Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 12 June 2000 (continued)
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Has the Speaker's Office received any notice, under Standing Order 18, of the intention of a Minister of any description, shape or form to make a statement this morning in relation to the flying of the national flag on Government buildings? As you know, Saturday was a designated flag day, when flags were flown from Government buildings in Northern Ireland, with the exception of those under the control of Sinn Féin/IRA. Have you received notice from the Sinn Féin Ministers or from the First Minister? Is he prepared to call to account the Sinn Féin Ministers for their failure to fly the national flag or has he chosen to remain silent on this issue?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The information I get from the Clerks is that no such notice or communication has come from any party.
Shame. So there is no calling to account.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I remind Members that today's motion on Supply, standing in the name of Mr Durkan, must be carried with cross-community support. We dealt with this matter last week, and there is urgency about it. Standing Order 25 states that a vote, resolution or act which appropriates a sum out of the Consolidated Fund for Northern Ireland, or increases a sum to be appropriated - which this motion clearly does - shall not be passed without cross-community support.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan): I beg to move
That a sum not exceeding £4,296,588,000 be granted out of the Consolidated Fund to complete the sum necessary to defray the charges which will come in course of payment during the year ending 31 March 2001 for expenditure by Northern Ireland Departments
In my statements on 5 June I advised the Assembly about the process that we would be following for the scrutiny and consideration of the 2000-01 Main Estimates. This process formally begins today with consideration of this Supply Resolution, which is the vehicle through which the Main Estimates can be examined directly by the Assembly. Approval of the Supply Resolution signifies the approval of the Estimates. If the resolution is approved, the second stage of the Appropriation Bill 2000, which was introduced on Monday 5 June, will follow.
Although the Estimates may be approved by the Assembly, legislation is still required in order to give Departments statutory authority to incur expenditure and to appropriate sums for specific purposes. The Supply Resolution before us is the first opportunity the Assembly has had to examine the spending plans of Departments in any detail. This is an important moment. We are now getting down to the real business of governing, which is what the people have sent us here to do. I wish to make some brief general points about how spending controls operate and the relationship between the Department of Finance and Personnel and the other Departments.
Members may find this helpful in understanding what they are being asked to approve today.
The total amount sought in the 2000-01 Main Estimates is £7·8 billion. This is the amount of voted money that Departments need to implement the budget proposals which I introduced to the Assembly on 15 December last, increased by the extra allocations for health and education announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his budget on 21 March.
This is a substantial sum that the Estimates booklet breaks down to a much finer level of detail across Departments. Although my Department scrutinises and approves these Estimates, in most instances the underlying allocations reflect decisions taken by Departments and approved by their Ministers within delegated financial authority given by the Department of Finance and Personnel. Thus, while I will endeavour to respond to any question of detail on a Department's Estimate, any concerns raised by Members will also be brought to the attention of the appropriate Minister.
I also wish to reassure Members that in matters of public finance, Departments operate within a framework of controls and safeguards to help ensure that money is spent appropriately and properly. Most of these controls and safeguards are set by my Department and are kept under continual review. They include clear accounting rules, the need for specific statutory authority for most spending and defined delegated limits that determine whether specific approval from my Department is required. The operation of these safeguards will also be now subject to scrutiny by the Assembly.
Spending proposals are subject to tests to determine economic viability, where that is appropriate, and that they meet the requirements for fairness and equal treatment under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and are in line with the new targeting social need policy.
One of the most important safeguards is that the spending by Departments is scrutinised by the Northern Ireland Audit Office - a body wholly independent of the Executive and headed by the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is a servant of the Assembly. Through the Public Accounts Committee, the Assembly will be able to scrutinise how Departments and public bodies perform in meeting their objectives and in how they use the resources allocated to them. These safeguards are important, and I am fully committed to supporting them.
I turn now to the Main Estimates themselves. The full details are set out in the Main Estimates Booklets that have been made available to Members. A few minor printing errors were discovered in the document, but correction sheets have been distributed. I will highlight only some of the main features of what is contained in the Estimates to give Members maximum time for debate. All the figures that I quote are, by convention, generally rounded to the nearest million pounds.
I will start with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. In Vote A there is a net provision of £17 million to fund the EU and agriculture support measures which apply throughout the United Kingdom. However, this is net of the various market support measures administered under the Common Agricultural Policy, totalling some £149 million. These are fully funded by the European Union receipt and, therefore, cancel within the Vote.
In Vote B, £151 million is for ongoing regional services and support measures. This includes £67 million for development of agriculture and the agricultural products industries and for scientific and veterinary services. Some £21 million is for farm support, enhancement of the countryside and fisheries and forestry services; £18 million is for central administration, including information technology and specialist accommodation services; and £8 million is for the rural development programme. Some £20 million is for the Rivers Agency, and £12 million is in respect of processing and marketing, fishing projects and structural funds that are fully funded by the European Union.
This Vote also contains provision of £4 million for the EU Peace and Reconciliation Programme, which incorporates agriculture, rural and water based projects.
