Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 19 February 2001 (continued)

11.15 am

With respect to the Department for Social Development, an additional net provision of £6·2 million is sought in Vote A to meet the Department's administration and other miscellaneous costs. That includes £10·6 million to fund running costs, capital, and other administration pressures in the Department, £4·1 million of which is to assist with the implementation of the welfare reform and modernisation programme. Most of those funds were allocated in the December monitoring round. The increases are offset by an increase in receipts of £4·4 million, mainly from the Social Security Agency for administrating certain services on its behalf.

In Vote C, an additional net provision of £25·8 million is sought for expenditure on urban regeneration and community development, which includes £23·2 million for the EU peace and reconciliation programme and £2·2m for gap funding for the community and voluntary sector announced in the June monitoring round. Allocations for gap funding to other Departments are also included in the appropriate votes.

In Vote E for the Department for Social Development, which covers social security administered centrally by the Department, an additional net provision of £15·1 million is being sought. That is mainly to reimburse the social fund for expenditure on cold weather payments, and increased and retrospective awards of winter fuel payments, most of which scores as annually managed expenditure. The additional requirements also include increases in housing benefit and payments into the Northern Ireland National Insurance fund. These increased requirements are offset by reduced expenditure on the independent living funds and discretionary rent allowances.

The Department of Finance and Personnel seeks an additional £8·8 million in Vote A. That includes £5·2 million on capital expenditure for new works, resulting from the restructuring of Departments, which was mostly allocated in the June monitoring round. An additional £5·5 million is sought for running costs to reflect the carry-forward of end-year flexibility in connection with the provision of Government purchasing, research and statistical and legal services to other Departments. That increase is partly offset by increased receipts across the Department.

In Vote B, which covers superannuation and other allowances, an additional £15·3 million is sought to cover the cost of pensions, lump sums and gratuities to former civil servants. The main changes to the Vote are annually managed expenditure items and are, therefore, not a charge on the departmental expenditure limit.

Finally, an additional provision of £2·4 million is required in Vote A by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. That is mainly for disability rights, victims, additional allocations to the EU peace and reconciliation programme, and administration costs. That deals with the resolution for the spring Supplementary Estimates. As I stated, I will do my best to answer any questions that Members may have.

The second Supply resolution issues a cash sum of some £3,806 million to be granted on account towards the defraying of costs incurred by Departments and the use of resources totalling some £4,306 million for the same purposes in the year 2001-02. The cash sum and resource totals, for which approval are sought, represent a Vote on Account pending the bringing forward of the main Estimates to the Assembly in May or June. A Vote on Account at this point in the financial year, prior to the year in which the cash or resources will be used, has been a normal feature of Government financial management.

The need to proceed in this way arises from problems of timing given that, after the approval of the Budget in December by the Assembly, detailed work has to be undertaken by Departments and by the Department of Finance and Personnel to disaggregate and allocate resource requirements for individual purposes, often through very narrowly defined line entries. It is to be hoped that this helps Members to appreciate further why it was necessary to seek the completion of the Budget stage of the process before Christmas.

I draw the Assembly's attention to an important innovation in the way in which the Vote on Account is presented. For the first time, it will reflect not only the allocation of cash to Departments but an allocation, up to a limit, for the use of resources. I drew the attention of the Assembly to this first allocation of resources based on resource budgeting in my statement on Budget proposals in October 2000.

The Vote on Account will see the first implementation of that approach, which will have important consequences in ensuring that assets are properly valued and that the full resource cost of expenditure can be brought into account. That in turn will involve much more attention being directed to the setting of targets, measurement of outputs and the attribution of resources to the achievement of the objectives for which they were originally intended.

The Government Resources and Accounts Bill, which is currently under consideration by the Assembly, provides for the necessary changes in financial measures to support the introduction of resource accounting and budgeting and to secure the authority and control of the Assembly in relation to the use of resources, in similar terms to those which exist for cash allocations. Those changes are important, though largely technical, and will also impact on the Budget Bill that I introduced earlier today.

