lead, we will support the Budget, whilst continuing to engage with what will, hopefully, be the next UK Government to get a better fiscal package for Northern Ireland for good.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for the demotion.

Photo of David Brooks David Brooks DUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the Budget debate. As a member of the Education Committee, I will focus the majority of my remarks on the impact that the Budget will have on delivery and tackling challenges in education.

Since the restoration of these institutions, Committee members and other Assembly Members have raised issues in the education sector that they would like to see addressed: childcare, special educational needs, staffing and pay settlements, new school builds, improved maintenance, holiday hunger programmes and mental health programmes, to name just a few. Those are all worthy causes, and there is universal agreement across the Chamber that they need to be tackled. The reality is that priorities are easy to speak of but that to truly prioritise is to make difficult decisions. From reports today and contributions to the debate, it seems that some Ministers and their parties are more willing to work within the realities that we face than others. To govern is to choose, and, within our system, to be unwilling to choose, difficult as it may be, is to be unfit to hold ministerial office. It is easy to forever argue that your Department needs more, even when it receives the majority of the funding. It is harder to come forward with a plan and harder still to outline what police, school or other services one might cut to create additional funds for that Department. The Education Minister stated that he needs a budget of £3·6 billion to put the Department of Education on the right footing. The budget that he received was £500 million less.

There is also, of course, £150 million less in the capital budget, due to the appalling decision of the Government to remove the ring-fenced Fresh Start funding for shared and integrated education.

Despite that, to the Minister's credit, he has announced today that he has found resource to ensure that the Bangor Central Integrated Primary School and Millennium Integrated projects are able to progress, having been supported by parties across the Chamber and by the Education Committee. That is to be praised. The resource, however, will clearly come from the Department's budget. The seriousness of the budget situation is evidenced by the fact that the Department entered this financial year with a projected overspend of nearly £200 million. While it is easy from the outside to list many positive initiatives as a priority, the Minister does not have that luxury. He must deliver within his means and truly prioritise.

What are the priorities? The Minister, in one of his first addresses to the Chamber, assured the House that the development of an early learning and childcare strategy was a top priority. Last week saw the first delivery on that. Many across the Chamber recognised the positivity of that announcement. We are all aware that the cost of childcare puts immense strain on family finances, especially during a cost-of-living crisis. In many cases, it prevents parents, women disproportionately, from entering and remaining in the workforce. Otherwise, they would choose to do that.

The announcement of the 15% subsidy of childcare costs and the transitioning of all preschool education places to 22·5 hours per week is a great step in the right direction to help parents and towards real delivery against a top priority. I pay tribute to the work of Melted Parents and Employers For Childcare towards that. I know that they will not stop there, nor will the Minister, who has already said that that is not the limit of his ambition. Implementing an ambitious programme of reform will take time. The budget required will be significant — £400 million has been quoted — and will require ongoing commitment from the Executive to real, meaningful change in childcare provision.

Another clear and genuine priority for many across the Chamber, rightly so, is appropriate support and services for special educational needs. We have heard in Committee how the current system fails pupils and their families. The Minister recognised the need to invest in SEN with the new special educational needs capital investment programme, which will be welcomed by everyone with an interest in the sector and our school system. The delivery of up to eight new special schools across Northern Ireland as part of a new school investment programme, including a new school in east Belfast, alongside the new builds for a number of existing special schools and enhanced maintenance and equipment funding, represents another step in the right direction. Structural reform is clearly needed in SEN. Educational transition should be as timely and smooth as possible for every child and should not exacerbate the challenges that children and their families already face. I know that the Minister is committed to addressing that. The Education Authority must be held to account. As I have previously said, its approach appears at times to be policy- rather than child-focused.

We cannot deliver progress without those who work in the sector. The Minister has sought to address teaching pay disputes. Agreement was reached on teachers' pay: a rise in starting salary for teachers makes their starting point equal to that of teachers in England. The Minister has sought to support our non-teaching staff, submitting his bid for approval to the Department of Finance to allow the implementation of the pay and grading review. It was agreed at the Executive that the Minister of Finance should seek approval from Treasury to bring forward funding that was set aside for future years under the agreed funding package to allow additional funding to be accessed in 2024-25. I understand that the Minister of Finance is making that case and awaits the decision from London.

There is much to celebrate in our education system, but there are many challenges that we need to address to give every child in Northern Ireland the best start in life and the foundation on which to succeed. I urge the Executive as a collective to continue to press the Treasury. The DUP is clear that Northern Ireland is sorely in need of a more appropriate and fairer system and funding formula. Our leader, Gavin Robinson, has been to the very fore in crafting and giving voice to that argument and, at Westminster, pushing His Majesty's Government for change. Indeed, when, during the Hillsborough Castle talks late last year, we outlined our concerns, we stood alone in saying that what was on the table was not sufficient. I am glad that other parties have now aligned in that battle. Any incoming Government must move to a needs-based Budget for Northern Ireland as soon as possible to allow the Education Minister and the Executive as a whole to deliver for our children and young people.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:15, 28 May 2024

Every time we debate a Budget in here, it seems to be a more challenging one. However, sadly, the Executive, now that we finally have one, have not risen to that challenge or delivered on their promises. The current Budget process feels akin to steering a ship through treacherous waters with a blindfold on. While those waters have undoubtedly been made much more treacherous by the Tory shark attacks on public services that have gone on for over a decade, today we are being asked to vote on a Budget with minimal opportunity for scrutiny. That is not just bad practice; it is indicative of the lackadaisical approach to governance. It undermines the democratic process and our ability to effectively represent the needs of our constituents. So much for the accountability and transparency promised by the leadership parties.

The Budget falls dangerously short on the most critical issues facing the North, issues that the Executive had vowed to prioritise, from housing to child poverty. The Budget does not undo the savage cuts, implemented in the absence of an Executive, to many crucial initiatives. As my party's infrastructure spokesperson, I will major on many of those issues.

The Executive have modelled governance by press release, prioritising sound bites over substance. For example, the Finance Minister put out a press release on the Budget and announced an £85·6 million allocation for the A6 and the Belfast transport hub. I now see that a meagre £4 million of that investment is for the A6, so why the explicit mention and fanfare? Would that have anything to do with the fact that that road runs through the heart of the Minister's constituency? The same press statement refers to £88·5 million for the A5, which is something that we all desperately want and need to see done, but neglects to mention that that money is coming from the Dublin Government.

What we do know about the DFI budget is that, once again, it does little to alleviate pressures. It threatens delivery of basic front-line services and threatens safety on our fast-eroding road network. Other Members have outlined the economic, environmental and public health implications of not adequately funding our water and waste infrastructure, and this year's allocation does not offer much hope in that regard.

Reform and sustainability of our public transport network is merely a pipe dream. The public have been forced to foot the bill, with further increases to fares due to the Executive's persistent reluctance to invest in this key area. I hope, however, to see the retention of free travel for the over-60s, and I suspect that we will hear something on that in the coming weeks.

That brings me to my next point, which, again, is on public transport. When will we see delivery of phase 3 of the Derry to Coleraine rail line? I see an allocation of capital, but it goes nowhere near far enough. That seems to be a hallmark of the Budget: it gives wee bits of money to lots but not enough to see any one big job completed. A lot of this underlines the need for the infrastructure commission, and I would like an update — maybe not from the Finance Minister today but from the Executive Office — on where that is. We need help to inform how we design and deliver major projects in a more timely and less costly fashion.

