Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 22 January 2001 (continued)

The Deputy First Minister:

The measures identified by the First Minster in relation to the penalty points system are crucial. There has been a large degree of co-operation in the running of the road safety campaign. The anti- drink/driving advertising that was broadcast on television over Christmas made for harrowing viewing, but it was also very effective in that it brought home to everybody exactly what can happen when such an accident takes place.

We will try, through the studies agreed at the sectoral meetings, to develop measures that will ensure that road safety, and the specific element of drink/driving to which the Member referred, is dealt with on a cross-border basis so that there will be no easy passage, North or South, for those who break the law on road safety.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I note that the First Minister has expressed regret that the Minister for Regional Development, in line with his election commitment to oppose North- Southery, did not attend this meeting and will not be attending similar meetings because of the waste of resources involved. Can the First Minister assure the House that his ban on Sinn Féin's attending similar meetings will continue, or is the sanction just the First Minister's being "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."?

The First Minister:

The Member's quotation from Shakespeare was, in my view, a little autobiographical on his part - but that is an entirely separate matter. It is inappropriate to describe the meetings that have taken place as a waste of resources. The cost of both sectoral meetings, at which representatives on transport interests from every jurisdiction in the British Isles met in Belfast, was £4,500. The representatives established contacts and shared experiences.

It amounts to extremely good value for money that for so little we have had the opportunity to exchange information and arrange co-operation. I am sure that the measures will save considerable sums of money, benefit transport and save lives. I think that most people will recognise the silliness of the Member's point.

Mr Dallat:

We have been told this morning that the members of the board of Tourism Ireland Ltd have been appointed, and the news has quite rightly been welcomed. Are the Ministers satisfied that the board boasts a broad base and can represent all aspects of tourism when developing international marketing strategy?

The Deputy First Minister:

The larger the board, the greater the lack of cohesion. In many ways, the level of representation was determined by the agreed size of the board.

Nevertheless, we are generally satisfied that the tourist industry in its widest sense is represented on the board. We are very pleased that those practitioners who have vast experience of dealing with tourism in the most difficult times in Northern Ireland are represented. We are also pleased that the board has been invested with excellent leaders. That is very important.

As the Member well knows, the functions of the board are crucial, and it will move very quickly on the planning, development and delivery of the marketing programmes. As with every other board, and with every other development, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. I have no doubt that if we combine continuing peace with this type of integrated approach to developing tourism, the pudding will include the practical results that we want.

Mr McGrady:

I want to ask the First Minister about the British/Irish Council meeting. Will he indicate whether discussions have taken place on the need for a special fund for the modernisation of the road structure in Northern Ireland, or does he intend that they should take place with the ministerial representative from Whitehall?

I ask this question in view of the drastic neglect of the roads infrastructure in Northern Ireland over the past 26 years of direct rule and the cumulative and disastrous effect of underfunding over that period. I envisage a special modernisation fund in the form of a one-off payment to compensate for that underfunding and neglect.

The First Minister:

This question of funding is more properly a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It involves general issues about the structure of the block grant and how it is dispersed. It was not raised directly at the British/Irish Council meeting, but of course the question of the funding of Northern Ireland programmes in general is a matter with which we are very much concerned. It happens that the Deputy First Minister and I will have a meeting with the Chancellor of Exchequer on Wednesday morning. That meeting is directed mainly towards the particular tax problems we have with regard to the fuel cost differential between ourselves and the Republic of Ireland; it is partly a tax issue and partly also a currency issue. We plan to raise some other tax issues with him as well, but we are always conscious of the opportunity on these occasions to raise all issues relating to what is called the Barnett formula.

In raising these issues, we have to bear in mind that public expenditure in Northern Ireland is significantly above the UK average. Underfunding of transport, like underfunding of other areas, is a matter of how decisions have been made in the past with regard to allocations within the Northern Ireland block.

