Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 20 November 2000
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
On Monday 13 November I cautioned a Member — Mr Wells — because of a remark he had made. He referred to
"two Departments with terrorists in Government." [Official Report, Vol. 7, No 3, p129].
Having studied the Member’s comment and my response to it, I am satisfied that it is not one that I can allow to remain. I therefore call on Mr Wells to withdraw it.
Mr P Robinson:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. What is it that you are ruling to be unparliamentary? Is it the use of the word "terrorists" per se, or is it the use of the word "terrorists" to describe specific individuals?
As I said at the time, it was quite clear that accusations were being made about two particular Members. When I drew the Assembly’s attention to my view about that accusation against the two Members, there was no dissent. The Member simply went on to make reference to one of the Members. It is the question of the legitimacy of the remarks that were made with reference to two Members that concerns me, and it is those remarks that I ask the Member to withdraw. Will the Member please respond?
Mr P Robinson:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. That is what concerned me about the original ruling. I urge you to look at the remarks before asking the Member to withdraw them. Are you questioning their accuracy? It would be strange for a Speaker to adopt the position of judging the truthfulness of any remark that is made in the Assembly. That would be a full-time occupation indeed. If the word "terrorist" cannot be used, the Assembly should be told that it is unparliamentary in itself and not just because it refers to a particular individual.
In other places accusations against Members that have legal connotations but are made on no legal basis are judged not to be parliamentary. I call on Mr Wells to withdraw the comment.
The ordinary, decent people of the Province make no distinction whatsoever between Sinn Féin and the IRA. They are one and the same, two sides of the one —
Order. This is not an opportunity to make a statement. I have explained the situation and have asked the Member to withdraw the comment.
Mr Speaker, I refer you to the Hansard record. When you pulled me up on that matter I made it clear that I was referring to the Minister of Education, who is on record as having at least two convictions for terrorism —
Order. The Member and his Colleagues know well that when they are asked to withdraw remarks, they are not being given an opportunity to make a speech. I have drawn attention to the comment
"We still have two Departments with terrorists in Government."
At the time I drew attention to its clear implication. I have said that it is not acceptable and I call on the Member to withdraw it — [Interruption].
Order. The Member knows what the consequences will be if he is not prepared to withdraw.
As Hansard, at page 129, records, I said
"it is a matter of record that the Minister of Education is a convicted terrorist. I am not saying anything that has not been on the front page of every newspaper in the country."
It is a matter of record, a matter of fact. I have clarified it and I have no intention of withdrawing my statement that the Minister of Education is a terrorist.
Order. The Member knows perfectly well what the question is. The Minister of Education is without doubt a powerful individual, but he does not have control of a second Department — [Interruption].
Order. As the Member will not withdraw his statement, he must withdraw from the Chamber and the precincts of the Assembly for the rest of this day.
The Member withdrew from the Chamber.
Mr P Robinson:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Are you saying that you will make a ruling on the accuracy of any accusations made against Members in the House? You have ruled that it would be all right if the Member had referred only to the Minister of Education as a terrorist, because everybody knows that he is a terrorist and has been convicted of being a terrorist. Are you also ruling that because there is no conviction against the other Minister, it was incorrect to make such remarks? Is that the basis of your judgement?
It would be improper for me to permit Members to make wild statements without legal accuracy, to accuse other Members of criminal activities when there is no —
Corruption, of course —
We have said "corruption of democracy" before.
The phrase "corruption of democracy" is a different matter — [Interruption].
Order. Corruption of the procedures of this Chamber is not acceptable. If Members are not prepared to accept the rulings, they will be removed or they can put down a motion and I will quite happily sit through another debate, as I sat through the last one.
We will now proceed with the proper and appropriate business of the Assembly.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the debate on Monday 13 November you drew Mr Wells’s attention to his comments in relation to two Departments. Mr Wells went on to say
"Mr Speaker, it is a matter of record that the Minister of Education is a convicted terrorist."
You are not prepared to deal with the issue in a fair and impartial way.
Order. The Member will resume his seat. He knows perfectly well that he is about to question a ruling of the Chair.
The Member knows that it is out of order to question a ruling of the Chair. If he wishes to put down a proper motion, which would be in order, he is at liberty to do so.
We will now proceed with the proper business.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 2 October 2000 I raised with you my concerns about how I, as a public representative, could proceed with regard to conflicting information I was receiving from two Ministers. Subsequently, the issue was made clear by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development as a result of questions from Mr Ian Paisley Jnr and myself. The Department advised that there was no consultation. Under Standing Order 1(2), you are supposed to rule on the matter. Why is it taking so long to get a ruling?
