Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 5 June 2000


Isle of Man TT Races

Procedures for Main Estimates and Appropriation Act

Main Estimates (2000-01), Supply Resolution and Appropriation Bill

Appropriation Bill - First Stage

Ground Rents Bill - First Stage

Dogs (Amendment) Bill - First Stage

Weights and Measures (Amendment) Bill

Education: North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting

Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission: North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting

Memorandum of Understanding and Supplementary Agreements

Appropriation Bill: Accelerated Passage

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes' silence.

Isle of Man TT Races


Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I am sure that Members will wish to offer their condolences to the family of Raymond Hanna, who was killed in a race practice on the Isle of Man.

They will also, I am sure, want to congratulate Joey Dunlop on his twenty-fourth TT victory. He has definitely been crowned king of the road.

Hon Members:

Hear, hear.

Procedures for Main Estimates and Appropriation Act


The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):

I wish, with permission, to make a statement on the process for examining the Main Estimates for the services provided by the Northern Ireland Departments for the current financial year and the reflection of these Estimates in an Appropriation Act. The approval of the Estimates and the passing of an Appropriation Act are among the most important responsibilities of the Assembly.

Members will recall that on 15 December 1999 I presented the Executive's budget proposals for the financial year commencing 1 April 2000 to the Assembly. The intention, clearly expressed, was that the Assembly and the departmental Committees would have the fullest possible opportunity to scrutinise those spending proposals. Following that scrutiny the budget would be reviewed by the Executive before being placed before the Assembly for approval. The approved budget allocations are the basis on which Departments draw up their detailed spending estimates for the year and these require separate approval by the Assembly.

Suspension meant that the process of scrutinising the budget proposals through the Assembly could not be completed before the beginning of the financial year. However, during suspension the Secretary of State confirmed the allocations for the Northern Ireland Departments in line with the Executive's December budget proposals. These allocations were further increased for health and education spending as a result of additional resources received in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget on 21 March.

Although it is not feasible for the Assembly to resume the scrutiny of the budget, which was interrupted in February, there is still the opportunity for substantive consideration of spending proposals for this financial year through the process of approving the Main Estimates. Members will appreciate that approval of the main spending Estimates for Departments and the voting of money through an Appropriation Act are matters of the utmost importance. They are the essence of responsible government.

As a result of suspension the Assembly was unable to deal with the spring Supplementary Estimates for 1999-2001 and the vote on account for 2000-01. These were approved by Parliament in March.

Taking a vote on account in advance of the incoming financial year is normal practice to allow the continuation of public services until the Estimates are approved in the summer. For most services a uniform 45% of the anticipated expenditure for 2000-01 was approved to provide Departments with the legal authority to continue to incur expenditure on previously approved services for several months into the new financial year.

The vote on account is only to provide interim financing for services. In most instances this funding will be exhausted before the end of the summer recess. Unless the Assembly approves the balance of the funds for 2000-01 before then, Northern Ireland Departments will be unable to incur any further expenditure on services.

There is a limited amount of time available to us to consider and approve the Estimates and deal with the Appropriation Bill before the start of the summer recess, and I have taken that into account in what I am now proposing.

There are two main elements in the procedure for approving Estimates, one of which is the consideration of a Supply resolution by the Assembly. That would seek the Assembly's approval for the total amount of the balance required for the 2000-01 Estimates. In effect the Assembly would be being asked to approve the spending plans as set out in the Estimates booklet.

I will be tabling such a resolution for debate next week, approval of which will require cross-community support. The 2000-01 main Estimates were published today and copies have been placed in the Library. However, in order to give the greatest opportunity for consideration of this document, advance copies were given to Members last week.

As well as the Supply resolution, the Assembly has to consider an Appropriation Bill to confirm Departments' legal authority to incur expenditure. The Appropriation Bill is an important piece of financial legislation, the drafting of which must reflect the Supply resolution approved by the Assembly. A schedule to the Bill confirms the amounts approved for the services of each Department as set out in the Estimates. Only when this Bill has completed all its stages and received royal assent will the additional cash be available for services. I should add that Appropriation Acts are not permanent statutes but are repealed after the period they cover has expired.

The full procedure for the Assembly's consideration of legislation as set out in Standing Orders cannot be completed between now and the start of the summer recess. However, Standing Orders also provide for Bills to be taken by an accelerated passage procedure in exceptional circumstances. The need for urgent approval of the Estimates and the passing of an Appropriation Bill is very clearly exceptional in current circumstances.

I am therefore seeking leave to use the accelerated passage procedure for the Appropriation 2000 Bill, which is being introduced. The timetable I am proposing for the entire process, following the introduction and First Stage of the Bill today, is for the Supply resolution to be debated on Monday 12 June when the resolution will also be put to the vote. Also on the 12 June, immediately following that vote on the Supply resolution, the Second Stage of the Appropriation Bill will be taken. That will be followed on 19 June by the Consideration Stage of the Bill, and on 27 June by the Final Stage. Even though accelerated passage means that there will not be a formal Committee Stage, I have discussed the matter with the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee, and my Department will give every assistance to the Committee if it wishes to examine the Estimates and the Bill within this timetable.

