Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 31 January 2000 (continued)
Ms de Brún:
- for the position of each and every Member, regardless of my personal feelings or the personal feelings of Members that have been very clearly demonstrated towards me. I have nothing but the highest respect for the mandates of those elected to the House.
The decision on how best to implement measures to tackle the misuse of drugs has still to be taken at Executive level. I also want to point out that, in terms of ongoing work, there are bids in at present for funding under the drugs strategy, but those bids were received and are being assessed under a process that was laid down before the Executive was established. That is ongoing, and people should understand that. I am also told that arrangements are being made for the recruitment of a drugs co-ordinator. It has still to be decided by the Executive, where ministerial responsibility lies as this is now a transferred matter, and I will be in a better position to give a fuller answer once the Executive has discussed it.
Can the Minister tell us which Government Department was involved in this interdepartmental committee on drugs in the past and why she, as the Minister of Health, has not assumed this responsibility? Will she be honest and tell the House whether or not she is carrying out her full ministerial duties?
Ms de Brún:
Thig liom a insint don Teachta go raibh roinnt Ranna sa ghrúpa seo aroimhe: Oifig Thuaisceart Éireann, an Roinn Sláinte, an Roinn Oideachais agus tá baint chomh maith ag an Roinn Airgeadais agus Pearsanra dá thairbhe go bhfuil cúrsaí airgeadais i gceist-
Order. Since the time is up, will the Minister give in English the rest of the answer which she has been giving in Irish, out of courtesy? Then we shall have to move to the next set of questions.
Ms de Brún:
A number of Departments were previously involved, including the Northern Ireland Office, the then Departments of Health and of Education. The Department of Finance was also involved in the £5·5 million allocated to the new drugs strategy. However, since devolution changed areas of responsibility, we are now dealing with the Executive and the Northern Ireland Office. The Executive must decide where responsibility lies in this matter as it is in the transferred field, and it will be looking at this shortly.
Community Rebuilding: Finance
1. Mr Dallat
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if he will assure the Assembly that every effort will be made to provide additional funding to finance the rebuilding of our community.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I will take all points of order at the end of this time.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):
It is vital that we rebuild our community after so many years of division and conflict. As my budget statement of 15 December emphasised, we need to improve the use of the money that we have, based on a programme of government that will make a strong and positive difference, in social and economic terms, because democratically elected politicians will be taking sound decisions. We will also do all we can to ensure that we receive a fair and acceptable share of public money from the Treasury in London and try to make the best use too of EU funding.
Does the Minister agree that, for many years to come, special measures will be needed to create the infrastructure that is necessary in Northern Ireland - this was not possible in the past, but it is essential for the future - if the Assembly is to deliver on its promises to the electorate?
I recognise that the Assembly and, indeed, the Executive will be facing significant public spending pressures in the coming years, not least in the area of infrastructure. And the demands are not just for physical infrastructure, transport or energy, but also for community infrastructure.
We will have to make the strongest possible case to enable us to attract the resources that will allow us to spend money on those areas. We will try to maximise our share of the public expenditure budget in the UK by continuing to deal with the Treasury. I hope that people will not have unrealistic expectations in that regard. We must also continue to scrutinise our own spending to make sure that we prioritise properly and maximise the benefits of that spending. There are serious deficits from the past that have to be addressed, and these will only be dealt with by sound decisions based on real priorities.
A great deal of work has to be done to build the community infrastructure. For example, in West Tyrone there is deep-seated grief in 97 families, who have been left isolated and ignored. How will the Minister provide this part of the community with the help that is essential to the livelihood of West Tyrone?
I am not sure what Mr Gibson is referring to. Clearly, the Assembly can address gaps in the delivery of any programme to any part of Northern Ireland, not least through the quality of constituency membership that the Assembly offers. I am sure that all Ministers will try to be as responsive as possible in that regard.
In respect of Mr Gibson's point, I am not sure which Department is relevant, but, given that other Departments are involved here, I cannot be more specific.
Will the Minister assure the House that he will not use the regional rate to provide facilities that are normally provided through the Exchequer or the block grant?
I think that you may have been asking the supplementary to question 2. It might be best to take that question in the context of question 2 which is about the regional rate. The Minister, of course, may wish to respond.