The answer is twofold. First, it took some time to receive responses from the relevant Departments. Secondly, it would not be proper to give a ruling when the relevant Ministers are not present. To date, it has not been possible to have both Ministers present, but I trust that it will soon be possible to address the matter, because a response has been forthcoming in the terms which I advised at the time would be likely to apply.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I drew the attention of the Speaker’s Office to the fact that I would be making a point of order on this matter.
I trust that it is a point of order.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
It is a point of order.
On 6 November the Minister of Health gave an undertaking to the House that she would write to a Member about the officials who accompanied her to Enniskillen on behalf of her Department and give the costs of that meeting. That was 14 days ago. When can we expect answers from the Minister of Health on these crucial matters?
Order. The Member knows that this is not a point of order. It may be a point of concern to him, but there is no Standing Order that relates to the matter.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Several weeks ago I raised the question of statements being made in the House in Irish which were not fully translated into English. You were to give a ruling on the matter. We received a rather inadequate excuse from the Minister involved, but we did not receive a ruling from you.
The Minister responded and explained what had happened. At the time I made it clear that I regarded the Minister’s response as adequate. She apologised to the House because there had been an error. All statements and responses — [Interruption].
Order. It is out of order for mobile telephones to ring in the Chamber.
The position is clear. When responses are made in a language other than English, a full and accurate translation must be given. On a number of occasions I have checked the matter. For Members who wish to have a simultaneous translation, a report showing the costs and other details has been available for over 18 months. It is simply a matter of a proposal to be taken forward by the Business Committee.
My ruling is clear: any statements made in a language other than English must be translated fully and accurately. On that occasion the statement was not translated fully and accurately, but the Minister fully and promptly apologised.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I am not taking any further points of order at this stage. We are simply delaying business, and many of these points are not points of order. If there are any further points of order I will take them later.
I have received notice from the Minister of Finance and Personnel that he wishes to make a statement on the October monitoring round.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):
At its meeting on Thursday 16 November the Executive Committee agreed some reallocations of spending for the financial year 2000-01. I stress at the outset that this concerns the monitoring of expenditure in the current year and not the Budget for 2001-02, which we discussed last week. There is a very important distinction between these processes.
As the year progresses, changes in the estimated requirements for public services become the dominant factor in the planning of spending. Allocations can change for a variety of reasons, and the scope for strategic decision -making is not as great as at planning stage. That underlines the importance of taking planning decisions well in advance, so that resources can be used in the best possible way.
The monitoring round addresses, first, the estimating changes and other sources of spending power which can be reallocated — the room to manoeuvre. Secondly, it addresses revised estimates of requirements from Departments and proposals for additional discretionary expenditure. The key issue is to ensure that resources continue to be used in the best possible way in the light of new information on requirements, which can lead to substantial changes — both up and down — as the year progresses.
In this round, significant savings have emerged for reallocation. The total amount available for reallocation is £75·3 million. That comprises several key elements, the largest of which is £40 million identified as savings by Departments. The largest single item is £20 million of additional house sale receipts from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. There are other significant elements, including some slippage on capital projects and other additional income over and above the levels projected at the time of the previous monitoring round in June/July. These include £9·6 million of additional ship- building receipts. The total available is significantly larger than has been the case in previous years, and we should not expect to have such large amounts to reallocate in every monitoring round.
The Executive had held £7·7 million unallocated since the June/July monitoring round to cover the second tranche of the Agenda for Government. The agenda gave a foretaste of the ways in which new practices of working together could be achieved under devolution. Our proposals on the October monitoring round show how this can be continued in the context of the Programme for Government, which takes that work to a much higher level and on to a more extensive scale.
Also available for allocation is £5·8 million that we have received through the Barnett formula as a consequence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s most recent allocation for education in England in this financial year.
Members have copies of the table showing the additional allocations that the Executive have agreed. In many cases these are to cover changes in the estimated requirements for particular services, and this should be borne in mind when considering all the proposals, especially the distribution of resources between services. This exercise has to be guided mainly by pragmatism and practicability, because we cannot do all that we might wish at this stage of the year. There are just over four months to go until the end of the financial year.
Recognising the limitations on additional spending at this stage of the year, the Executive have decided to plan on the basis that some of the spending power available in this monitoring round should be carried forward into 2001-02. This is possible under the end-year flexibility arrangements, subject to formal approval by the Treasury. It will permit a more effective use of resources and more careful consideration of their allocation.
In this way we propose to allocate £5 million to the Health Service’s capital programme to secure additional spending in 2001-02. It was not possible to provide for this area as much as we would have liked to when we were allocating budgetary funds in mid-October. At that time we were also concerned that we had not channelled sufficient resources for the first year of the Executive programme funds. Given the large amount of money now available, we propose to add £9 million to the funds, through carry-over into 2001-02, leaving a total of £25 million.