Turning to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, a net total of £64 million is sought in Vote A. This includes £22 million for expenditure by education and library boards on public libraries. Some £9 million is for the National Museums and Galleries in Northern Ireland, £7·5 million is for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and other miscellaneous support for the arts, with some £5 million for the Odyssey Landmark project.
In the Department of Education a net total of £1,268 million is sought in Vote A, an increase of 8·7% on last year's provision. Vote A includes £916 million for recurrent expenditure by education and library boards. This comprises £880 million for schools and £36 million for youth services and administration. Vote A also provides £55 million for boards' capital projects, £79 million for capital projects in voluntary and grant-maintained integrated schools and £174 million for recurrent expenditure in voluntary and grant- maintained integrated schools. This amount includes £32 million recurrent expenditure for grant-maintained integrated schools. The provision for boards' and other schools' capital amounts to £124 million. A further £7 million under the Government's New Deal has been allocated to schools capital. Some £5 million has also been made available in Vote A under the EU Peace and Reconciliation Programme.
In the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Vote A includes £140 million is for the Industrial Development Board (IDB). This major commitment of resources will enable the IDB to offer very competitive packages of assistance to both new and existing firms. A profitable and competitive business sector is crucial to the development of a vibrant Northern Ireland economy. In 1999/00 the IDB supported 52 investment projects with the prospect of some 7,145 new jobs.
In Vote B £148 million is required. This includes £16 million to enable the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to assist with the development of tourism. Also in this vote, £28 million is required to enable the Local Enterprise Development Unit (LEDU) to assist in developing competitiveness, enterprise and innovation in the important small firms sector. A further £21·5 million is sought to enable the Industrial Research and Technology Unit to improve the competitiveness of businesses in world markets by raising the level of research and development.
Moving to Department of the Environment Vote A, £86 million is sought. Of this, nearly £26 million is for the protection of the natural and built environment, while a further £7 million is to fund planning functions. Also being sought in this vote is provision of nearly £44 million to support local government services, while £4 million is required for road safety and related services.
I now turn to the Department for Regional Development, where there are two votes. Vote A seeks £240 million for roads, transport and other services, including services to other Departments. This includes £159 million for the development, operation and maintenance of Northern Ireland's public road system. £20 million is for road passenger services and £16 million for continued support for the railways.
Vote B seeks the provision of £188 million for water and sewerage services. Capital expenditure on these services is estimated at almost £100 million, while £123 million is allowed for operational, maintenance and administration costs, with receipts of about £38 million appropriated in aid.
With regard to the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, a net total of £414 million is being sought in Vote A and £224 million in Vote B. Vote A includes over £124 million to provide for colleges of further education, £135 million for local universities and £132 million for student support, including grants and student loans.
Vote B includes £63 million under the welfare-to-work initiative to provide 25,000 places in a range of employment and training measures mainly within the New Deal for 18- to 24-year-olds and for the long-term unemployed. Almost £60 million is to provide in excess of 12,000 places under the job skills training programme. A further £17 million is for other training and temporary employment programmes providing some 3,100 places for long-term unemployed adults who are not eligible for the New Deal.
I now turn to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety where in Vote A £1,913 million is sought for expenditure on hospitals, community health and personal social services, health and social services trusts, family health services and some other services. This amount represents an increase of 7·7% on last year's final net provision. In Vote B £51·5 million is sought to cover expenditure on fire and related services. This represents an increase of 3·8% on last year's final net provision.
In the Department for Social Development Vote A, £133 million is sought to meet the Department's administration and other miscellaneous service costs, which includes £105 million for the Social Security Agency.
Vote B relates to housing services, where £256 million will be provided, mainly to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the voluntary housing movement. When net borrowing and the Housing Executive's rents and capital receipts from house sales are taken into account, the total resources available for housing will be approximately £600 million. Gross resources for the voluntary housing sector will be around £120 million, which takes into account some £49 million of private funding.
In Vote C, £61 million is sought for urban regeneration and community development, £29 million of which will be provided to promote and implement a comprehensive approach to tackling social, economic and physical regeneration, and £6 million for grants to voluntary bodies. £18 million will be made available under the EU Peace and Reconciliation Programme, of which £13 million will be funded from EU receipts.
In Vote D, £1,778 million is sought for social security benefit expenditure, which is administered by the Social Security Agency. This represents an increase of 2·3% compared to the forecast out-turn for last year. It covers not only the general uprating of benefits from April 2000 but also an increasing number of beneficiaries.
In Vote E, £405 million is being sought to cover expenditure on the independent living funds, motability, housing benefits, the social fund and payments into the Northern Ireland national insurance fund. The payment into the social fund includes provision for the extension of the winter fuel payment scheme to men over 60 years of age and the increase in payments to £150 from this winter.
