Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 20 February 2001 (continued)
One of the most important effects of devolution is that we have inherited the problem of the gross underfunding of public utilities over the past 20 years. It is not just health and education; the whole infrastructure has been affected. I hope that the Assembly will address these issues, not only this year but also in years to come.
The importance of devolution is that it essentially creates greater accountability. We have not totally fulfilled our role of providing accountable government at this stage. I say so for several reasons, one being that we are a fledgling Assembly. If we are to fulfil our role of providing accountable government, the scrutiny role, of Committees in particular, must be greatly increased. The Assembly and devolution provide the opportunity to bring about change and to deal with the issues affecting the people of Northern Ireland. I will mention a few of those for the benefit of the Minister.
First, there is the question of the natural gas pipeline to the north-west. I still think that there is not enough clarity about the Executive's role in that project - whether they are being aggressive enough in providing a level playing field for all the people of Northern Ireland. When I talk about the pipeline I include the west of the Province, Craigavon, Newry, and so forth. It is important for us to be strategic in planning our infrastructure for the future.
I hope that the Budget takes into account the creation of the single development agency for industrial development in Northern Ireland. This is a very radical move forward and I hope that the necessary funds will be made available for it. As regards infrastructure, the Assembly has inherited a railway network that is more or less clapped out and on its knees. Sufficient funds must be made available in the coming year to bring about the radical changes required to improve the rail network. That should include the retention of the line between Lisburn and Antrim.
Members will be aware that I am still deeply concerned about the future of the port of Belfast. Delays on reaching a decision on its future are creating problems for port users and for Northern Ireland's transport infrastructure. That is because the port plays such a key role in providing access to the Province.
Many people have expressed concern about the delays and lack of clarity about the future of Peace II funding - especially those in the voluntary sector. I want some clarification about what is happening. Many voluntary organisations do not know whether they will survive into next week, never mind next month. The Executive has a role to respond to such serious concerns.
One principle that I would like to have seen encapsulated in the Programme for Government is that of sharing. If we are to move forward in Northern Ireland, we must do so through the creation of a more integrated society. It is not just a question of integrated education. We have to address the principle of sharing housing, the workplace and many other areas.
In his opening remarks, the Minister referred to the Barnett formula. We all want to see that issue addressed. Nevertheless, I suggest to the Minister that similar concerns are felt by Members of the Scottish Parliament and of the National Assembly for Wales, so it would be helpful if the three devolved bodies got together on that important matter.
Dr Birnie mentioned public service agreements (PSAs). They will provide major opportunities for developing innovative improvements to life in Northern Ireland. However, this year, very little time was given to various Committees to address the whole question of PSAs. I was particularly concerned about the fact that, in relation to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, so much more money is to be spent on the electricity interconnector.
In an area where a great deal of money has already been spent - and the scheme is fairly well advanced - surely this money could have been directed to other energy schemes that would provide greater benefit to people in Northern Ireland.
I believe that the Assembly is working. People on the streets are beginning to see change. Reference was made to the introduction of free transport for the elderly. However, many more issues need to be addressed. Only by operating a system of accountable government and allowing the Committees to have a greater scrutiny role will we be able to provide the accountability that my party and the people of Northern Ireland want.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I call the Deputy Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee, Mr Leslie.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you kindly called me as the Deputy Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee. I should point out that my remarks on these issues will be made in my personal capacity.
If Mr Neeson had been here yesterday, he would have heard some remarks about the Barnett formula, which were quite pertinent to what he has just said. If he were to go to Scotland he might be surprised to find that there is exceedingly little enthusiasm for revisiting the Barnett formula, because the Scots do rather well out of it. If you were to try to renegotiate the Barnett formula, you would find Northern Ireland saying "The Scots should have less, so that we can have more."
Given the current construction of the Government, I am not sure how well that argument would wash. Those are matters that no doubt the Minister will have to wrestle with again in the future. Enough was said on that subject yesterday, especially by me.