I accept that what I am proposing is not ideal. However, it allows the maximum opportunity both for consideration of the estimates for 2000-01 during the next month and for the passage of an Appropriation Act by a process allowed for in Standing Orders. The Assembly could attempt to take the Appropriation Bill by the normal procedure, but that would require special sittings during the summer recess. There would also have to be a Committee Stage, but that could not run for the full 30 days required by Standing Orders if the Bill is to be completed before the vote on account expires. I believe that the use of accelerated passage is acceptable in these circumstances.

I hope that I will not have to seek the Assembly's leave for accelerated passage for future Appropriation Bills. Generally, legislatures design special procedures specifically for routine financial business. It has not yet been possible for the Assembly to do this. I hope that we will do so as soon as possible, so that suitable procedures are in place the next time we consider Estimates and Appropriation. That could be as early as the autumn, depending on the requirement for any Supplementary Estimates in this financial year.

My Department and I stand ready to provide whatever assistance the Assembly may find helpful in identifying and evaluating the possible options. In the meantime we must make the best use of the procedures available to us. That is what I aim to do.

Mr Speaker:

Members have up to 30 minutes for questions on that statement.

Mr Close:

The Minister emphasised the importance of the Appropriation Bill. Members will share that sentiment. The essence of government is the getting and spending of money and the choosing of priorities. However, the Minister went on to say that the proper procedures could not be fulfilled. Does he consider the importance of the Bill to be outweighed by the prospect of eating into the summer recess? We have had three months imposed holiday. Is it not important to give more credibility to ourselves and to this House by giving up some of the recess in order to do our job properly?

Mr Durkan:

I take the hon Member's point. I stressed the importance of the Appropriation Bill. The recess has been set by others acting quite properly on behalf of the Assembly. It is not for me to presume to change it. I have come before the Assembly to make it clear that if we are to be able to continue spending through the latter part of the recess we need to get the Appropriation Bill approved now. Even if we were to take this matter into the recess we still would not have sufficient time for a full Committee Stage and have enough money to spend. The options for the Assembly are clear.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I agree with Mr Close. This is very important. I understand what the Minister is saying about the time factor. Will he tell us how much Assembly time next week has been set aside for the matters for which he is responsible?

I wish to raise a further, important question. We have been delighted to hear the good news from Short's and from the shipyard. There is still a big question mark over the shipyard. Perhaps the Minister could resolve newspaper speculation. Will he allay our worries about the shipyard? He knows that an Appropriation Order can travel "from Dan to Beer-sheba" - I am only travelling to East Belfast to ask him if he can allay our worries.

Mr Speaker:

The Member's first question was on timing. That is a matter for the Business Committee, not for the Minister. I can reassure the Member that the Business Committee is seized of the importance of the Assembly's having a substantial amount of time to address this matter. When it meets tomorrow the Committee will undoubtedly consider that. I expect substantial time to be set aside. This statement is entirely on the process of appropriation. The Member may wish to ask his question again after the Minister has made his next statement on the Estimates themselves. He may be able to respond then. It would not be in order to respond to that question at this point because we are dealing now with the process, not the content, of appropriation.

10.45 am

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I have to abide by your ruling, Mr Speaker, but I do not agree with it. Appropriation is a very wide matter. In the House of Commons there is always liberty given on these matters, but this House -

Mr Speaker:

Order. I am afraid that the Member misunderstands the process being followed at present. This is not the Appropriation debate, which is the kind of debate to which he refers, nor is it a statement on the Estimates, where it would also be appropriate. That is the next statement the Minister will be making. This is a statement purely on the process of Appropriation and the question of possible accelerated passage. However, I have no doubt the Member will wish to ask his question again after the next statement.

Mr Molloy:

I am pleased that the Assembly will have some opportunity to discuss the Appropriation Bill. It is a vital piece of legislation. As Members will be aware, the Finance and Personnel Committee would normally be handling the Committee Stage of the Bill. However, on this occasion we accept that is not possible because of the time factor. It is important that we look to the future and that we have an opportunity at different stages for the Committee to deal with the issues in question.

The Committee is happy at this stage for the Appropriation Bill to be passed. That is essential so that the Departments are not left short of funds. The Finance and Personnel Committee must also be able to co-ordinate with other Committees to ensure that their concerns can be put before the Assembly.

Mr Durkan:

I welcome the points made by the Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee. It is simply not possible to pass important legislation of this sort in the time necessary, using the normal procedure. I accept that this is not satisfactory for the Assembly, the Committee or the Executive Committee. However, these are exceptional circumstances, and I remind Colleagues that Standing Orders provide for accelerated passage in precisely such circumstances.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Can the Minister confirm that even if we proceed with the proposals he has outlined, the figures in the Estimates are fixed in stone? Can they be adjusted? For example, I am not convinced that the money set aside for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is sufficient to deal with the problems with which the agriculture sector is currently beset.