I now turn to the Department of Finance and Personnel. A net total of £100 million is required in Vote A. This includes £18 million for the financial administration and central management of the Civil Service, £39 million for the management of the Government estate and £17 million for the provision of some important central services for all Departments, such as the Construction Service, the Business Development Service and the Government Purchasing Agency. Some £20 million is also provided for the Valuation and Lands Agency, the Rate Collection Agency and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, and it includes £3 million towards the preparations currently under way for the census of Northern Ireland which will be carried out in 2001.
I come now to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Vote A seeks provision of £27 million to meet administration costs in support of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. This includes £6 million to promote community relations programmes and £6 million for a grant-in-aid to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.
Finally, I turn to the Northern Ireland Assembly Vote, where £31·5 million is sought to meet the running costs of the Assembly itself for the remainder of the financial year.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I will try to answer as many of the points as I can in my winding-up at the end of the debate. As I have already indicated, where I am unable to reply, or I feel that it would be more appropriate for another Minister to respond, I will ensure that the matter is drawn to the attention of the Minister responsible.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Before proceeding with the debate I would like to report that a very large number of Members - more than 34 - have asked to be called to speak. It might be a good idea to limit the speeches to 10 minutes this morning and consider moving to a shorter period in the afternoon. Would everyone be content with that?
Several Members: Yes.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
In that case, I call Mr Molloy, Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee.
The Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee (Mr Molloy):
A Chathaoirligh. As Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on behalf of that Committee. Last December, when the Minister of Finance and Personnel laid the expenditure plans before the Assembly, departmental Committees started to consider the spending plans for their respective Departments. The Executive Committee had agreed proposals for public expenditure of £8·9 million, with the Assembly having full discretion over departmental expenditure totalling £5·1 million.
Unfortunately, the suspension of the Assembly by Mr Mandelson interrupted the examination of this substantial allocation before it could be completed. At that time, the Finance and Personnel Committee was co-ordinating a formal report on the budget on behalf of the Departments and the Committees. In view of the lack of time that the Committees have had to consider the Main Estimates upon which this Supply motion is based, I want to give the Assembly a flavour of the general response to the overall allocation. I am sure the Chairpersons of the Committees will deal with this in more detail.
The Finance and Personnel Committee expressed concern that it had not been possible to tie the budget for the programme of government being developed by the Executive into the Estimates. We recognise, however, that the Executive had inherited expenditure plans for 2000-01 from the previous Administration, and that it was a very late stage in the financial year to develop this.
The Committee questioned departmental officials about the allocation of £104 million. This excluded the annual managed expenditure on civil servants' pensions of £11 million. Members recognised that at this late stage of the financial year, it was not possible to properly scrutinise expenditure plans, and they did not propose to make any changes to the level of provision across the various areas of expenditure.
The Regional Development Committee considered that there were a number of shortcomings in the level of provision across many areas for that Department and that the budget was insufficient to allow the Department to meet all its responsibilities. While the Committee welcomed the initial provision for capital projects, it considered that the amounts fell short of what was required for essential future investment in infrastructure and economic development.
The Committee of Agriculture and Rural Development expressed concern that departmental running costs continued to rise when programme expenditure had fallen in many areas. The Committee also sought assurances that the opportunity would be put in place to provide match funding, needed when drawing down grants and assistance from European sources. Members were concerned to ensure that the Committee would be consulted in the assessment and easements of bids during the incoming monitoring rounds and in the preparation of future expenditure plans.
The Committee of Health, Social Services and Public Safety felt that some of the written information provided by the Department was not sufficiently detailed to allow proper scrutiny of the budget. The Committee sought further detail on a number of different points.
The Committee of Culture, Arts and Leisure considered that there were shortcomings in the level of provision across all areas of the Department, and that the budget would not enable the Department to meet many of its needs. With the lifting of suspension the Committee of Environment and the Committee of Enterprise, Trade and Investment have been able to consider the budget for their Departments. The Committee of Environment raised concerns on a number of issues and particularly raised the matter of the inadequate level of provision in the budget. However, I am pleased to see that the Department of Finance and Personnel was able to agree the spending of £2·1 million for receipts on staff to reduce the backlog of work in these key areas. The Committee of Enterprise, Trade and Investment also recorded the need to increase the departmental allocation if future challenges are to be met.
It is my view - and this point has also arisen in the Committee - that one of the drawbacks in not having a Committee stage within the accelerated passage is that the Committee scrutiny of all the Departments in relation to budgets, and how they are related to the full implementation of the very important policy of new TSN, will not take place. All Departments will have to examine how their budgets actually relate to the targeting of social need within their areas.
I would also like to see budgeting for the reallocation and decentralisation of Departments so as to re-balance the east/west divide. This is something that, in future, the Departments will have to look at. I believe that I speak for all Departments when I say that more resources should be made available to ensure we are able to take up the challenges, and to make the changes necessary so that we actually improve the quality of life for people in different areas. These resources are necessary so that we do not simply continue the programme that existed before we came into operation. This matter concerns broad issues across all Departments - health, education, infrastructure and agriculture. I hope that these issues will be dealt with in more detail within the new spending review.