When we deal with expenditure and ask for more, we must bear in mind however that we are being treated extremely generously at the moment. We will still ask for more because we believe that some areas have greater needs, one of which is the need for investment infrastructure. In view of the generous provision of public expenditure in Northern Ireland, we need to proceed diplomatically.

Public Expenditure: December Monitoring


Mr Speaker:

I have received notice from the Minister of Finance and Personnel that he wishes to make a statement on the outcome of the December monitoring.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the Executive's decisions on the December monitoring round.

At its meeting on 18 January the Executive decided on some reallocations of expenditure for the short time remaining in the current financial year. These reallocations make use of the resources available from changes in Departments' estimated requirements, which became available in the December monitoring round. As I explained in my statement on the October monitoring round, the focus is on changes to estimated requirements and the fine-tuning of allocations rather than on any new advances through policy change or new priorities. The Programme for Government still guides our prioritisation of the allocations, but at this stage of the year the process is based on what is possible and necessary in this financial year.

The December monitoring round completes the process of considering what revisions might be necessary to estimates provision. The process for the passage of the next Appropriation Bill, which addresses the spring supplementary estimates for all Departments, has to begin now. Thus the issues addressed in this monitoring round will be the last which can be reflected in supplementary estimates for this financial year.

Last week the Executive decided that the agreement of the Assembly should be sought to a modification of Standing Orders to ensure that accelerated passage for Appropriation Bills is recognised as routine and essential. Last autumn I discussed this fully with the Committee for Finance and Personnel, and I am very grateful for its having signalled that it would be content for this to happen, subject to appropriate consultation on the public expenditure plans. I acknowledge that this year the extent of involvement and consultation with the Committee for Finance and Personnel and the Assembly on the Budget cycle has been constrained. In relation to the spring supplementary estimates, I hope that the details I am providing today and further discussion with the Committee will be helpful to all concerned as background to the next Appropriation Bill, which will be introduced in mid-February. That will draw together all revisions to public expenditure allocations subsequent to the main estimates that we passed in June. Thus it will draw together the June monitoring round, the Agenda for Government, the changes to departmental running costs that were agreed by the Executive in July and the October and December monitoring rounds.

Turning to details of this monitoring round, the amount available for reallocation is £67·7 million. Once again, there are unique reasons for the figure being so high at this stage of the financial year. We did not expect to have a substantial amount, but several factors have yielded substantial resources for reallocation. The amount available through revised estimates of departmental requirements is £35 million, of which some £11 million is from additional receipts, either from fees and charges or from disposals of assets. At this stage of the year minor changes to these items always come from Departments. The amount is increased because the revision in the treatment of rate rebates that provided some additional spending power in 2001-02 and later years, as was explained in the Budget that was laid before the Assembly on 12 December 2000, also applies to 2000-01.

Members will be aware also that because of the suspension last year, the full Budget allocated for the Assembly Commission this time last year will not be needed in this financial year. The Executive recognise the need to consider carefully the need for more office accommodation, which may mean that there will be additional requirements in 2001-02 or later years for the Assembly.

11.30 am

However, when the underspend from the Assembly this year is taken into account, there may not be a need for any net increase in the Assembly's costs, taking the several years together. That position is still highly uncertain, given the need to explore accommodation options for additional Assembly staff. The Executive are happy to work further with the Assembly to ensure that the needs are facilitated and addressed, showing the due regard for economy and effectiveness that the Assembly requires in respect of all public expenditure.

Thus, making use of some of the forecasted underspending from the Assembly's Budget for 2000-01 does not undermine the Assembly Commission's plans: the funding of our needs can be addressed fully in 2001-02, if necessary through the end of year flexibility arrangements.

The £67·7 million available for reallocation comprises Departments' estimated underspending, the revised approach to rate rebates and the amount the Assembly does not directly require for this financial year. The Executive's proposals for the use of these resources take account of the bids from Departments, the need to retain flexibility to address the Assembly's needs and the major question of the Health Service's trusts' deficits.

