Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 3 July 2000 (continued)

11.45 am

Mr McFarland:

A recent Audit Office report highlighted serious underfunding in the structural maintenance of roads. I ask the First and the Deputy First Ministers why roads' maintenance is not on the agenda.

The Deputy First Minister:

I thank the Member for his question. We have not yet had the opportunity to consider fully the recommendations and the observations of the audit report published last week. We wish to see a full report from the Minister, Mr Peter Robinson, to the Executive Committee, on this. Like the Audit Office, we want the Department for Regional Development and its Minister rapidly to address the strategic issues relating to roads. Indeed, this must be looked at in the much wider context of an overall transport strategy. There is no doubt that it is a major issue. It affects everyone in the North of Ireland, and it affects all policy areas. That is why we believe that it is the duty of Mr Robinson to come and discuss these issues with the rest of the Executive Committee. We are fully aware of the difficulties with the underfunding of infrastructure, and that includes railways and school buildings especially. We are trying to do what we can immediately for school buildings, and we want to do the same for roads. However, it makes it all the more difficult, and disadvantages people in the North of Ireland all the more, if those Ministers who are supposed to be dealing with these matters do not come to the Executive Committee to bring forward, with their Colleagues, the types of proposal that the hon Member is rightly seeking. They will have to be made, with or without the Minister, at some point.

Dr McDonnell:

Will the Executive commit itself to embracing the information-age society and to pushing forward aggressively an electronic information communications strategy? What are the implications for the agenda of that?

The First Minister:

I thank the Member for his question. There are a number of ways in which the agenda that has been announced demonstrates commitment to encouraging the information-age society. This is relevant to the university research programme to which we referred, to the Classroom 2000 projects for schools, to information technology for farmers, and to the allocation of an additional £1·4 million in support of the information-age initiative. The plan is entitled 'Leapfrog to the Information Age'. This reflects the importance that the Executive attaches to the development of the knowledge-based economy in Northern Ireland and was a key theme in 'Strategy 2010'. The information age initiative stressed that information and communication technologies must be a top priority for economic growth in Northern Ireland. The funds now being made available will be used to support and provide further impetus to the 25 actions detailed in 'Leapfrog to the Information Age' document, thus helping to drive forward the information-age agenda.

Mr Campbell:

I welcome the opportunity to ask questions on the statement, although, like other Members in the DUP, and in other parties, I would reiterate the point about questions being asked by the press on Thursday while, four days later, Members still do not have the details of the expenditure commitments that were given to the press. This is Monday morning, and we still do not have them. I hope that the First and the Deputy First Ministers will rectify that problem.

I have a second question. The Deputy First Minister made a fleeting reference towards the end of the statement to an arts and culture programme of events to aid a better appreciation of our cultural diversity. What plans, if any, are in place for a more equitable funding programme to promote the cultural outlook of the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland?

The Deputy First Minister also commented on the need to address urgently health and safety work on the railways pending the completion of the task force's work on their long-term future. Was it an unfortunate error or a deliberate omission not to include any commitment to the long-term development and viability of the rail network in Northern Ireland?

The Deputy First Minister:

I say again, that if we had had a Minister at the Executive to fight the case for the rail network, it might have been easier for us to be informed and to make assessments about it.

Another reference was made to spin. I will deal with that because there is a difference between spin and information. [Interruption] In this statement we have set out the amount of money to be spent, whether it is new money or that within existing allocations, by the lead Department and what it is specifically meant to do. That is not spin. I ask my fellow Minister to put as much effort into communicating with other Ministers in the proper manner as he does into sitting like a child, making a noise in the corner, while - [Interruption]

Mr Dodds:

We are all working together.

Mr Deputy Speaker:


The Deputy First Minister:

I would love to have time in the Executive to show the Minister how working together can be effective. [Interruption] I look forward to doing that.

Mr Campbell:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I cannot take a point of order while the Deputy First Minister is speaking.

The Deputy First Minister:

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

My last point relates to cultural diversity. I believe that the Department dealing with this issue in Northern Ireland can make significant advances. It is a serious matter which should be addressed earnestly. But the more I listen and see, the more I believe that perhaps the greatest diversity exists in the various communities. If we started to look at the diversities in the two main communities, we might start to address some of the problems that the Minister and his friends have been a manifestation of this morning.

Mr Molloy:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. First of all, I would like to welcome this morning's statement by the First and the Deputy First Ministers. It is important that we get a clear picture of what is happening. It is unfortunate that time has been wasted by Ministers, who should be sitting in the Executive, asking questions in the House the answers to which they should already know.

I especially welcome the announcement of the money going to the health service. That is a very important subject, particularly with regard to waiting lists. There are extremely long waiting lists at Craigavon Hospital because of the transfer of patients there from South Tyrone. At last week's board meeting it was clear that the cost of the transfers last year was in the region of £1.5m. There is a deficit before we even start. It is important to keep this in mind for the future. We must realise the cost of temporary transfers and try instead to provide a proper service in the area.