I also believe that I speak for all of the departmental Committees when I say that they must be fully consulted on future spending plans, as well as related financial matters, such as the respend and review, the regional rate and European structural funds. This must be done at the earliest possible stage. We are already running late on that if it is actually to be effective.
In addition, each Department has a duty to ensure that the respective Committees have the information they need to perform the statutory role of scrutinising, considering and advising on departmental Estimates. Before I draw my remarks to a close I want to impress upon the Minister the overriding need to set in place an agreed procedure for handling the annual financial cycle in future years. I know we have discussed this with the Minister many times and I believe he is in agreement.
As we are becoming acutely aware, this is a never-ending cycle. As soon as one year's Appropriation Bill has been put in place, the work begins on preparing the Estimates for the following year. We want the Committees to be involved as much as possible and as early as possible. Will the Minister ensure that he brings forward proposals so that a process of consultation can begin at a very early stage in the Assembly? It will be totally unacceptable if the Assembly and its Committees are denied the proper opportunity to contribute to the annual public expenditure round for a second year in succession.
Since the Minister's announcement of the budget proposals in December, a number of changes in funding have occurred. The most significant was the welcome addition of £68 million for health and education following the Chancellor's budget in March. I understand that, owing to the manner in which the Estimates for 2000-01 are presented, some of the other figures look significantly different to those in the original budget proposal. However, I am assured that, with one or two exceptions as outlined above, there is little change in the actual amount of provision given.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I take it that the Minister will wait until his winding-up speech to deal with the details.
I call the Chairman of the Audit Committee, Mr John Dallat.
The Chairman of the Audit Committee (Mr Dallat): In my capacity as Chairman of the Audit Committee I advise the House that the Committee, as required under section 66 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, has laid before the Assembly the Estimate of the expenses for the Northern Ireland Audit Office for the year 2000-01. That Estimate has been scrutinised by the Department of Finance and Personnel, as required by the Act. It has also been examined under direct-rule arrangements by the Public Accounts Commission at Westminster, which approved a net Estimate of £4·298 million.
Furthermore, the Audit Committee has consulted the Public Accounts Committee of this Assembly and has had regard to its views. I can therefore confirm to the House that the Audit Committee has fully discharged its functions in relation to the expenses of the Northern Ireland Audit Office. The Audit Committee has invited the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland to appear before it shortly, and after the summer recess we will review with him the detailed strategic and business plans for his office. In this way the Audit Committee will be well prepared to undertake a full scrutiny of the proposed expenses of the Comptroller and Auditor General in advance of laying before this House his Estimate for 2001-02.
In presenting this report, I thank the Deputy Chairman of the Audit Committee, Mr Billy Hutchinson, the other members of the Audit Committee and the Clerks for their help. I also wish to acknowledge the excellent work already done by the Public Accounts Committee to ensure that this House gets value for money, both from the Audit Office and from the various Departments and public bodies audited by the Audit Office.
The Chairman of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee (Dr Birnie): Because of the timing of the initial period of devolution, and then the suspension, my Committee did not have the opportunity to scrutinise an agreed budget linked to policies and programmes. We certainly need to continue to seek clarity and certainty as to the role of Committees in the budgeting process. The Belfast Agreement states that Committees shall
"consider and advise on Departmental budgets and annual plans in the context of the overall budget allocation."
Over and above the specific concern as to the scrutiny of the Estimates that have just been summarised by the Minister, I have a wider concern which is shared by members of my Committee and other Committees. We need to be involved in the consideration of the so-called spending review, which informs spending decisions across Departments for a forward three-year period, and we strongly desire that that should not slip through the net of departmental scrutiny. My own Committee has written to the Minister for details of his strategic plan and early notice of his Department's proposals for expenditure over the next three years.
I also ask the Minister for Finance and Personnel to provide to Committees for consideration a timetable for the spending review 2000, which clarifies how in an annual cycle, all the relevant parties can play their full role in a process of consultation for planning public expenditure on the three-year forward programme. With regard to the content of these Estimates, an area of concern to my Committee and others is the issue of research and development.
I want to make three points. First, research and development is inherently important. It is public expenditure that represents investment, as opposed to consumption. Therefore, to the extent that moneys are contained in these Estimates to boost the level of research and development in Northern Ireland, we are actually expanding the total amount of resources which will be available in future years. In other words, to use an analogy beloved of a previous Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, with research and development we are not so much dealing with dividing up the cake of public expenditure - important though that is, and much of the debate this morning will be about that - as attempting to bake a bigger cake in the future. My first point is that research and development is inherently important.
Secondly, it is certainly the case that public moneys allocated to some aspects of supporting research and development, notably the core funding for research in the two universities, have decreased markedly, especially in relation to what has happened in Great Britain and given, over the last decade, what has happened in the Republic of Ireland. There is no indication from these Estimates that the shortfall is to be made good.