As we promised, further details on the design and management of these funds will be revealed as soon as possible. It is the Executive’s intention that decisions on the first round of allocations should be made early in the new year. This will ensure that well-planned and well- targeted spending can be achieved to enable us to make the best possible use of this important new resource. Moving this money to the Executive programme funds will help to ensure that it is targeted in the best possible way, and in accordance with the priorities of the Programme for Government.
The remaining £61 million is being allocated to meet a range of additional requirements which have arisen across all the Departments. These allocations include £10·6 million to further the initiatives launched in June in the Agenda for Government. With substantial resources available, the Executive have decided to add some £2·9 million to the £7·7 million that has been set aside for this purpose. The additional allocations agreed by the Executive include £6·7 million for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, mainly to cover revised estimates of the costs arising from animal health issues, which have continued to increase beyond what was estimated in June.
There is £1·2 million for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, including £700,000 for public libraries. The Executive remain determined to ensure that appropriate resources are available to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for key policy objectives. There is an additional allocation to ensure that the information age initiative receives maximum resources for the remainder of this financial year. In addition, there will still be scope for the Executive to agree, later in the year, to devote additional resources to any new costs that may emerge from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
The Department of Education will receive an extra £10 million, including the £5·6 million Barnett formula allocation made consequent upon the Chancellor’s schools’ money from the pre-Budget report. This will help to address the physical condition of schools, and the Minister of Education will indicate how the funding is to be distributed in due course. There is an allocation of £8·4 million for the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, including £4 million to cover a revised estimate of the cost of student support and £3 million for redundancy payments in connection with Harland & Wolff.
A total allocation of £17 million is to be made in this financial year to the Health Service, including £4 million for capital expenditure and allowances to meet a range of other cost pressures which affect the Health Service at this time. In covering additional costs, such as the effect of high oil prices on hospitals, the Health Service will be better placed to cope with the demands that it will face over the winter period. The Executive believe that this is an important boost for the Health Service which will be used effectively to achieve a better response to the needs of the region in the coming months.
There is a £5 million allocation to the Department for Regional Development, mainly designed to cover a range of additional running costs for the Roads Service and the Water Service, which have emerged as the year has progressed.
There is also £10·5 million for the Department for Social Development. This includes provision for disability adaptations and some housing costs, including those resulting from the disturbances in the Shankill area.
The final allocations are of small amounts for my Department — to facilitate work on the EU structural funds — and for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The sum of £200,000 has been allocated for some important work to meet the needs of victims.
All these reallocations will be subject to approval by the Assembly, as Supplementary Estimates, in due course. There will be a further monitoring round in December and that will provide an opportunity for some further easements and reallocation. I propose to merge the revisions agreed at that date with those available now and to draft one revised Appropriation Bill in the new year. Time will be short for the approval of that Bill, but I hope that by then we will have agreed a revision of Standing Orders to facilitate the timely passage of financial legislation. In the meantime there is some time for the Finance and Personnel Committee and the other statutory Committees to scrutinise the reallocations which I have announced today before they become Supplementary Estimates and proposals for the Appropriation Bill to which I have already referred.
This is an important range of reallocations. I must stress again that they are driven mainly by the pragmatic redistribution of resources in response to changing patterns of spending across public services. It is unusual for the amounts to be as large as they are on this occasion. I hope Members will agree that there is benefit to be gained from planning to carry over some of the resources into 2001-02. If we use this measure to boost the Executive programme funds in particular, that will in turn boost the effectiveness of our efforts to introduce and develop our priorities. There is potential here for continued benefit from devolution and for applying resources to our needs. Again this is a manifestation of the constructive and positive impact of members of the Executive working together.
I commend these proposals to the Assembly in the belief that they represent a good use of the resources which have now become available to us.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Molloy):
Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the Minister’s statement. It is certainly good that further resources are available to the Committees and to the Assembly for reallocation in this way.
Does the Minister have a programme for working with the Committee on the revised draft Appropriation Bill? Given the short time available, this would allow us to scrutinise and discuss the new legislation as quickly as possible. Will the new allocation of money, and the new-found money, allow for the possibility of reducing the 8% rate rise envisaged in last week’s statement?
Mr Molloy has raised several points. I recognise the importance of the Finance and Personnel Committee’s role. It is particularly important that it has plenty of time and sensible procedures to enable it to discharge its role. I appreciate the fact that the various constraints which affect our Department and the Executive at large also affect the work of that Committee. We have already spoken with the Committee with a view to trying to improve procedures and agree proposals, and we intend to continue working on that joint basis.