Specific questions relating to the rates are beginning to emerge. The main question the Member is asking is if I will assure the Assembly that every effort will be made to provide additional funding for the rebuilding of the community. The provision of additional funding, whether people like this or not, will entail looking at rate sources as well. That is a basic reality. The way in which our rate system works, as I will be showing elsewhere, means that we will be using the rates to support our public expenditure proposals. That is how the rate increase was presented here in the Budget statement.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
I am sure that the Minister is aware of the recent announcement about another fall in farm incomes. Can he inform the House what meetings he has had with his Colleague the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and what discussions they have had about getting an injection of cash to the farmers before there is a complete collapse of the agriculture industry, which is the basis of our economy?
I can confirm that I had discussions last week with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development about approaches that she will be making to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which, in turn, will have consequences for contact with the Treasury as well.
I had further discussions with the Minister today about the reports that show the marked fall in farm incomes. At that meeting, we agreed to have a further formal meeting to discuss this matter. I cannot be any more specific. Clearly, this is a matter which is within another Minister's remit. I cannot give answers to questions on matters which are the responsibility of other Ministers.
Mr C Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Given the last supplementary question, I am tempted to go in a completely different direction because I do not see its relevance to question 1. When the Minister is providing additional funding, will he will take account of the fact that the various Unionist Governments of the old Stormont regime and the Governments who operated direct rule were discriminatory? Will he try to redress the balance when he is providing additional funds?
I have not guaranteed to provide additional funding, because - and I thought that I had made this clear - additional funding is not entirely at my or the Assembly's disposal. Any additional funding will depend on the quality of the case that we are able to make to others.
We want to make sure that by using our moneys soundly, we release more resources to meet areas of long-standing need, and not least those areas which for many people represent neglect by past regimes.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Mr Speaker, will you inform the Member that you call only questions that are in order and that the Minister answers only questions that are in order. He is implying that my question was out of order. What does he know about parliamentary procedure?
Order. It would be difficult to accept the Member's intervention and, at the same time, rule out of order another Member's intervention on a supplementary. However, he has undoubtedly said what he has said, and it is just as undoubtedly on the record.
Mr Close asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if he will justify the proposed increase of 8% in the regional rate. (AQO 187/99)
The pre-devolution spending plans announced in December 1998 depended on the domestic regional rate's being increased by 8% and on the non-domestic regional rate's being increased by 5·3%. An associated factor was the decision by the previous Secretary of State to increase spending on the water and sewerage system in order to comply with European Union standards. The Executive Committee recognises that if it were to agree a lower increase in the regional rates we would have to reduce the announced spending plans. I explained that in the Budget statement, and we decided that it would be best to accept this aspect of the inherited plans for the year ahead. The longer-term position will be reviewed next year.
The Minister, wearing his local government hat, must recognise and agree that the regional rate is one of the most detested, nebulous taxes ever enforced upon the people of Northern Ireland. I would like to think that, as Minister of Finance and Personnel, he would agree with me that this nebulous, unaccountable tax should be stopped forthwith and, if need be, replaced with a more transparent, open form of taxation so that the people of Northern Ireland could see what they were paying for.
First, the Minister no longer has a local government hat. That is something that has been decommissioned. Secondly, I acknowledged during questions on the Budget statement that many people are dissatisfied with the regional rate and, indeed, with the nature of the relationship between the regional rate and the district rate. The differences are not readily apparent to individual citizens, and that causes problems and concerns for local government. I also indicated in the Budget statement that we must undertake an overall review of the rating system. That will include looking at the role and nature of the rates and at the relationship between any regional rate and any district rate.
I am sure the Minister will agree that the increasing cost of waste disposal is a matter of concern for most district council ratepayers that is second only to the rising regional rate. A major factor is landfill tax. Will the Minister agree to investigate a full retention of this tax in Northern Ireland to assist district councils to meet national and European requirements in this area?
I am not sure how directly that relates to the question on rates. It seems to relate more to district rates than to regional rates, so I am not sure how far I should go in answering it. Waste management is a particular responsibility of the Department of the Environment. I will look at any proposals that the Minister of the Environment has to try to improve the situation in Northern Ireland and will work with him on them. As yet I am not aware of any proposals to which I could give a response now.
I appeal to Members to keep their questions relevant. If they do not, the Minister will take a little time to answer "I cannot answer that; it is not my patch, Guv.", and there will be less time for supplementaries.
Will the Minister agree that recent public statements by DUP and NIUP councillors in the south Antrim area to the effect that the increase in the regional rate is due to the salaries and pensions of Assembly Members are completely erroneous and misleading? Will the Minister put the record straight?
I confirm what the Member has said. As I said in earlier answers, the increases in the regional rate came about as a result of the comprehensive spending review which was debated in the Chamber in December 1998. That is the source of the increase, and that increase was suggested not just for the next financial year but for the following year also. We will try to review the situation in time for the year after that.