Departmental bids for additional spending in this financial year amounted to some £50·4 million, excluding the matter of the Health Service's trusts' deficits. Given the substantial amounts available, the Executive have decided to meet a large proportion of those bids, totalling some £39·8 million. It is not surprising that the bids are smaller than would be the case at other stages since only a few months remain in which to make further spending this year. I will say a little about the additional allocations for each Department.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will receive an additional £2 million, mainly for the fine-tuning of disease compensation payment requirements and the cost of assistance schemes and a science service. For the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, a total of £0·9 million is available for several key aspects of the Department's activities, including museums, the Northern Ireland Millennium Company, sport and other services. While no bids were received from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, its needs in relation to assistance to industry will be kept under review for the remainder of the financial year to ensure that all needs are addressed.

The Department of Education receives £2·6 million, including provision for the Irish-medium trust fund. The Department of Finance and Personnel receives £0·8 million for the fine-tuning of estimates of administrative costs. The Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment receives £0·3 million, again for the fine-tuning of expenditure for European Community initiatives and for the administration of student awards by the education and library boards.

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety made a substantially larger bid. Leaving aside the question of the Health Service's trusts' deficits, which I will come to shortly, the Executive have decided to allocate £14·5 million to address a range of needs in the Health Service. That includes £3 million for the fine-tuning of estimates for capital expenditure, £3 million for winter pressures and community care, £1·2 million for pressure on the acute hospitals, and £1·3 million to improve premises used by general practitioners.

An additional £1 million will be made available to the Department of the Environment, including £600,000 for historic buildings grants and an amount for planning compensation. For the Department for Regional Development, it has been necessary to add £5 million to the Budget because of a delay in the disposal of assets by the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company (NITHC). In essence, that is a rephrasing of a receipt, and thus the proposal, as agreed by the Minister for Regional Development, is that the increase now made for 2000-01 should be offset by a corresponding decrease in 2001-02 when additional receipts will be available from that disposal of assets. The changes do not affect the spending power of the Department for Regional Development and, therefore, make good sense as straightforward aspects of financial management. There would be no need for such fine tuning if the asset disposals had been managed as planned at the outset of the year. The Executive hope that that will be the case in the future, so that there is less need for the adjustment of spending allocations.

In addition to that £5 million, further moneys have been allocated to the Department for Regional Development, including £4 million for structural maintenance on the roads, and £1·5 million for equipment and minor works in the Water Service. In total, the proposed additional allocation to the Department for Regional Development is £14 million.

For the Department for Social Development, there is an additional £3·5 million, including £2 million to deal with fuel poverty, a matter that I know to be of concern to Members from all parties. There is also an additional £1 million for the regeneration of housing in north Belfast and £0·5 million to make up for some of the rental income lost by the Housing Executive as a result of the extensive programme of house sales.

Finally, an additional £0·1 million has been allocated to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to meet the costs associated with President Clinton's visit before Christmas.

Largely, the allocations represent the fine tuning of the estimated requirements of Departments. They are routine allocations, moving resources from where they are no longer needed to the emerging pressure points in the Executive's Budget.

The Executive have also considered carefully the difficulties facing the Health Service, which have left an increasing number of health service trusts facing deficits. Financial arrangements in the Health Service still reflect the internal market and include the possibility that individual trusts will have surpluses or deficits that will balance out over several years. Thus, the existence of deficits is not, in itself, a critical difficulty. However, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has indicated that deficits have been increasing materially, which represents a growing problem for the Health Service. The Executive recognise the serious pressure facing the Health Service and the difficulty of finding adequate additional resources for services, mainly caused by the fact that we are not getting sufficient resources from the Barnett formula. The Barnett formula amounts that we receive, when additional funding is provided for the Health Service in England, do not meet our needs proportionately. We will need to take that issue further with the Treasury, as part of our work on the Barnett formula. The Committee for Finance and Personnel has recommended that approach, and the issue has been discussed extensively in this House in the context of next year's Budget.