I turn briefly to housing. It is of deep concern that the use of B&Bs and hotels — non-standard accommodation that was once deemed to be a last resort — has spiralled tenfold in the past five or six years. It is a particularly bitter pill to swallow that we are spending over £8 million on that when we consider that DFC has not been able to fund homelessness prevention initiatives. I would like to know the logic behind that "Penny wise, pound foolish" approach, which continues to punish the most vulnerable.

Ms Ní Chuilín has left the Chamber, but I had flashbacks to when she was a Minister and her all-singing, all-dancing housing strategy that was going to deliver 100,000 homes. The Department for Communities' capital budget has been reduced by a whopping 45% — that is just shocking — while the list of those in housing stress has increased by 6,000 and the number of households in temporary accommodation has increased by 50%. How will we address that if we do not invest in increasing our housing stock? Minister Lyons has also committed not just to making social housing a priority but to mitigating the damage of Tory welfare reform. Again, the Budget does nothing to increase the protections for the most vulnerable in our society.

Every Department wants a bigger slice of the pie, but it is incumbent on all Departments to use what they get prudently and fairly. I will come to Health in that regard. The west will no longer just take the crumbs off the table. The Western Trust is greatly failed by the current capitation formula that is used, which takes no account of the socio-economic factors that are so prevalent in that area. That really needs to be addressed to ensure fairness across the North. The west is not the only area that is neglected, but obviously it is the one that I know best. Where are we with transformation? We need to do things differently to ensure the maximum impact of the money that is spent on health.

The Budget has been hastily presented and neglects the core issues of housing, health and mental health. Those are not just line items on a balance sheet. We are dealing with people's lives, and we will not support today's Budget.

Photo of Ciara Ferguson Ciara Ferguson Sinn Féin

I speak as a member of the Audit Committee to reflect the scrutiny of the Budget 2024-25 for the Assembly Commission, Audit Office and Public Services Ombudsman.

The Committee's agreed report by way of letter on its deliberations was published on 9 April. The main role of the Audit Committee is to scrutinise and agree the budgets and estimates of the Audit Office and Public Services Ombudsman. The Committee also undertakes scrutiny of the budget for the Assembly Commission in a similar manner. The Committee fulfils that function in place of the Department of Finance, in recognition of the independence of those non-ministerial bodies. The Committee's evidence gathering and deliberations took place over its first two meetings of the mandate on 6 March and 9 April. With the limited time available to me today, I cannot dwell on the minutiae of the evidence gathered by the Committee. However, I wish to reflect on some particular areas.

First, in relation to the Assembly Commission, it is clear that a large part of the Assembly's budget is driven by costs set out in the Assembly Members' salary and expenses determination. The Commission is legally obliged to meet those costs. However, members questioned officials on the controllable portion of the Commission's budget. Elements included potential energy savings and sustainability; staffing implications of a fully functioning Assembly; and the Commission's capital budget and staffing resources. Members also noted the anticipated financial implications of recent changes, such as the introduction of the Windsor Framework Committee. It was also noted that the scrutiny role of the Audit Committee and Assembly Commission needs to be codified going forward.

Moving on to the Audit Office, members questioned officials on how they justified additional funding above the previously agreed 2022-25 budget. Members were concerned to hear of the potential risks to the office's public audit function and its vital scrutiny work. The Committee considers that scrutiny integral to public finances. The Committee also noted the Public Accounts Committee's recent observation that the Audit Office's average spend per full-time employment was well below other public audit agencies in Britain. The Committee stands over its decision to fully support the work of the Audit Office.

Members of the Committee were struck by the wide remit of the Public Services Ombudsman, despite its relatively small budget, as well as the growing number of complaints considered by the office since its inception in 2016. Members were particularly interested to hear about the recently introduced role of the office in relation to the Complaints Standards Authority. That, combined with investment in other preventative measures, such as the own-initiative programme, could lead to savings further down the line and reduce the number of complaints finding their way to the Public Services Ombudsman in the first place.

The Committee also probed a number of generic areas with all three bodies, and members received assurances and commitments in that regard. The Committee would support a multi-year budgetary framework in the future, enabling a more strategic budgetary focus. I am pleased to see that the Department of Finance's Budget document has made provision for the figures agreed by the Committee in its report published on 9 April.

I will now make some brief comments in my capacity as a Sinn Féin MLA. Throughout the Chamber, we recognise that the financial package that accompanied the restoration of the Executive was always going to fall far short of what was required, given the years of continuous underfunding of this institution. On that note, I acknowledge the work that the Minister of Finance has done to secure the commitments made to date as part of the interim fiscal framework, in what were undoubtedly very difficult financial circumstances. We now need to look towards further devolution in order to allow for more long-term strategic planning, including a multi-annual budgetary framework and proper investment across public services, including in the core bodies that are responsible for scrutiny, transparency and accountability.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP 4:30, 28 May 2024

There are words that are commonly used when we look at any Budget that comes to the Chamber, and they have been used to describe the Budget today: "challenging", "difficult" and "frustrating". There is not one area of our public sector or public services that we would say has enough funding. Whether it be the health sector, education or policing, their Departments' budgets are under much pressure. The Finance Minister has produced a Budget of which we now have sight. There is no doubt that many of us share the frustration at, at times, its lack of detail and the level of that detail, but we are working within the time frames that we have.

That leaves political parties with two options: either they get behind the Budget, acknowledging, of course, the challenges and difficult position that we are in, and try to make it work within the envelope that we have or they vote against the Budget, while offering no solutions or, in the worst case, walking away from their ministerial portfolios. Walking away or opposing the Budget is not a responsible thing to do. It is even more irresponsible to do that without offering one single alternative suggestion for how we can improve the budget envelope for each Department. It may seem like a politically —.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

I will indeed.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

The Member will be aware that there is a June monitoring round that may have a considerable amount of money in it: anywhere between £200 million and £300 million. Does he think that it is good governance to try to pass a Budget when that amount of money will become available in around 30 days' time? How is that possibly a good approach to government, and why would he support something like that? I believe that the Member and his party tend to look at budgeting in an appropriate manner. Not waiting for an extra £300 million is not quite the way of doing that. Over to you.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. That question has already been posed. Of course we look at the budgetary position in a sensible manner, but we also have to acknowledge the time frames that we are operating within and the legal responsibilities that we have. What is completely irresponsible is for Ministers to walk away from their portfolios for various political reasons.

As I was going on to say, those who do that may think that it is politically expedient in the short term, but if all parties were to take that narrow political stance, the consequences would be the creation of further instability and uncertainty, not only for Departments and those who work in them but for constituents, who very much rely on us to show leadership.

As a member of the Economy Committee, I see an opportunity for the Economy Minister and the Department in the budget envelope with which he has been provided. Is there enough funding? Of course not, but there is opportunity with what has been provided: funding for, for example, the city and growth deals, particularly in the north-west; the maritime museum; the riverfront project; and the medical school. Without the Budget, none of those would happen. There is no alternative other than asking for more money. At this time, no solutions are coming forward about from where else that money might come. The medical school at the Magee campus is an example of having to invest in order to save. Hopefully, we will see the fruits of that in the near future.