In his remarks about the Health Service, Mr Berry referred to his concern that the money was probably not being spent as well as it might be. I dare say that that may be the case. However, I thought it conspicuous that the Member did not refer to the recent Northern Ireland Audit Office Report, which identified the very considerable shortcomings in the administration of social security payments by the Department for Social Development. Indeed, as regards the quantum of sums over which the Northern Ireland Audit Office expressed concerns, the greatest related to methods in the Department for Social Development.
I dare say that the reason Mr Berry did not see fit to mention this is that, of course, that Department is run by a Minister from his own party. Perhaps he should urge his Colleagues to put their own house in order while he is urging others to do the same.
Another matter in relation to the Department for Social Development concerns me, and I trust that the move to resource accounting will highlight the issue. I refer to housing debt - a matter that is dear to your heart, Mr Deputy Speaker.
At each monitoring round so far, it has been stated that a considerable proportion of the proceeds - about one third, at the last monitoring round - has come from sales of Housing Executive stock. We then gleefully spend that money. However, the House should be aware that that is living off capital and that, meanwhile, the Housing Executive bears debt incurred from the cost of those houses and has to service the interest.
Resource accounting will provide a proper picture of assets and liabilities, and I trust that it will become very clear that this is a deteriorating situation. I hope that the Minister of Finance is concerned about the matter and that he will be discussing how it should be addressed with the Minister for Social Development. Some way must be found to reduce the debt; otherwise the more houses that are sold, the less rental income the Housing Executive will have with which to service the debt. That is becoming a serious problem, and it will get more serious as more houses are sold. The Assembly must be made aware that while it is busily spending this capital an increasingly underfunded liability is building up.
The rates issues go round and round, and as my Colleague Dr Birnie said, several parties are trying to be disingenuous about it in order to score political points as an election approaches. It is simply not possible to demand more money and then deny the source for raising that money. The pool of money available for public expenditure in Northern Ireland is set by the Barnett formula essentially and is a grant of money from the Parliament at Westminster.
We must be conscious at all times that unoffical estimates - there are no official estimates - imply that Northern Ireland's tax base would probably contribute roughly half of total public expenditure in the Province. Therefore the other half is contributed by taxpayers in the rest of the United Kingdom, and when one examines that figure, one realises that it is being contributed by English taxpayers. They are also funding Scotland and Wales, though not to the same extent as Northern Ireland. We must be conscious that we are living off other people's generosity. We should therefore temper our demands in this respect, lest the whole issue be investigated in detail. That may put Northern Ireland in a somewhat disadvantagous position.
I have said in the House on many occasions - and I will continue to do so - that I am no fan of taxation. Rates are a form of taxation. The best way to stimulate an economy is to try to reduce all types of taxation and allow money to be spent as people, rather than the Government, choose. That may not work to people's benefit as much as the Government might like to think.
In reality, if we are going to continue demanding more money - be it for public transport or the Health Service - it has to come from somewhere. Apart from the grant from Westminster, the only other source is rates. I would be reluctant to increase rates by anything other than a very modest rate, and we must be highly cognizant at all times of the value of services we get for that money. I simply do not think it realistic to demand money without explaining where it will come from.
You will get more money if you have less government, for every aspect of government costs money. If one has less government, there will be more money or less tax - one can take one's pick. In particular, I remind the Minister that the Committee has mentioned to him from time to time the need for a review of the cost of governance. I regard that as an increasingly pressing matter.
Members will be conscious that a review of public administration, including quangos, trusts and boards, and the structure of councils is expected reasonably soon. An essential objective of the review should be that the resulting administration should cost significantly less than it does at present.
That seems to me to be the best approach we can take towards making more money available for other aspects of public expenditure, given that there will always be demands vastly in excess of what is available.
Go raibh maith agat. I did not intend to speak this morning, as a great deal was said about this yesterday. I certainly do not want to repeat yesterday's comments. However, Mr Leslie has referred to them.