I am glad that the Chairperson of the Committee welcomes the resources that we have available. Obviously the Committee and he will want to take time to consider more fully how well those resources are being allocated. When we have money available for allocation, we want to make sure it is put to best use. That is why we are carrying some money over into next year.
As for the rates question, I indicated previously that if figures became available on time, there is sufficient buoyancy in the rates to allow us to plan a lower regional rate increase while still retaining the projected level of expenditure that is needed and budgeted for. The Executive still propose to spend an amount of money next year that will require an increase in the regional rate.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Leslie):
I thank the Minister for his statement on the outcome of the monitoring round. However, I am concerned that the Minister may be lapsing into a practice that is prevalent across the water — that of double-counting money. I note that £7·7 million of the £75 million was available in the June monitoring round. It seems to me that the new net amount is rather in the order of £67·6 million. Can the Minister clarify this?
Does he propose to keep the Agenda for Government separate from the Executive programme funds? It looks to me as if one may slide into the other seamlessly.
In paragraph 13, which concerns the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, no sums of money are mentioned. Acts of genius are, of course, expected from the Ulster Unionist Ministers, but I am amazed that the Department’s amount of new age technology is so great that seven lines were devoted to it but costs were not mentioned. Can the Minister enlighten us?
As my statement made clear, the Executive held over some £7·7 million in the June/July monitoring round for a second tranche for the Agenda for Government. We clearly identified the fact that this sum of money would be available for the October monitoring round to give us room to manoeuvre, and the Executive have decided to use the money. As the figures show, the expenditure on the Agenda for Government will exceed £7·7 million.
The Agenda for Government has been exceeded, broadened and elevated by the Programme for Government. Further work will follow to give details of the Programme for Government through to the public service agreements. We will continue to work on elaborating the precise design and management of the Executive programme funds to ensure that they best serve the priorities in the Programme for Government. We do not intend to continue with Agenda for Government items because we now have the Programme for Government itself.
I indicated in my statement, and I apologise if this is not reflected properly in the tables, that some money will be available to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for its information age initiative. The Executive will try to provide further moneys later in the year, should that be necessary for key projects. I also acknowledge the contribution from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment on manoeuvrability.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. The public will be pleased to hear that £75 million is to be reallocated after the October monitoring round.
Can the Minister tell us when the Durkan funds will be available, in particular the fund for social inclusion and community regeneration, and when they will start to have an effect on the ground? Many groups in the community development sectors are waiting to hear when the programme funds can be used.
I do not think that funds should be named after an individual, any more than I think that taxes should be named after an individual. These are the Executive programme funds, and the Executive are trying to add to their value in the first year. Many people have asked if there is enough money for the first year, given the significant increases that we want in years two and three.
Mr Byrne referred to the fund for social inclusion and community regeneration, which, no less than other funds, will be subject to further Executive consideration. That will ensure the best working system to enable the fund to serve its proper purposes — not just for the Government and all the Departments, who have a real contribution to make to the success of that fund, but for a range of community and social interests as well.
The £1·5 million spent on the Shankill Road and the further £200,000 from the Department of Health to rehouse people in that area show the poison of paramilitaries in our society. They need to stand down. Good use could have been made of that money and social housing provided for people who need it. The victims originally asked for £500,000, and the £200,000 coming now is too little, too late.
The £1 million for historic buildings should be given a broad welcome because that will bring in extra money from the National Lottery, through the lottery heritage fund. There is also £700,000 of additional funding for libraries. Will that help to get the long-awaited library for Lisburn under way? There was also an opportunity to do more for the Roads Service. Given what we have heard in the last week about our roads, we are missing an opportunity to do more for them.
I welcome Mr Poots’s welcome of some of the items, particularly the historic buildings grant. The Environment Committee has been pursuing that matter. In particular, the Minister of the Environment, Sam Foster, has made the point that more lottery money could be made available. For that reason we are trying to improve provision there.
There is also significant provision for libraries for the remainder of the year. The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Michael McGimpsey, will indicate precisely how that money will be spent, and there has to be balance in that.
I appreciate that many different programmes feel that they could have got more and should have done better out of this round. I also recognise that because moneys were made available to Departments that incurred costs arising from the Shankill Road situation, the opportunity to meet some of the allocations that other Departments were seeking has been constrained. I hope that all Members encourage an improvement in the situation on the Shankill, not only for the good of the community there but so that the rest of us do not have to suffer some of the consequential costs — and lost opportunity is one of them — that those problems have caused.
Go raibh maith agat. Like other Members, I welcome the Minister’s statement. I would like to make one point and ask one question. There are allocations for non-industrial pay, industrial pay and salaries among other things. There is even £3 million towards redundancy payments in the shipyard. We also have allocations for gap funding for many of the European Union-supported projects with which there have been controversy and difficulties that affect a number of working-class areas right across the North. Can the Minister assure Members that some priority will be given to increased moneys for European Union gap funding, given the high level of unemployment that will otherwise be created in many constituencies?