We need to grasp the opportunities that we have in this Assembly mandate to make a real difference to our communities. Investment in the tourism sector is another area in which we can see growth over the next few years if there is a proper events strategy from the Minister. We have an opportunity to bring world-class events to our shores but also to nurture home-grown events, such as the North West 200 and many others in my constituency.

It is for local Ministers to prioritise and bring forward plans and ideas to improve their Departments. The lack of a plan or a vision in the Health Department to address the ongoing challenges is deeply disappointing. In the past, we have seen numerous examples of how the foresight and vision of previous Ministers were able to address challenges in the midst of a difficult Budget. The radiotherapy centre at Altnagelvin is an example. An Ulster Unionist Party Minister, Michael McGimpsey, stopped that project because of what he cited as a difficult Budget. Mr Speaker will know too well that it was a DUP Minister, Minister Poots at the time, who delivered the radiotherapy centre at Altnagelvin. That is an example of how, under tight budgetary pressure, if we prioritise, we can address and deliver on some of the challenges that exist. We need to see the Health Minister bring forward a plan. It is not good enough simply to say that there is not enough money. The reality is that people see that the Health Department takes more than 50% of the Budget; nobody argues that it should not, but the Minister needs to bring forward a plan to address the issues that continue to exist.

Each Minister has a responsibility to bring forward a vision for their Department. I urge each of them to do so, and I urge those who are opposed to the Budget to step up to the plate and join the rest of us in delivering for a better society in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Although I will speak in support of the Budget, I need to address some of the many difficult situations that we face. As others have said, years of Executive collapse and systemic underfunding by Tory Governments have resulted in vital programmes, many for the most vulnerable, marginalised and deprived in our communities, coming to an end, with other programmes, such as Engage, Happy Healthy Minds and holiday hunger payments, getting the chop, not to mention the consequences of leaving the European Union, which resulted in the loss of so much, including the European social fund (ESF), also doing damage to our voluntary and community sectors.

The cost of division remains a significant problem for us in Northern Ireland — one for me, one for you — just as it has been for decades. Despite spending more per head on health, we have the worst hospital waiting lists in western Europe. We have reports, such as Bengoa, gathering dust on the shelves. We have a Minister resigning rather than facing the tough decisions.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

No, I want to make progress.

As someone said recently, there are more pilots in Northern Ireland Departments than there are in easyJet.

I will now speak briefly as the justice spokesperson for the Alliance Party on how the Budget will affect the Department of Justice. While the Department has seen a slight uplift, it comes too little, too late after years of constrained budget settlements. Since devolution, Justice has been chronically underfunded relative to other Departments. That has been recognised by the Fiscal Council. While the Health budget has grown by 70% and the Education budget by 45% over the past 12 years, Justice has seen an increase of as little as 3%.

We must recognise that the vast majority of the Department of Justice's budget is demand-led and is truly inescapable. I challenge other Ministers to tell us where their inescapable sums are. Staff costs and statutory commitments consume nearly all available resources, leaving less than 1% for discretionary spending. Over the years, a cost recovery model has operated successfully and has delivered significant reforms despite the noose around the Department of Justice's neck. It is clear, however, that we have reached a point at which the potential savings would automatically increase costs in other areas. For instance, the introduction of electronic monitoring would allow police to monitor accused persons in real time, including their location, therefore reducing remand numbers, but the Department does not have the budget to deliver it.

Among the pressures facing the Department of Justice, the situation in our prisons is particularly concerning, with a 35% increase in prison numbers over the past three years. Since joining the Justice Committee, I have visited our prisons and have heard at first hand how the increases have made prison arrangements unsustainable. Older blocks, initially set for demolition, have been forced to reopen. Prisoners are now doubling up in small cells. Overcrowding has rendered adequate rehabilitation a mere pipe dream, with reoffending rates rising to in excess of 40%. There are safety concerns for overworked and understaffed prison officers, and, while we have known for some time that more prison officers are desperately needed, extra resources have also to be provided to fund that.

Policing has been cut to the bone over the past number of years to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds. We are now in a situation where the service may become unrecognisable to the public. Policing numbers sit at some 6,390, the lowest number of officers since the formation of the PSNI and well below the New Decade, New Approach target of 7,500. Yet, our police have increasingly become the first port of call in the absence of other services, with officers sometimes spending their entire shift in an accident and emergency department. With that, and many taking leave due to physical or mental health issues, the strain of those cuts is painfully evident in our Police Service.

Even without pressures from demand-led services, major issues exist. Our criminal justice system is picking up the pieces where other Departments, such as Health and Education, have failed. An increasing number of individuals entering the criminal justice system are grappling with severe mental health issues, addiction or unresolved traumas. If we want to avoid the immense societal harm, we need to rethink our approach and invest in prevention. Only then will we be able to avoid the what ifs. What if they had been better educated? What if they had been given more support in life? What if they had received adequate mental health care? Others persist in tackling delays in the justice system and the backlog in our courts, which fail victims. Those delays compound the hurt, stress and anxiety for victims. To open more courts, more staff need to be recruited, and the throughput in our court system needs to be enhanced, including legal aid payments to those in need of financial support for access to justice. Without a larger cash flow, the system will only get slower.

While I know that the Minister will act to do more with less and make the best of the available resources, it will be very difficult. It goes without saying that we are not where we want to be. If we had been able to do our job over the past two years, we might have been in a better place, but, given where we have landed, we need to ensure that we make more progress, where possible, in the three years that are available to us. Difficult decisions need to be made on the prioritisation of services, but the job of a Minister is to find a way.

To those voting against the Budget motion today, I ask you this: where is the alternative proposition? Where are you going to raise the money from to fill the gap in the coffers that, you feel, needs to be filled? Where is your Budget for delivering? I have not seen it published, but maybe we will see it in some of your election manifestos. For that reason, today, I will be supporting the Budget.

Finally, on a personal note, I have to express my deep disappointment at the resignation of the Health Minister, someone walking away from patients and healthcare workers.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Time is up.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

He has failed not only to deliver many of the strategies that have been promised —

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Time, Mr Dickson.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

— but, for me, on a personal basis, he has failed cancer patients in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I feel moved to begin by thanking the Chair of the Economy Committee for his very generous words when he opened his remarks, and I want to reciprocate. I have been on a few Committees during my 13 years in the House, and I think that the Economy Committee is particularly collegial and coherent. I wish it every success for the remainder of the mandate. I also note that Ms Ní Chuilín thought that I was staring at her during her remarks. I will do my best to be less attentive in future.

My starting point is to ask this: what is the purpose of a debate such as this? It seems to me that a lot of people think that it is to win the argument and then win the vote. I put it to you that there is an alternative: progress. Maybe the outcome of a debate such as this is to make progress, particularly in this consociational system of government that we have, or power-sharing, as it is known colloquially. With five parties — in this case, four — in government, it is difficult to rub along together, but, surely, that is ultimately the objective.