My party is very conscious of the need for the question of finance raising to be discussed. We know and accept entirely that one cannot continually make demands without making the provision to satisfy those demands. We are acutely aware of that, which is why I stated yesterday that there is a need not only for a review of the rates - which has already been mentioned several times - but also for an overview of finance raising by the Executive and the Assembly as a whole. That deals with Barnett, tax variations, and so on.
I am concerned about some of the remarks made by Mr Paul Berry of the DUP in regard to health trust deficit; there was a mixed message from Mr Berry, and Hansard should show that. He made offensive remarks about some of the health trusts when he talked about their deficits and about the review that was mentioned last week by the Minister, Mark Durkan. Concerning the health trust deficit, he said that the trusts have an awful habit of overspending. In fact, he said that they have "a culture of overspending" and specifically mentioned the Royal Victoria Hospital.
His comments were quite disgraceful, given the record of questions and motions tabled by DUP Members, particularly in regard to health matters. If one added up the bill for all the demands that they have made, one would find that it would amount to a considerable sum of money. That is fair enough - we support many of those demands.
Because the matter was raised in the way that it was by the DUP, I want the Minister, in his closing remarks, to acknowledge that the matter of health trust deficits is not simply one of mismanagement or overspending by the trusts, but that there is a very clear shortfall in the budgets of most of those trusts. The health needs of the people whom those trusts serve must also be dealt with and calculated.
Mrs I Robinson:
I welcome the opportunity to hear what the Minister of Finance and Personnel had to tell us about his spending arrangements. We must consider the amount of waste that has been exposed by the Northern Ireland Audit Office. For example, in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety payments of £17 million were made without any clear evidence to support them. On the subject of health, can the Minister advise us whether any of the extra moneys allocated to health will be used towards paying for the Minister's legal advice in respect of her decision to close the Jubilee Hospital?
I am concerned about the surpluses in many Departments; they do not seem to have any impact on future estimations. Perhaps the Minister will deal with that issue in his summing up.
I am also concerned at the absence of any reference by the Minister to the vast amount of fraud that is costing all Departments millions of pounds. What pressure is he bringing to bear on Departments concerning fraud? In the Health Department, for example, £14 million is lost through prescription fraud alone.
That brings me to the recent issue of organ retention. Will the Minister be giving money to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in order to give assistance to families who have to bear the extra cost of reopening graves? One elderly person who rang me had received a grant of £800 to help bury her late husband, who died some six months ago. The grant fell short by approximately £500, and she is still trying to pay this off. She now has to reopen the grave - at a cost of £250 - after her late husband's organs were returned. If there is money available, the Government should provide some to help to rectify this tragedy.
The Departments made a catalogue of errors. The Northern Ireland Appropriation Accounts for 1999-2000 list areas in which error after error was made. Will the Minister tell us what he intends to do about that? Will he consider that the sums involved may equal or exceed the amount that he is dealing with today?
There is money in the system, and that makes the above-inflation rate hike unnecessary. Will the Minister look again at the money available and consider whether the rate increase can be reduced further? When householders receive their rates bill for the next financial year they will realise the vast bureaucracy and costs that have come from the Belfast Agreement.
The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is receiving another huge increase of £193,000 for setting up an office in Brussels. Can the Minister of Finance tell us what he will do to reduce such bureaucracy?
Given that extra money exists, it is imperative that it is distributed fairly. In the education sector, for example, there is a huge gap between the underfunding of capital projects in the controlled schools sector and the lavish amounts spent on the maintained and integrated schools sector. Old school buildings must be improved. There are schools in the Strangford constituency that are over 100 years old and unfit for educational purposes. Any extra money should be targeted at those schools.
Money must also be given to small rural schools. After much lobbying, the primary school in Derryboy in the Strangford constituency is being extended. However, that school will require ongoing resources to maintain its standards. Will the Minister target money towards small rural schools?