In the reallocations, £3·6 million is being allocated for gap funding. First, £0·5 million is being allocated through the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety especially for childcare related projects. Secondly, £1·1 million is being allocated through the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to carry over projects from the old single programme which would have been eligible for transitional Objective 1 funding. Finally, £2 million is being allocated through the Department for Social Development for the peace programme.
The Executive recognise the importance of bringing the new programmes on line as soon as possible, and we are negotiating with the European Commission to achieve that. We are responding to serious pressures that are coming forward with gap funding, and we will keep the matter under review. Members will recognise that in the Executive programme fund for social inclusion and community regeneration we are demonstrating the Executive’s interest and funding that interest by supporting positive intervention at a community level in rural and urban settings.
Sir John Gorman:
I heartily congratulate the Minister and the Executive for removing the appalling problem created by the inability of many of the public bodies in Northern Ireland, especially the Housing Executive, to carry over moneys from one year to the next. I have appeared twice before the Public Accounts Committee because in my eagerness to spend money that became available through house sales, I had slightly manipulated the rule, and I went away chastised. However, it did no harm to the great improvement in housing in this Province.
The Province has many splendid houses, of all sizes and shapes, but with a ticking bomb about them — because those houses, which have now been sold by the Housing Executive, were built on borrowed money. The Housing Executive has lost the rent for those houses, but still has to pay interest on the loan.
Order. In a previous life the Member may have been able to arrange a financial overrun, but he must not arrange a time overrun in this one. Perhaps he could put his question.
Sir John Gorman:
Can the Minister help the appalling housing circumstances in Northern Ireland, especially in north Belfast and Fermanagh, the homelessness and the absence of starter homes by allocating more funds for 2001-02 to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive or to housing generally?
First, the Member has touched on issues that relate to next year’s budget. Contrary to what has been planned for next year under the comprehensive spending review, there will be an increase in the Housing Executive’s budget and the housing budget overall — 1·5% in the Housing Executive’s budget and 6% for housing associations.
I recognise the importance which many Members, and the relevant Committee, attach to the housing budget. We have tried to respond to questions raised, both about proposed Budget allocations and monitoring rounds. This is not the first monitoring round in which we have responded to particular pressures facing the Housing Executive and the housing programme.
I will deal with end-of-year flexibility and carry-over. The provision to carry resources over into the next year is intended to encourage better budgeting and to avoid gratuitous spending simply to beat financial calendar deadlines. Although the practice of carrying over resources will still require formal Treasury approval, the way in which we are planning to carry over resources is sound and should win that approval. With regard to discharging the historic loan burden carried by the Housing Executive, the Departments of Finance and Personnel, and the Dept for Social Development, will continue to see if that particular problem can be better factored into our plans.
I welcome the increase in the allocation of resources, particularly those to the children’s fund. It illustrates the Minister’s commitment to the most vulnerable in our community. Today is Children’s Rights Day. Will the Minister make a statement on when these funds will become available?
Allocating resources to the children’s fund demonstrates the Executive’s interest in improving how Departments and their services relate and respond to the needs of children, and help to support many of the positive initiatives and projects trying to deal with those needs. The Member’s recognition of the relevance of today is important.
We are not proposing to increase the children’s fund for next year because the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has been allocated £1 million for children’s services. The Department of Education has been allocated an extra £10 million, with most of it going to schools. Some of the EU gap funding, not least that which will be going through the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, will find its way to supporting projects that deal with children in need and youth at risk. Those of us who heard the recent findings of the NSPCC will agree that this is an area on which we need to spend more money and to which we need to give further consideration.
In view of the points already raised, can the Minister confirm that the resources announced today represent not new money but the reallocation of money already in the system? Many people will welcome the announcement about the adaptation of homes for the disabled and the covering of the costs of the problems on the Shankill Road. My Colleague has already said that it is a pity that this money has to be spent in this way, but it will relieve pressures elsewhere in the housing budget. I would like the Minister to clarify the £22,000 allocation to the Office for the Regulation of Electricity and Gas (OFREG). Will that money be used to help OFREG reduce electricity and energy prices in Northern Ireland?
A substantial portion of the allocation, £20 million, arises from additional house sales receipts. In view of the great pressures on the housing budget, and the concerns of many Members, can the Minister assure the House that he will examine ways in which that money can be retained in his Department and in the housing budget for expenditure on housing?
I agree with the Member that it is regrettable that we must devote money to those purposes because of the situation on the Shankill Road. If we do not do so, however, there will be serious pressures on other programmes —not just the Housing Executive’s but those of many other bodies as well.