I also welcome the announcement on gap funding. At last week's hearing the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust said that the different groups that they were associated with already needed gap funding of £1.5 million in order to continue on to Peace II. It is welcome that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has put together funding to help that situation.

It is important to do research into TSN and tackle social need. We need to have some sort of injection of funds to ensure that we can reverse the discrimination of the past and redress the imbalance that exists between east and west of the Bann. We must ensure that people living west of the Bann have proper hospital services and the new schools that are required. There also is a need for a proper roads infrastructure in there areas.

I am certain that when we start to tackle social need those are issues that the Executive will want to deal with.

With regard to the railway task force - and I know the Minister is not present at the moment - we need to look at the railway structure to ensure -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Perhaps the Member would get to the question.

Mr Molloy:

I have raised a number of issues. One was that we need a great deal more additional funds to enable us to tackle all these areas. I welcome the fact that the Executive is dealing with the issue of rural planning and area plans. Will the Executive confirm that there is money available to put all the area plans in place, not just the Belfast one, so that there are no further delays?

The First Minister:

The Member touched on a wide range of issues, and I hope he will forgive me if I do not manage to cover all of them. On planning, there are significant additional resources there to help, particularly to speed up appeals and

deal with area plans. I do have to tell him, however, that one of the key focuses of the area plans - or at least the additional money that has gone in to it - is that the metropolitan plan for Belfast move forward. There is £250,000 under that heading, which is very urgently needed.

I welcome the comments that the Member made with regard about additional money for health. This is a matter of very great concern to us. We are trying to target this money on waiting lists. One of the most important things for people is speed of access to medical services. The waiting-list situation here continues to concern us and, indeed, the continuing increase in waiting lists is partly due to winter pressures and partly to a failure by the former Administration to target this problem in previous years. As a result of that we have the worst waiting-list situation in the United Kingdom. Our waiting lists are significantly worse than those of Scotland, Wales and England, so we are putting additional money in to try to deal with that.

Obviously the location of hospital services is also important although, in terms of what the public want, it comes second after access. One needs to bear that in mind. There is a particular problem that has been mentioned with regard to South Tyrone. The Southern Board has informed the Minister of its decision to temporarily transfer acute in-patient medical services from South Tyrone to Craigavon. It is for Ms de Brún to consider the board's decision and the reasons for it before deciding on the way forward. I understand that she has made it clear that she would accept a decision to transfer services only if she were satisfied that that was unavoidable and that any changes must be the minimum necessary to ensure safety and quality and must also be temporary.

Of course the Member is quite right to say that this has consequential effects on Craigavon. As a result of the transfer of acute services, Craigavon has not been able to offer the same range of elective and outpatient services to people, because of the way it has been affected. We all hope that this will be a temporary situation.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

The time is up.

Mr A Maginness:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. During the course of questions I rose to make a point of order. Given the prolonged questioning by Mr Dodds as Minister for Social Development, and given the bizarre and rather pathetic nature of his questioning of the Deputy First Minister and the First Minister and the spectacle he made of himself - [Interruption] Let me continue my point of order.

Is it in order that a Minister - or someone who purports to be a Minister - should so demean himself as to ask a question that should properly have been asked at the Executive table and not in this Chamber?


Mr Deputy Speaker:

Order. The question as to whether a Minister has demeaned himself or otherwise is not a point of order. You may be aware that it is the convention in another place for a Minister not to ask questions of another Minister, but we do not have corresponding Standing Orders in this House. Perhaps, at some stage, the Procedures Committee will wish to consider altering that discrepancy in Standing Orders.

Mr A Maginness:

Mr Deputy Speaker, on a further point of order. May I ask that, in view of your ruling, this matter be referred to the Procedures Committee so that such a serious issue can be properly addressed and our Standing Orders amended to prevent a recurrence of this pathetic spectacle.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I am sure that the Committee and its Chairman will take note of what has been said, as reported in Hansard, and will look in to the matter.

Mr Dodds:

It was obviously not so pathetic a spectacle when it caused such consternation among the ranks of the SDLP. It is entirely in order for any Member to stand up and ask a question, and it is entirely in order for me, as a Member for North Belfast and as a Minister, to draw attention to the total lack of detail in the information given to this House. However, I did so not in my capacity as a Minister but in my capacity as a Member, and concern was echoed from various sections of this House - and quite rightly.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mr Dodds, you are very well aware that that is not a point of order.

The Deputy First Minister:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I have some guidance as to the basis for your ruling, which, I assume, applies to normal circumstances? From the depth of your knowledge and experience, can you give some guidance as to the emotionally disturbed state that Ministers go through in a pre-resignation period. [Interruption]

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Order. I cannot hear the Deputy First Minister.

The Deputy First Minister:

And will you state that Mr Dodds is being not just foolish but demob happy?

Mr Dodds:

Did you resign or not, Seamus?