Mr Durkan:

The budget allocations were effectively made during suspension. That followed the budget proposals as set out by myself in the Assembly in December. To that extent, it would be impractical to re-open the budget at this stage. However, the debate on the Estimates will give Members such as Mr Paisley Jnr a full opportunity to examine the budget allocations in each Department. If his question implies that there could be a further vote on account, to allow time for further consideration, that in itself would require a new Appropriation Act. It would not ease any of the problems I have identified.

Main Estimates (2000-01),
Supply Resolution and Appropriation Bill


Mr Durkan:

I wish to make a statement on the Main Estimates for the financial year 2000-01 and the Supply resolution that is being tabled, and which the Assembly will be asked to debate next week. I also wish to comment on the substance of the Appropriation Bill that I hope to introduce today.

It is highly appropriate, on our first day of business following the restoration of devolution, to have an opportunity to review the full range of public services for which we are now responsible. As I emphasised in December, the management of public spending is one of the fundamental responsibilities of any Government.

The restoration of devolution again gives us the opportunity to assume our full and appropriate responsibilities - to move from championing a few issues to deciding among all the issues, and from opposing to leading. We have an opportunity to work together in a unique form of administration, pursuing quality and equality in the management of public services for the good of all the people. The Main Estimates and the Appropriation Bill are at the heart of our responsibilities. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and in line with principles that apply in both London and Dublin, it is my responsibility on behalf of and with the agreement of the Executive Committee to seek the Assembly's authority for spending on public services. These formal processes very strongly emphasise the Assembly's role in protecting the interests of the public and ensuring that money is spent well.

I have been working, and will continue to work, with the Finance and Personnel Committee on the process of planning public spending. Members can, and will, hold Departments to account for the money they approve in this process through the Public Accounts Committee. The Main Estimates document provides the reference point and detailed analysis of the spending plans of Departments for this purpose.

It may help if I set out briefly the main financial planning and control processes, which are now our responsibility under devolution. That is the context in which these financial issues should be considered. The key planning process is, of course, the formulation and approval of a programme for government, linked to a budget, which sets out the total expenditure which each Department or programme expects to incur over one or more years ahead.

In normal circumstances the Executive's proposals for the programme for government and the budget would have been considered by the Assembly and settled before December. However, Members will recall that the start of devolution late last year meant that the budget proposals for this financial year were only put before the Assembly on 15 December, and it was not possible to complete the scrutiny of the budget before the process was interrupted by suspension. During suspension the Executive's budget proposals were confirmed at Westminster. The Secretary of State supplemented them by additional allocations for spending on the health and education programmes from new money provided by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his March Budget.

The approved budget is the basis on which Departments plan expenditure. However, separate authority to spend money on specific services in a financial year must be sought from the Assembly through the process of Supply. The Supply process involves a number of distinct steps, each of which is important. In the first instance, the Executive must inform the Assembly of the amounts it seeks for specific services. That is the purpose of the Estimates booklet published today and made available to Members. Copies have also been placed in the Library. An advance copy was made available to Members on Friday. As Members will see, the Estimates are quite detailed requests for cash for specific services. They show the estimated amount that can be drawn from the consolidated fund to support each service this year. In some instances receipts will arise in an area of expenditure, and the estimate will show how much of these receipts can be set against spending to reduce the need to vote new funds.

The next stage is that the Assembly should be afforded the opportunity to scrutinise and approve the Main Estimates as published. The means by which that opportunity is provided is the Supply resolution that the Assembly will be asked to debate next week.

In order to give statutory authority to the moneys voted for services, and to ensure that funds provided to the Executive for one purpose are not used for other purposes, the sums voted are legally appropriated to the specific services and the authority to draw money to meet these expenditures will be confirmed in an Appropriation Act.

Members will recognise from this brief description that the Estimates and the Appropriation Act are central to the Assembly's control over the use of public funds. The appropriation accounts, which will be produced after expenditure has been incurred, will be produced on a corresponding basis to the Estimates. This will enable the Assembly to compare actual expenditure with the Estimates that it approved and to have an explanation of any significant differences.

I emphasise that the form of the Estimates is a matter to be agreed between the Executive Committee and the Assembly. For the moment I am content to proceed on the basis of the well established practice of presenting Estimates for the cash amounts needed to finance services.

Looking to the future, the Assembly should be aware that work is well advanced on moving the planning and control of government expenditure to a resource accounting and budgeting basis. This would bring the treatment of the Government's finances into line with commercial practices. It would also allow a better appreciation of the full resource cost of pursuing each of the objectives in Departments and hence help to improve decision taking. This shift in accounting and budgeting practice would have to be reflected in changes in the form of the Estimates. I look forward to discussing these matters with the Finance and Personnel Committee and the Assembly in due course.