We cannot allow housing receipts just to lie where they fall. Not all programmes can generate receipts in the way that house sales can under the housing programme. We should also remember that some of the money from such receipts comes from the sale of properties bought under the scheme for the special purchase of evacuated dwellings (SPED). In other monitoring rounds, money went to that programme to deal with particular problems. When money has been given to the Housing Executive — whether recently, in the context of SPED pressures, or in the past when housing was rightly a priority — it has been at the expense of other programmes, many of which, Members now tell me, were historically underfunded. If money becomes available to us for public expenditure, we must examine all public expenditure needs, not only those that fall within the confines of a particular Department or relate to the programme from which those receipts arose in the first place.
We have given additional money to support the work of OFREG in reviewing charging by Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE).
I welcome the broad thrust of the reallocation of moneys. I should like to deal, however, with the Minister’s comments about the Housing Executive. As I understand it, the June allocation included £20 million from house sales, making a grand total of around £40 million. The sale of houses reduces the overall costs associated with housing, leaving money that could be used to reduce Housing Executive rents, or at least to ensure that they do not increase by more than the rate of inflation.
End-of-year flexibility for 1999-2000 has produced £4 million from the regional rate for reallocation. Can the Minister not give the people of Northern Ireland an early Christmas present by assuring them that the regional rate will not increase by 8%?
I suspected that the Member’s comments would deal with that area. I welcome his broad enthusiasm for the proposed allocations and hope that he will agree that they represent the best possible use of available resources, including the money from house sales.
The extra £4 million comes from last year’s rates. Buoyancy meant that there was more money than we first estimated. If the figures available to us when we come to make final decisions on the rates indicate that an increase of less than 8% will allow us to raise the money that we need for our expenditure plans, we shall consider the matter positively. Last year we were able to set the non-domestic rate at a lower level than I had proposed in my Budget statement simply because the figures showed that we could do so and still raise the amounts that we needed. The projected increase in the regional rate is similar to that projected for the council tax across the water.
Many Members have emphasised that we need to make our case on the Barnett formula and how we are treated in public expenditure terms. We need to remember that comparisons work both ways. We are projecting a rate of increase similar to that of the council tax in England yet our regional rates are running at about half the level of the average council tax in England. I hope that people can get some of those figures into perspective.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an ráiteas seo agus tá mé sásta a fheiceáil go bhfuil airgead breise ar fáil againn anois. Tá súil agam, de thoradh an airgid bhreise seo, nach gcuirfear ar ceal obair phráinneach ar bhóithre na hÓmaí.
I welcome the statement and the additional funds. Will the additional £5 million allocated to the Department for Regional Development ensure the reinstatement of the major road schemes that Minister Gregory Campbell has postponed in the last week or described as potentially at risk from his latest spending cuts? I refer particularly to the Omagh bypass, which is crucial to the economic regeneration of Omagh. I would like to see that back on schedule.
The table accompanying my statement details precisely which Department for Regional Development spending lines are to receive that £5 million. It does not cover any of the points the Member has raised. We must remember that we are talking about spending allocations that are taking place late in the financial year. Major long-term capital projects do not lend themselves to qualification in this sort of reallocation exercise as well as some other items do. Unfortunately, I cannot give the Member the answer that he would like to hear.
I welcome the fact that a significant amount of money is going to health services. I am pleased that children’s services, hospital pressures, mental health, Shankill displaced families and programmes for training nurses are to benefit. Is the £1 million for children’s services ring-fenced, or merely earmarked? That may be outside the Minister’s remit, but I want to mention it anyway.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is shortly to bring forward a paper on the future of primary care services. We must bear in mind that at present there are massive pressures on primary care. I refer to grossly overworked community nurses, midwives, community psychiatric nurses and occupational therapists. Can the Minister, in association with the Health Minister, look at those areas to see if some financial help can be given now?
We have been able to make allocations to different service needs in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. We recognise that there are unfunded pressures on children’s services. The new funding should enable boards to make progress in those areas with initiatives to support families and the foster-carers of disabled children, out-of-hours social services and other support services for children and families at risk. This further allocation to children’s services comes on top of £2·13 million allocated by the Executive in the July monitoring exercise.
As far as those funds and the funds allocated for other purposes are concerned, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will make further announcements about their precise allocation and management. The Minister of Health, like all other Ministers, will ensure that these are put to best use and fulfil the purposes of her Department and the Programme for Government.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Can the Minister of Finance comment on the fact that the Departments under the control of the Ulster Unionist Party Ministers appear to have received considerably less than the Departments under the control of the Democratic Unionist Party, the SDLP and IRA/ Sinn Féin? Are the Ministers from the Ulster Unionist Party failing to fight their case inside the Executive? Will he go further and join with me in calling on those Ministers to withdraw from the Executive? They might get a better deal outside than that they are getting inside it.