The Deputy First Minister:

I did - like a man.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Order. There is no use in continuing with this. I am now moving on to the next item of business.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. A questions was asked of the Deputy First Minister. Rather than answering that question, he decided to go back to an earlier question asked of the First Minister, since he thought that the First Minister had not answered it adequately. Is it in order for someone to deal with a previous question rather than the current one?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

That question has already been asked, and the Speaker will make a ruling later today. I am now going to ask -

Mr P Robinson:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I am sorry, but I am not taking any further points of order. [Interruption] I have made it clear that I am not taking any further points of order.

Mr P Robinson:

How can you refuse a point of order?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Order. I have received notice from the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Mark Durkan, that he wishes to make a statement about financial expenditure in 2000-01. [Interruption]

Mr Haughey:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is a serious breach of proper conduct.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Order. I call Mr Mark Durkan.

Public Expenditure (2000-01): Reallocations


The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan): With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement.

On Thursday 29 June the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister launched the agenda for government, which sets out how the Executive is tackling a range of issues immediately to demonstrate the difference that devolution makes for the benefit of all our people.

That included the allocation of £27 million of additional public expenditure to some of the action points in the agenda. This was possible in the context of a wider review of spending allocations, and my statement provides fuller details of the total picture to the Assembly. Members will find, attached to the copies of my statement, a table summarising the items which are receiving additional spending provision in this exercise. That table and the details of the statement are also being made available to the press.

It is in the nature of budget management that changes need to be dealt with, and the pattern of change can vary considerably from one year to the next, or indeed from one quarter to the next, given the wide range of unpredictable factors which can affect the planning and management of spending programmes. In this case, some £90 million of spending provision became available for reallocation by the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee judged that £63 million should be provided for a range of requirements and bids for a wide range of public services; in addition £27 million was available for commitment to the actions in the agenda for government. This is a first tranche of support for the agenda for government. Further support will be made available in the autumn.

This £90 million came from several sources. Eighteen million was available from the allocations added to Northern Ireland's budget by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his March Budget. That had been envisaged by the Secretary of State before the restoration of devolution as being for particular aspects of transport and education spending. However, the Executive Committee thought it right to take a fresh view on this as part of our overall review of immediate spending priorities, and in essence the £18 million became part of our total for reallocation rather than remaining a distinct pot of money. This meant that the Executive Committee was able to look across the whole range of issues and then judge how best to proceed.

The second major source of resources was the End Year Flexibility arrangements, which allow for money which has been unspent in one year to be carried forward into the following year - either to the same area, or elsewhere. This source, including £6 million of additional receipts from the regional rate, accounted for £42 million of the sums which the Executive Committee addressed in this re-allocation exercise. These allocations include some quite novel allocations which show the Executive Committee making use of the available resources more actively and distinctly than would have been the case before devolution. In other cases, where we judged that the funds were best used in the area from which they had originally arisen, they were allowed to remain in that sector. In all cases, the criterion was the same: where was the money most needed, where would it give most benefit.

The final component of the £90 million available was in the form of £30 million of additional receipts or reduced requirements from the Departments which have become available in recent weeks. Savings from such sources are central to the in-year reviews of public spending, and again we are operating on the principle that all savings that arise in individual public services can and should be brought to the Executive Committee for allocation. If windfalls were left with the public service where they happen to arise, this could lead to substantial distortion of spending priorities which would not be in anyone's interest. Thus, it is regarded as very important that savings of this nature are brought back for reallocation by the Executive Committee. Again our aim is to reach conscious decisions on the best use for such funds, not simply to let them lie where they fall.

As many Members are aware, the largest component of savings came from additional receipts from house sales by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, amounting to £25 million. As I explained last week, extra receipts - that is those over and above the level planned in the public spending allocations at the start of the year - should be at the disposal of the Executive Committee and the Assembly, to be used to address emerging pressures.

Other savings which were also brought back for reallocation by the Executive Committee included £4 million which arose from unavoidable and unforeseen delays in the progress of roads capital projects and £1 million through a rephasing of the planned expenditure on the Springvale project.

These then are the three main components of the £90 million, which were considered for reallocation by the Executive Committee last Thursday.

I must stress to Members that it is unusual at this stage of the financial year to have available such a large sum for reallocation, and they should not expect this to be repeated during further monitoring exercises later in the year.

I do not propose in this statement to set out on a line-by-line basis the individual items which are receiving additional spending provision in their budgets as a result of this exercise. Many reflect routine estimating changes which need to be addressed to ensure the continued delivery of public services at an appropriate standard to the public.

I should also point out that these proposals are not concerned with the running-costs pressures which Departments have identified for this year. A separate exercise later in the year will deal with running-costs issues.

More widely, it has proved an extremely valuable opportunity in addressing needs which have arisen since the budget was agreed by the Executive Committee in December of last year. Through the availability of the additional resources from the Chancellor's Budget and the savings from Departments, it is now possible to meet a wide range of budgetary pressures, including the needs of the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company for the public service obligation (£6 million); Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's animal health programme (£8 million); the IDB's selective financial assistance budget (£6·4 million); and capital programmes for voluntary schools and the pre-school initiative (£7 million).