The figures in the Estimates booklet are testimony to the importance of the business we are dealing with today. For the health sector, we are seeking to spend almost £2 billion this year to sustain hospitals and pay the doctors and nurses who provide health care for everyone. In the education programme, the £1·2 billion we are seeking will fund over 1,300 schools and pay for 20,000 teachers to educate more than 350,000 schoolchildren.

The same holds across the total range of public services. Roads and public transport, support for industry and our farming community, support for the housing programme and the many other important services and programmes across all Departments depend on the money the Assembly is being asked to approve in the Estimates and in the Appropriation Bill.

I hope that the Assembly has found this brief description of these important financial instruments helpful. There will be a full opportunity to examine matters in detail in the debate next week, but I will endeavour to respond to any general queries on the Estimates which Members may have.

Mr Speaker:

Members have up to an hour for questions to the Minister.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I misunderstood what was happening today. Had I heard about a second statement I would have reserved my remarks for that. If I offended you in any way, Mr Speaker, I apologise. As you have indicated, I can raise that matter now.

People were thrilled to know of the situation in the aircraft industry and delighted to know that the union between the Canadian company and Short's has been so fruitful. I am sure we all wish them well. We were also delighted about the shipyard news, though what was announced was different from what happened with the investment from Canada in Short's

There have been some alarming newspaper accounts about a big question mark hanging over the company concerned. It is dealing with large luxury vessels of immense price, yet it can only find an office in a red-brick villa in a street somewhere in Luton. It could not be contacted by phone, and people who ought to know seem to have no knowledge of it.

I do not know what truth there is in those rumours. However, I would like the Minister to set our minds at ease. Some of my constituents say that their jobs must now be in greater jeopardy than ever.

11.00 am

Mr Durkan:

The hon Member is correct in referring to the great sense of encouragement everyone felt when they heard the news about Short Brothers plc and Harland and Wolff Shipbuilding and Heavy Industries Ltd. Some of the questions asked recently about these firms are connected with the issue of the Estimates. However, there are particular matters on which the Minister of Trade, Enterprise and Investment is working, and I am aware that the IDB is working closely with Short's and Harland and Wolff to maximise the prospects that were apparent for both companies. It would be inappropriate for me to talk up any other difficulties or to speak out of turn about a matter which is the responsibility of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

Mr Maskey:

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. I am seeking guidance from the Minister or from you, a Chathaoirligh, because, as has been said, the suspension made it impossible to deal with these Estimates in the normal way. I am reminded of the recent announcement about the IDB's essential failure despite its substantial budget. I am concerned, even from my own constituency perspective, that if the money spent by IDB had been allocated in a better or different way there might be a far better record - or even a record - of job creation in quite a number of constituencies. Mr Durkan and you, Mr Speaker, have touched on a matter specific to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: when will we have an opportunity to discuss that Department's estimates in detail? How was that money spent, and how might it be spent better in the future?

Mr Durkan:

In my statement, I outlined the different stages that I propose would be used for the Appropriation Bill and the Supply resolution. I indicated that, next week, the debate would be much more comprehensive and detailed. Members will be able to pursue aspects of the Estimates that are of interest or concern to them.

I take it that the Member was referring in particular to the recent report of the Public Accounts Committee. The IDB is preparing a formal Department of Finance and Personnel memorandum of reply to the Public Accounts Committee, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the report until that document has been provided. That is established practice.

Mr Leslie:

I thank the Minister for his statements and for his efforts to brief the Department of Finance and Personnel Committee on these matters. We realise that we have an inherited programme and, therefore, inherited costs. At this stage there is little opportunity to tweak them. However, we will have an opportunity to tweak them with the preparation of a programme of government which, the Minister has indicated, will be completed before December.

It is essential to remember that when we move into the next set of Estimates the debate will, to a large extent, have taken place before it comes to the House. The allocations will have been horse-traded before that point is reached. Can the Minister advise us on the timetable he sees being pursued in order to have that debate carried out. Also, what role does he see for himself, as the person holding the ring in many of those negotiations?

Mr Durkan:

As Mr Leslie is aware from previous discussions we have had with the Finance and Personnel Committee, we want to improve the planning process in relation to public expenditure, and we want to make sure that the Committee and the Assembly have far more foresight in relation to these issues than the procedures that we have had to follow on this occasion have allowed. As I indicated in my statement, I believe that the shift to resource accounting and budgeting will help afford us greater opportunities in that regard in terms of the quality of information available and the sense of direction people will be able to give through the different sort of procedures we have been talking about. Clearly it is not a matter for me as Minister of Finance and Personnel to ordain precise procedures. We genuinely want to discuss and develop these with the Committee and with the Assembly. I previously had some discussion with yourself, Mr Speaker, on exactly how we could improve these procedures in everybody's interests, but not least in the interests of the Assembly being able to have a significant and helpful say, in terms of both scrutiny and proper planning of expenditure.