The Executive was in no position to alter spending plans significantly, and that meant that we could not alter the increases in the regional rate that we inherited. Since we worked on the figures for the December Budget we have seen that it may be possible to introduce a regional rate increase for the non-domestic sector which would be less than 5·3%. However, that will be subject to further figure work, and I will only be able to bring it about by way of a Rateable Order after discussion with the Executive Committee.
Government Departments: Location
Mr Ford asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what plans he has to relocate any of the 10 Departments outside the Greater Belfast area.
I appreciate the contribution which public-service jobs can make to the economic and social development of local communities, and I intend to ensure that future Civil Service accommodation planning takes that into account. There are other factors too, such as the regional planning strategy, service delivery, new TSN, the implications for equal opportunity in the Civil Service and cost.
I thank the Minister for his reply, but I am at a loss to know whether that was a specific answer or merely a general aspiration. However, I will work on the aspiration. Does the Minister agree that the plans currently being announced in the Republic to decentralise a further 10,000 jobs from Dublin to regional towns is a good example to Northern Ireland, and particularly to places like Derry, Omagh and Ballymena?
With regard to Mr Ford's last point about the Republic, I will ensure that the Department monitors developments and job dispersal in the South, and, indeed, elsewhere, to see what lessons can be learned for Northern Ireland.
With regard to the Member's observations on my earlier reply, we are working on a programme of government, and I am putting forward proposals on different aspects of my department's brief in that context. It would be premature for me to make particular commitments with regard to my portfolio, outside those which have already been agreed through the Executive Committee's programme of government. I appreciate Members' interests in this subject, interests that they will see reflected in that programme.
Mr J Kelly:
If the Minister is considering the relocation of the Departments of Agriculture and Environment, will he take the west of the Bann into consideration?
I have said that we are hoping to produce a programme of government which will include an overall review of Civil Service accommodation and, I hope, a clear policy on dispersal. It would be inappropriate at this stage to talk about precise locations and the Departments or branches that may be involved in any dispersal. Obviously, those decisions will be taken on the results of that review.
Is the Minister aware that East Antrim has one of the lowest numbers of public-sector jobs in any constituency in Northern Ireland and that Carrickfergus Borough Council has the fourth highest rate of unemployment in any borough council in Northern Ireland? Given that, will he look closely at relocating Departments in East Antrim?
A similar answer is appropriate here. I accept the case that can be made about the current distribution of Civil Service jobs across Northern Ireland, in either constituency or district council terms. When this is set against the various need indicators, including unemployment and long-term unemployment, the disparities show up in quite a marked way.
However, I cannot give specific undertakings at this point to favour or target any particular location. We have to undertake the review on a sound and sensible basis first and then see if the outcome of that review meets the shared expectations of the House.
I will rule out of order any further questions that are simply bids from constituencies for Departments over which the Minister may have no control - that does not include the Department of Finance and Personnel.
In any general review of the Departments, will the Minister take into account the levels of unemployment in various council areas? I am thinking of his Department - Finance and Personnel - which is in my constituency.
I have to rule that out of order. The Minister has responded frequently and with great patience on this matter.
Does the Minister agree that his review of decentralisation will be bound by the document 'Shaping our Future' and that that document works against decentralisation? What will he do about that?
I do not necessarily accept that 'Shaping our Future' closes the door on decentralisation in the way that the Member suggests. When, in my answer, I indicated that among the factors that we would take into account was the regional planning strategy, I meant that to imply that I regard 'Shaping our Future' as reinforcing the need for a review of our dispersal policy. The nature and terms of that review are going to be subject to Executive consideration, and there will be full consultation with the Finance and Personnel Committee as well.
Mr Poots asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if he has any plans to derate Orange, Black, Apprentice Boys and Ancient Order of Hibernians halls.
On 15 December in answer to questions on the Budget statement, I indicated that we plan to have a comprehensive review of the rating system. This could include a re-examination of the types and scope of the rate reliefs currently available. I have no specific plans at this time to derate the institutions referred to in the question.
Will the Minister acknowledge that many of the local halls are the only halls that are available to communities? They are used for community activities such as playgroups, and to rate these on the same commercial basis as shops is extremely unfair to the small numbers of people who are trying to keep them open?