As I said, I have been here for 13 years, and I have never been more optimistic about what we might achieve. The mood is different since we restored, and I am optimistic. Every one of the 90 MLAs knows that, if it collapses this time, it is gone, and fewer than a handful of MLAs would like to see that result. Perhaps that was in our political psyche and we had to take it right to the brink of destruction before we realised that there is no alternative to power-sharing and to learning to work together. I am optimistic despite the fact that we have a legacy of disaggregated working, with a single-year Budget divorced from the Programme for Government and divorced from the legislative programme. However, that is where we are, and that is what we have to work through.

I am a little disappointed at the number of contributors who are calling us "reckless" and saying that we do not have an alternative. We had an alternative. The alternative was to wait a few weeks. We know from the Department of Finance that June monitoring will yield £200 million or maybe even as much as £300 million. That would have done no damage to the working of the Departments because we have already passed a Vote on Account, so they would be solvent in that time. We had an alternative, which was to wait, see what the £200-plus million could do for the Budget and go from there.

I give way to the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP 4:45, 28 May 2024

I thank the Member for giving way. I find it unbelievable that he says it will not damage Departments. It may not do that, but it will damage community groups. I know the number of people who are in contact with my office. I am sure that people are in contact with his office and the Ulster Unionist Party offices. There is no wriggle room for us to wait in carrying out our legal responsibilities to make sure that Departments are funded and can spend money.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

The Member maybe misunderstands what "Vote on Account" means. It means that Ministers are free to make decisions in the meantime.

My party, during all the talks that preceded restoration, was clear in its understanding that all the other parties that were going to form the Executive wanted to prioritise health. I refer to a response that I got from the Executive Office earlier this month to a question for written answer about the Programme for Government. The answer stated:

"The Executive is agreed on priorities, including: childcare; reducing hospital waiting lists; tackling violence against women and girls; Special Educational Needs; housing; developing a globally competitive economy; and Reform and Transformation of public services."

That is not an alphabetical list of those seven priorities, so it is either random, which would be a rather sloppy way to respond to a Member's request, or it is in rank order, in which case "reducing waiting lists" came second. However, the only money set aside for waiting lists is the £34 million that has come from the UK Government. Whether we say that it is a 6% increase on last year's starting position or a 2·8% decrease from the finishing position — I note that the esteemed BBC commentator John Campbell says that it is both — in my opinion, neither represents the prioritisation of health.

I heard a Member say that it was disingenuous to talk about the starting position compared with the finishing position, but I note, as a former member of the Economy Committee, that, in an exchange between the permanent secretary of the Department for the Economy and the Chairperson of the Committee, the permanent secretary indicated that the Department's budget for 2024-25 is largely positive and that it is hoped that the opening positions for arm's-length bodies would largely match the closing position from 2023-24 — ie include all the 2023-24 in-year allocations. That is not disingenuous; that is a valid assessment of the position.

I will conclude by referring to Mark Friedman, the man behind outcomes-based accountability (OBA) programmes for government. As a collective, we agreed that we would take that OBA approach sometime in the middle of the last decade. His book, which details how to do it, is entitled 'Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough'. In other words, it is not about the effort; it is about the outcomes. Outcomes are best delivered through cooperation. We are learning that, and we increasingly understand that few issues are dealt with in a departmental silo. We need to cooperate to tackle things like educational underachievement or to deliver childcare. I regret that the Budget is all about departmental budgets, because, ultimately, we need to share and cooperate in order to succeed.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The next speaker will be Sian Mulholland, but, before I call Sian, I inform Members that I have decided to use my discretion to add an extra 15 minutes to the debate. The Members who will speak after Sian are Mr Allister and Mr Carroll.

Photo of Sian Mulholland Sian Mulholland Alliance

My apologies, Mr Speaker, I was not expecting you to get to me. I will support the motion on the Budget. I do not think that we have much of an alternative. I would rather be agreeing a multi-year Budget that is linked to a Programme for Government. That would be preferable, and, absolutely, we would rather see that today.

Bear with me. I am so sorry, Mr Speaker. I was told that I was not on the list to speak.

When it comes to the impact of the Budget on the Department for Communities, put simply, there just is not enough in the pot. There is not enough to do all the things that we want to do to make people's lives better. The Department for Communities is the Department that most affects people's daily lives in Northern Ireland, and we need to get it right. We are in a housing crisis, and money needs to be invested to ensure that everyone has a safe and secure place to live. The cost of temporary accommodation continues to rise, and the housing stock desperately needs to be maintained and made more energy-efficient through retrofitting to make sure that we meet our climate change obligations and people's health needs. Housing is at the core of our society. Having a stable tenure that is suitable for an individual's needs helps with mental and physical health and their ability to participate in society. Housing cuts across all Departments. We urgently need a housing supply strategy that addresses those key concerns.

There is a worrying downward trend in capital DEL over the past three years, with a substantial decrease this year. That massively limits investment and long-term improvements. We are in a stop-start, short-term firefighting cycle. We are facing a cliff edge when it comes to welfare mitigations. Whilst we received what the Minister bid for, it will not be enough to look at offsetting the two-child limit by introducing the Better Start larger families payment, restoring the £20 uplift in universal credit or introducing additional support for carers through a carer's recognition grant, all of which are recommendations from Les Allamby's independent review of welfare mitigations.

It is really difficult to ascertain exactly what pressure will be put on the arts and culture sector by the Budget, because this year's allocations and past allocations are not outlined like for like. That is really concerning. It is a concerning situation that urgently needs clarity from the Minister, because, as we know, the arts and culture sector is not a hobby or a nice add-on. It actively feeds into our health system — mental and physical health — our economy and our education system.

The best example that I can provide of the fact that the Budget does not link to a Programme for Government is the disconnect on issues relating to children. The responsibility for children falls between many Departments. When a situation requires the responsibility to push forward and drive a programme, it becomes difficult, in that it requires cross-departmental cooperation. If we had, as Mr Nesbitt pointed out, an outcomes-based Programme for Government linked to the Budget, we would see very different results.

Whilst I support the Budget, because we have no other sensible choice, I want to highlight how we could make the money work better for the people of Northern Ireland through resource pooling. It involves collaboration and the sharing of resources, such as personnel, technology, facilities and expertise, among Departments to achieve common objectives. That approach fosters a spirit of teamwork and cooperation, leading to substantial cost savings and improved service delivery. That is exactly what the Children's Services Co-operation Act 2015 intended, but I feel that it has not been utilised to its fullest. Resource pooling reduces duplication of effort and leverages economies of scale, leading to cost savings and a more efficient use of public funds. Collaborative efforts lead to better outcomes for children: we know that. When Departments work together, they can create more effective and innovative solutions to address the complex needs of children and families. Integrated services are more accessible to families, reducing the burden of navigating multiple systems and ensuring that support is available when and where it is needed.

Ireland's Jigsaw initiative provides youth mental health services through pooled resources from various Departments and helps to prevent more severe mental health issues that require costlier interventions. Early and accessible mental health support can save the healthcare system a significant amount, with estimates suggesting savings of up to €5,000 per young person annually, by reducing hospitalisations and emergency care needs. In Ireland, early intervention programmes such as the Meitheal model have been shown to save substantial amounts by addressing issues before they escalate. Studies there have shown that early intervention can save up to €10,000 annually per child.