Mr Close:

The Minister refers to the key planning process of government as being the formulation of a programme of government. I totally agree. Does he agree that we are indulging in what is, to a large extent, a cosmetic exercise? The cart has been put before the horse. In effect we are following, rather slavishly, certain attitudes. We are seeking to impose a form of government which is being brought about by a totally unaccountable regime. If we are to fulfil people's dreams and achieve a new beginning, we have got to change - fundamentally change - the direction in which government has been going and the way in which it has been applied to the people of Northern Ireland.

Very recently, for example, we all received a press release from the Housing Executive. This year the Housing Executive is faced with a budget reduction of about £13·7 million compared to last year. We know, for example, that 40,000 dwellings are unfit for human habitation, yet, by following slavishly a programme drawn up by unaccountable administrators, we are going to be approving these types of figures. Until we get a programme of government - one which has to be fundamentally different to that which applied before - we, if we are truly going to be doing the job for which we were elected, have got to move in a totally different direction. If we do not, we will be failing the people, failing to give them new opportunities and new hopes and failing to fulfil their aspirations.

Today, many parents will have had dropping through their letter boxes -

Mr Speaker:

Order. I must remind Members that this is meant to be an opportunity to pose questions, not to make speeches.

Mr Close:

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

My question is about the letters to young people who are hoping to go to university this October. They are being told that their circumstances will have to be assessed. Forms will be sent out on which they will have to give details of income. I am sure that the Minister will agree that that is not right. We must restore student grants and get away from the fact that the ability to pay is some sort of gauge as to whether students can afford to go to university. Does the Minister agree that there are many areas like this where direction must be changed through a new programme of government?

Mr Speaker:

Order. I must invite the Minister to respond to the question or questions.

A Member:

Which question?

Mr Durkan:

I was going to ask the same thing.

The hon Member, in his opening remarks, described today's exercise, and, I assume, the exercise that I have talked about for the coming weeks, as cosmetic. It is not a cosmetic exercise; it is a vital legal requirement. If we were not to go through such a process we would not have the money to continue to discharge the vital public services that we have been talking about.

When I originally brought the budget proposals to the House on 15 December I did not pretend that we were working on any basis other than that of the allocations previously laid down by the Labour Government in the comprehensive spending review. We have been upfront and open about it. It was agreed by each Member of the Executive Committee, and we put proposals to the House on that basis. It was the only way we could conduct business in the absence of the programme of government, which we are seeking to develop.

Some aspects of the points raised are for relevant departmental Ministers. However, the gross resources available for housing under these Estimates could be around £602 million - hardly cosmetic, and not to be dismissed. Within that total, the Housing Executive's gross resources will be £528 million, and £71 million of that will be for housing associations, whose funding will be supplemented by an additional £49million from private finance. I note the point made in relation to the Housing Executive press release. However, I would make the point relating to the total Estimates provision for the housing programme.

In relation to the issues of young students hoping to go into further and higher education, the Member is aware that my colleague the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment has initiated a review of student financial support and we await his report.

Mr Speaker:

Members may be having difficulty hearing what is going on in the Chamber. I encourage all Members to put their questions and make their remarks as clearly as possible. We are looking into the technical side of things to see if improvements can be made.

Ms Morrice:

I will be as clear as possible.

I would like to raise the issue of European funding because there is much concern that money under the European programme - Peace I - may be exhausted at the end of June. Hundreds of jobs could be lost, particularly in the community sectors - valuable sectors - because Peace II, the second European peace programme, will not be coming on stream for some months. I note that the Department of Finance and Personnel has the authority to borrow on the credit of the sums. What does the Minister intend to do to ensure that the gap between Peace I and Peace II is bridged, possibly by borrowing? Can he ensure that jobs will not be lost as a result? [Interruption]

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

A mobile phone is ringing.

Mr Speaker:

It was in the Gallery, and the owner has left.

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Member for her question. The development of the new structural funds programmes -an important development - is a lengthy process and involves negotiation and agreement of a community support framework, the operational programmes and the programming complements. We are pressing ahead with negotiations with the European Commission with all speed, partly to ensure that the gap between the old and new programmes is minimised. All the funding bodies in the existing programmes were fully aware of the need for sustainability and to have suitable exit strategies in place. However, I recognise that some existing projects, particularly those under the single programme, will have difficulty in sustaining their activities and interim funding arrangements have been introduced by Departments, in particular the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. There does not appear to be the same need under Peace I, particularly when £160 million of the total programme allocation remains to be spent before 31 December 2001.

11.15 am

Rev Dr William McCrea:

Would the Minister agree with me that when exercising government, meeting demands for additions to some budgets means, because of the block allocation of finance, reductions to other budgets? It is easy to make demands, but it is not so easy to fill the hole.

I note that the allocation in the Estimates for local government services shows an increase that is below the rate of inflation. Local government elections will be held next year. Can the Minister assure us that sufficient finances have been allocated to ensure that local democracy will go ahead unhindered?

The Environment Committee has identified a very serious lack of education officers for road safety. Will the Estimates that the Minister has put before the House today assist in the employing of such officers as a matter of urgency?

