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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 18 December 2000 (continued)

The Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee (Mr Molloy):

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister of Finance and Personnel's statement and praise the work that he has done in very difficult circumstances. We all know that it is the Minister that carries the can for the Budget when all is said and done. It is the Executive's Budget - not just the Minister's. There may be parts of it with which he disagrees.

The Minister has been very open with the Finance and Personnel Committee on all its requests for information. He is committed to ensuring that the Budget is representative of and committed to the various Departments; and to ensuring that it reflects as far as possible the views of the Finance and Personnel Committee. The Minister serves two Committees - the Executive Committee and the Finance and Personnel Committee - and that must be difficult, particularly if he also has his own views.

The Finance and Personnel Committee sought views from all the departmental Committees on the provision for their respective Departments. All but two of them responded. It is important to say that there is collective responsibility on departmental Committees to work together in scrutinising the Budget in every possible way and in ensuring that the Finance and Personnel Committee produces a full report to advise the Minister.

The Finance and Personnel Committee arranged the substantive Budget debate, held on 14 November, during which Members had full opportunity to raise concerns about the allocations in the Budget proposals. After the debate, the Committee produced a report that summarised the written responses and the Budget debate. The report was passed to the Minister of Finance and Personnel on Friday 24 November, and a published version was available to Members a week later.

The report recommended that the Programme for Government and the Budget proposals should be among the first items of business brought to the Assembly by the Executive after the summer recess. This is important. Everybody has complained about not having had enough time to deal with the Budget or to scrutinise it properly. To rectify that, the programme should be introduced immediately after the summer recess. The Minister has acknowledged that this will be the target to work towards in future, and it is important that we reach that target.

An assessment of needs should be undertaken as a first step in demonstrating that the current application of the Barnett formula is inappropriate and unsuited to the special circumstances here. The Minister acknowledged last week that the Barnett formula does not target the social need that we are trying to deal with. It is not appropriate here. However, as he warned, it is also dangerous to throw the baby out with the bath water. We must look at what may be possible in the future and, to that end, the Finance and Personnel Committee asks the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the Executive and the Assembly to develop a strategy to review the Barnett formula. It is not "the Barnett formula or nothing". There must be a mechanism. We would like to join with the Executive and with the other Committees to develop a strategy whereby we can approach the British Exchequer to ensure that we get a proper appropriation.

The Department should commission an urgent review of the structure and staffing of all Departments and the bodies for which they are responsible in order to achieve maximum efficiency in delivering public services in 2001-02. Although he did not fully commit himself, the Minister did respond. However, the restrictions on Departments and on budgets are essential to ensure that every penny of public money is used to maximum advantage. We ask for reassurance that the question of efficiency across all public services will be dealt with urgently.

The Minister should assess the departmental financial allocations in order to take full account of the objectives contained in the Programme for Government. Ministers consider the objectives, the requirements of new TSN and public safety to be of the utmost importance.

There will be a warm welcome for the additional money that the Minister put forward last week. Whoever delivers a Budget always says that no more money is available. However, we saw last week that more moneys were available. An extra £40 million was found through a review of how the Government deal with VAT returns. That review increased our spending power by £20 million. That must be welcomed, because several Departments benefited. There was an extra £7 million for health, £2 million for agriculture, £2 million for housing, £2 million for roads, and £1·3 million for education.

We must ensure that European funding is additional to the Budget, although there was a response with regard to additionality.

Every Department needs more money, and I am sure that none of the Committees will say that it has achieved all that it wanted. However, it is a major step forward, and we look forward to considering all of this again.

The Finance and Personnel Committee did not adopt a position with regard to the 8% regional rate rise. Had a vote been taken during the meetings and discussions, the Committee would have opposed the rise. It is important to note that.

All Departments should consult their Committees during the spring and early summer before finalising their budgetary requirements and submitting them for the consideration of the Minister of Finance and Personnel. It is important that all Ministers relate to their Committees to ensure inclusive discussions so that the Budget reflects as far as possible the requirements of Committees and Ministers. Ministers should regard Committees as a support, and Committees must be aware of what their Ministers demand from the Executive and must support them in those demands.

Those are the Committees' concerns; Members may raise others. In a personal and political role and speaking as a party member and as a constituency representative, I feel that it is important to recognise the work done by the Minister.