The Vote on Account will fund Departments to implement the ongoing programmes and services for which they are responsible and which formed part of the Budget decisions taken in December 2000. There will be an opportunity for a full debate on the detail when the Main Estimates are finalised in June. This is the first Budget for which the Assembly has been solely responsible and, therefore, the first opportunity to begin to apply our collective judgement to the priorities and to the social and economic outcomes that we wish to achieve through public expenditure.

We have established several important cornerstones upon which we wish to build our policies and develop our thinking further. These include, of course, the equality considerations to which we must have regard, recognition of need through New TSN, the Programme for Government and the priority areas and initiatives that will attract additional funding through the Executive programme funds.

In commending these resolutions to the Assembly, it is right that we should pause to recognise the importance of being able to make these decisions in a devolved Assembly for the first time for a complete financial year. It is also appropriate, as I noted in the context of the Supplementary Estimates resolution, that we ensure appropriate levels of management and control over the use of these resources. We must be seen to use them with maximum effect to ensure the highest quality and greatest range of services possible for the citizens of Northern Ireland.

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

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's detailed statement on the Budget and the Supplementary Estimates. It is important to note that we have £196 million made available to the Department in the current year, either through reallocation or as a result of additional funds provided by the Chancellor.

I welcome the allocations made to the various Departments. We have discussed those on previous occasions. In particular, I note the issue of funds to health, education and infrastructure, as well as the important role that we have in rebuilding the failures of the past. Several services have been underfunded to the extent that they have been deprived and, in some cases, are falling apart. It is important to note the change and restructuring taking place and that the money will be available for that.

I welcomed the Minister's previous announcement about a reduction in the increase in regional rates. That will take some pressure off rural areas and small businesses. The Finance and Personnel Committee suggested a reduction in the increase in domestic rates and it's members would have welcomed that. However, it is not possible at present. Will the Minister continue to re-examine the rates as a means of tax raising? Could we consider alternatives? The rating system is an unfair way of collecting tax and it has a detrimental effect on communities, especially the business community.

In the past, the Finance and Personnel Committee expressed concern about the absence of consultation with Committees prior to the allocation of funds through the monitoring rounds. At present, the reallocations are presented to the Assembly as a fait accompli, giving Committees no opportunity to influence the outcome. It is important that Committees have an opportunity to put forward suggestions, and they should have an opportunity to discuss with and present their views to Departments for future monitoring rounds.

There should be a revised arrangement in which the Department of Finance and Personnel anticipates the likelihood of additional money. That anticipation should be put to the Committees for discussion so that they can have an opportunity to influence Ministers before the Executive make the final decisions on the reallocation of money. In that way, there would be more collective responsibility in how money is reallocated. The Executive may not take the Committees' opinions fully on board, but they must be involved in the discussions.

I welcome the introduction of the Vote on Account as a means of ensuring that the Departments' work will continue while the main estimates for 2001-02 are being considered and adopted by the Assembly. It should be noted that the new practice has been adopted by the Department of Finance and Personnel exceptionally when the Vote on Account has been calculated at 45% of the incoming Main Estimate rather than being based on the previous year's Estimate. That will provide a larger sum than normal for Departments. The change has been made necessary because of the complications arising from the introduction of resource accounting. Will the Department revert to the former practice or will it continue with the new practice?

When reporting on the Budget proposals in November, the Finance and Personnel Committee mentioned some measures that must be taken to reassess the application of the Barnett formula. The Barnett formula fails to address the issues relating to the present infrastructure deficit, the low population deficit, the population of regions - east and west - and the need to follow social deprivation to target that social depravation and need. The Barnett formula - for it is simply a population head count - does not have the ability to do that. Will the Minister involve the Committee in discussions to review the Barnett formula, and possibly look to a co-ordinated approach with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the British Parliament? A co-ordinated approach would be of benefit to everyone. Targeting need is an issue that must be examined.