The biggest problem facing schools such as Derryboy Primary School is the transfer of pupils to the nearest high school, which, in this case, is Saintfield High School. Derryboy is a feeder school for Saintfield High School, which is unable to take all the pupils. Extra money should be spent in Killyleagh, where a new school could be built to deal with the rise in population and future developments in Strangford.
I welcome the mention of winter fuel payments. That issue has been debated in the Assembly and Members have raised it with Ministers.
I am concerned about job losses in the textile sector. Will the Minister tell the House what moneys can be identified in his Estimates that will go directly towards combating the depressed state of the textile industry? If there is no such money, why is that so, and will he do something about it?
What extra money is available to resolve the debate about maternity services? Will there be extra funding to provide for the new build at the appropriate locations? The historic underfunding of the Ulster Hospital is another matter of concern. For a decade, the hospital has been by-passed in capital expenditure rise. However, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is aware of the needs of the hospital. Will the Minister take that issue on board?
The list of issues that must be tackled is huge and I am concerned that Members did not have enough time to examine the issues in greater detail. Will the Minister tell Members that more time will be given for their thorough analysis of his proposals the next time that he announces his Budget Estimates?
I commend this historic Budget. It is appropriate that the Assembly is moving into the era of setting its own Budget. Mr Maskey, Mrs I Robinson and others raised the issue of financial control. I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee, so I am aware of the huge discrepancies outlined in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report.
The Assembly needs to know how much control the Minister will have to ensure that such a report never appears again. Will this new type of resource budgeting lead to better financial controls and ensure better handling of public money all round?
Another point, raised in part by Mrs I Robinson, concerned not just time for Members to review the Budget, but also a clearer understanding of the procedure and the process. There is no breakdown of where the money is going. We have no idea how much funding will be provided next year for the children's fund, women's issues and road safety. It is vital that we see the breakdown. Can we learn any lessons, and in the next budgetary round lay out details and put Estimates down hand-in-hand with the Budget Bill?
Much adding and subtracting is required to work out how much we receive in one financial year compared to the previous year. What are the increases and the decreases? What are the percentages? We need to have easy access to those figures so that we can make comparisons and decide whether to support the movement forward. Mrs I Robinson referred to the textiles industry, which is another important matter. We need to know what is being done there, and we need to have a breakdown of exactly where the money is going.
I disagree with Mrs I Robinson's point about the lavish amounts being spent on integrated education. I totally denounce that. Integrated education has been around only for the past 20 years, since 1981, and the other sectors have been receiving money for a lot longer. It is about integrated education catching up.
We are only at the draft Programme for Government stage. How flexible will the Budget be to accommodate changing priorities as a result of the approval of the Programme for Government? Are we being given a fait accompli, or can the money be moved? There are many other ongoing negotiations with regard to the Programme for Government.
I have two final points. First, there is the problem of European funding and funding of the gap between Peace I and Peace II. I commend the Minister on his efforts to provide gap funding for projects that otherwise would have had to close as a result of the lack of European funding. Gap funding is needed for projects for women returners, projects for the long-term unemployed, projects for cross-border issues and projects that have no finance other than European money. Funding is needed to sustain them until the new round of European funds is available.
Furthermore, serious consideration should be given to mainstreaming these projects. We cannot rely on European money for the rest of our time, and we are all aware that it is running out. The Government and the Executive need to recognise the value of these projects, such as cross-border, cross-community peace and reconciliation projects, which are very important to the future of Northern Ireland. They should be funded not just from European funds, but from Executive funds. Mainstreaming is vital.
I have had calls from people in voluntary and environmental organisations, saying that they can see the money in the Executive Programme funds and want to know how to get their hands on it. Transparency and openness are vital. I want to know what the Minister will do about that. How does a group access those funds?