The Executive are also concerned to ensure that the management of resources provided by the Assembly for the Health Service is consistent with control requirements. That is important to the Assembly as a whole and to the Public Accounts Committee in particular. We must ensure that the problems that face the Health Service are dealt with following the procedures for financial management and control required by the Assembly. My Department, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will consider the issue of trust deficits in detail in the coming weeks, to ensure that we fully understand the complex financial arrangements and their implications, and to allow appropriate action to be taken.

Substantial resources are available to us, even after we have met a large proportion of the bids from Departments. It is necessary, of course, to consider what additional help we should provide to the Health Service this time. We must also consider the implications of the deficits for future patterns of activity in the Health Service. The Executive have therefore concluded that they are not yet ready to decide exactly how to handle the issue in the remainder of this financial year. Some further details are being investigated to ensure there is a clearer picture. When that has been completed, the Executive will set out its proposed approach to the Assembly.

This monitoring round has provided some significant adjustments to expenditure patterns in this financial year. However, I stress again that these are routine adjustments, mainly driven by revised estimates of requirements, both up and down, across a very wide range of services. This is to be expected at this stage of the year, and I do not want to give the impression that there were significant choices to be made in this monitoring round given the limited scope for change in any action at this late stage of the financial year.

I will be happy to discuss the issues arising further, especially with the Finance and Personnel Committee, so that the background is fully covered as necessary before the spring supplementary estimates are introduced next month. The Executive will also address further the question of health service trust deficits and bring its conclusions to the Assembly as soon as possible.

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

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First, I thank the Minister for the statement, which at least shows the very healthy state of the Budget, if not of the Health Service. The £67 million recouped for reallocation is a substantial amount of money. It is very prudent of the Minister to be able to recoup that amount for reallocation.

The Minister mentions the issue of the rate rebate revisions in the statement. Can he explain further how that affects the amount of spending that is available for us in this particular end of year monitoring round? Will it leave us in a situation where he can actually reconsider next year's 8% rise in the rates? There has been a substantial amount of underspending in the past year and that amount could be offset against the £12 million that the 8% rise will realise. That rise could then be brought into line with inflation. I know that the Minister will want to do that if possible.

Taking on board the Finance and Personnel Committee's recommendations on the Barnett formula, it is important to know how the Minister proposes to tackle that issue. Maybe he will clarify that for us. We have not been getting a fair allocation under the Barnett formula for spending in the Health Service, in particular, compared with England. We need to achieve equality. Can the Minister clarify that?

Mr Speaker:

Before calling the Minister, I want to point out that this is not an opportunity to raise broad questions about the principles of finance in the Northern Ireland Budget. It is an opportunity to ask questions on the December monitoring proposals.

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Chairperson for his remarks and questions.

First, we need to build a strong case concerning the Barnett formula and we need to make representation in time for the next spending review.

As the First Minister indicated in response to previous questions, this is a matter not just for myself, as the Minister of Finance and Personnel, but for the Executive as a whole. The representational role of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is going to be key in this particular exercise.

We are trying to build up the type of case that will need to be made. We also need to anticipate the argument that is likely to be made against our case. That is why there are a number of issues that we need to address.

The Chairperson also raised the question of the rate rebate treatment. We covered this in the Budget statement and in the Budget document. There are changes, as approved and agreed by the Treasury, in the treatment of rate rebates, which now come under the departmental expenditure limit (DEL). That has applied this year, and that is why we have additional money available. The rate rebate factor has already been factored into next year's Budget. It would not be appropriate to carry money from this year's rate rebate and set it against next year's Budget. That is not the basis on which we can plan budgets.

Unfortunately, the rate increase that we have indicated looks like being the increase that we are going to have to adopt - subject to some final figures being available. It is simply to meet expenditure planned for next year and subsequent years. Notwithstanding the money that has become available in this monitoring round, nobody has yet said to me that there is money in our spending plans that is not required and could be used to allow a lower rate increase.