I also want to draw attention to paragraph 10 and ask the Minister to comment on the Executive programme funds. The Minister of Agriculture, who was with our Committee, indicated that she hoped to address the £10 million deficit in the vision group as misallocation or non-allocation. Can the Minister give the House — and, indeed, the Minister of Agriculture — a guarantee not only that she can expect to have the Executive programme funds for the vision group strategy but that the House can also expect to have the Executive programme funds so that we can start to address the critical issue of debt in the farming community?
I welcome some of the points made by Mr Paisley, in particular the enthusiasm that his latter remarks show for the Executive programme funds. They relate well to the priorities and interests of the Assembly at large.
With regard to his earlier points, I want to make it clear that the Executive, in taking decisions on allocations, are taking decisions in a responsible and clear-headed manner. It is taking decisions neither on the basis of party-political headcounts nor on the basis of the party affiliations of the Minister of any Department. The Executive are taking good and fair decisions. No Department is being favoured because of the party-political associations of its Minister. I hope that Mr Paisley will recognise that this is the logic of his remarks.
I can assure the House that all Ministers have clear ambitions and plans for the use of public money. That was obvious during the budgeting round and when we were making the in-year allocations. Many Ministers, and the Departments too, have made significant contributions, in terms of ability to manoeuvre, to the debate on the money available. That is part of the work of the Executive in the round. Not all of us, as Ministers, can be part of the Government on a "now you see us, now you don’t" basis. We cannot all play ‘Ministers in their Eyes’ — "Tonight, Matthew, I am going to be the Minister for Regional Development."
We have to work with the total range of public responsibilities that fall to the Executive, no matter in what Department some of these services lie. The Executive have responsibilities, and in agreeing these allocations, they have reflected and discharged those responsibilities well.
I welcome the disclosure by the Minister that all Departments, regardless of whether or not their Ministers take part in the Executive, receive equal treatment. That is encouraging. And it is welcome news that we in the DUP are being treated in the same way as everyone else.
My question is to do with disabled adaptations. I understand that the figure of some £1·5 million is to be set aside for them. Can the Minister indicate if that will clear up the long waiting list for disabled adaptations? Can he also state if that money will be available from 1 April for those who have been waiting between six and nine months for them? There is also a waiting list of between 12 and 18 months simply to secure an interview. Can the Minister explain what funding is available and the impact that that will have on waiting lists?
Mr Shannon asks when the money will be available — he hopes it will be so by 1 April. This is an allocation for this financial year. It is not one of the allocations for next year’s Budget. The Member may also recall that there was a £2 million bid for disabled people from housing associations and that this was met in the first round under the Agenda for Government. However, demand has clearly continued to grow. This allocation will enable 400 conversions to be made.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
I wish to report on the third meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, in its Trade and Business Development sectoral format, held on Friday 27 October 2000.
Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Dr Seán Farren and I attended the meeting. The Irish Government were represented by Ms Mary Harney TD, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. This report has been approved by Dr Farren and is also made on his behalf.
The Council received a verbal report from the vice-chairman of the Trade and Business Development Body, Dr Harold Ennis, on the progress made to date in establishing the body. This dealt with the relocation of the body's offices to new permanent headquarters in Newry, arrangements for appointing permanent staff and its future activities.
Mr Liam Nellis, the body's interim chief executive, provided the Council with an update of the work that the body has undertaken so far. He also confirmed the final arrangements for a series of roadshows that will take place during November at four locations.
In accordance with the agreement that established the Trade and Business Development Body, the body was asked to bring forward proposals in four areas for consideration by the North/South Ministerial Council. These relate to: first, the development of a North/South equity investment fund programme; second, the development of graduate and other placement programmes on a North/South basis; third, the carrying out of a range of testing services for industry with a view to the development of North/South testing services on a fully commercial basis by private interests; and fourth, the implementation of standards development and certificate programmes on a North/South basis. The Council had a valuable discussion on the board's proposals on these matters.
The Council considered the recommendation of a selection panel for the appointment of a chief executive to the Trade and Business Development Body. The name of the candidate put forward by the selection panel was accepted by the Council, and a further announcement will be made in due course following acceptance of the appointment.
The Council considered an Irish Government paper on enhancing the competitiveness of the two economies on the island, North and South. The Council agreed that the Trade and Business Development Body should take this study forward in conjunction with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment with a view to preparing a competitiveness report for the next North/ South Ministerial Council plenary session in March 2001.