The Executive Committee should press ahead with the structure of a staffing review of the Civil Service to obtain the maximum possible levels of efficiency and value for money in the future.

11.30 am

The Minister should seek to impress upon his Colleagues in the Executive Committee that Assembly Committees ought to be engaged at the earliest stage of the preparation of the 2002-03 Estimates. The first consultation should take place before Departments submit their initial bids to the Department of Finance and Personnel for consideration in spring and early summer. That would enable Statutory Committees to respond quickly and effectively to the draft Budget proposal when it is presented to the Assembly. We suggested that the draft Budget proposal should be the first item of business for the new session in September. That would be the new means for working out the financial year. If Committees were consulted in advance we would have a free-flowing consultation, which would avoid people feeling that they do not have time to discuss these subjects fully. If all Committees and Ministers were involved, everyone would be better informed and consulted.

The Minister and his Colleagues in the Executive should continue to ensure that targeting social need and other work to address deprivation are given high priority. The Minister said that he would continue to ensure that that happens. All possible steps should be taken to maximise the benefits gained by European funding. The Minister referred to gap funding and the new round of European funding. The new round of European funding should be allocated as quickly as possible. Go raibh maith agat.

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

I congratulate the Minister on an intricate presentation in which he observed Charles Dickens's advice, which he put in the mouth of Mr Micawber, about keeping his expenditure limits just within the size of his income. Overall, the Northern Ireland Budget will now do that for the remainder of the financial year.

On behalf of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee I will concentrate on the Supplementary Estimates and raise several points on the basis of some of the more significant changes in the pattern of expenditure in our Department.

First, an additional £0·5 million has been allocated in Vote A for increased administrative costs, and £100,000 of that are extra devolution-related costs. Also, £200,000 has been allocated for improved computer systems for student awards, and £161,000 has been allocated for the administration of New Deal. My point is not necessarily that such extra administration is wrong - it may well be needed - but that all additional administration costs must be carefully justified.

Secondly, a further £135,000 has been transferred to the Northern Ireland Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (NICATS), which recently gave evidence to my Committee. On the basis of what we heard of its work, we welcome the additional resources for NICATS. We note the progress that it has made on a vertically and horizontally progressive system of qualifications. It seems to be ahead of the game with respect to its counterparts in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Thirdly, the Committee recognises the increased provision of roughly £4 million for mandatory student awards, and the Minister hinted that that is a demand-led expenditure.

Moving to Vote B for the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, we see an increased provision of almost £1·5 million for administration costs associated with devolution and some information technology costs relating to private finance initiatives (PFI). There are obviously issues, in principle, relating to the pros and cons of PFI, which we may return to in a subsequent debate. We recognise that if there is to be PFI then the IT systems should be as good as possible - we trust that there will be sound purchasing of IT systems.

On Vote B for the Department, we note the reduced requirement of about one third of a million pounds because of a lower than expected uptake on the Department's management development programme. As a Committee, especially given our priorities with respect to upgrading human capital in the Northern Ireland labour force, at face value we have concerns about that. It is obviously a case of demand-led expenditure - the Department can take horses to water, as it were, but it cannot force them to drink. Nevertheless, it should concern us all that in the Northern Ireland economy - despite the fact that there are some excellent and world-class management teams - there are cases of Northern Ireland firms, whether in the manufacturing or service sectors, in which management over the years has lacked imagination and sufficient international experience. That may explain some relatively recent job losses. I, therefore, put down a marker relating to the lower than expected uptake on that management development programme.

Finally, we note a reduced requirement of almost £4 million on the Worktrack programme because of a lower than expected uptake. We wonder what is going on there. The more optimistic scenario is that it reflects the reduction in long-term unemployment in the Province. However, we want to be realistic, and there may be more pessimistic interpretations on why the uptake of Worktrack has been lower than expected.

I support the motion on the Supplementary Estimates. We trust that the concerns that I have raised on behalf of the Committee will be dealt with appropriately by either the Finance Minister or his Colleague, the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment.