All these reallocations will be subject to Assembly approval through Supplementary Estimates in due course. It will take some time for the detail of the decisions taken by the Executive Committee last week to be translated into detailed redistribution at the level set out in the Estimates such as those recently approved by the Assembly. When that detailed process has been completed, Supplementary Estimates will be brought before the Assembly and a new Appropriation Bill will need to be introduced. This will pave the way for full and proper authorisation of the proposed additional expenditure.

I believe that these reallocations are clear evidence that the Executive Committee is in the business of sound management of our finances. This means that the agenda for government, and, in due course, the programme for government, can be built on the very solid foundations which are represented by the reallocations of resources which I am announcing today. And the two aspects of this review of spending allocations in 2000-01 are highly complementary - the agenda on the one hand setting out some of the Executive's early initiatives for the region for the next nine months, and, on the other hand, the redeployment of resources to better effect within the wide range of ongoing policies and services, which I am addressing today.

I believe that the content of my announcement this afternoon is very positive from the point of view of those who depend on the public services which we are funding. We have redeployed the resources available from areas where they are no longer needed or from centrally available resources to the pressures which are the most acute. I recognise that it is impossible to please everyone or deal with all the pressures on budgets that may exist. The Executive Committee has taken the opportunity to make some innovative actions in the agenda for government, but this would not have been possible without the resources available from sound oversight and management of public finances, and it remains our determination that this should continue. We will also ensure that the Assembly is kept informed of the proposals which may emerge through the various monitoring reviews during the course of the year.

Mr Leslie:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wonder if you could - [Interruption]

I was taking the opportunity before the hour for questions started -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I am sorry, but we do not normally take a point of order until after everyone has spoken. We had agreed to that.

12.15 pm

The Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee (Mr Molloy): A LeasCheann Comhairle, go raibh maith agat. As Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee, I wish to welcome the Minister's important general statement today. We must have more detail, with as much advance notice as possible, in all these statements so that the Committees can start work on them. I know there are difficulties dealing with this in the Executive and when the Minister has to make a statement himself.

It is important that we view today's announcement in the overall context to see how this will affect us in future. This monitoring round has turned up a number of reallocations. Can the Minister state exactly when he expects the next round? Does he expect to turn up additional funds every time we have a monitoring round? Do we simply receive budget allocations which are then reallocated? If we achieve a tighter control of the budget, surely monitoring will not turn up a large amount of money for the finances of the Assembly will be more tightly controlled.

I draw particular attention to the £4 million for roads, which has been reallocated because of unavoidable and unforeseen delays. I know of my own area's demand for improvements to the road infrastructure. We heard about the condition of rural roads in the debate last week, and it seems strange that we should have to reallocate now, for there are a number of major projects. I could talk about the A29 from Dungannon to Cookstown or the A4 to Ballygawley, both extremely dangerous roads much in need of finances. Yet we are told that this is part of a long-term budget. I should appreciate an explanation of how this comes about.

The addendum to the statement mentions the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and reduced income from timber sales. Is this another injection into the timber sales or the same one we discussed earlier in the year where money was put into the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development as compensation?

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee for his comments. First, I have recognised before here and with the Finance and Personnel Committee that we have difficulties regarding the quality and timing of information that can be made available to the departmental Committee for its consideration. In many such issues, we in the Department are clearly dealing with bids and proposals from other Departments, not all of whom have necessarily shared their ideas with their own departmental Committees. That puts some constraints on us regarding the timing and scope of the information that we can present to the departmental Committee. Given the need for the Executive Committee's good conduct and a degree of confidentiality regarding certain proposals, exchanges and decision-making, these decisions are obviously for the Executive Committee itself. It puts constraints on what we are able to make available to Committees, the Finance and Personnel Committee in particular.

We must try to continue to improve this position, since I recognise Committee members' frustration. I share that frustration, since I would prefer more active and open engagement with the Committee. We tried to make such information as we could available regarding moneys accessible to us. We asked the Committee for its views and recommendations on possible allocations and on the pressures there are.

This monitoring exercise identifies money available through underspends and additional receipts, but let us also remember that it identifies where there are serious pressures in programmes.

In future, the monitoring exercise will identify pressures in certain areas of the budget; if we are lucky, it will also identify further available resources. As I said, we should not expect resources of this order to be the natural or likely outcome in future monitoring exercises.

Two questions were raised, the first of which concerned the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and timber sales. This is not a repeat of the old moneys; it is new money, but the reason for it is the same - the pressures created by the reduced price of timber, which is a global issue.

With regard to the second question, the £4 million that was yielded by the Department for Regional Development was for the roads programme and capital work which, for operational reasons, has not been spent this year. Further pressures on roads maintenance have not been addressed in this set of allocations, and those pressures will have to be considered later.