Thirdly, taking the Estimates as a whole, total publicly supported research and development is somewhat scattered and indeed disguised within them. It is not possible by looking at the lines within the various Votes to identify in every case how much money is being devoted to research and development. How we identify spending on research and development is a broader issue for the future. I refer to points made at the end of last year in an excellent report by the Northern Ireland Economic Council.
Mr S Wilson:
I should like to make some observations and ask questions about two aspects of the Appropriation Account. The first one concerns housing. There will be great disappointment at the reduction of 3·5% in the housing budget which, as a result of the comprehensive spending review, has been imposed this year in Northern Ireland. That reduction is already having repercussions right across the Province, leading to the freezing of improvements to properties. Some of these properties have had no major works carried out on them for over 30 years, yet, as a result of the decisions made under the comprehensive spending review, which - and I accept this from the Minister - we have inherited, we shall find that these difficulties will roll on from one year to another.
No consideration appears to have been given to the fact that there are additional pressures on the housing budget. For example, as we found out at the Social Development Committee last week, the amount of money that the Housing Executive is having to spend on purchasing properties from people who have been intimidated from their homes has more than doubled since the signing of the agreement, yet no provision has been made for that. The number of adaptations because of the age profile of the population has been increasing. It appears that the housing budget is required to take on a security function and a health function, and while both those burdens are increasing, the amount of money available for housing has been reduced.
I trust that during the review of spending this year the Minister will take into consideration the pressures on the housing budget and the fact that cuts in it are having a real effect on the living conditions in, and the long-term sustainability of, many Housing Executive properties.
I now want to deal with the education budget. I welcome the fact that it has been increased by 9·6% this year. I am a bit concerned, though, at the cavalier way in which spending has been conducted in the Education Department to date and at the ways in which that 9.6% increase may be used. I know that the Minister of Finance and Personnel will not be able to give me a reply to some specific questions, and I appreciate his offer to pass on questions to absent Ministers. It is a great pity that the Minister of Education is not here since the first thing that I would like to know is how much of this budget will be used to pay for his second office. Or should I call it his "safe house"? We know that he has spent part of his life on the run from the British security forces. It appears that he is now on the run from the flag-waving Loyalists of Bangor and that the education budget is going to have to pay for that. Perhaps the Minister will pass onto the Minister of Education this request for information about the cost of his "safe house".
Secondly, I note that the amount of money available in the education budget for capital spending on schools is in the region of £126 million.
There was great anger and dismay at the way in which the last round of capital expenditure was handled by the Minister of Education. There is an increase in the amount of money available for capital spending on schools for the next year, and I hope that we will not see the same blatant sectarian division of the money that we saw the last time when he included spending for a school that had been allowed for in previous years. He also included spending for a school in Antrim, which will not be used this year but sometime in the future. When you take that out of last year's expenditure, schools in the controlled sector, the schools that broadly cater for the Protestant population, which is half of the school population, got less than a quarter of the spending which was available in the capital budget.
I trust that we are not going to see the same kind of blatant discrimination this year, especially now that extra money has been made available to the Department of Education for capital expenditure. Another thing was sneaked in before the Assembly was suspended. In the very last hour before suspension the Minister sneaked in another piece of discriminatory policy: he now considers as viable Irish-language schools that have only 12 pupils. Controlled schools are being closed down because they have fewer than 100 pupils, yet this policy was got in by the Minister through the back door and without discussion in the dying hours of the Assembly before its suspension in February, a policy which is going to put a very real burden on the resources of his Department. There is no indication in this document of how much of the increase which has been made available to the Department of Education is going to be spent on that.
Finally, the Assembly and its Committees have an important job to do to ensure that the allocation of funding for next year reflects the wishes of Assembly Members more than it does this year. It also has the important job of ensuring that the money which has been voted through this year is spent fairly so that this does not become a "misappropriation account" instead of an Appropriation Account or a means by which particular Ministers - and I think of the Minister of Education - can follow a political agenda of plundering the budget for narrow, sectarian ends rather than ensuring that the budget is divided out evenly and fairly across the services which are required by the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Members have been very good about holding to their time.
I welcome this debate. For far too long the people of Northern Ireland suffered the injustices of direct rule, where we slavishly had to follow Government policy. We now have devolution. I welcome that fact, as do the people of Northern Ireland. We no longer have to go cap-in-hand to Northern Ireland Office Ministers, as so often in the past. We are now in control of our own affairs, and that will make the difference to government here in Northern Ireland. In the context of the global economy and the developing European Union, the importance of regional government cannot be over-stressed. We are now basically in a Europe of the regions, and Northern Ireland must take every opportunity that that development provides.
It is vital for this Assembly to set out its own priorities that are appropriate to and for the people of Northern Ireland. The Alliance Party has always believed in putting people first, and the opportunity is now here to make a real difference to the lives of ordinary people in Northern Ireland. It is important that we do not seek to replicate the government policy that has already been established at Westminster. This Assembly not only has its administrative responsibilities but also legislative responsibilities, and we must make full use of them.