It is a pity that the Assembly's first Budget contains a proposal to raise the domestic regional rate by 8% and the non-domestic rate by 6·6%. The rates are an unfair system of taxation. A taxation system should be called a tax and not simply put on the rates. The rating system is a blunt instrument for collecting tax, because it hits households. It becomes a poll tax. We remember the poll tax campaign in England. Young people were forced off the electoral register because parents were losing housing benefit, and various structures had to be put in place to counteract that. The rates should be viewed as another poll tax that damages the whole community. We want young people to be involved in political structures: forcing them off the register will not encourage them.

11.30 am

The blunt nature of the rating system means that households are targeted rather than individuals. At least taxation across the board means that although taxpayers must pay a higher rate of tax, they can do so because they are earning. The Minister said that the rates rise would be directed at those who can afford to pay, but that is not the case. Many on the breadline will be pushed one way or another, and the rates rise will drive many small shops out of business. In some small towns and villages the rise in rates will lead to the closure of rural businesses. That is particularly important given the state of agriculture. The Executive and the Minister of Agriculture have told the House that a rural approach is needed. The situation will not be helped if small rural businesses close. In future, many households, particularly in rural areas, will be deprived. The rates rise will add to already high expenses.

The Minister will say that rates are lower here than in England, Scotland and Wales. However, the rates, especially the council rate, are different here because the situation is completely different. Councils in England, Scotland and Wales provide a full range of services; in some cases more services than the Assembly does. He is not comparing like with like.

I am sure that we shall be asked where the money will come from if the rates are not raised. As I said earlier, the VAT review has put an extra £40 million into the coffers. Even with last week's additions, there is a difference of over £20 million. The amendment moved in the name of Mr Alex Maskey identifies that very clearly. Last week, an additional £9 million was put into the Executive programme funds. That, and the moneys in the Executive fund that have not been allocated to a Department, could be used to alleviate the rise in rates. We do not want to wipe the rates out; we merely want keep them in line with inflation.

Some Members have already covered part of the 8% rise in the regional rate that will raise an additional £12 million. The Executive have made too much of this figure and of raising the rates in this manner. The rating system is a blunt instrument for collecting taxes, and it should be re-examined. We do not have a balance sheet that sets out the consequences of not doing it or that explains why the domestic rates are rising by 8% and the non-domestic rates by 6·6%. We are told that this will also apply next year. Another 8% rise in the rates in twelve months' time will cripple rural communities. We must look at that.

We are also asking those who were deprived of services and facilities in the past to pay again. The British exchequer underfunded infrastructure here for years. Those who were deprived, especially those west of the Bann who have no hospitals, services or infrastructure, are being asked to pay an 8% rise along with everyone else. We are punishing those who were punished in the past, and that is unfair.

We need a strategy for dealing with the Barnett formula. It is simply not good enough to say that the Barnett formula does not work and that we must deal with it. We need a strategy developed by the Executive, the Assembly and its Members to lobby the British Exchequer to ensure that more money is available.

First, we must lobby the British Exchequer for the peace money that we were promised would come from reductions in spending on security, the military and on policing. All that money should be available for other services. For years we were told that that was depriving people of services. The British Exchequer must turn the war chest into a "peace chest" to ensure that this money reaches the right places.

The Irish Government must pay towards their aspirations, because it is important - this is, after all, a transition period - to ask the Irish Government to pay into the Exchequer so that the Assembly receives money from them.

Mr Weir:

Given that the Member's party seems to have a direct line to the Irish Government, I wonder whether that suggestion has been made to them. How did they react when he suggested that they should "pay towards their aspirations"?

Mr Molloy:

A Cheann Comhairle, my party has put the point several times, and the Irish Government have responded. They have funded projects here that the British Government failed to pay for - for instance, Irish-medium schools and various cultural events that the British Government and the Unionist Party failed to recognise.

We should certainly ask the Irish Government to spread the Celtic Tiger right across the 32 counties of Ireland. Let them follow aspirations with commitment and finance. We shall certainly push that.

I shall deal with some of the specific issues and, for a moment, be a bit more parochial. Although the increase in money to the various Departments is welcome, more is needed. There should be an allocation for the acute services review, for instance. The review may shock us all by trying to reverse the imbalance in the hospital service between east and west of the Bann. If the South Tyrone Hospital is to reopen as an acute hospital, money will be needed. But from where? We must ensure that that happens.