Ms Lewsley:

I welcome the first native Budget that allows the Executive and the Assembly to work together on budget allocations. I appreciate the Minister's handling of these affairs. He has shown that he has tried to be fair and equitable to everyone. We have seen, through the Executive programme funds, that Departments have the opportunity to discontinue their current patterns. It is not about the Departments extending them and rolling them over, but about standing at the crossroads and seeing how they can redirect or prioritise many aspects of their expenditure.

There is now the opportunity for new innovation and for Departments, in particular, to become more proactive, rather than reactive, with their budgets. That can be seen by the increases reflected in the new allocations to Departments relating to the December, and other recent, monitoring rounds.

The Children Fund, the consultation on a commissioner for children, the £2 million set aside for gap funding, and free transport for the elderly are just a few examples of the innovation that we hope to see more of in the future. We have seen an extra £273,000 allocated to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for disability rights, victims and research. That is a welcome move in creating a more fair and equitable society for everyone in Northern Ireland.

On departmental priorities, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has been given extra resources to tackle the deficits in the health trusts. It has been given gap funding for the community and voluntary sector. It is to be hoped that the £100,000 taken out of the mental health budget, especially in the Down Lisburn Trust area, can be returned to the mental health budget and services sooner rather than later. I hope that that will be seen as a priority. That is one area where we could see a real change in people's quality of life and, considering the huge increase in the number of suicides among young men, in the long term, save many lives.

We must consider the £360,000 allocated to essential repairs to classrooms. How will that be allocated by the Department? Considering the current number of ancient mobile classrooms which must be repaired, how will that money be prioritised? Is that throwing good money after bad? Should we be attempting to repair them, or should we be replacing them so that we will be saving money in the long term? What effect do they have on our pupils, especially with regard to their performance and their health and safety?

What value for money will we get from the £465,000 allocated for post-primary consultation, known to many of us as the Burns review? What will the outcome of that review be? Will it simply tell us what Prof Gallagher has already told us - that the 11-plus and selection must be scrapped? Will it make a recommendation about what our post-primary education system should be? Should we be changing it completely or keeping our grammar and secondary education systems? Further down the line, after the Burns review, will we be told that we need another large amount of money to go into consultation with regard to secondary education?

Although I have had some reservations about the Departments' expenditures, the main issue for me is that I, as an Assembly Member, have the opportunity in the House to approach a local Minister, who is available to listen and take on board my points of view on a local funding issue.

My final point is to do with the Government's resource accounting budget, which gives the opportunity for transparency, accountability and, more importantly, feedback to the Assembly. That clearly illustrates the true cost of running Departments and has the effect of improving the financial management of the Exchequer.

I support these motions.

Mr Poots:

I congratulate the Minister on the delivery of his speech. He outlined how the money is to be spent, clearly and concisely, and I appreciate that.

Almost £8 million has been added to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure's budget, of which more than £1 million is to be allocated to capital spending on libraries. That means that £2·5 million is to be spent on library provision. Once again I must mention library provision in Lisburn. For the past 25 years, there has been insufficient library provision there. Other towns, such as Portadown and Strabane, have jumped the list and moved ahead of Lisburn, and I challenge the Minister to look seriously at that issue again. We have heard a great deal of talk about private finance initiatives, but clearly those are not suitable for this project. Lagan Valley residents will not tolerate the Minister's trying to fob us off with private finance initiatives in respect of that issue.

An extra £25 million has been allocated to the agriculture budget. That is a large additional amount of money, but it will make little difference to farmers. There has been a lack of innovation on the part of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development officials, and, to a greater extent, the Minister is singing from the same hymn sheet as the direct-rule Ministers were. There was an opportunity to introduce animal welfare and environmental grants schemes, which would have been similar to the old sub-programme for agriculture and rural development (SPARD) scheme. That would have helped farmers to afford improvements. Not only are farmers' incomes decreasing each year, but farms are running down and deteriorating as the years go on. There has been an opportunity for the Minister to do something about this, but so far she has failed. We will continue to challenge the Minister on those issues in the coming year.