Whilst I support the Budget, it is important that we take the difficult decisions in the future to reform, change the way that government works and collaborate. I hope that we can commit to restructuring and making the changes necessary to ensure that our resources are used much more effectively for the betterment of all our people by the time we face our next Budget, which will hopefully be a multi-year one that is linked to a Programme for Government.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We have time to squeeze Ms McLaughlin in. Sinéad, if you wish to deliver your speech, please do so.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; I was not expecting that either.

As we debate the Budget, I want to acknowledge that it is good that the Assembly is in the position to discuss government spending priorities and exercise our legislative scrutiny role. At the start of this year, that was by no means guaranteed; indeed, some of us had lost faith that it would be back up and running any time soon. I also worry, however, that, due to the understandable relief that the Government are up and running again, we have set the bar much too low. I will make a number of points, first on the Budget and the process in general, before moving on to speak as the SDLP economy spokesperson to address that Department's allocations.

This is the tenth year in a row when a single-year Budget has been agreed, despite repeated calls from parties across the Floor for a multi-year Budget. Also, the Budget was agreed in the absence of a Programme for Government, which is really regrettable. In essence, we are funding pressures instead of planning for our priorities. Clearly, the Budget will be agreed in a difficult context with a much higher proportion of unmet bids than in previous years. There is little doubt that the years of underfunding and brutal cuts from Westminster have taken their toll. The failed economic strategy of the Government across the water, in Westminster — the bleak and cruel lifespan of which will, fortunately, finally come to an end in the coming weeks — has consistently undermined the ability of this place to deliver public services that meet all the needs of our people.

It is not the fault of the Tories alone. This morning, the chair of the BMA committee in Northern Ireland spoke about the end of the health service. Our public services are in complete free fall, collapsing before our eyes. We cannot just blame the Tories: this Government have failure writ large all over them. The absence of the institutions for many years and our hokey-cokey Government have broken our public services. Across Northern Ireland, thousands of people are effectively shut out of our health and education systems. The gap in healthy life expectancy between the poorest and the most affluent areas is still between 11 and 15 years. That is unacceptable, and we all bear responsibility.

The Budget is a consequence of failure: the failure to sustain political stability here. Nobody can move away from the fact that, in a large way, that is due to the two biggest parties in the House. It is also a consequence of the failure of the UK Government to understand or even to empathise with our needs and of the failure of the Government here to generate the inclusive growth that is needed.

In the absence of competence and, too often, in the shadow of callousness, this Budget has come after the start of the fiscal year, and the reliance on short-term financial support has continued, while more and more people are forced into chronic and crippling poverty.

That includes families who are struggling with childcare costs, and many of us were pleased to see the announcement last week by the Minister of Education about childcare costs. We know that that is only the start, as £25 million will never represent the kind of transformation of the early education and childcare system that we need to see. The fact that childcare bills have been allowed to spiral to such a significant extent is an indictment of the political failure here for many years. We must see much more ambition from the Executive in the coming months.

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

I turn to the specific allocation made to the Department for the Economy. It is clear that the Department faces a number of significant challenges, including with Invest NI, where the £3 million pay pressure has remained unfunded and no specific funding exists to implement the findings of Sir Michael Lyon's review or the transformation of that organisation. Higher education is particularly badly affected, as the £7·5 million shortfall in the teaching grant has not been addressed, and the increase in student hardship funding made last year has not been repeated. It represents an effective cut to students who are already struggling to make basic ends meet. We are forcing students into poverty while they struggle to invest in their education. Those cuts are even more damaging when we consider that the Sinn Féin Minister for the Economy has rolled back on the DUP Minister's commitment to a full review of higher education. Since February, we have been asking about that review, which was supposed to consider support for the teaching institutions as well as for the students. The Minister has only been able to tell us that officials are still considering it. Well, that is not good enough. The Budget effectively cuts support to higher education, which is morally indefensible and economically illiterate.

It is good to see some funding allocated for the expansion of the Magee campus, albeit with a lack of clarity on its exact purposes, and, admittedly, it is a fraction of the amount that is likely to be needed. More worryingly, I am concerned that no funding appears to exist for the recommendations produced by the Magee task force. This cannot be pushed on to future years. The task force is likely to make recommendations in the coming months, and we need to see a ring-fenced budget to implement them.

In totality, it is concerning that there is no provision to screen any of this funding for regional balance. There has been a lot of talk about regional balance; there is no money for regional balance in any of the budgets, and there has been no meaningful screening with targets. It is supposedly one of the Minister's top priorities, but, too often, the Department has not been able to answer my basic questions for written answer on regional balance. The Minister has not been able to identify who is responsible for leading the work on regional balance. When pressed, he effectively told me that it was everyone's responsibility. Well, if it is everyone's responsibility, it is nobody's responsibility.

Finally, we know that the public is crying out for a change in the way that we do politics here. We only need to look at the COVID inquiry in the past few weeks to see proof of the devastating impact of the silo mentality. We need to see more —

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 5:00, 28 May 2024

Bring your remarks to a close.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

— coherence and cohesion in this Government. We will not support the Budget.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

There is something of a rich irony and a poor delivery in respect of both this debate and the Budget document. The rich irony arises from the fact that we are debating a Sinn Féin austerity Budget. It is the party that could not wait to get back into government, with no regard to whether there was or was not enough money. Indeed, that was the position of most of the parties, and then, when they came back, they discovered that they did not have all that they needed, so they had to produce what effectively is an austerity Budget. Welcome to the "New Tories", who sit to my left. Maybe the "Whining Tories", because they are still whining that there is not enough. Indeed, old habits die hard, because, even though Sinn Féin has the authority and is in charge, it is still someone else's fault. It is still the British Government's fault. It reminds me of that very apt tweet from the now deputy First Minister that appeared in the WhatsApp messages that were revealed in the COVID inquiry. When, obviously referring to Sinn Féin, she said:

"Well, why not - let English taxpayers subsidise our free prescriptions, lower rates, no water charges, lower tuition fees and free prescriptions.. but hey, how dare you guys starve us of funding".

That is still the attitude of Sinn Féin, even though it is producing this austerity Budget. There is never enough for Sinn Féin. There is not enough money, we are told, for health, but there is enough money to squander by increasing the budgets of cross-border bodies. There is not enough money to deal with waiting lists, but there is enough money to increase the staff of InterTradeIreland by 50%. I think that we can see from this Budget and from the Department of Finance where Sinn Féin's priorities lie.

There has been much ado about childcare recently, but a sleight of hand has been delivered to parents, because, under the Barnett consequential, the Executive got £57·2 million for childcare, but what of that do they put into spend? They put in £25 million. Where did the rest go? Where is it being squandered? Why is childcare not getting the allocation that was intended for it? That is the product of this system of government.

When we talk about squander, one cannot but think of the rising demands for Casement Park. Whatever it costs — £300 million, or perhaps more — it is a flagship project of the Executive, and it therefore must be built. When it comes to it, it must be prioritised over health and education. If our constituents were faced with the choice of whether they would rather spend £300 million on improving their health system and educating their kids or on a vanity project for a sporting organisation, most people would think of their family and their health and decide which was the better spend. Of course, the GAA, by its demands, would bleed any budget dry but never put its hand into its own deep pockets. Here it is saying, "We will pay only £15 million, but we demand that it be built at whatever it costs". Where is the balance in that? As for football, it is held to the inflation-ravaged allocation of 10 years ago. That is all that it gets. Furthermore, it is expected to be happy that the only legacy of the Euros will be a futuristic stadium for the GAA, which will be a money-spinner for every non-sporting event that it runs commercially but will provide no clawback for government.