11.45 am

Rev Robert Coulter:

It has been suggested that trusts have managed to spend more than their budgeted income by delaying the payment of bills to suppliers. If deficits have been financed by trade credit, the latest annual deficits must represent the total deficit. In view of the annual budgetary arrangements, is it sensible to accumulate the annual deficits over a number of years? What is the total overspend?

Mr Durkan:

First, trusts operate under financial arrangements that allow them to run deficits in given years. However, the trusts are required to balance their finances over a period of time, perhaps three to five years. There has been no breach of the financial controls. Obviously, the situation will be different when resource accounting is adopted; deficits will no longer be separate from departmental expenditure limits.

The Department of Finance and Personnel, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister need to identify any problems suggested by the pattern of the deficits. The Member suggested that some deficits were caused by delaying payment of suppliers' bills. Such issues must be explored in a manner that is sensitive to the pressures that are contributing to the trusts' problems. Financial management and control issues must also be examined.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee (Mr Gallagher):

Health trust deficits are a serious and complex matter. I appreciate, therefore, that the issue needs further examination before any conclusive statement can be made. However, the matter is urgent, and the Assembly needs to know that the matters will be addressed within a definite and tight timetable. On behalf of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee, I register with the Minister our concerns and our desire to be fully informed on the background of the problems and on any planned remedial action.

Mr Durkan:

I recognise the urgency of the situation, but we must face up to its complexity. The Executive were unable to take conclusive decisions at this stage, without gathering further information. Obviously, we must reach firm conclusions in time to allow us to make decisions about financial allocations in this financial year, if the Executive consider that that is the best way forward.

The current arrangements are complex, and we need a little time to reflect on the most appropriate way forward. I expect that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will ensure that the departmental Committee is kept fully informed about all developments.

Mr Dodds:

Did the Minister take any cognisance of the plea made by traders and small businesses to the Assembly last week to reconsider the increase in the regional rate, which is to be almost three times the rate of inflation? When will the Minister and the parties in the Executive that support him take on board the fact that it is scandalous to raise the regional rate by 8%? It is especially scandalous in view of previous commitments made by members of the Minister's own party when they sat on local councils. He can take it from me that householders, small traders and businesses will draw very little comfort from his statement today in relation to the issue of the regional rate.

The Minister mentioned an overall amount of £67·7 million being made available for reallocation. He said that £35 million came from revised estimates of requirements by Departments. Can he give us some more details on which Departments have given up what amounts of money, rather than just a global sum? He said that of that £35 million, £11 million is additional receipts. Can he confirm that some of those receipts come from the sale of Housing Executive homes? Will he take on board the point that has been made by many Members in the House about the need to address chronic housing need in Northern Ireland, especially in areas like north Belfast? Will he accept that to continue to draw money out of the Department for Social Development's budget in this way, and not to return a proportionate amount, is unacceptable?

Finally, I welcome the Minister's announcement today of £1 million extra funding for the regeneration of housing in north Belfast. I am pleased to have received a letter from the Minister for Social Development, indicating that thus far £4·5 million has been allocated. This extra £1 million will be of enormous assistance and benefit to our work in regenerating run-down areas in north Belfast.

I also welcome the £2 million towards alleviating the problem of fuel poverty. I ask the Minister to continue with the work that he is doing -

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member has put quite a number of questions to the Minister.

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Member for his many questions.

First, on the question of rates, the Member knows that the December monitoring round has nothing to do with the budgeted rate increases for next year. This is an adjustment to this year's allocations, and it does not relate to our revenue needs in terms of allocations for next year or future years. It has nothing to do with the rate increase at this point.

As I have already said, we will be finalising the determination in relation to the rates next year, subject to further figures being available. The Executive have heard, and are alert to, a lot of the concerns, frustrations and misgivings that have been expressed about rate increases. Nevertheless, we have made clear the basis on which the decisions have been taken.