11.45 am

I am a member of the Environment Committee, and the Department of the Environment has received an extra £4 million. Steady progress has been made by the Environment Committee and the Minister of the Environment. I especially welcome the £1·7 million that has been allocated for historic buildings. That will release matching funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, thereby bringing money to the Province. Those who appreciate our built heritage will also appreciate the extra money.

The extra money for road safety officers and for the Planning Service is most welcome. However, the Committee is still concerned about the Environment and Heritage Service. There is not yet sufficient funding to carry through much of the work that is demanded of it by the European Union. Those issues must be addressed.

I am concerned that the Minister of Education continues to allocate money to pet projects such as his Irish-medium education fund. There is clearly not a large demand for it. There is a large demand for new schools and new classrooms for the children. There are children in mobile classrooms in conditions that they do not deserve to be in, and the Minister does not appear to prioritise his money to that end.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment does not seem to spread tourism funding evenly across the Province. The figures speak for themselves. Certain areas receive sufficient funding for tourism while other areas receive negligible funding. The moratorium on grants outside the Greater Belfast area goes against Lisburn, Newtownabbey, North Down, and other council areas. Those areas do not have decent hotels, because no one wants to put in the full funding while grants are available in Belfast city centre. The Minister must reconsider that..

The gas pipeline to the south-east of the Province is not getting much of a hearing. All efforts seem to be put into the gas pipeline to the north-west - and that is fair enough. However, a large amount of business is done in towns in the south-east of the Province, such as Dromore, Banbridge, Craigavon, Portadown and Newry, and a large number of people live in those areas. The gas pipeline to that area is equally as important as the pipeline to the north-west of the Province.

Turning to the Estimates for the Department for Regional Development, I would like to mention the Antrim-Knockmore railway line. An extra £20 million has been allocated to the railways. That £20 million, and a lot more, is needed to make the railways safe. Part of the initial AD Lyttle report suggested the closure of the Antrim-Knockmore railway line. It will cost £428,000 to buy replacement buses and to fence off the lineand an additional £246,000 per year will be needed to subsidise the bus routes on that line.

I ask the Ministers concerned to look at the value of the railways to Northern Ireland and the value of that line in the context of the regional strategic framework and find the resources to keep it open. Closing it would be a retrograde step. When railway lines are closed, they are closed for good, with the exception of Bleach Green, which is opening again after 20 years. In this day and age, we are meant to be seeking safer and more environmentally friendly methods of transporting people. The Assembly would be sending out the wrong message if it closed any further railway lines.

I welcome the additional funding for maintaining roads. A little in a large pot is required. When some representatives of the Department for Regional Development came before our district council they said that there is not enough funding in the maintenance budget to resurface some roads for at least 100 years. If we are going to have to wait 100 years for some roads to be resurfaced, they will be in a very poor state. We cannot continue to ignore the state of our roads - we all use them. Sufficient funding must be put into the roads budget, especially for roads in rural areas.

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety received £43·5 million. I would like to see a large amount of funding going to the Health Service if it resulted in more hip operations taking place, or in people not having to wait so long for open-heart surgery. I do not like to see the wastage that is in the Health Service, and I am concerned about it. I do not like to see the wastage that occurs in the preparation of documents in Irish, in prescription fraud and in theft from hospitals. I challenge the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to consider how it could save and reallocate money according to the real needs of the people and not just carry on as things are at the moment.

The Department for Social Development received an extra £6·2 million. Historically, much of its funding for urban regeneration has gone to Belfast and Londonderry, but there are many other important towns in the Province which would like to see a bit more of that funding coming their way. People in those towns feel that they have been hard done by over the years, and the Minister for Social Development has the opportunity to address that.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel discussed rates. We should be looking at a situation where the out-of-town shopping centres should be charged higher rates than those paid by shops in town centres. Businesses in town centres are not working on a level playing field, because out-of-town shopping centres have free car parking. The rateable valuation of out-of-town shopping centres should be increased to allow town centre businesses to compete. I am concerned that, while many of our towns and villages are boarding up their shops, large shopping centres are being constructed.