I come now to the Ulster Unionist Party's position. I understand its complaint, but I do not understand its response. It may well be right, and is, in the sincerity of its complaint to vote against the Budget, but where is the logic in its then going back with its tail between its legs to implement that same Budget? Where is the principle in that? You are taking a stand because you have been inadequately provided for, as, indeed, an Ulster Unionist predecessor in Health, a number of years ago, was inadequately provided for. However, if you are taking a stand on the principle that you are being inadequately provided for, why on earth would you humiliate yourself to go back and implement the very same Budget? That is really what I do not understand at all.

As for efficiency, I asked every Department what efficiency savings it planned to make. Each Sinn Féin Department answered, "Nothing. We do not intend to make efficiencies". Their attitude still is: begging bowl, beg and then blame. That is the essence of this Budget.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

This Tory Government is on life support, yet with every cut enacted by this Budget, the Stormont Executive breathe new life into their failed Conservative political project. After 14 years of crippling economic decisions implemented with the support of Sinn Féin, the DUP and others, the Tories are, I hope, set to be given the boot. However, it seems that they can be confident that Stormont will continue to implement their policies on behalf of the wealthy minority that they represent. This crucial juncture, when the British Government are at their weakest, should be the time when Stormont's ruling parties finally push back. They should say "No" to the implementation of more Budget cuts, "No" to the destruction of our public services and "No" to the further impoverishment of working-class people who have borne the brunt of their attacks. However, once again, they roll over and do the Tories' dirty work with this Budget.

As usual, Executive parties tell us that it is inevitable and that we have no choice but to make do with what we have got. We heard that ad nauseam today. Not more than four days ago, the Audit Office found that the Executive handed £2·1 billion back to the Treasury over a period of five years. Some £420 million every year was handed back to the Tories, and then they tell us that they have no money and no choice but to implement these cuts. Budget cuts are a political choice.

To counter the spin from the Executive, it is worth tallying up the impact of their choices and the consequences of what we are being asked to vote for. Our health service will suffer because of this Budget. The outgoing Minister said that there would be "serious and ... irreparable damage" because of this Budget. One in four people here is on a health waiting list, and the numbers will only grow. Stormont has cut over 1,000 hospital beds since 2010, but things are likely to get worse as our services are cut and the NHS becomes more understaffed. Health workers have had their pay cut. Junior doctors are out on strike, and more will strike thanks to this Budget. Some 80% of domiciliary care has been privatised on Stormont's watch. This Budget will continue the reliance on the private sector and fuel the privatisation of our health service overall.

As we struggle to recruit health workers with low pay and poor conditions, the huge vacancies will continue to be filled by handing hundreds of millions of pounds to private agencies. GP services and NHS dentistry, already on the brink of collapse, will be driven to further destruction. People will die on waiting lists, in hospital corridors and in parked-up ambulances. They will die through lack of treatment and lack of services. They will die from disease, forced negligence, suicide, overdose and more, as they await barely existent or non-existent services. For the sake of people's health, I will vote against the Budget.

For the sake of homes, I will vote against the Budget. The Chartered Institute of Housing has warned that over 400 fewer homes will be built as a result of this Budget. There are more than 40,000 on the housing waiting list because of Stormont's failure to build, and that number will only get higher, as will the number of homeless people and those sleeping rough. The Department for Communities, which is responsible for housing, will have its budget cut by 38%. A lack of homes means that rents will increase under this Budget. Mortgages will increase, and people will continue to be squeezed under the weight of this Government's failures. The same Department is supposed to be advancing an anti-poverty strategy — how can it be any more than a wish list if it's funding is slashed?

I will be voting against the Budget on behalf of education support workers, who have been waiting for a pay and grading review since 2018. Those workers, who keep our schools going, would not have to strike if this Budget delivered on their demands. Children with special educational needs and disabilities will face more discrimination under this Budget, as Stormont, once again, underfunds the schools and services that they rely on. They will experience a long wait for a statement of needs, be unsure of a school place and feel let down by the Government. Educators will do what they can with a lack of resources.

School buildings are falling down round their ears. The Budget will put more school build projects on the long finger, and schoolchildren will be expected to suck it up. The Irish-medium sector, which is already on the receiving end of state bigotry, will suffer under the Budget. I will vote against it for the sake of children's education.

Despite calls from Stormont to scrap the two-child limit, the Budget will continue to punish people through cruel welfare reforms that were implemented by Sinn Féin, the DUP and Alliance. The promised and much talked-about childcare strategy will remain in limbo. Parents will cripple themselves to pay for childcare costs, unchecked and unchallenged by the Budget. The Budget means more hardship and poverty. I cannot endorse it.

I will vote against the Budget for our environment. Countless emissions targets will be missed due to departmental budget cuts. The Budget will help to drive global warming and bring us closer to climate catastrophe. It will mean less public transport, off-the-charts agricultural emissions and homes in desperate need of retrofitting. I will also vote against the Budget for Lough Neagh. The Executive should be ashamed of the paltry £1·6 million that they have provided to deal with the disaster at Lough Neagh. If that is what the Government call a priority, we are all in for a rough time.

Infrastructure cuts will see public maintenance being scaled back. Public transport workers will have their pay cut, and passenger fares will be hiked. They are being hiked already in the coming days. The over-60s, who are some of the most vulnerable in our society, will face the threat of having their free travel revoked.

The worst thing about all of this is that Ministers know the consequences. They know that the Budget will cause devastation, but they will vote for it anyway and say that there is nothing that they can do. They have agreed to be bound by the economic logic of a Tory Government who are hell-bent on destroying the last vestiges of our public services and ripping our communities apart. I hope that the Tory Government are set to pay the price for the destruction that they have caused in the upcoming general election. The Executive should stand up to them now. They should stand up and say that they will not do their bidding and that they will fund services and provide a decent future for all our people, whatever the cost.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 5:15, 28 May 2024

I call the Minister of Finance to respond. Minister, given the time available, which was outlined earlier, I am reliably informed that the calculator says that you have 49 minutes remaining.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank all the Members and Committee Chairs for their participation in the debate. I thank the Members who were supportive of the Budget proposals for their input, and I have listened with interest to Members who have spoken against the Budget. I intend to use most of my time to respond to as many of the useful and constructive issues raised by Members as possible.

The leader of the Opposition highlighted, as did other Members, the issue of multi-year Budgets. Colleagues will be aware that I have said numerous times that my preference is for a multi-year Budget. I am keen to be in a place where we are able to set a multi-year Budget to maximise Departments' abilities to plan. However, as I have also said many times, this is the final year of the current spending review period, so it is not possible to set a multi-year Budget at this point. That is set out in legislation. Unfortunately, that prevents Departments from being able to plan more effectively. Treasury has made it clear that a spending review will take place after the general election, which has been set for 4 July. What is not clear at this point is whether that will be a single- or multi-year settlement, although I have made the case to Treasury and to the shadow Secretary of State that the preference of the Executive and all parties here is for multi-year Budgets.