If the acute services review is simply a whitewash it will have been a waste of time and money. I would like to see money allocated in the Budget. The British Government should be asked to pay. For years the Conservative Government - propped up by the Unionist Party - made cuts, closed hospitals and reduced services. It is now time for payback, and the British Government should correct the imbalance of the past to ensure that they live up to their commitments.

The same holds for infrastructure, for rail and road services east and west of the Bann and for agriculture. We must ensure that there are services for rural communities. We must pay for those services, but we must also see a rebalancing of the finances that have been going east rather than west of the Bann in recent years.

We are candid in saying that the British Government must invest here to correct that imbalance. Their past neglect caused it, and through investment they must ensure that it never happens again. Go raibh maith agat.

The Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee (Dr Birnie):

It is worth reiterating that this is an historic occasion. It is the first Budget and the first Programme for Government for Northern Ireland and by Northern Ireland people in almost three decades. In forming any Budget there is a danger that departmental inertia and political expediency will mean that we just roll forward existing allocations willy-nilly.

That said, this Budget contains valuable innovations and has resisted the danger of inertia and expediency. Three main innovations are to be welcomed. First, the Executive programme funds will ensure that our assent to the principle of joined-up Government is not nominal.

For the first time, public service agreements will be applied from London to public expenditure in Northern Ireland. Properly applied and scrutinised, they should ensure value for money. Today we are simply discussing cash inputs, but ultimately the public values what that money pays for and the good services that it delivers.

The third innovation in the Budget is solid investment in areas that could be foundations for future economic growth and social progress. Therefore I wish to return to the extra provision in last week's statement and in the statement of the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment last Friday regarding student support. This is the first time that Members have been able to consider those provisions in detail.

The Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee welcomes them as a good start to a continuing process of reform. Let us be clear about the central problem of student support. Lower-income social classes in Northern Ireland are approximately three fifths of the adult population; but they constitute barely a quarter of students in higher education. We must ensure that people of genuine ability do not miss out on a good education and on the chance of developing their potential because their families cannot afford to maintain them in further or higher education.

Nevertheless, there are many benefits in the extra support for students. Last week's package goes some way towards the proposals in the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee's report on the subject. It is hoped that there will be some grants, some removal of student tuition fees and some additional university and further education places in Northern Ireland. That may be seen as a clever piece of social inclusion.

There is still room in the Budget, as money becomes available through in-year monitoring, for necessary social inclusion spending from other Departments to help other socially disadvantaged groups apart from students. As ever, the devil will be in the detail of the students' support package. The Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee welcomes the ending of tuition fees for some further education courses - especially those dealing with perceived skills shortages - the Minister's proposals may be open to challenge down the line owing to the perceived inequity and selectivity of support.

I agree with Dr Farren that skills shortages are an important, cross-cutting matter that should be dealt with. They will have implications for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, among others. Innovative policy should not be restrained by a straightjacket of excessive equality regulations. At the same time, since that Department has hitherto made so much of equality proofing, there is a danger of its being hoist by its own petard.

Last week the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment decided that the principle of tuition fees should be retained. I understand the logic of his argument. Nevertheless, there is solid evidence from England that the fees that students in higher and further education must pay may deter those from low-income backgrounds from studying. If the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment intends to keep fees for students from a higher income background, it should improve the information available so that it is clear that less than half of students will be paying part or full fees.

11.45 am

Unfortunately, the House may have to return to the question of tuition fees in further and higher education in two or three years' time. After the next general election the new Government may back the Russell Group proposal by the perceived elite of English and Scottish universities that we move towards the American system of very high top-up fees for university students.

We shall cross that bridge if we come to it. For the time being, however, the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment proposals are a good start. They would give Northern Ireland a system of student support superior to England's - particularly in further education - although probably less developed than the support available in Scotland. We do not yet know what will happen in Wales.

At least we can be satisfied that, in this area, devolution is making a valuable difference for all the people of Northern Ireland. I therefore support the motion and reject the two amendments.