Considering the events that have taken place over the last two years, this Assembly now has a real opportunity to establish its credibility with the people of Northern Ireland. I am very confident that if we work together we can provide that credibility. The Assembly must think strategically about what public expenditure priorities should be. While the so-called peace process has presented economic opportunities, there are many socio-economic problems in our society. Unemployment persists at one of the highest rates in the United Kingdom. There is a vicious circle of deprivation, social exclusion and ghettoization in which many individuals in Northern Ireland remain trapped. This is reinforced by the consequences of sectarianism and segregation within our society.
More broadly, it is important that, as a society, we begin to realise the social and economic costs that arise from maintaining separate community structures in many areas. The Alliance Party appreciates that the nature of government is changing around the world. Government is no longer seen as the automatic solution to every problem. However, many problems can be addressed through the appropriate application of public expenditure. There is an urgent need for this Assembly to develop its priorities. One only has to consider the crisis on the railways. Large lengths of track remain under threat. Two years ago I highlighted the problems that the railways faced with obsolete rolling stock and a track in poor condition. This is down to many years of underfunding. That is what this Assembly is all about.
The Minister for Regional Development, Mr Peter Robinson, should accept the importance of addressing rolling stock rather than rolling Ministers. The Assembly needs to seriously consider the whole question of public transport.
On education, we have the opportunity to follow the Scottish Parliament in abolishing tuition fees for students. These fees are a major barrier to many young people in Northern Ireland entering third-level education. If Scotland can do it, so can we.
Our Health Service is in crisis. There is uncertainty about the future. What is going to happen to our acute hospitals? Waiting lists are still unacceptable. There is uncertainty among the hospital staff. These issues need to be clarified.
I have a special interest in the economy. The Assembly has already addressed the extension of the natural gas pipeline to the north-west. A decision is urgently needed. We must create a level playing field of economic opportunity throughout Northern Ireland. The Coolkeeragh proposal, in particular, needs to be addressed by the Department. I hope that that will happen sooner rather than later.
We have also debated the problem in the textile industry. We need to look at creating replacement jobs for the heavy losses that have been sustained in that industry. All Members will be pleased by the recently announced orders for Harland & Wolff. It is important that the necessary finances be made available for the shipyard this year.
We now live in a Europe of the regions. The Assembly must recognise how Europe impacts on it and on the people of Northern Ireland. It is important that we have input into the new proposals for the transitional programme, now that we have lost Objective 1 status. Those funds must be strategically led for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland, not departmentally-led as has happened so often in the past.
There is also the question of Northern Ireland's representation in Europe. The other regions of the United Kingdom, as well as the Republic of Ireland, already have their own offices up and running in Brussels. The Assembly should also be represented there as a matter of urgency. We should acknowledge the vital role played by the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe over the years.
There are many issues that I would like to address. I have outlined some of the priorities. I hope that now, after the ups and downs of the last couple of years, the Assembly is for real and will deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
I share some of the sentiments that have been expressed by other Members. I look forward to the review of future spending. It is difficult for us to comment or, indeed, to ask the Minister to comment on percentage increases and decreases about which we can do little. Nonetheless, I have a number of questions for the Minister.
The first question relates to an issue raised earlier in connection with another Department. Mr Sammy Wilson made the point that the Department for Social Development will be picking up some of the security and health costs of rehousing those who have been intimidated out of their homes, and that a budget has not been allocated for that.
I make a similar point in relation to the departmental Committee that I serve on - Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Members may be aware that there has been a huge change in the way that juvenile justice has been dealt with in the past number of years. Clearly the Northern Ireland Office was picking up that bill where juveniles were kept in secure units. This is no longer the case, and health and social services now pick up the costs for the care of those young people. It represents a huge and substantial part of the budget. Since the increase in that Department's budget is minimal, that money has clearly to be found from elsewhere. Therefore cuts are being made in other parts of that Department's budget to accommodate this legislative change. It is a devolved power having to contest with a reserved power. How are Members to deal with that? There is a certain budget set aside for reserved powers, yet we are picking up the pieces for the devolved part of that administration.
Having spoken to the boards, I am aware that we are in crisis in Northern Ireland. The position in the Eastern Health and Social Services Board reflects, I am sure, the crisis in health and social services that the boards are facing. It has calculated that it has approximately only one third of what it needs to maintain services at their current rate, and it probably cannot make the developments required, even on a statutory basis. The Audit Committee needs to address that matter.
In the Eastern Board area, an extra £2 million per annum is needed to accommodate demographic changes for the elderly; the board does not have that presently. The stark reality is that in the Eastern Board area - and no doubt Members could say the same about other board areas - there are currently 270 people over the age of 65 waiting for care packages because of the lack of funding. I know that this is not something that the Minister himself will be able to address, but clearly it is extremely serious.