I am concerned at the increasing departmental running costs of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Ministers (OFMDFM) - now over £11 million, which is an increase of £239,000. That Department is top-heavy, with a lot of under-secretaries and high-grade civil servants.

While extra money was being allocated to OFMDFM, the funding for victims was not receiving its full allocation. Less than half of the amount sought was received, and only £500,000 was sought in the first instance. I quote from the draft Programme for Government:

"as an important part of addressing human rights, it is important that special attention is paid to the needs of those who have been most directly affected by the violence of the last 30 years. The needs of victims and survivors are complex, ranging from coping with serious injury through to physical and emotional trauma, along with dealing with often adverse economic circumstances."

We must look seriously at finding a reasonable amount of money to try to meet the needs of victims.

The Community Relations Council receives almost £6 million. At some stage that funding must be looked at. There is less violence than previously in Northern Ireland, but we certainly do not have good community relations. Substantial funding has gone into community relations in the last 10 to 15 years. One must ask if community relations are better or if any significant difference has been made. It must be decided whether the money which is put to that purpose is well spent.

I also want to raise the issue of electronic government. No resources have been allocated to that, but a wish list has been set out. None of the desired achievements will be possible, however, without adequate resources.

Mr Maskey:

Go raibh maith agat, Mr Deputy Speaker. I want to be brief. I do not want to go into the Estimates Department by Department, for I want a time to come when each Committee can deal with those aspects of the Estimates that are relevant to its Department. That would be the best way to proceed in the future, and I know that the Minister has addressed that very issue himself. It would perhaps take away some of the need for people to itemise issues in the Chamber. I do not want to deal with any specific items myself.

I would like to deal with the overall question of public financing. There has been a learning curve in the Assembly and the Executive, and a lot of work has been required. There has been the negotiation of the Programme for Government, the Budget, and so on. That has been crucial work, and I commend the Minister, and the Executive, for having produced everything that has been done so far.

I would like to have a much more wide-ranging debate, though obviously not today. I want to flag up the need to have an overview. When I raised the question of the regional rate recently, I made the point that I wanted to reduce it to the level of inflation for one year to allow time for a much wider overview of it. We have looked at the Barnett formula. There is no doubt that this area has not been dealt with favourably under the Barnett formula, and there is a need to look at it. Mr Molloy and others have already raised that.

There is the question of the Executive programme funds. How do we allocate money for targeting social need? We are consistently told that that is a theme. It is Government policy and a requirement of the Good Friday Agreement, but we do not, in my view, appear to take it seriously enough. That is not a reflection on any of the Ministers, of course, but we are not getting proper details of the way in which we deal with targeting social need and how we deploy money. I know that it is not only money which has to be deployed to target social need, but there is obviously a significant consequence for the overall finances if we do deal with targeting social need in the way in which people expect us to.

There is of course the matter of European money. There are the vexed matters of private finance initiatives (PFI) and public-sector borrowing. I welcome the fact that the Finance and Personnel Committee has now launched a public inquiry into the use of PFI. It is clear that PFI appears to underpin a good deal of the work and aspirations of the Executive. There is a compelling and growing body of evidence that the PFI schemes of the past were not necessarily that successful. The key question - that of having important public services remaining in public ownership - must be addressed by the Assembly. I advocate that we try to map out some time for the Assembly to debate the overall question of public financing.

We also have to deal with the cross-border tax variations and, as I see it - as, indeed, do many economists who are not Nationalists or Republicans - the need for a single-island economy. I am drawing attention to the need for a full, public debate on public financing.

I welcome the public service agreements and the Minister's Government Resources and Accounts Bill. Those are ways by which we can measure public spending better and more effectively. As I said to some officials recently, it is important that public service agreements are established. They detail and highlight what is being financed. The Department must bear in mind that the contrary is also true. They also identify what is not being financed. They therefore help to make all the parties, the Executive and the Assembly as a whole more accountable to the public.