The point has been made about those parties who sit on the Executive and agree with this. Again I say that whenever we were going through the papers on the Budget - and papers were fully circulated, including recommendations on options on rate increases - no Minister of any party specifically opposed the rate increases that were proposed. I want to make that clear again, because the point seems to have been lost.

Concerning where the money has come from, obviously there are some small adjustments. Of the significant amounts, there is some £7 million from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment; that basically is money that was being held there in support of possible bids in relation to Harland & Wolff. A further £3 million has come in from house sales. I have never made a secret of the fact that there are significant receipts coming in from house sales. Indeed, I referred to it in my statement. There is £2·5 million in Water Service receipts, £6 million from the old round of EU programmes and £1·4 million from LEDU.

The Member made a point about the Department for Social Development and housing receipts. The Department for Social Development's bids in this monitoring round have been met. There seems to be a suggestion that we should be allocating more than has actually been bid for. As I have said before, we cannot adopt a position that says that receipts automatically lie where they fall, because not all Departments and programmes are in a position to generate receipts.

I am pleased that the Member welcomes the additional money for the north Belfast strategy.

That additional £1 million follows the additional £2 million that was allocated in the revised Budget in December.

Mr Close:

Does the Minister agree that in situations such as this it would be advantageous and in the interest of the Assembly if the final figures were brought to the attention of the respective Statutory Committees before they are brought before the Executive? That would enable Members to have an input into the reallocation of those easements. Otherwise the Executive announce figures and almost create a "them and us" situation where they do their thing and the rest of us follow. That is not in the interests of democracy or the Assembly. Will the Minister comment on that?

Paragraph 16 of the Minister's statement states that the allocations are from resources that were "no longer needed". The figures from the October monitoring round and the December monitoring round amount to £143 million - approximately 2% of the overall Budget. Does the Minister agree that that clearly demonstrates that there is an in-built fat content of £143 million in the budgeting mechanisms? In view of that, the £143 million could have been reallocated for future years - for example, 2001-02 - thus keeping the regional rate below inflation. That would assist Northern Ireland's economy by protecting its backbone - the small traders.

It is not sufficient to say that we cannot look to the revenue for future years when we are dealing with reallocations. It is part and parcel of the budgeting exercise, and where there is fat, it is the Assembly's responsibility to ensure that it does not exist in future years.

Mr Durkan:

When we say that money is not needed, we do not mean that it is not needed for public expenditure, rather that it is not needed against the budgeted item for this year. It may be because there has been a change in circumstances and the need is not the same, or it may be because there has been a slippage in spending, and the money cannot be spent on that issue in this financial year but can be spent on the same need in future years. Therefore we are not saying that the money is not needed.

The Member's argument suggests that Northern Ireland can afford to have a lower level of public expenditure. With regard to the Barnett formula, most people argue that Northern Ireland needs more public expenditure. That is an argument that the Member and his party have made. However, there now appears to be a suggestion that Northern Ireland can afford less public expenditure.

Adjusting moneys in the monitoring rounds justifies the use of monitoring rounds. Nobody pretends that we get estimates right or that things always go according to plan. Therefore monitoring rounds are used to ensure that we get the best use out of moneys in-year.

This money is needed. Proof of that is in its allocation to pressing needs, needs that, it is hoped, Members will welcome. There are also outstanding needs in the Health Service. Therefore the money is required this year and, as I am sure all Members will agree, we will need more public expenditure next year and in the years beyond.

Ms McWilliams:

I agree with Seamus Close. It would be useful if Committees received advance note of the detail of the Minister's statement. However, I welcome the statement. I am concerned about the trusts that are in deficit, and I add my concern to that of Rev Robert Coulter's. Health bodies that are in deficit are: the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust; Altnagelvin Area Hospital; Sperrin Lakeland Trust; Ulster Community and Hospital Health and Social Services Trust; Armagh and Dungannon Health and Social Services Trust; Causeway Health and Social Services Trust; Homefirst Community Trust; United Hospitals Health and Social Services Trust; Greenpark Healthcare Trust; Belfast City Hospital; Craigavon Area Hospital; and the Royal Group of Hospitals.