There is a need for more clarity and explanation about how the Executive Programme funds will be managed and used. Ms Morrice asked how groups can access them. They will not get access. I understand that it is Departments that will get access, by making bids. Therein lies a whole series of other questions such as how those bids will be prioritised and how Departments should manage the submission of such bids. Will they be asked to come forward with new ideas following the drawing-up of their own priorities? Can they put forward bids on issues that are already part of their own spending priorities? We need more explanation about how those funds will be managed.
One of the concerns raised is that, to some extent, a reserve of money has been held back by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, in particular. No doubt, as has happened with other announcements, the Finance Minister will be given the plum job of coming to the Assembly to make an announcement, whereas the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will have already announced it at a press conference in the Long Gallery.
There is an issue when the Executive, or the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in particular, make announcements during the course of the year on public spending priorities. I hope that when there is bad news to announce, the Finance Minister will ensure that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will rush forward with the same alacrity into the Long Gallery on a Thursday evening to make announcements. They seem pretty selective in the announcements that they make.
The scrutiny of the Budget has clearly been unsatisfactory up to now. Reasons have been given, such as the time constraints we have been under. The Minister gave commitments yesterday and on previous occasions that the cycle will be revised to ensure that the Budget is introduced as early as possible after the summer recess. I welcome that. It is vital to have as much debate and scrutiny of these Budgets as possible.
The Minister also made the important point, which we should all take note of, that we do not need to wait for the start of any particular procedure in order to begin this process. This is something that we can pursue actively, at all times, in our Committees and elsewhere. That is an issue that we need to look at very closely.
I also want to discuss the regional rate increase. I am sure that the Minister will not be surprised to hear me raise it. At the time, I welcomed the fact that the increase in the business rate for next year would be reduced from more than double the rate of inflation to about the rate of inflation. However, the Minister reduced the increase in the regional rate for domestic householders by only 1% - from 8% to 7%. That is a great failing on his part, and on the part of the Executive.
In a valiant effort, Dr Birnie - who has left the Chamber - defended that decision by saying that it was hard to argue against it; it is not hard to argue against it at all. We are being asked to accept a rise in the regional rate for domestic householders that is double the rate of inflation. Those people have already faced such an increase in the past two years. What is the Minister's plan for the next two years? Originally, he planned another 8% increase over the next two years, so I would be grateful to know whether he has revised that plan in light of the representations made to him on the issue, not just in the House but outside it as well.
Mr Leslie argued that if we wanted to spend more money, we would have to explain where we would get it from. He was quite right; that is exactly why, in tabling an amendment to reduce the increase in the regional rate from 8%, as it then was - it is now 7% - to the rate of inflation, we suggested areas in which expenditure should be cut. I remind Mr Leslie and other Members what those areas were: the North/South Ministerial Council and the implementation bodies. That would fit in well with Mr Leslie's other comment that we would get value for money by having less government. Well, that is one suggestion for him.
Rather than trotting out clichés about seeing where the money will come from before making bids, my party outlined where the cuts should be and suggested that the Budget should be amended accordingly. Unfortunately, Mr Leslie and his Colleagues voted against it, preferring to have more, rather than less, government and bureaucracy, and all for political reasons. I remind Mr Leslie and his Colleagues and Members from other parties who talk about expenditure on administration that it was they who voted to have 10 Departments. Many of us argued that that number of Departments was unnecessary and would simply increase the cost; the Minister gave a figure of £26 million a year to the Finance and Personnel Committee. That is food for thought for Members.
Mr Leslie referred to Mr Berry's speech, which criticised some aspects of health expenditure. He asked why Mr Berry had not raised the question of expenditure caused by social security errors. That issue is being addressed by the Department for Social Development, whose plans received general endorsement from the House. No one will make any excuses for errors or fraud; those problems must be dealt with. However, many who are entitled to benefits under the present system do not claim their full entitlement; that is sometimes forgotten. Tens of millions of pounds are left unclaimed every year by those who are entitled to benefit.