I am aware of the difficulties to which the Member refers, but it is important to remember that the regional rate does make a significant contribution to public expenditure and that any derating would involve a loss of revenue. However, halls can gain a measure of relief when they are used part-time by the wider community. Some Orange and Hibernian halls double up as temporary community or village halls and do gain rate relief proportionate to the amount of time during which they are used in this way.
Is the Minister aware that, in addition to the reasons given for derating, divine intervention is sometimes used? In other words, if a hall is used for organised religious services, that has a great influence on the rates that are paid.
I am not quite sure how to take that. If the Member wishes to give me more information, I will consider it fully in the context of any review of the rating system to make sure that it is fair and effective and reflects the needs and values of the properties we are talking about.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Does the Minister accept that by derating Orange and other halls he would be acknowledging the vast contribution that is made by the organisations that use them to the voluntary sector and to society in general? I encourage him to do so.
As I have said, under the current system some halls gain a measure of relief that is proportionate when they are used part of the time by the wider community. If, given representations made to us, we formulated a general policy for derating, that would have revenue consequences for us.
Public Expenditure: Barnett Formula
Mr Leslie asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if he expects the Barnett formula for funding public expenditure to be applied in Northern Ireland.
No one should be under any illusions about the fact that the Treasury intends to apply the Barnett formula to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as set out in the document entitled 'Funding the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly - A Statement of Funding Policy'. That was published in March 1999, and there is no indication of any different intent on the part of the Treasury.
I think the Minister will agree that rigorous implementation of the formula will tend to squeeze the public sector in Northern Ireland over time. In view of this gloomy prognosis, what implications does he think this will have for the Treasury's next three-year spending plan?
As the Member has said, the Barnett formula applies to Northern Ireland a percentage share of UK expenditure. Clearly, that will create a convergence in per capita spending, and that would disadvantage some of our spending programmes, which traditionally have had a higher per capita spend than comparative programmes across the water. In the coming months we will prepare our own programme of government and spending review in the context of factors that emerge from the Treasury's new spending review. I warn Members that the Treasury will not be an easy hit for all the special cases that we may want to make or feel deeply about. Our best persuader of the Treasury about anything will be our performance as a regional Administration.
Thank you a Chathaoirligh. I have spoken to the Minister about this matter and appreciate that these are early days, especially for Ministers. Given the commitments under the Good Friday Agreement and the fact we have a new target for social need, has the Minister considered how the Barnett formula will relate to the New TSN?
The Barnett formula sets the overall Northern Ireland block, and we have discretion in managing Northern Ireland's share across the different programmes. The First and Deputy First Ministers have responsibility for New TSN in the sense of ensuring that the Administration properly applies its principles, aims and ambitions when making the various departmental plans. Under the arrangements and proposals for New TSN, the Department of Finance and Personnel is committed to assisting Departments to target resources properly to match social need and to come up with the best indicators to evaluate the effectiveness of our performance.
European Union Programmes
Mr Byrne asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if he will update the Assembly on the implementation of European Union structural programmes and European Union special programmes and if he will make a statement.
All of the 1994-99 European Union structural programmes are fully committed to projects. The single programme and community initiative programmes are worth some £994 million, and the special programme is worth about £289 million. Work is under way on the 2000-06 round of European Union support, which will earn Northern Ireland some £940 million, and the Executive is currently considering its proposals for negotiations with the European Commission on this.
I thank the Minister for giving the figures involved in the last round, and I look forward to the new round. Will the Minister enlighten the House on the possible mechanisms for delivery of the new European Union programmes in the next round, and does he accept that the district partnership approach, involving wider social partners, has been very beneficial for local decision making? Finally, can the Minister enlighten us on how INTERREG III is progressing?
In the context of "peace II" we will ensure that it is made as accessible as possible. Since "peace II" funds consist of taxpayers' money, we have to ensure that all the funds can be accounted for and that they are used for the purposes intended.
One aspect of the "peace I" programme that was successful was its accessibility, and particularly so on the range of delivery mechanisms that was used, including, as the Member has said, the local delivery mechanism through partnership boards.
Devolved delivery mechanisms will continue to have a very important role to play in the implementation of "peace II", but at this stage it is not possible to say what organisations will be involved and what specific shape it will take. I will write to the Member with further details when they have been agreed at Executive level, and I will let him have the details he has requested on INTERREG III.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh.
Will the Minister also write to me about the future dispersal of funding through the district partnerships?
People should not approach "peace II" purely on the basis of the funding to district partnerships. "Peace II" will be structured differently from "peace I", given that different priorities were set when the bid was made. Comparisons should not be made purely on the basis of what went before.
The time for questions is up.