Mr Maskey and Mr Molloy commented on the rates burden on business. We should be thankful that this could be evidence that Sinn Féin is at last throwing off Marx - Karl, not Groucho - and that there is evidence of a conversion towards the enterprise culture. That should be applauded.

With regard to the DUP's amendment, it is of note that the six North/South implementation bodies employ about 300 people in Northern Ireland: more than 20,000 are employed in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. That puts the implementation bodies into perspective. Most of those 300 people have been transferred from existing departmental activities. These activities would have happened anyway, and we would still have had to pay for them. Among these activities are the maintenance of canals and river banks and the upkeep of lighthouses. Those instances of all-Ireland co-operation date back to the 1950s for canals and to the 1890s for lighthouses. That is hardly a formidable challenge to United Kingdom sovereignty. Of course, some Members regard Lord Brookeborough or the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, as infamous Lundys. I support the motion.

Ms Lewsley:

There is much to be commended in the Budget proposals. The Minister has shown insight and fairness in dealing with the difficult task of allocating funds to areas of need and social deprivation. I hope, as the Minister said, that we are at the start of a journey to redress the underfunding that is the legacy of the direct rule years and to set realistic targets to redress the balance and to target social need.

It is very easy to advocate change when in opposition; it is not so easy, however, when one is in government. It is absurd for those who say that they want change and who are most vocal about the Executive programme now to oppose the mechanisms for change in the Budget. This is an Executive Budget, agreed collectively and implemented cross-departmentally. I appreciate that the Budget is not perfect, because needs will always outstrip the resources available. Nevertheless, the additional money available to schools, hospitals and agriculture is a testament to our intention to begin the process of change.

I am also sure that our senior citizens are grateful for the increased provision for free transport. Do those who object to the increase in the rates want to see a reduction at the expense of the most marginalised sections of our population?

The proposed overhaul of student finance cannot happen without additional funds. The proposals have already received support from Queen's University Students' Union, the University of Ulster and the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education. Queen's University Students' Union has stated its belief that Dr Farren has taken the first step towards striking the right balance. As a result of the changes almost three out of five students in higher education will pay no fees. The proposals must be seen for what they are - a positive move towards a more equitable distribution of funds that will promote wider access to education.

The promotion of interdepartmental co-ordination in dealing with various issues, particularly those affecting people with disabilities, is one of the most positive measures. It offers a more concerted way to alleviate difficulties and to promote the social inclusion of one of the most disadvantaged sections of our population. We should aim at providing better access to services and facilities for the disabled to bring it into line with the access enjoyed by the rest of society. The combined effort across Departments will improve access for people with disabilities to culture and leisure facilities and to social and work activities. That is a positive move towards inclusion.

An additional £1·3 million ?·2% - has been made available to education for 2001-02. The allocation for Northern Ireland, as for Scotland and Wales, is calculated using the Barnett formula, and the money goes into the block grant. The Barnett formula, which is based on population, awards only 3·3%. That is a shortfall of £7 million compared to the extra funds allocated in England. I hope that the Barnett formula will be revised to ensure that the allocation of funding comes into line with that in England.

The House is aware of the dreadful condition of schools. I welcome the extra moneys allocated to the improvement of schools, but it is only a drop in the ocean. It will take substantial investment to bring our schools - particularly our rural schools - up to modern standards. I hope that the Department will use some of the extra money for special needs provision and to improve literacy and numeracy, especially in schools in disadvantaged areas.

The targets defined in the Programme for Government must be regularly reviewed, and we must ensure that they are achievable. However, we cannot do anything without the adequate funding that will enable us to solve our problems. Funding for education is an investment in our future, and we must invest now, not merely to stop the system from deteriorating further but to develop a comprehensive and inclusive education system that will bring great benefits to our society now and in future.

The Budget is not perfect, but, as Dr Birnie said, we have, for the first time in three decades, the opportunity to make significant grass roots change in many disadvantaged areas. We should not remove additional funding that has already been allocated. If we did we would have to say to those who deserve help most "Sorry, but we cannot do any more for you". Therefore I support the motion, not the amendments.

Mr P Robinson:

It is difficult for the Minister to take account of the competing demands from Ministers and of the views of the Assembly Committees and still put forward a universally acceptable Budget. The Minister has allocated funds to Departments fairly and equitably based on the needs of the community rather than on the wants of Ministers.