Mr O'Toole also raised the issue of the Fresh Start funding. I reiterate that the decision was taken by Treasury to un-ring-fence any money that was repackaged into the financial package. I am sure that the Member is aware that that money was then made available to the Executive as resource funding. To convert that back into capital would have meant £150 million less for day-to-day spending. Following a request by the Education Minister, the Executive agreed to provide £150 million over the next three years to build the Strule Shared Education Campus, which was previously a Fresh Start project. The Budget includes the first £20 million of that, and that was based on what DE has profiled to spend in this financial year. While the Fresh Start funding is no longer available to take forward the other shared and integrated education projects that are not already in contractual commitment, the Education Minister has confirmed that he will include those in his prioritisation for his Budget allocation. I am sure that the Member will agree that the £150 million from Fresh Start would only have gone so far in the delivery of those 11 projects.

Mr O'Toole mentioned Casement Park. As all Members will be aware and as has been referred to, it is an Executive flagship project. The bid from the Department for Communities for this year was met in full. The Casement Park project can deliver huge sporting, economic and social benefits across our communities. It needs to be delivered, and it is unthinkable that that would not happen in time to host Euro 2028. My Department has received a strategic outline case on the subregional stadia programme that my officials are considering. As recently as last Friday, the Prime Minister reiterated that the British Government would make a significant contribution to the redevelopment of Casement Park. They need to get on and clarify as soon as possible what that contribution will be.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for that update and for being so thorough in going through the points raised, although she has had a fair bit of time to do it. Has her Department been in touch directly with UEFA, or will she consider getting in touch with UEFA, to find out the parameters and timing, so that the Department of Finance and the Finance Minister have absolute clarity on when the money needs to be committed?

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

The Member will be aware that the Communities Minister is leading on Casement Park. I have written to the Communities Minister offering any support necessary from my Department and officials to move the project forward. I am open to any suggestions from him about how to move it forward.

Mr O'Toole mentioned revenue raising. I have always been clear that the Executive will consider all options, including efficiencies, generating revenue, additional borrowing and further fiscal powers. That will continue to be part of the negotiations with Treasury on the final fiscal framework. Mr O'Toole mentioned that, in his view, the Budget lacks strategic priorities. Of course, the correct place to set the Executive's priorities is a Programme for Government. I am certainly of the view that we want to take that forward as quickly as possible. The Executive have been clear that they want to progress it as quickly as possible. However, we have to agree a Budget as early as possible to allow Departments to plan effectively.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I want to make some progress, please.

As I set out, the Budget reflects, as far as possible, the priorities of the Executive. It was developed in just three months from the Executive's return and in a challenging financial position. The interim fiscal framework will set out the scope of the sustainability plan, which my Department is working on at pace and which will include input from other Departments.

I have heard Members from the Opposition criticise the Budget today. It is easy to point to the problems, but there are fewer solutions to come by. I have yet to see or hear the Opposition provide an alternative Budget or a plan for how to move things forward.

Steve Aiken, Liz Kimmins and a number of other Members mentioned the Department of Health's budget. Mr Aiken remarked that the Department of Health has always received more than 50% of the available Budget. That is not the case; in fact, the share of the overall Budget allocated to Health has grown slowly and inexorably over time. Since the Executive returned in 2020, the Health baseline has increased by £2 billion. While some have highlighted my party and other parties' manifesto commitments to an additional £1 billion for Health over the spending review period, Health has, in fact, received a £1·6 billion uplift to its baseline funding over that period. I fully agree that Health needs more money, as do all Departments. The British Government need to provide the Executive with a sustainable level of public finances. Public services here are suffering because that is not happening. Of course, my job, as Finance Minister, is to balance all the asks and ensure that all Departments can deliver the public services within their responsibility.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I want to make some progress, please.

There remains an onus on the Department of Health, as the biggest spending Department, to continue to transform and improve productivity in the delivery of its services. Approximately £1 billion in resource DEL was available for allocation to all Departments. It simply was not realistic to meet all the pressures of one Department, given the number of bids being made by all Departments. The Department of Health has been allocated 51·2% of the overall resource DEL funding available, a 6·3% uplift from the opening position of 2023-24.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Minister very much for giving way. The Minister will be aware that, across the rest of the United Kingdom, health is above the line — considerably so — because of the pressures on the health system across the place. Can you explain why Northern Ireland is somehow different from England, Scotland and Wales and, indeed, the Irish Republic?

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I am sure that I could explain why there are differences between the North and England, Scotland and Wales and the South. We faced a really challenging Budget, and, as I said, the bids that came in from all Departments greatly outweighed the money to be allocated. It was a case of having to balance up and get some money to all Departments. We tried our best. Do I think that we put enough money into any Department? No, I do not. That is why I continue to make the case to Treasury that we need proper investment in our public services. Every Department asked for more than it received.

Mr Aiken said that the Budget should be delayed in order to allocate the additional funding that is likely to become available from Westminster Main Estimates. Perhaps the Member was not listening when, in my opening remarks, I explained that that approach is prohibited by the 1998 Act and that, even if it were possible to do that, it would carry the significant risks that I also outlined: the risk of overspends; the risk of worse impacts from decisions later in the year; the risk of the Vote on Account being exhausted; and the risk of £559 million having to be repaid next year. I have to say that I am not clear on what the Member or his party hope to achieve by delaying the Budget. As he said, the funding will be allocated in June monitoring. That will allow Departments to properly identify the impact of their funding envelope and develop bids accordingly. It will also allow the Executive to properly assess those bids in the context of competing pressures across all Departments. The Department of Health will be able to engage in that process in the same way as every other Department. Calls to delay the Budget —

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I would like to continue to make some progress.

Calls to delay the Budget appear to be an excuse to avoid taking challenging decisions. We do not have that luxury.

Colm Gildernew mentioned the budget for Supporting People. The Supporting People programme assists some 19,500 vulnerable people each year to live independently and is an important element of the Department for Communities budget. That funding is recognised as a preventative intervention that reduces the potential for greater costs to fall on the health and justice sectors. It is a demand-led service that has been under pressure as a result of increasing homelessness. The Communities Minister bid for £12·6 million for the programme, and it will now be for him to allocate his resource budget to take account of that important priority.

Paula Bradshaw asked about the Executive bureau in Beijing. TEO is responsible for implementing the Executive's international relations strategy. As part of that, TEO utilises £365,000 of its budget to fund the Executive's Beijing bureau. It is approaching its tenth year in operation and has made a significant contribution to the development of relationships with China. TEO and many Departments and agencies have worked and are working closely with the consulate to support initiatives to build relationships.

Phillip Brett and Cathy Mason mentioned the EA pay and grading review, and other Members raised that in the course of the debate. The Executive agreed that I would write to the British Treasury to seek agreement to re-profile the Executive's future years funding in order to fund the full implementation of the non-teaching pay and grading review for education support staff. The Education Minister wrote to me confirming the cost sought for re-profiling, and my officials and I engaged with the British Treasury to make that case. I formally wrote to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 17 May, and I raised it with her when we met last week. The request remains with Treasury for it to address.

Mr Brett also raised RHI tariffs, the closure of the scheme and AME funding. The non-domestic RHI scheme continues to be funded through ring-fenced and capped AME budget set as a population proportion of the funding for the equivalent scheme in England. The Department for the Economy submitted a business case addendum to my Department for the uplift in tariffs in November 2023.