The Council agreed that its next meeting in sectoral format would take place in the South in January or February 2001. The Council also agreed the text of a communiqué, which was issued after the meeting. A copy of this has been placed in the Assembly Library.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr P Doherty):
Will the Minister elaborate on the effectiveness of the trade body's roadshow? Will it sustain that type of involvement with all cities throughout Ireland, or is this just a one-off launch event, after which it will move on to another phase of its work? Does it intend to continue that type of outward projection of its work in smaller cities throughout Ireland?
Sir Reg Empey:
Four roadshow meetings have been arranged. One took place in Dublin, one in Belfast, another in Limerick, and the fourth will take place in Londonderry towards the end of the month.
The purpose is, first, to inform people in the business community of the existence of the body. Secondly, it is to try to encourage cross-border trade and the development of supply chains through awareness of what others might be doing close at hand. The rationale is very simple: if the supply chain can be shortened, there is gain to be made from reduced stockholding and the ability to resupply more rapidly.
This is not a new idea. Local authorities have done it by having "meet the buyer" events. They have tried to introduce people trading locally to one another so that they can supply one another rather than import from abroad. It is not a one-off event. This particular event has been focused on a specific issue, namely the development of supply chains and an awareness of the body, but further activities will be undertaken. For instance, in June 2000 the body held a seminar in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, which focused on e-business, and people from America who had succeeded in trading on the Internet were invited to it. Local people were also invited, the objective being to encourage them to take up a similar type of activity.
I see that as ongoing work to implement the operating plan which the trade body presented to the North/South Ministerial Council and which was approved some months ago. I do not expect this to be a one-off event but, rather, part of the process.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Neeson):
I thank the Minister for his statement. Will he elaborate further on the Irish Government paper on enhancing competitiveness on the island? Does it acknowledge that there is competition between the Industrial Development Agency (IDA) and the Industrial Development Board (IDB) to attract inward investment into Ireland?
Sir Reg Empey:
Competitiveness goes beyond the IDA and the IDB. There is a range of issues. The Irish Government put forward a paper for consideration, and no conclusions have been reached on it. As I said in my statement, the body is currently examining it. The two Departments will take it forward and seek information from other Departments.
The paper looks at all sorts of things including transport issues, e-business capabilities, and broadband capabilities. This is not simply about competition between the IDA and the IDB, which, of course, is a matter for the respective Administrations. The matter will be pursued further, probably around March.
I would like the Minister to elaborate. From a reading of this statement, it appears that we would welcome some reduction or change in the destructive competitiveness between North and South that does not enhance the competitiveness of either.
Will it be possible for the North/South trade body to develop joint marketing initiatives in the USA or elsewhere and will the North/South trade body make any effort to encourage development outside the eastern seaboard and particularly in areas north-west of the Bann and south-west of the Shannon?
Sir Reg Empey:
There appears to be confusion about the purpose of the Irish Government's paper on competitiveness. It is not concerned with inward investment because that is not a function of the trade body. It is concerned with benchmarking the two economies against economies worldwide, seeing how the economies compare with their major competitors and pinpointing their strengths and weaknesses.
The worry about the focus on the eastern seaboard is common to both economies. A few years ago, for example, there was great concern about the level of concentration on the Belfast/Dublin corridor. Many people in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland felt - and continue to feel - a sense of isolation. Members will be aware of the pressure that exists west of the Bann for activity to develop its infrastructure. People want to feel that they are on as level a playing field as possible. A similar situation exists in the Republic of Ireland with trade, business and tourism. The people of County Donegal feel a sense of isolation, and this is reflected in the comments of their elected representatives.
The paper, therefore, is not concerned with joint marketing but with benchmarking the economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland against one another and against competition. That is the area that is being looked at, so areas such as e-commerce and broadband technology must be examined.
The Programme for Government states that broadband issues in Northern Ireland must be dealt with. That is one means of creating a level playing field for areas west of the Bann and for other more remote areas. I am conscious that in recent years the concentration has been on the east. As the work of the North/South trade body and the Programme for Government continues, I hope that greater efforts will be made to ensure that there are viable and successful economies west of the Bann.
Mr S Wilson:
As an avid reader of the Belfast Agreement, I notice that the Trade and Business Development Body is not one of the 12 implementation bodies listed in the agreement. Will the Minister confirm that his enthusiasm for all-Ireland bodies is now so great that the 12 bodies that were presented to the electorate during the referendum campaign are insufficient and must now be added to? Does the Minister plan to add on any more implementation bodies, and will he indicate to the House the cost of the Trade and Business Development Body? Have those 12 bodies reached such a state that the Irish Government are now presenting papers about enhancing competitiveness in the Northern Ireland economy? Is that the route that implementation bodies will take in the future?