Mr B Bell:

I welcome the Minister's statement, but I have a question on the issue of flexibility. About £6 million additional receipts were obtained from the regional rate. I wonder whether the Minister considered carrying that forward to alleviate this year's regional rate - I have asked questions on the regional rate before.

A question was asked earlier about the Finance and Personnel Committee not receiving answers to questions. Last Wednesday, an officer from that Department was unable to answer questions on any issue. That was frustrating, and perhaps this question could have been asked then - had we been allowed to ask it and to receive answers. I welcome the First Minister's assurances that that will not happen in future and that Committees will be taken further into account when dealing with budgets.

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Member for his question, and I simply repeat what I said earlier. I recognise the frustration felt by members of the Finance and Personnel Committee. I stress that it is somewhat frustrating for me too, as a Minister, that we cannot engage in the open flow of information in automatic response to all the questions that Members have, when these matters are being discussed by the Executive. That issue applies to other departmental Committees at the stage when proposals or measures for their Departments are the subject of Executive consideration. I ask Members to appreciate that such constraints create difficulties for officials as well. Officials want to be helpful, and I believe that they have a very good relationship with the Finance and Personnel Committee. However, there are constraints by virtue of the fact that we service the decisions made by the Executive. We are not at liberty to fully disclose all information. It is not our information - much of it is confidential Executive information.

The £6 million extra in rates came as a result of a higher yield from greater buoyancy. There are greater returns because of more new properties, and that is where that £6 million came from.

The rate has already been set for next year so there is no point in seeking to revise it downwards. The £6 million is a useful contribution to the moneys that we now have available. It is being allocated appropriately and will be spent well, as part of the wider £90 million. Perhaps the Member wants to identify which measures he believes should not be funded in our allocation exercise.

Mr Dallat:

I also welcome the Minister's statement. It represents the very positive side of the work of the Assembly, which is in stark contrast to the earlier scenes that were witnessed by a large group of young children of impressionable age in the Public Gallery.

Is the Minister satisfied that the additional moneys available for voluntary and community sector projects is adequate to ensure that the Assembly delivers on new TSN in rural and socially deprived urban areas?

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Member for his question. We should be clear that we are talking about some additional allocations. Given the scale of those allocations, I would not pretend that they are going to be sufficient to ensure that Departments or, indeed, the community and voluntary sector are best able to meet their responsibilities under TSN.

The work on TSN across the full range of Government Departments is developing. It is work that is being co-ordinated by the Equality Unit in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. These allocations are obviously supplementing what is already in budgets, and all Departments should increasingly be using sound TSN considerations as they are shaping and sharing out their various budgets and programmes. That is something we will continue to do.

In the allocations I am announcing and those announced by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in the agenda for government, we have tried to deal with some of the pressures in the community and the voluntary sector, not least, but not only, in respect of the question of the gap in peace moneys.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

I welcome the Minister's statement. It is in stark contrast to the fiasco we had to endure earlier. He said the decision was taken last Thursday, seemingly at the same meeting that we heard about earlier. There was no public fanfare about this. Respect was shown to the Assembly, and the detail, which we would expect, has certainly come.

I am somewhat surprised that the Department of the Environment allocation is only £530,000 for the Planning Appeals Commission. As Members will know, a number of areas in the Province, outside of Belfast, are behind in their area plans. That has curbed the natural development of those areas, their plans being out of date. My Committee, the Environment Committee, had highlighted that, and a proper allocation could have ensured that this was taken forward.

On the Department of Education he mentioned the pre-school initiative. Can the Minister now assure us that all pre-school places for children of the appropriate age will be guaranteed? I know of some children who are 4 years of age and yet are not getting any pre-school education.

Regarding the Department for Regional Development, we had a debate on this matter. There was, in the Chancellor's statement, a direct allocation for roads. Has any of this money been syphoned off? How does that sit alongside the disquiet that we all unanimously expressed in the Chamber last week in the emergency debate on the need for expenditure on roads and railways?

Finally, on the Department for Social Development, we notice that a large part of the money is the £25 million that has been additional receipts from house sales. How does removing that amount from the Housing Executive sit with a current shortfall of £13 million? Many of the urgent adaptations for houses for the elderly, and the disabled have been put back. Money from house sales ought to have been allocated to remove the £13 million shortfall.

It would have been appropriate for the Minister to allow that money to have been covered, to allow the weak, the disabled and the disadvantaged in the community to have a proper standard of services.

12.30 pm

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Member for his questions. However, I am unsure whether to thank him for the earlier compliments in his contribution. I will attempt to deal with some of the questions that have been raised regarding the pressures in the Planning Service. We tried, in the overall exercise, to respond to a range of pressures present throughout the budget. In this allocation we have added further money to the Planning Appeals Commission, as a large part of the backlog relates to congestion at that end of the planning system. The Member will also be aware of remedial action we took earlier in the year in giving the Department of the Environment permission to use some of its receipts to target some of the pressures building there. That was relief and assistance received by the Department in that area.