Is the Member aware that claims for disability allowance in west Belfast amount to about three times the total for such claims in North Down? Disability allowance does not relate to economic circumstances.
That is a good point and one that needs to be put on the record.
Some people in west Belfast may have been misled by the poor example shown by the Sinn Féin Member for that area as regards the charge of the abuse of benefits that is directed at people with genuine disabilities. Should there be any doubt as to which Sinn Féin Member I am referring to, it is Mr Maskey.
As regards social security, the rules for entitlement, and the difficulties in procedures for social security claimants are set down in Westminster, not in this Assembly. The problems and difficulties that occur here also occur across the water. This issue must be addressed in consultation with Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Security.
Mr Leslie - and this is not a "bash Mr Leslie" day, although he did take a potshot at us - did not mention the Comptroller and Auditor General's report regarding the revelations surrounding the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB). The report identified great weaknesses in financial procedures. I throw the same question to him: perhaps he did not mention it because a Member of his party is the Minister responsible for the NITB.
In conclusion, I mention the vexed question of capital receipts and house sales - an issue that has come before the House before. Mr Leslie raised the matter, and I commend him for that. There is a danger in living off capital receipts. Furthermore, there is a strong argument that if so much money is being taken out of the housing sector in Northern Ireland, then a greater proportion of that money needs to go back into the sector to address the great social need that is there. In common with other Members, I urge the Minister to look carefully at that. I understand that there are constraints in terms of Treasury rules; however, as regards the Minister's monitoring rounds, I urge him to take account of the pleas of many in the House.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
You will not be surprised that I listened to that last point with some pleasure.
Although many points have been competently and articulately dealt with by other Members, I must address the relationship between the finances of Northern Ireland - as administered by the Assembly - and those of the United Kingdom.
The Minister of Finance in Northern Ireland has the unenviable job of allotting portions of the cake to particular sectors; however, it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer who determines the size of the cake. What steps has the Minister taken, or will take, in relation to the finances of Northern Ireland that will address the peculiar problems arising from steps taken on reserved fiscal matters, which have a dire and particularly acute effect on the Northern Ireland economy?
Will the Minister also state what steps he has taken, or will take, to address the effects for Northern Ireland of being the only part of the United Kingdom sharing a land border with a foreign country?
The Minister will be aware that the agriculture industry has suffered enormous hardship as a result of the incompetence of central Government, particularly in relation to BSE. This has resulted in Northern Ireland beef producers being lumped in with the rest of the United Kingdom as regards the re-entry of beef exports into Europe. This is despite having the best record and the best system in the EU for tracing and detection, and a far lower incidence of BSE than in any other part of the United Kingdom.
That was despite the fact that the proportion of beef cattle produced in Northern Ireland that went for export to Europe was far, far greater than that from any other part of the United Kingdom. As a result, Northern Ireland suffered disproportionately.
I want to hear the Minister's comments on fuel - motor spirit and other fuels. He will be aware that since 1995, the level of motor fuel lawfully imported into Northern Ireland has dropped by perhaps 50%, at a time when the number of lawfully registered vehicles here has increased by 125,000. Everyone knows that perhaps one third of all motor fuel used in Northern Ireland is the product of smuggling and that the Treasury is losing not tens of millions, but hundreds of millions a year.
However, let us set aside for the moment what the Treasury is losing and look at the effect that this smuggling - which is effectively controlled by paramilitaries, represented by parties in this Assembly - is having on lawful traders in Northern Ireland. Petrol retailers are closing because they cannot compete with those selling smuggled fuel. Hauliers are going out of business because while central Government are increasing the duty on motor fuel, the Government of the Republic of Ireland - starting off from a lower charge for fuel - are reducing it. I appreciate that the Minister has no direct control over this, but these matters are seriously influencing the economic well-being of Northern Ireland. It will be interesting to hear what steps the Minister, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have taken to ensure special arrangements for Northern Ireland, since we are in a special position. We have a land border with another country, whose economic position enables it - largely through the payment of British funds into the EU, which are then used to subsidise the Republic - to have lower fuel prices that are used in turn to destroy some of our industries to the benefit of the Republic and to the detriment of the British Exchequer. Some of those issues need to be looked at.