I would like to echo one of the earlier comments. We need to take time to perform our duties in the Executive and the Assembly, but we also need to think in more imaginative terms as time goes on. We do not need the carry-on and carry-over policies that some Departments have unfortunately been carrying out. There is a need for innovation and imagination. There is a need - and I know that the Minister has addressed this in recent debates - for us to take stock and to have an overall view of public financing and the responsibilities that we all have.


Mr Close:

I commend Mr Micawber, sorry: the Minister, for his detailed presentation. I am sure that I am not the only Member who recognises the many frailties of our understanding of the complexities of the cycle of public expenditure. Each opportunity presented to us should be used as a chance to learn, as we try to get to grips with what is perhaps the most important subject for debate in this Chamber. After all, this issue affects every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland.

Having expressed my compliments to the Minister, I will now take a more traditional route and express yet again my deep disappointment at the lack of time that has been made available to Members, Committees and those who are not on Committees to carry out a proper scrutiny of these spring Supplementary Estimates. Last year the Minister referred to the tight time schedule, and the record will show that he said that this restriction was unacceptable and that improvements were needed.

One year on, one must question how much has really changed. I concede that, over the last six to nine months, there has been an opportunity to see the figures produced in the monitoring rounds. But, as I pointed out to the House, that happened retrospectively. The Committees saw the figures after the job was done. We have been asked to accept a fait accompli. I question, as I have done in the past, whether that constitutes proper scrutiny. In my book it does not. The advice that each Committee member is required to give to the Minister on the financial exercise should be taken on board before the matter goes before the Executive. We have not yet got that right.

I echo the sentiments of Mr Maskey, who said that we need to sit down and find a set of procedures that suits what we want to do on behalf of the tax-payers, our electorate. Our focus should on be on trying to meet time barriers. We must reorganise ourselves in such a way as to give us the time we need to do the job for which we were elected. Scrutiny, as I have said before, means examining in minute detail. It is a totally different concept from consultation.

It strikes me that at the minute we are still operating on a consultative basis - "Let us have a wee word with the Committee; let us have a wee word with Members, see what they think, and then proceed to do what the Executive want." I am sorry, but that is not acceptable. That must change. I am not trying to be negative; I am trying to be positive. I am trying to bring about, with other Members, something that has never happened before, a situation in which we, as accountable representatives, have the necessary knowledge to enable us to explain things, as necessary, and to enable us to ensure that money is spent in the most efficient and transparent manner possible.

To highlight this, last year the spring Supplementary Estimates documents were available on approximately 17 February. Today is 19 February. Is that progress? What additional time and opportunities have been given to us? We need to look very seriously at this. If I were a suspicious person I would be concluding that the concept of scrutiny may be something that is slightly bothersome to some people. I would not like to leave the Chamber with that sentiment. Scrutiny is important; it is essential, and we must create the circumstances and allocate enough time for it. We must be about accountability and transparency. I live in hope that that will happen sooner rather than later.

I would like to make some general comments on the spring Supplementaries. I apologise in advance if some of my comments or questions appear silly to some people. I am trying to get to grips with the overall situation, and one must often ask silly questions to get the correct answers. I take comfort from the fact that even the Minister referred to the complexities of the subject. Therefore, I suppose, I can claim that ignorance is bliss.

Looking at the overall figure of the Supplementary Estimate provision, I note that an additional £195 million is being sought. That represents approximately 2.5% of the main Estimates. The figure sought last year was not a hound's gowl from that in percentage terms.