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Member for his very helpful and responsible observation about how easy it is to propose spending as opposed to resourcing. I am sure that that point will be used repeatedly by my Department and me in reply to him and others.

In answer to his second question, I refer him to his initial remarks.

Most of the matters that Mr McCrea raised are the responsibility of the Department of the Environment. On some of the issues of local government funding, the Department has been working closely on options with a representative group of council chief executives and finance officers. They have been reviewing the formula for the distribution of the resources element of the general exchequer grant to district councils. That review is being progressed as a matter of urgency, and I hope a new formula can emerge. That would, however, require the amendment of primary legislation, and that would entail full consultation with district councils and the Assembly. Expenditure on road safety is a matter for the Minister and the Department to determine.

Mr Fee:

I think that the Minister will agree that the accelerated passage of the Estimates is not the most ideal way in which to deal with them, but will he agree with me that this book of Estimates is in itself a statement of the enormous advances that we have made over the last number of years and months? It is a detailed account of a programme of government which we will be pursuing for the next 12 months, and it is a tribute to the civil servants and officials who have reorganised government in Northern Ireland into the new Departments. It is also a tribute to his own Department. Will he accept that I will not be so kind to him next week?

Mr Durkan:

I am surprised that he has been so kind to me even today, so I certainly have no expectations for next week.

I would like to take up the point about the production of the Estimates themselves. I did say that we issued advance copies of the Estimates last week. Clearly things have moved quickly. Estimates do not just reflect the allocations as outlined in my statement here on 15 December; they also include the further Estimates that have resulted from the Chancellor's budget allocation, the allocations to health and education that were made by the Secretary of State and confirmed by the Executive Committee only last Thursday. Estimates are absolutely up to date, and it is a tribute to the various civil servants involved that we have completed so much. It is certainly not their fault that we are caught in circumstances, not of our own making, that mean that we cannot subject the Appropriation Bill to the length of stages that would ordinarily be available to us under Standing Orders.

Once again, I emphasise the importance of ensuring that we get as much certainty and clarity about this as about all the other matters on which people have said we need certainty and clarity. It is not in anyone's interests to conduct Assembly business in ways that lead people to worry that the money needed to continue to fund public services could run out before the end of the summer recess. That is why we need the accelerated passage - to ensure that the money is available and that everyone's efforts and concentration can be directed towards managing the money properly, rather than worrying about whether it is available.

Mr S Wilson:

First, I wish to thank the Minister for saying that he will give us some clarity and certainty in the answers that he provides to the House. I hope that will be clearer than the clarity given to some members of the Ulster Unionist Party and that it will not take the form of secret letters. With regard to allocations, I understand that the process is not satisfactory and all Members will agree. However, because of the interim arrangements, it is probably something we have to live with.

The figures are based on the outcome of the comprehensive spending review and, as some Members have indicated, there are questions as to how satisfactory that has been in ensuring the allocation of moneys to particular issues. After we adopt the Appropriation, I am unclear as to whether there will be an opportunity during the year for reallocation, not only within Departments but between Departments, if it is thought that there will be an underspend of budget allocations at some stage. We have already seen the problems with the Housing Executive, and with other areas, and we will need to look at these. I understand the opportunity cost of doing this. However, will there be an opportunity to look again at reallocating between Departments?

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Member for his question. A series of monitoring rounds conducted during the year help to identify programmes under particular pressure because of greater demand than expected and identify easement in terms of anticipated spend. Clearly, one of the reasons for the monitoring round is to ensure the identification of available resources in-year and to properly and strategically redirect them, at that time, to areas where they are needed. Members will recall the exercise that took place after the December monitoring round when further moneys were made available to various programmes and Departments. In particular, extra money was allocated to the Department of Health to deal with apparent winter pressures. It is for this type of circumstance that the in-year monitoring round exists. I intend to work with Departments to try to make the most of those opportunities, and I am sure that Departments will work with their Committees in that regard. I have had discussion with the Finance and Personnel Committee to ensure that they have earlier sight of, and a better insight into, some of the issues involved in the monitoring round.

I accept what people have said about this process. By and large, it is better if people feel that they are not finding out everything about public spending by looking in the rear-view mirror, but that they can see these things coming up ahead and can get information from the dashboard. That is part of what we are trying to do and improve.

Mr O'Connor:

When the Chancellor allocated an extra £3 billion in his budget statement, only £86 million came to Northern Ireland for additional public spending. Proportionately Northern Ireland should have received about £140 million. Does the Minister agree that we lost out because no Minister or Executive was in place at that time?

Can the Minister assure us that when additional funding is made available from Westminster we shall not be sold short again?

Mr Durkan:

The issue raised is much bigger than the question implies. That does not mean, however, that I shall give a much bigger answer at this point. The question clearly raises issues that touch upon the Barnett formula, and precisely how Northern Ireland gets its share of the money identified and allocated at UK level. Obviously, it is an issue which not just my Department and the Committee on Finance and Personnel wish to examine and work on. It is being considered by the Executive Committee itself, since we are in a further Treasury spending review due to end in a matter of weeks. That spending review will determine the levels, forms and patterns of public expenditure throughout the United Kingdom up to 2003-04. The issues raised by the Member are therefore certainly on everyones' minds.