We also need to draw attention to the past, disastrous, policy of GP fundholding. It is good that it will now be stood down, but the board is currently picking up a £2·7 million deficit as a result of the GPs with fundholding practices overspending. What a disgraceful policy. They spent money very liberally and now we have to pick up this deficit for years, knowing that old people are waiting for care packages and cannot get them. A huge amount was spent, probably on doing up buildings and putting in modern-looking equipment, that had not been budgeted for in the first place.
I share Dr Birnie's point about research and development, and I welcome the £3 million set aside for Springvale, but I am concerned that £14 million of student loans is irrecoverable, either through default or deferment. Again, this is a substantial amount that we cannot pick up and for which we will have to find the money from elsewhere. The Minister did not address, although he may come to it later, the matter of the huge 54% increase in the superannuation budget in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that I raised with him last week. It is under Vote C and was not mentioned this morning.
I am concerned that urban regeneration and community development expenditure is down by 21% or £16 million. I would like to pay tribute to those people who, throughout the 30 years of the troubles, and with minimal budgets, had to pay for the community development of their areas. More recently, their excellent work has been resourced through departmental funds, but they may now be facing redundancies or, indeed, closure of one of the most important areas. Many communities need to go through the community development of their areas before they can get to the stage of economic development, and Mr Neeson spoke about resources for that. I would like the Minister and, indeed, those responsible for this Department to acknowledge that we may be picking up the pieces for many years to come if we do not continue to resource these areas.
Finally, I realise that the Minister has difficulties. As he said last week, he is complimented when there is money for increases although we are always disappointed when we see decreases. In spite of the fact that we did not have much of an input into these estimates the Minister generally has my support. I will most certainly look forward to all the Committees' being able to examine the Estimates much more closely in the future.
I welcome the news from the Minister about the new allocation of money. I am pleased that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has got a share of the funding. We may not be getting what we would have liked, but I hope that this new input of money will help to take away the uncertainty that exists in the Department. I hope that, in the days to come, this money will mean that all payments will be made on time and that we will not have to go through a similar situation to the one that we have been through recently.
The uncertainty which existed meant that Departments could not make plans and that the plans that they had were put on hold. I hope that in the very near future they can get on with what they had planned to do.
I hope that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development recognises the difficulties that agriculture has had and the need, as my Colleague, Esmond Birnie, and Ms McWilliams mentioned for marketing, research and development and public relations. Our industry has come through a difficult patch over the past two or three years, and we must eliminate the uncertainty to do with BSE.
Within Europe, Northern Ireland is trying to promote its low incidence of BSE. We have the smallest incidence of BSE in Europe, and research and development and public relations must ensure that everything is done to promote agriculture. Northern Ireland is a very small country, and the agriculture industry is its backbone, and people are starting to realise that.
Allegations have been made about the Housing Executive.
I am very much involved in the housing associations, and I would not like this to be a case of housing associations versus Housing Executive. There is room for both of them. They have had a good working relationship over the years, and I hope that that will continue to flourish.
Another matter that has been touched on is our textile industry which needs encouragement and assistance to find new markets in a very competitive Europe. In Northern Ireland we have expertise in the textile industry -in the same way as we have expertise in the agriculture industry - and it would be a great disaster if that expertise were lost. The extra money that is available will be a major boost to Northern Ireland. It will get people into work, and, very importantly, sustain the jobs of those in work. Their future very much depends on it. We have a wealth of knowledge in the textile and agriculture industries, and it would be a disaster if that know-how were allowed to fall by the wayside.
The points I wish to make relate to the education budget. I would like to bring the House's attention to the issue of prioritisation of expenditure within education, and ask whether we are satisfied that money is being spent in the right areas within that Department.
In particular I would like to focus on the logic in having, and the bureaucracy involved in maintaining, five education boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Curriculum Council for Examination Assessment, the Transferers Representative Council, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and the Irish medium. I believe that there is a need for better coherence between all these boards, and, while it will be costly in the start-up, in the long term it should save money.
The question is simple: is such bureaucracy the most efficient use of precious resources? Should we not be asking the Minister of Education to undertake, as a matter of urgency, a review of the need to sustain all 10 boards, in order for him to be satisfied that resources are being spent effectively in his Department.
One example is the local management of schools (LMS), where funding is going directly to schools and not being eaten up by administration costs in these boards. I welcome an early consultation on the issue of LMS to ensure that schools are properly funded, particularly with regard to areas dealing with deprivation and to this Government's commitment to the new targeting social need.
It would be a far more efficient use of resources to slash this bureaucracy and instead redirect some of these moneys into areas such as ensuring that children with special needs are able to take their full and rightful part in mainstream education. It would be advantageous to increase special needs funding at primary level, rather than secondary level, in order to address the issue of special needs education at an earlier stage. Literacy, numeracy and disruptive behaviour are harder to deal with at secondary level than at primary level. It would also be advisable to put in place better accountability with regard to how special needs budgets are spent.