In terms of the education issue the Member raised, the money being provided for the capital work on the pre-school initiative is to enable the Department to achieve the target of 85% of the pre-school cohort to be in pre-school education by the start of 2002. The target for next September is 75%, and that capital is being provided to help the Department meet that.

The Member also raised the issue of the £25 million of additional receipts for the Housing Executive in respect of house sales. As I said in my statement, I do not think we can accept the premise that any programme that generates additional receipts should automatically retain them. All additional receipts should be available to the Executive Committee for allocation across all Government Departments. Many Departments and programmes are under budgetary pressure, not just the housing budget. Not all Departments or services can show receipts. Many are not run in a way that would enable them to generate receipts. Remember that in the past, many other services have yielded funds for priorities in the housing programme. It would be wrong, therefore, to treat that money as simply housing money and not make it available for wider allocation.

The Member mentioned the £13·7 million shortfall that the Housing Executive has talked about. Let us remember that £6·8 million of that stated shortfall is a result of the reduction in the Chancellor's initiative money. The Chancellor's initiative money, offered in terms of the worst estates scheme, was £7·5 million last year. That was a one-off amount of money. The Chancellor's initiative money is £700,000 this year. It is incorrect for people to talk about the £13·7 million shortfall. People will be aware from the two exercises we have addressed this morning - the agenda for government and this allocation exercise - that, in fact, a further £5·9 million has been given to the Housing Executive. An amount of £2 million has been earmarked for adaptations for people with disabilities, £2 million to the SPED scheme - the Social Development Committee identified a £2 million gap there - and £1·9 million will go towards the Housing Executive administration grant. An additional £5·9 million is being put into housing. We were not able to address road priority issues in this allocation round; they will have to be considered later.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

May I remind Members that the time will be up at 12.50 pm, and for that reason I ask them to keep their questions as brief and concise as possible.

Mr Close:

I thank the Minister for his statement which puts some flesh on the bones of the First and Deputy First Ministers' statement earlier today. I do have to ask why the various figures included in the Minister's statement were not available to the Finance and Personnel Committee when it met on 28 June - the day before the announcement was made. Some of these figures are from the March budget allocation from the end-of-year flexibility. I believe, and members of the Finance and Personnel Committee believe, that, even though we were suspended for a long time, there was adequate time for these figures to have been given further scrutiny by that Committee.

Will the Minister ensure that reference has been made to the second tranche of the agenda for government money and that those figures will be made available to the Finance and Personnel Committee in sufficient time to enable it to have an input? May I also ask for an assurance that the moneys for the autumn monitoring round will also be made available to the Committee in adequate time.

The Minister referred to drugs savings and to an allocation of £2·4 million. It strikes me that there is some contradiction here. I am a little confused as to the allocation of £2·4 million on drugs savings. Also, can the Minister give me more information on the additional moneys for the Water Service for operating costs of £3·5 million?

Finally, I would like to welcome the additional allocation of £3 million to the Down Lisburn Trust for capital purposes.

Mr Durkan:

Seamus Close is another member of the Finance and Personnel Committee who has contributed to the debate today. I repeat that I fully appreciate how frustrated members of that Committee are.

Let us also be conscious of the fact that the Department of Finance and Personnel, in carrying out these exercises, is serving and supporting the Executive Committee. So the information is to that extent in the possession of the Executive Committee. As far as this matter is concerned, I will continue to reflect the concerns and interests of members of the Finance and Personnel Committee to the Executive Committee. We will try to see what better means can be found to provide information to members of the Committee and to secure more useful and more effective input for the members of that Committee. This is something that we will continue to explore and improve on. I cannot at this stage give the categorical assurances that Mr Close is seeking, simply because they involve decisions that the Executive Committee will have to make, such as what information should be made available and when. The issues arising here involve a range of Departments.

People are concerned about almost getting into an open bidding exercise with every Department's bid published and that in turn tending to create inflationary pressures on the bids. Everybody has to be seen to be bidding so he can cover himself, and the departmental Committees may be adding to that bidding exercise. These are the sorts of concerns that people have had and the reasons for taking a more limited approach. This does need to be sorted out and worked through.

The Member asked about the second tranche. It is intended that there will be a second tranche in the autumn. I failed to make the point earlier, in response to a question from Mr Molloy, that the next normal monitoring round will be in October, so in September we will be looking at what that monitoring round is offering us. It will be in that context that the second tranche of money from the agenda for government will be dealt with.

As for the question on drugs savings, that really relates to GP fundholders. That funding is to cover the restoration of the fundholder savings that were borrowed to help address winter pressures last year. Those savings are a statutory entitlement and can be drawn down by the fundholders over three to four years.

Mr B Hutchinson:

There have been a number of criticisms this morning of the way in which the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister handled their announcement. I have been pleased by the way the Minister of Finance and Personnel has handled his, and particularly by the amount of information he has given us.