Is 2·5% of the Main Estimate the size of provision normally sought through the spring Supplementaries? If that is the case and things are budgeted so that we get an additional 2·5% through the Supplementary Estimates, it begs certain questions about some of the votes. For example, 50% is being sought for national agricultural support. Why is that? Has there been particularly bad budgeting, or do we just stick a notional figure in the original Estimates? Bids have included a 10% increase for culture, arts and leisure; 40% for urban regeneration under the Department for Social Development; 8% for finance and personnel; and an additional 7% for the Office of the First and the Deputy First Minister. Interestingly, over 100% of an increase has been requested for superannuation and other allowances. The Main Estimates provision was over £14 million; now they are seeking £15·2 million to bring the total amount to £29·3 million.

We must study and query those bids. Do they follow some general policy? Comparison with last year's supplementaries certainly gives credence to that view. For example, last year an additional £10 million was sought for national agricultural support; this year it is an additional £8 million. The IDB bid last year was for a token amount; ditto this year. The Finance and Personnel bid was for £8·7 last year and for £7·7 million this year. Last year, an additional £3·4 million was sought for the Northern Ireland Statistics Research Agency's running costs; the figure for this year is £3·5 million.

Those similarities pose the question: is it anticipated that top-ups will always be available? Having pointed to the similarities, I must mention some exceptions, as it is often the exception that proves the rule. Last year OFREG was looking for an additional £355,000 for publicity and consultancy. This year the original provision was £527,000, but now it is seeking an additional £890,000. It strikes me that that requires an explanation.

It is also important to focus particular scrutiny on the figure for superannuation and other allowances. I have spoken on this area and asked questions about it before. Page 77 mentions:

"redundancy and early retirement costs to former civil servants",

part of which is funded by Her Majesty's Treasury. Last year there was an original provision of £5·5 million, which was increased in the Supplementaries by £7·8 million giving a total of £13·3 million. This year the original provision was £3·7 million, and now, in front of us, it is seeking an increase of £97·9 million, giving a total of £101·6 million. The type of escalation in those figures requires an explanation, particularly in view of the recent publicity over certain golden handshake or golden goodbye settlements that have been reached in some sectors of the public service.

The escalation in those figures requires an explanation, particularly given the amount of recent publicity over golden handshake or golden goodbye settlements that have been reached in some public-service sectors. Questions can justifiably be asked.

To create a situation in which we get things right and get our heads around the Supplementaries and the budgeting process, we need to look at the comments in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report for 1999-2000 and read across from that report into the supplementaries. Changes in procedure and in Departments mean that that is not easy to do. However, some interesting facts emerge from an attempt.

A number of surpluses in the different Departments are obvious at the year-end of the auditor's report. For example, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure had a £5·2 million surplus. Last year it spent £153 million and had a surplus of £5·2 million, yet this year there is an estimate of £175·5 million. Where is the read across between what is spent in a particular financial year and the estimate for provision for the subsequent year? There should be some connection, some reason, for deciding, on whatever basis, on a particular figure. The industrial support and regeneration account of the IDB had a surplus of £97·6 million. The board spent £144 million last year. Social security is an interesting one. It had a surplus of £97·5 million when the various heads are added together.

I will be interested to hear the Minister's response. However, if year in, year out there can be surpluses, and if the figure spent in a particular financial year does not appear to have any real bearing on the figure provided for the subsequent year, the impression given is of a certain laxity in budgeting for any particular service. One can see under £7 million in loss statements last year, of which £5·2 million lay in the IDB's Vote B. Analysing the reasons behind those losses poses questions on the proper financial controls applied throughout the Departments. If the respective Committees were able to perform their scrutiny roles properly, perhaps we would be in a better position to get to grips with the reasoning behind those losses. It would provide us all with a better opportunity for transparency in dealing with the issues.

In mentioning the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, I must draw attention to the fact that he found it necessary to qualify six accounts, some of them not for the first time. The common fault line that appears to run through the reasons for those qualifications was the lack of proper financial control. That resulted in payments being made without invoices or sufficient evidence to support them, clerical errors and weaknesses in tendering and purchasing procedures et cetera. Those are matters that we as an Assembly have to try to ensure are got right sooner rather than later. This apparent sloppiness with regard to accounting in certain areas cannot continue. It has to be right, and it has to be seen to be right.


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