What happens to those trusts with regard to penalties? Are there incentives for other trusts not named on the list?


Will the Minister also tell us where the finance will be found for the very expensive judicial reviews that are being taken by Departments against Departments? Will that finance now have to be found out of the £17·3 million that is not currently allocated?

Mr Durkan:

Departments meet legal costs out of their budgets.

On the wider point about trust deficits, I recognise that many people will consider some trusts to be in significant deficit, while others have stayed within budget and reported surpluses. We need to look at all the issues involved. It is not a case of drawing up blacklists or penalty lists. We need to deal with this problem in all its aspects, which are manifold. We need to look at where pressures on trusts, particularly trusts providing acute services, are giving rise to this problem. We need to look at the wider issues of funding, and we also need to look at the management and control questions. The Executive, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are agreed that we need to approach this from the point of view of accountability for service, care, spending and control. This is not just an accountancy exercise; it is an exercise in accountability for services provided and expenditure managed. It would be premature for me to speculate on any particular issue to do with any particular trust.

Finally, I would like to respond to Mr Close's point about Committees. The Department of Finance and Personnel receives bids from Departments in monitoring rounds. We explore the issues that are involved in those bids with the Departments. We also receive notification of easements of money from Departments that feel that they will not be able to spend what they have been allocated. We manage the process by making recommendations to the Executive, and the Executive make the decisions. It is up to other Departments and Ministers to decide the level of consultation or information exchange they have with their Committees.

Mr Speaker:

We have a substantial number of Members who wish to ask questions. I encourage those who are called to be as concise as possible.

Mr McFarland:

The Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee has been concerned for some time about the visibility of NHS funds and the fact that there seems to be enormous difficulty in identifying where the funds go when they leave the boards. Why have the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety not been more curious before now as to why a detailed monitoring system has not been in place for identifying the destination of the £2·3 billion that leaves the former Department and goes to the latter? Where does it go, and what is it used for?

Mr Durkan:

The budget for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is significant, as has been mentioned in the statement and in response to other questions. There are complex financial arrangements involved, and we now want to review those. The Minister has already said that some aspects of Health Service structures and systems will be looked at. The Department of Finance and Personnel and the economic policy unit in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister want to see more streamlined arrangements, so that it is much easier literally to follow the money. The move to resource accounting and budgeting is one change in the overall system that should contribute to that. That will have an impact on the Health Service as well as on all other aspects of the public sector. It should also make it easier to trace money, to detect problems as they emerge and to require people to alert us to problems as they emerge.

Regarding the particular pressing points on the current deficits, my officials only became aware of their acuteness in the context of this particular monitoring round. The Executive now recognise that this is an issue which, for a number of reasons, we need to address now. However, we need to address it in light of fuller information on all of the factors, rather than just making a reflex allocation now. There are wider issues, including some of the questions that the Member touched upon, that need to be examined.

Mr J Kelly:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasChann Comhairle. I welcome the statement, particularly the allocation of extra funding to health. The fact that the Minister gave seven paragraphs to health is also welcome. On the question of accountability, I refer to page 6 in relation to the Department for Regional Development:

"There would not be a need for these fine tuning changes if the asset disposals were managed as planned at the outset of the year."

Does this indicate a mismanagement ethos within the Department for Regional Development?

We all welcome monitoring of spends, and I notice £14 million being given to the Department for Regional Development and £14·5 to health. It seems from that that if you are outside the loop, you get much better treatment. In addition, what measures of accountability does the Minister have in place for those who are outside the loop, regarding where they spend their money, how they spend it, and what areas they spend it in?


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