I thank the Member for drawing the Minister's attention to that list. Would he add to it the tax on aggregates? That is another issue affecting the Northern Ireland economy.
I would indeed, and I am grateful to the Member for raising that point. That is another tax that will have a discriminatory effect on those businesses in Northern Ireland that are utilising aggregates and other substances heavily used in the construction industry.
Another is the climate control levy, which will be levied in Northern Ireland and will have a very severe effect on our industry and industrialists. Already we have the highest electricity costs in the United Kingdom. Why? It is not, I am glad to say, because of anything done by this Assembly; it is due to the incompetence of central Government when they negotiated electricity generation costs some years ago.
That burdened Northern Ireland Electricity with contracts that are uneconomic and over-generous, and that apparently cannot be changed. It also means that the Northern Ireland business user pays way over the odds for his electricity, as does the domestic user. With regard to business energy costs, there is no suggestion that special arrangements will be made for the climate change levy for Northern Ireland to take into account the excessive costs for energy.
I appreciate that many of these matters are outside the control of the Assembly, the Executive and the relevant Minister. What we want from the Minister is a statement regarding the representations that he and his Colleagues will make to central Government to specifically look at problems arising from our geographical position. Those problems require not special treatment in the sense that we are preferred above other parts of the United Kingdom, but special treatment in the sense that our peculiar difficulties arising from our geographical position are catered for.
I want to focus on several issues. The Assembly has been granted one tax-raising power - that of increasing rates. When anyone is given a power there is an overwhelming inducement to exercise it, whether it is justified or not. Having been given a power to raise money through increasing the domestic and the regional rate, the Executive could not resist using that power even though the revenue it would produce would be minuscule compared to the harm it would do.
At an earlier sitting, I asked the Minister whether he was aware that many in the community were astonished to find that he was able to unearth millions of pounds worth of finance by hoking down the side of the sofa or rummaging behind the piano, as I put it rather graphically and colourfully. Curiously enough, none of this newly found, some might say ill-gotten, gain was used to reduce rates, except business rates. I approached the Minister privately and was glad to note - and I give him full credit - that he came before the Assembly and announced a reduction in the proposed increase in the business rate.
Small businesses provide the backbone of our commercial life. None of them is making vast sums. Many of them continue as small businesses only out of a desire to be independent and to work for themselves. They pay their rates and taxes; they educate their children; they do not draw unemployment or other state benefits. They are the backbone of this community.
One of my constituents in Holywood, a single parent running a small business, found that her rates had increased over the past four years, due to revaluation and rate increases, from £70 to £242 per month. The result was that, if the proposed business rate increase had been put through, she was simply going to close her business.
It seems illogical for the Executive to be handing out millions upon millions to the IDB for the purchase of new jobs, sometimes at up to £40,000 per job. Very often the people who are coming in here, attracted by the huge grants and subsidies, are on the fly. Once they have exhausted the possibilities of making an easy buck and the going gets tough, they leave. Everyone in this community - Unionist and Nationalist - suffers. This money is being paid out to attract new jobs, while rate increases are effectively destroying the livelihood and jobs of those who have continued to support the community and be of benefit to it, rather than a drag upon it.
Increasing the business rate at all - even though it is now to be increased only in proportion to inflation - is a regressive step. The word in the financial world is that one of the steps that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will take when he distributes all the largesse before the next election is an inducement to the business community in the United Kingdom. He plans to reduce the business rate. We have a Chancellor of the Exchequer in the United Kingdom reducing the business rate in an economy that is extremely buoyant. We have the Minister in this sensitive, accountable Northern Ireland Executive proposing to increase the business rate for businesses that are under the cosh. If that is an example of the Assembly's bringing sensitivity, accountability and accessibility to the electorate of Northern Ireland, then the Minister should take up a job as a pantomime dame. That is what ordinary people will be saying. Why are we doing this? It defies common sense.