However, I stress that the money from the Chancellor's Budget was very welcome. Last week the Executive confirmed the Secretary of State's allocation of over £14 million to the schools programme and £53 million to health. There will be further decisions on the allocation of a further £18 million soon, along with moneys available from last year's end-of-year flexibility exercise of the spending round. We shall shortly allocate that pool of money.

Mr Shannon:

I wish to raise a point about the Estimates in the Appropriation Bill specific to the Minister. He said that £1·2 billion would be spent on education. Can he confirm that the £7·1 million made from the sale of the former Scrabo High School will be included in that money? Can he also confirm that all moneys received from that sale will be used for education provision in the Strangford constituency?

Mr Durkan:

Unfortunately I cannot give the Member the confirmation he seeks regarding the latter point. I cannot pledge, or promise, that money allocated to, or released in, the overall programme, whether at the Department of Education or at any other Department, will be spent in a particular constituency. I simply cannot start to deal with questions about different Departments' programmes in that fashion - it would be inappropriate. That may be disappointing to the Member, but it is the honest answer.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

The Minister has said the role of the Assembly is to protect the public interest and ensure that money is spent well. Therefore it is incumbent on Members to ensure this is the case. Is the Minister convinced that sufficient resources are available to combat social security fraud in Northern Ireland? There is a strong perception that one area of social security fraud - namely, motability fraud - is causing great public concern, and it appears not to be beneath some people in this Chamber to rip off the most needy in our society.

Mr Durkan:

Again, the Member has raised a matter that is the particular responsibility of a ministerial colleague-in this case, the Minister for Social Development. Clearly, I want all programmes operated with total probity, effectiveness and value for money. Public expenditure has many areas, and it is distributed in a variety of forms. All sorts of questions might be raised or impressions given concerning the degree of abuse with regard to different public moneys.

We want to see proper and appropriate use of all public moneys. Where any Minister or Department comes forward with analysis that identifies levels of abuse that they wish to tackle, my Department would want to work with them positively on that basis.

11.30 am

Mr Ford:

I noted with interest the exchange between the Minister and Mr McCrea on the limitations of the budget being considered. Can the Minister confirm that my Colleague, Mr Close has been consistent in his attitude to the need for tax-varying powers in order to provide the essential services for the people of Northern Ireland? Will the Minister also acknowledge that he and his Department have accepted that principle by their own proposal to increase the regional rate by 8% this year, thereby dealing with the potential arguments about block grant being reduced because of taxes being added here? Perhaps he could also tell us if he is just as keen as the DUP on the consequences of his policy leading to, for example, a £13·7 million reduction for the Housing Executive this year.

Mr Durkan:

I accept the point in the Member's question about the consistency of his party Colleague in terms of seeking tax-varying powers. I would ask people, before they think that is going to be the panacea for everything, to remember, whether we have tax-varying powers or not, that we are still going to have finite resources to allocate. Even with the additional moneys that might result from tax-raising powers, we are going to have to take priority-based decisions on their allocation and on their management. We need to consider carefully the experience of other places with tax-varying powers. I have warned previously about the risks of us experiencing a concept of subtractionality in our dealings with the Treasury in that regard, as opposed to some of the questionable experiences of additionality we have had in the past in relation to some moneys.

With regard to the housing money, I stress, yet again, we should not forget the money that is going in to the housing programme. Yes, it is a housing programme which, by its nature, has actually been changing. Like all other programmes, it will have to be examined and assessed in the context of the development of the programme of government. I want to see that all these programmes that are of concern and interest to Members - because they do perform vital services for people throughout the community - are given proper and adequate consideration and, in turn receive the proper and adequate funding. As Members of the Assembly, we are all here to satisfy ourselves on that matter. I will work with the Committee on Finance and Personnel to improve the systems which assure us on that. I have no doubt that the Ministers in their respective Departments and all the Members of the respective Departmental Committees will want to contribute to that. When we made the original budget statement in December we said we wanted all the departmental Committees to peruse the budget proposals in respect of the programmes that came under their Departments. We want these things properly proofed on behalf of Members of the Assembly.

Mr Dallat:

I thank the Minister for his work. Does he take comfort from the fact that all political parties have shown sincerity this morning in taking charge of their own affairs and that never again will the affairs of Northern Ireland be in the hands of absentee landlords from Westminster?

Mr Durkan:

Certainly I do, but when I consider the range of questions I am facing here, and being given notice of some of what I am facing next week, I am not sure that I entirely agree. It is a bit like what Talleyrand is reported to have said of Voltaire and Robespierre:

"When I think of either I prefer the other".