The Barnett formula has already been referred to, as has the subvention to Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom Exchequer. The House recognises that there must be a revision. Can the Minister tell us what type of revision is being sought and how it would be fairer to this part of the United Kingdom? Is there a strategy to allow us all to pursue a common goal?

At this stage it is worth pointing out that as the Budget flows from the Programme for Government it is necessary to express some disappointment in that Programme for Government. I know that Ministers will not have had much opportunity to acquaint themselves with all the minutiae of their Departments or to start thinking about how things could be done differently. There was not much new in the Programme for Government, and some innovation is required to put the Ulster thumbprint on the operation of devolution in Northern Ireland. An outside observer would not notice much difference between this Executive's Programme for Government and that of the direct rulers.

Several Members have expressed opinions on the amendments. I recognise that there is a responsibility - indeed a legal requirement - on an amendment to allow the Budget to be balanced at the end of the exercise. That places a responsibility on individuals and has restrained some who simply want to reduce the regional rate and forget about everything else rather than look at how easy it might be. That they have not moved an amendment may mean that they could not do it, and that balancing the Budget requires people to find out whether savings made here could be made elsewhere to balance it.

We had no difficulty in carrying out that exercise. We have known for several years that the whole process is politically driven and that a great deal of Budget money is squandered merely to bolster the Republican agenda. That is the core of our amendment. Dr Birnie does not think these issues very important. They are important enough for all the Executive parties to go to court, such is their significance. Their importance lies in where they intend to lead this Province. However, I am sure that the Deputy Speaker will not allow me to go much further down that road in a Budget debate.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

I found the Sinn Féin/IRA amendment amazing. They sat around the table shoulder to shoulder with the Minister of Finance and Personnel discussing how best to make the allocations. No doubt, those discussions took place over many months in the Executive.


I have no doubt that all those present argued persuasively for their Departments' allocations and that they studied the whole Budget; and that after long discussions the Minister of Education and the Minister of Health agreed with the Minister of Finance and Personnel and with their Colleagues on what should be presented to the Assembly. However, as soon as that was done their party moved an amendment to the Budget that they had agreed. I find that incomprehensible. You may attack us for not being at the Executive and for moving an amendment, but had we agreed a Budget with you I assure you that we would have stood by you in the Assembly.

We must reach some conclusions. Clearly there is a split in IRA/Sinn Féin. That can be dangerous enough, as you are probably aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, but it is clear that the two Ministers are out of step with the rest of the party. The mover of their amendment said that the party had acted after further consideration. One might have thought that the "further consideration" would have taken place before they signed up to the Budget; but it appears that they do these things after the event. Having agreed to the proposals in the Budget, IRA/Sinn Féin decides that perhaps the electorate may not be so keen on a rates increase and so changes its mind. IRA/Sinn Féin is leading the Minister of Finance and Personnel to the end of the plank, and it will leave him there. Having stitched him up, it decides "This is not good politics for us; we shall go in a different direction".

Either their two Ministers do not have the brains of the rest of the party - in which case one must wonder why they were proposed for office - or their party considers them dispensable in pursuit of its real objective: popularity with its electorate. Their approach to the agreements that they make does little credit to any principle they may claim.

The Budget money required to keep the regional rate at the level of inflation is not significant. Therefore I am surprised that the Minister of Finance and Personnel could not accept the clear will of the Assembly and of the electorate to keep the regional rate at the level of inflation. The amount required for maintaining the regional rate at the level of inflation is much less than the amount that the Minister will have at the end of the financial year for slippage. Slippage will be about £40 million, or the "reduced requirements of Departments" as the Department of Finance and Personnel describes it. However, it is significantly more in each financial year than the amount that we are attempting to save. That puts it in perspective.

I want to discuss several areas, and it will become clear why I have chosen them as I go on. The first is free fares. I am not sure what point Ms Lewsley was trying to make when she asked whether the people who moved these amendments wanted to deprive the needy of free fares. Obviously, she has not looked at the Order Paper. Neither amendment proposes taking money from free fares. Indeed, both of them look for funding from a different area.

It is worth pointing out that Sinn Féin/IRA said that it tabled its amendment because the Executive programme funds have not yet been allocated. Of course they have been allocated; they are on page five of the Executive Budget programme. They may not have been allocated down to the last detail, but neither are any of the other headings.