Finally, I want to make one or two points about -
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Three Members want to speak before the winding-up speech, so please be brief.
I will be very brief. I am grateful for the indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I want simply to echo the remarks of Mrs I Robinson about the funding of the Ulster Hospital. The Ulster Hospital has been grossly underfunded for many years. Since it absorbed the Newtownards Hospital, the position has become acute. In some departments, such as the orthopaedic department, it has had to stop elective surgery entirely because it can cope with emergencies and casualties only. That situation should not be permitted to continue.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Members have heard my remarks about timing. I would be very grateful, therefore, if Mr Gibson, Mr Shannon and Mr O'Connor could keep their remarks to the main issues so that the Minister can respond.
I return to the point made by Mr Paul Berry - that we very much want to see the Ulster hallmark on the Minister's Budget. What criteria is he using to set the direction for Northern Ireland regional Government? The Budget, which I am sure is a splendid account of the figures and the anticipated projections, is in truth a very conservative Budget. It probably follows in the steps of Westminster. In light of the arguments that have been made - and they have been reiterated again this morning - there are clear differences because of our unique position. I do not want to have to highlight those again, except to mention one particular field.
Figures show that hospitals in Northern Ireland are greatly underfunded in comparison with those in Scotland - apparently, there is a funding difference of approximately 14%. Will the Minister find out whether figures that show that Scottish hospitals receive 20% more funding than those in England and Wales, while Northern Ireland receives just 4% to 6% more, are correct? Will he explore this matter with his counterparts in Westminster?
Yesterday, I raised a point of order with regard to rates, and I was severely admonished by you, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I will return to the matter today. We spend £40 million on "North/Southery", yet the infamous former Taoiseach, Mr Haughey, removed rates from the agenda. What secret did Mr Haughey hold, and why should we spend £40 million to find out?
The forthcoming review of local government will allow us to examine the different areas of administration. I detect a feeling among Members that we are still living with a hangover from direct rule. At times, I detect a reluctance on the part of Members to impart necessary information. Transparency has been requested, and we need information so that we can make informed judgements.
Four years ago, I discovered that when the Western Education and Library Board and the other boards came under pressure to make cuts, they were suddenly able to make savings and streamline their administration. They were also able to make league tables for specific areas. What is being done to hone our present administration and to make it accountable? Dr Birnie and Mr Leslie meandered along various avenues to seek solutions to the problem, but they concluded that less government is needed and mentioned the need for accountability and responsibility. Those are important requirements, but the Minster of Finance and Personnel needs to focus on the areas which are under the most severe pressure.
The entire rural community has been devastated by the plague of BSE. At the moment, there appears to be a lack of vision and strategy on the part of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. It is reactive rather than giving the rural community a way forward. This is the largest sector of the community; it needs serious attention and it demands help. The people there do not want to live off handouts, and they do not want to harvest grants alone. Farmers want to be restored to their rightful status as part of the primary industry of this Province. I appeal to the Minister of Finance and Personnel to take that on board.
Finally, rurality have been equated with deprivation. Yesterday afternoon we expressed the need to play catch-up in rural areas. In his Budget, Mr Durkan has the opportunity to make sure that we have equality, and that means providing capital funding for rural schools and funding an acute services hospital in the south-west of the Province. Those are basic provisions, but they are essential to enhance the meaning of the term "rurality" so that it is no longer associated with remoteness and deprivation.
The new Executive have an opportunity to stamp the hallmark for an Ulster way forward. At the moment, I fear it is lacking, but I anticipate that the Minister will do an honourable job in his excellent office.