DFE subsequently confirmed to my Department that an Executive view was necessary regarding the future of the scheme before the work was progressed. As DFE is the lead Department on energy policy and the operation of the non-domestic RHI scheme, responsibility for the business case rests with that Department, and my officials continue to engage with their counterparts on that.

Colin McGrath raised the issue of the budget for the community and voluntary sector. Again, I recognise that the sector and its organisations are experiencing significant increases in demands for their services, including for advice and support at a time when rising costs are impacting on organisations and their ability to continue to meet demand. The Communities Minister bid for some additional money in the 2024-25 Budget, and, again, it will be for the Communities Minister, as with all other Ministers, to prioritise his budget and the programmes in it. Of course, Ministers will have the opportunity to bid for further funding allocations through the in-year monitoring rounds.

Mr McGrath seems to have more faith in an incoming Labour Government than I do, and he thinks that we could do better with the Budget that we have. The question that I pose to anybody who criticises the Budget is: where would you take the money from to give it to somebody else? I give the Departments the money and they decide how to spend it, but there was a limited pot of money to allocate. I have yet to hear any proposals on where I should take that money from.

Mr Swann talked about the reduction to the Department of Health's budget and compared the end of 2023-24 with the start of 2024-25. That is not a like-for-like comparison, as has been repeated numerous times. Additional funding is frequently provided in year. The Department of Health also received £80 million of transfers from Whitehall Departments in 2023-24, and I assume that the Department of Health will receive similar transfers this year. We are already talking about the in-year monitoring money that will be allocated in June, so it just does not stack up to compare the end of the year with the start of the year, and talking about a 2·3% reduction is misleading. The only true comparison with the end of 2023-24 will be the end of 2024-25.

Mr Swann also talked about how unrealistic it was to provide funding for pay in 2023-24 and not recover those costs this year. When asking the Executive to agree the final plan for 2023-24, I highlighted the fact that the same level of funding would not be available this year. Indeed, that would have been clear to everyone. The financial package provided over £1 billion in 2023-24 and £520 million in 2024-25. It was for each Minister to decide what was affordable for the pay awards within their control in the knowledge that funding would be lower in 2024-25. Mr Swann also complained that the Department of Health only received £34 million specifically for waiting lists. That is true: I did not ring-fence additional money in order to give the Health Minister the maximum flexibility to manage the full £7·8 billion resource DEL Health budget.

Mr Swann has said a number of times that Departments did not bid on the same basis. That is true, despite guidance from my Department. Some Departments were cognisant of the funding available and competing pressures and minimised their bids, but others bid for everything possible. Some Departments followed the guidance and did not bid for pay costs, but others, such as the Department of Health, did. Some Departments broke their bids down into discrete areas, but others added a number of bids for different purposes together to present a large number of inescapable pressures. That is why Departments did not simply receive a proportion of their bids, nor did they receive an allocation based on their proportion of the block. Instead, an assessment was made of the best way possible to allocate the limited resources that were available. That approach gave the Department of Health half of what was available for general allocation. Frankly, it is utterly incoherent to resign, ostensibly in protest against the Budget, on the eve of an election campaign, only for your party to then appoint your colleague to the position. What message does that send? The public will make up their own minds.

Declan McAleer and Tom Elliott both spoke about the challenges facing the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, highlighting the challenges that the Executive faced in setting this Budget. Mr Elliott also raised climate change, an issue that he has raised with me a number of times. Under section 52 of the Climate Change Act 2022, all Departments are required to exercise their functions in a manner that is consistent with achieving emissions targets and carbon budgets. Given the constrained financial position, I did not propose earmarked allocations for climate change in the Budget. That was not reflective of the priority that should be given to climate change, but rather to reflect the intention to provide Departments with maximum flexibility to manage their budgets. Indeed, as climate change is so far-reaching, it should be a consideration across all areas of spend in Departments.

Joanne Bunting and Stewart Dickson outlined their concerns about the Department of Justice budget. I fully agree that the Department of Justice needs more money. We tried to reflect that in the Budget allocations that were made. It received the third-largest allocation in relation to the money that was available to us. As I have said many times, including in the course of this debate, the limited funds meant that no Department got what it wanted. I have listened to the concerns of the Justice Minister. I hope that she will recognise that I have tried to work with her constructively, and I will continue to do so.

I fully intend to work as constructively as possible with Mr Nesbitt when he takes up his role as anticipated later today. He highlighted the potential to delay the vote because Departments have a 65% Vote on Account. I have already set out in the course of the discussion that the 65% Vote on Account was based on the assumption of Royal Assent for the next Budget Bill in September. If we delay this vote and the introduction of the next Budget Bill, there is a risk that Departments could run out of cash on the basis of the Vote on Account that was taken.

I want to put on record that I agree with Sian Mulholland's comments around the arts, which are not just nice-to-haves. We need to invest in our artists and creatives, not just because they contribute significantly to our economy but because they are beneficial to our communities, particularly in a society like ours that is emerging from conflict.

Mr Allister made some comments about parties going back into the Executive without clarity or sufficient funds. Time and again, my party has said that the best place to negotiate with the British Government and with Treasury was in an Executive, with a Finance Minister and the First Minister and deputy First Minister negotiating with the British Government. That is exactly what has been borne out over the past couple of weeks.

I will bring my remarks to a close. It is the responsibility of a Finance Minister to bring Budget proposals before the House. It is a responsibility that I take seriously. I want to, and intend to, deliver for all our citizens. On that note, I commend the Budget to the Assembly.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 5:30, 28 May 2024

Thank you, Minister. Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 61; Noes 21

AYES

NATIONALIST:

Dr Archibald, Mr Baker, Mr Boylan, Miss Brogan, Mr Delargy, Mrs Dillon, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Miss Hargey, Mr Kearney, Ms Kimmins, Mr McAleer, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Mrs Mason, Ms Á Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Miss Reilly, Ms Sheerin

UNIONIST:

Mr Brett, Mr Brooks, Ms Brownlee, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mrs Erskine, Ms Forsythe, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kingston, Mrs Little-Pengelly, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Robinson

OTHER:

Ms Bradshaw, Mr Dickson, Mr Donnelly, Ms Eastwood, Ms Egan, Mr Honeyford, Mrs Long, Miss McAllister, Mr McMurray, Mr McReynolds, Mr Mathison, Mr Muir, Ms Mulholland, Ms Nicholl, Mr Tennyson

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Boylan, Mrs Mason

NOES

NATIONALIST:

Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Mr O'Toole

UNIONIST:

Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mr Beattie, Mr Butler, Mr Chambers, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Stewart, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann

OTHER:

Mr Carroll

Tellers for the Noes: Dr Aiken, Mr O'Toole

<TR><TD>Total Votes
82Total Ayes61[74.4%]
Nationalist Votes32Nationalist Ayes24[75.0%]
Unionist Votes34Unionist Ayes22[64.7%]
Other Votes16Other Ayes15[93.8%]
<BR/>

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

That this Assembly approves the programme of expenditure proposals for 2024-25 as announced by the Minister of Finance on 25 April 2024 and set out in the Budget document laid before the Assembly on 20 May 2024.

Motion made: That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Blair).]