Another example of how prioritisation in the education budget could bring benefits is in the education of children with disabilities. Prioritisation would help children with disabilities gain access into mainstream education. I know from the experience of a family in my constituency that the excuse of lack of resources is too often held up as a barrier to allowing children with disabilities to attend mainstream schools.
It is simply not good enough that a society that rightly attaches so much importance to the equality agenda falters on the very first hurdle in the life of our children - education. I ask the House to consider carefully the signals we are giving out if we fail to deliver on this crucial test of equality. If we cannot deliver on this, what can we deliver on?
With regard to selection at age 11, consultation is due to start in September and to come to fruition in January/February 2001. A decision is to be made by the Executive by March next year.
In order for consultation to work properly it will be important to have a detailed study of the post-primary sector and to take into account and plan for that evaluation. We would need to go back and look at similarities to the Cowan Report in 1977 and to take into consideration the proposals acted upon on a post-selective basis, to ensure that adequate provision for funding be put in place to implement these changes.
With regard to the most precious resource we have in education, which I believe is our teachers, we need to support wholly the teachers union in the second phase of pay negotiations. It is important to realise the professional development of teachers' needs and that Northern Ireland solutions need to be brought forward for Northern Ireland concerns. British solutions are not appropriate for Northern Ireland.
There is a very high level of quality and excellence of teachers in Northern Ireland. Students who wish to enter teacher training college here must have two grade As and a grade B in comparison to those in the rest of the United Kingdom who have to get two grade Ds and a grade E only. I am sure Members will agree that this is a very big qualitative difference.
Finally, I would like to comment on the remarks of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to the ETI Committee last Thursday when he suggested that the Executive should direct more finances towards economic development, and he implied that somehow health and education were well catered for under present funding arrangements. As a member of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee I am fully conversant as to the importance of economic development to Northern Ireland's future. However, I must depart from the Minister's assertion that finances be taken from health and education and given to enterprise, trade and investment. Whilst economic development may be an important factor in our future prosperity, a decent education is its bedrock. Let us not lose sight of the fact that investment in an educated and skilled workforce is, in reality, also an investment in the future.
A redirection of funds from education would be not just counter-productive; it would be contradictory to the very purpose of successful economic development in the future. This is something, I believe, that the House could not readily support.
I wish to direct my remarks in two particular directions. The first one is with regard to the Department of Regional Development (DRD), and the second to the Department of Social Development. I note that, under DRD, there is provision - and it has been referred to previously - for the railway services. There was some mention, I think from Mr Neeson - albeit sarcastically - regarding the promotion of railway stock. Indeed, that is accurate. I hope that there is support across this House for the build up and promotion of transportation links in Northern Ireland, and obviously, public transportation is an essential part of that. I would like to see a greater degree of funding going in that direction.
Just as we would support, I hope, the building up of infrastructure in transportation links in Northern Ireland, we would support links between Northern Ireland and other countries such as the Republic of Ireland. As long as this is kept on a purely infrastructural basis, there should be no difficulties. When there are political elements to that, that is when the difficulties will occur. I saw that even today with the commencement of an air link between Londonderry and Dublin. Obviously we support all international flights from Northern Ireland to other countries, but the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic had to - I was going to say hijack the plane, but unfortunately that was not the case. However, the incident was politically hijacked in order to make some overtly political comments. Nevertheless, it would be advantageous if we were to promote greater infrastructural links both within our own country and with others.
As the working party gets to grips over the next few months considering the £183 million which is required for safety reasons, I hope that the Minister of Finance and Personnel will, over the next 18 months to two years, provide the Department of Regional Development with the wherewithal not only to provide that safety provision but also to increase the rolling stock.
In terms of public transportation we have been told by those involved that there is an increase in private vehicle ownership of 4% per year. Over the next 10 to 12 years this will result in an additional 50% of private car ownership in Northern Ireland. One has only to consider what the main arterial routes such as the Westlink and Sandyknowes will be like with such an increase in private car usage.
Mr A Maginness:
As Chairman of the Regional Development Committee, I welcome the Member's words. Does he agree that rotation of the post of Minister for Regional Development with other Members from the DUP will not help to ease congestion on our roads or to provide additional capital funding for rolling stock, roads and other infrastructure projects?
No. I do not agree with the hon Member - either in English or in French.
With regard to the Department of Social Development, I note that under the sub-heading detail there is provision for European Social Fund grants to community groups. Members will be aware of the excellent work done by many of these community groups and of the continuance of such work. I hope that funding will be made available in order that that programme can be built upon. It is somewhat disingenuous for some groups who obtain grants like that - as happened in my constituency of East Londonderry last week - to invite the President of the Irish Republic to a community group announcement. This tends to politicise that which ought not to be political and that should entail the support of both sections of the community. It is with mixed feelings that I speak in similar vein to those who address the curate's egg when they say it is very good, but only in parts.
I hope that there will be additional funding for these important Departments, which are both headed up by able Ministers. Irrespective of who occupies those ministerial positions - whether the present incumbents or others - they will continue to be directed by very able people.