Will they take the money from community regeneration, service modernisation or infrastructure renewal to save the £12 million? Will it be taken from funding for children? Will it be taken out of the mouths of children? They should have been upfront, as we have been, in telling people where they would take the money from. It is not enough to say "We shall take money from the Executive programme funds"; one must tell people exactly where one intends to take the money from and what work will not be done as a result.

I hope that the Assembly noted that the mover of the Sinn Féin/IRA amendment said that it was for this year only. He must want the regional rate to go up by 8% next year and by a further 8% the year after that, because that is what the indicative figures show. Our proposals will have life in them at the end of those 12 months and will be able to be carried forward into the following year, the year after and so on for ever. If that were the case, I would be happy.

The IRA/Sinn Féin amendment proposes taking money from areas of expenditure that are intended to put in place the very infrastructure that it demanded. IRA/Sinn Féin is attempting to bluff its constituents into believing that the money has been taken out of the pockets of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister - the Executive programme funds. It would be taken from schemes that would benefit the constituents of every Member in the Chamber.

The proposal for free fares is strongly supported by the community, as has been shown in the 'Belfast Telegraph' opinion poll. I announced my intention to establish free fares for older people when I moved to the Department for Regional Development last year and I am delighted that we have taken a significant step towards them. The scheme has several advantages. Among them is the social interaction that will flow from it for people who are largely confined not because they are unable to go out or because they have no one to visit but because they must make the unpalatable choice between eating and outings. This scheme will give them greater freedom to be more involved in the community that they have done so much to support.

However, it will only be of value to the whole community if there are improvements in transport, particularly in rural areas. When the test schemes were carried out in Castlereagh and in Newry and Mourne, I was struck by the difference between the two schemes. People in Newry and Mourne, where there is little rural transport, will derive less benefit from the scheme.

Therefore rather than say to Translink "The scale of economy is such that you should be able to do something for us to reduce the amounts", we should be saying "You must do something to improve rural services throughout Northern Ireland". I remember hearing Fermanagh councillors' request for a bus service - never mind a better bus service - in their area. The benefits to Translink of free fares and the additional funding it will get must be paid back to the community, particularly the rural community. Further testing and phasing of the scheme may be necessary. That will be the joy of the Minister for Regional Development, but it will be necessary if we are to meet the time scales set out in the Minister's statement.

I have twice attempted to get some clarification on the matter of roads. On both occasions the Minister was short of time. On the first occasion his statement in the Assembly limited his ability to respond; on the second in the Committee a whip was cracking in his ear and he had to come to the Assembly to speak in a debate. Now that he is in a more relaxed mood I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some answers.

There has been speculation about roads programmes and the capital funding available to them. The reality is that the Minister has put enough money into roads for the capital resources required so that all the schemes that have been announced can proceed, provided that that level is maintained for the next two years. Forget about inflationary increases; if that level is maintained for the next two years all those schemes can proceed. However, as the Minister and House know, these schemes take a long time to go through the statutory processes. They must go through the necessary vesting orders and through the tendering and construction processes. That takes two or three years, and to start a job in year one the necessary resources must be available - albeit indicatively - in years two and three before the contract can be signed. A Minister cannot say "On the basis of this year, I can proceed". A Minister must be sure that when he or she signs a contract the money will be available in years two and three.

This is a difficulty. The indicative figures show a reduction in the money that will be available for capital roads expenditure. That is shown, but it may not be the outcome because we have what are described as Executive programme funds. I listened to Dr Birnie extolling the Executive programme funds as I listened to the statement last week by the Minister of Finance and Personnel informing us of this great innovation.

I thought that all the funds in the Budget were for the Executive's programme. What distinguishes these from others? Why have they been distinguished at all? We all know the reason. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister want to have some good news to announce from time to time. They want to take some of the good news away from Ministers - and they have attempted to do that frequently, as the Minister of Finance and Personnel will know - to announce it themselves - [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker:


Mr P Robinson:

Ministers should make announcements - it is their departmental responsibility. Ultimately, Ministers will have to fulfil commitments, and this will be done by the Departments. The Executive programme funds are simply a device to allow Ministers to announce some good news from time to time - although it could be something more sinister. It is to allow them to impose their political agenda on Departments and on the people.


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