Therefore, in this situation, some of the devolution decisions do not look too bad, or it looks handy enough that somebody else is taking those particular decisions. The Member's point is a good one. This is part of our political induction in taking up our new responsibilities as an Assembly and an Executive. Unfortunately the procedures do not lend themselves to the sort of input and exchange that we would want, but those are circumstances in which we are particularly caught.

I am certainly encouraged by Members' very positive and well-motivated interest across the range of programmes and the range of Departments. I have made it clear all along that I see the job of the Department of Finance and Personnel as being working with and for all the other Departments. And that means working with and for the Assembly, as well as all its Committees.

Mr J Kelly:

A Chathaoirligh, in terms of health services, Minister, are you making provision for areas that might be deemed disadvantaged? I am thinking in particular of areas west of the Bann. Ian Paisley Snr asked a question about the shipyard and Short's. I do not know if he has asked you for money for those projects. If money is going to be allocated to them, will the allocation be equality-proofed in terms of the employment position, particularly in relation to Harland and Wolff?

Mr Durkan:

In respect of the question about additional money for Harland and Wolff, I have made the point that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the IDB are working on this. If additional assistance were to be made available beyond what has been talked about and what has been provided for, that would be a matter for future estimates; it is not covered in these Estimates.

In respect of the Member's equality question, the Estimates have been drawn up on the basis of expenditure plans which meet the requirements of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and, indeed, the new targeting social need policy. The Member talked about the breakdown of the allocation in the area of health and personal social services. He is perhaps a bit like Mr Shannon when he asked if money in a particular Department's programme could at this stage be earmarked on a subregional basis. It would be inappropriate for me to do this simply because in the nature of most programmes, and not least in one such as the health and personal social services programme that applies right across the region, it is not always easy to specify.

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, like the other Departments, is trying to bring forward new targeting social need measures and achievements in that regard, and clearly it would be a matter for the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to articulate those plans. I would, however, like to point out again the significant amount of money that is going into the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, particularly towards health and social services.

It is not just the extra £53 million that came from the Chancellor's last Budget announcement - we are talking about £169 million above the planned amount for last year for health and personal social services. That is a cash growth of 9%, and obviously we hope that that cash growth will manifest itself in a helpful and an attractive way in all areas of Northern Ireland.

Mr Hussey:

I agree with Dr McCrea's reference to the swings-and-roundabouts nature of the process, and Mr Close voiced his concerns, particularly in relation to the Housing Executive. In replying to Mr Shannon, the Minister said that he could not specify what would happen to any funds that would result from the sale of the school in his constituency.

But, going back to the housing issue, many Members will have heard from district and regional managers their great concern about the shortfall in the Housing Executive budget. They are also concerned that they cannot make use of the funds from the sales of houses. Will the Minister, in liaison with the Minister for Social Development, look into this issue in order to redress the housing shortage?

Mr Durkan:

I am aware, as all Members are, of the pressures felt throughout many public service programmes, including housing. Housing Executive district managers talk to me as much as they do to any other Member. I refer Members again to my earlier remarks about the money going in to the housing programme. It is not uncommon in these exercises for everyone to talk about the little bit of money that is not going in rather than the large sum that is. Housing programme resourcing questions for the medium to long term are a matter on which the relevant Minister may bring forward views, not least in the context of the programme of Government. I wish to ensure that arrangements are in place to allow such resources, as can be released, to go to the various programmes. We have to look at that in the context of all the priorities and experiences in the Northern Ireland block. Arguments and cases brought forward will have to be carefully examined.

Mr Molloy:

A Chathaoirligh, this time I am speaking with my Mid Ulster hat on. I want to return to the question of directing funds to particular areas. It is accepted that ours is a society emerging from conflict, and that has social and economic consequences. If we are to redress some of the problems emerging from that and rebalance the services, it will be necessary to target social need in the area west of the Bann, and we will need to direct finance to that area. Mr John Kelly asked about the hospital service. We need to rebalance the hospital service west of the Bann and redress the neglect that has occurred over a number of years. Will the Minister consider directing most of the 9% increase in the health budget this year to that end, specifically to ensure the South Tyrone Hospital is not allowed to close for lack of funding?

Mr Durkan:

I am glad the Member welcomes the extra money for health. Pay and inflation have been particular problems within the health budget for some time. The funds now available remedy the pay deficit and raise the baselines to 2000-01 price levels. I will not pretend that all the extra money is going in to service developments. However, approximately £79 million will be available for that purpose, and Members will want to address the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on how that should best be used.

With regard to the wider questions of equality and targeting social need, all Departments and public bodies are obliged under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to conform to clear and proper equality standards in their plans. The Executive will be developing its work in that area. It is already developing new Targeting Social Need policies, measures and standards. My Department wants to see real targets and indicators in use, rather than the unsatisfactory, impressionistic and anecdotal measures that have been relied on to date. We do not want Targeting Social Need to be another "It's the thought that counts" - or, worse still, "It's the afterthought that counts" - exercise. We want to see real targets and indicators used, as far as possible, throughout all programmes. My Department has a role in helping all Departments to come up with sound indicators and targets.