The First Minister said that one of the reasons he could not wait until the Assembly sat was for fear of leaks. Why did the Minister of Finance and Personnel not feel the need to make his announcement at a press conference? Was it because he was confident that there would be no leaks from his Department?

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Member for his question. The Executive took several decisions on Thursday. The Executive decided that the decision on the agenda for government should be the subject of a press announcement by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister with the rest of us in attendance. The Executive Committee also decided that I should make a statement on the remaining moneys for allocation here today. I was not going to do a press conference beforehand or separately. I believe that, as with the budget statement, matters of routine budgetary operation are appropriately presented by myself, once I am in possession of an Executive Committee decision, here before the House. That is consistent with Standing Orders and with the legislation, and that is the approach I have taken.

It was not free of leaks. At the press conference given by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister last Thursday, one journalist asked about a further £64 million for allocation. Somebody somewhere had the information. Thankfully no one was sufficiently motivated to follow that up, otherwise I would have been in difficulties before the House this morning.

Mr Leslie:

I thank the Minister for his statement. I heard his cautionary remarks on the potential size of future outcomes from in-year monitoring. However, the Deputy First Minister seems optimistic. He is clearly expecting further largesse next time round. He promised a further tranche, and we must hope that he keeps on "tranching".

The Minister referred to these reallocations being subject to Assembly approval through Supplementary Estimates in due course. This is a little misleading. Essentially the Supplementary Estimates will be a post facto confirmation of the decisions announced today. His wording did not reflect the true position. I have no particular objection to that course of action. The key point, which has been highlighted many times, is that normally we would have a longer run-up to these decisions with more opportunity for them to be discussed. I do not expect the Minister to reiterate his remarks in that regard. We are all aware that there is quite often a difference between the apparent import of a statement and the actual effect of the small print.

Will the Minister comment on the £4 million clawed back from the roads budget due to unfinished projects? Under resource budget accounting, would the same thing happen or would a capital allocation of that kind become inalienably part of the budget to which it had been allocated?

12.45 pm

Mr Durkan:

I thank the Member for his points. First, with regard to the Estimates, these must, by their nature, reflect decisions that have already been taken. It would be bizarre if I, as Minister of Finance, were to bring forward Estimates that had not been adopted or agreed by the Executive. Serious difficulties arise if Ministers appear to be acting in a somewhat semi-detached basis from the Executive Committee. I can only bring forward Estimates that are based on decisions that have been made by the Executive Committee.

In any other Chamber of this nature debates on Estimates and appropriation tend to follow decisions or clear statements of intent that have been made by the Administration. This is not always pleasing to Members, and we need to improve the current systems. These issues will be addressed by the Committee on Procedures, among others.

We cannot take it for granted that such moneys will continue to be available. Some moneys were available in the last monitoring round which came from the previous period of devolution. However, I hope this does not create habit-forming expectations of certain moneys. There are also very real pressures, such as the costs of running Departments. These costs are building up very seriously in some Departments, and members of the departmental Committees are aware of this. We will not have much latitude in these exercises.

The Member asked about the implications of monitoring exercises. He gave the example of the roads budget and the £4 million that was underspent last year. He also asked whether in future this money would fall back into the programme. We will be putting forward legislation to bring in a full resource accounting and budgeting scheme. The thinking behind this is to ensure that the budget is conducted on a more programmed basis and that there is a strong focus on output rather than the conventional emphasis on input. We will be trying to change that. The monitoring round for the resource accounting budget will still exist, although the nature of this will change. The moneys available and assumed entitlements will change, partly because the nature of budgetary commitments will change. The move to resource accounting, however, will not necessarily mean that Departments will automatically retain any underspend from the previous year.

Mr A Maginness:

I welcome the Minister's statement and warmly welcome the allocation of £6 million towards public safety for the railways and the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company. These changes are long overdue. Secondly, I am sad that the Minister has had to allocate £2 million towards the special purchase of evacuated dwellings. In my constituency, only this morning, there was an attack on a family, who happened to be Catholic. Unfortunately that family will have to avail itself of this scheme.

Mr Durkan:

The First and the Deputy First Ministers previously announced an allocation under the agenda for government of £3 million for rail safety. My announcement supplements that with a further £6 million allocation to the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company in respect of its public service obligations. That makes a total of £9 million. Members will be aware that the indication at the time was that £18 million was still unallocated from the Chancellor's Budget and that the Secretary of State had suggested that £8 million go to transport. The Executive has, therefore, allocated a total of £9 million in this overall exercise.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I remind the Minister that time is running out, and he should bring his remarks to a close.

Mr Durkan:

On the other point, it is a matter of regret that we are having to allocate further moneys to support the special purchase of evacuated dwellings schemes. Clearly, that is an area in which we would like to see expenditure reducing. It is a programme that all Members want to see ending in circumstances where the difficulties and untoward activities giving rise to the need for that programme have completely abated and been abandoned in society. However, we recognise the pressure that is there, and I know that the Social Development Committee had identified it. We understood that, while £1·5 million was provided in the original budget, on current unhappy trends about £3·5 million will probably be needed. That is why we have had to make the additional allocation of £2 million. It is regrettable and deplorable that the intimidation of Protestants and Catholics gives rise to the need for that budget.

Points of Order


Mr Deputy Speaker:

Before moving on to the next item of business, I understand that Mr Leslie has a point of order.

Mr Leslie:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I ask you to advise the House on the timing of the issuing of ministerial statements. My understanding is that they were to be issued one hour before the statement itself. Consequently, at the end of the First and Deputy First Ministers' statement, but before they started questions at 10.50 am, I went outside to collect the statement that we have just heard from the Minister of Finance and Personnel, which was not available at that time. I returned to the Chamber and went out again about half an hour later, by which time it was available. Fortunately for the Minister, due to events beyond his control, the start of his statement was a little later than 11.50 am, which was implied by the timing of the previous statement. It may well be that that statement got under the wire in terms of being available one hour before. However, if my understanding of the one-hour rule is correct, then, in principle, that statement should have been available at 10.50 am.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

The Standing Orders state

"A Member of the Executive Committee shall make statements to the Assembly on matters for which the Executive Committee is responsible. He/she shall where possible make a written copy available to Members as early as possible before delivering the statement in the Assembly. Where this has not been possible he/she should state to the Assembly the reason or reasons."

I hope that that clarifies the issue.

Mr A Maginness:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I raise an issue that occurred at the beginning of this question and answer session. Certain remarks were made that were quite audible on this side of the Chamber, but perhaps not in your hearing. They emanated from Mr Peter Robinson. The gist of those remarks, which were directed at you, Mr Deputy Speaker - and I will rely on Hansard to confirm them - was that we need somebody decent in the Chair. Those remarks, to my hearing, were clearly levelled at you. I am sure that in the difficult period that you were experiencing at that time in the Chair, because of the general unruliness of the House, you did not hear them. However, I regard those remarks, as I am sure other Colleagues who heard them do, as showing contempt for the Chair, and an attack on your personal integrity and the integrity of the Chair. I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to consult with Colleagues and to check Hansard to see if, in fact, the remarks were made and, if so, to ask the Member to withdraw them.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Thank you, Mr Maginness. I will indeed ask that Hansard be examined, and no doubt a report will be made to the House.

Waterways and Languages:
North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting



The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McGimpsey): I will make the statement on waterways first and then take questions on that matter. I propose to follow that with the statement on language and then be available for questions on language. If it is in order, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to proceed in that manner, rather than mix it all up.

The first meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in sectoral format for inland waterways and languages took place in Belfast on Wednesday 21 June. The inland waterways meeting was held in the morning, followed by language in the afternoon. Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Ms Bairbre de Brún and I represented the Executive Committee. The Irish Government was represented at the waterways meeting by Silé de Valera TD, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, and for the language meeting by Minister Ó Cuív, Minister of State. I am making this report on behalf of myself and Ms de Brún, who has approved the report.

The inland waterways meeting opened with an oral progress report from Mr John Mahony, interim chief executive. The council noted that Waterways Ireland had responsibility for the Shannon Erne waterway from 2 December 1999, and from 1 April 2000 it had responsibility for Lough Erne and the Lower Bann navigations in Northern Ireland, and the Royal Canal, the Grand Canal, the Barrow navigation and the Shannon navigation in the Republic of Ireland. Ownership of Shannon Erne Waterway Promotion Limited transferred to Waterways Ireland on 16 June 2000. Waterways Ireland will have its headquarters in Enniskillen with regional offices in Dublin, Carrick-on-Shannon and Scariff in County Clare. The council noted that temporary premises had been established at each of these locations and that options on sites for permanent premises were being pursued. To date 230 staff have been seconded to Waterways Ireland.

(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)

The council noted that ESB International and Ferguson McIlveen have been commissioned to update their earlier feasibility study on the restoration of the Ulster Canal. This will provide an updated cost estimate for the project.

The council approved Waterways Ireland's proposed activities for the period up to December 2000, including a detailed programme of works, estimates of expenditure and targets for other work including staff recruitment, financial arrangements, equality and human rights issues, development of a promotion strategy, property acquisition, health and safety issues, liaison with user groups and proposals to commence reviews of by-laws.

The council also considered and agreed Waterways Ireland's proposals for its organisational structure and staffing levels, the distribution of functions between headquarters and regional offices, and interim pay and grading proposals. When Waterways Ireland is fully operational it will have around 381 staff, of which 257 will be industrial and 124 professional, technical and administrative. Of the 124 non-industrial staff, 70 will be based in Enniskillen, and the majority of these will be new posts.

The council also agreed to Waterways Ireland's outline draft equality scheme. Following public consultation the scheme will be referred back to the North/South Ministerial Council in final format before submission to the Equality Commission. That completes the statement on Waterways Ireland.


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