Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 18 December 2000
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
At an earlier sitting of the Assembly the First Minister asked me to clarify those situations when I rule on parliamentary language and personal statements. Decisions on parliamentary language and personal statements are made under the guidance outlined in ‘Erskine May’. It may be helpful if I outline these principles in two particular areas.
If an unsubstantiated allegation of criminal behaviour is made in the course of other comments and about another Member, I shall regard it as unparliamentary language and treat it as such. If an unsubstantiated implication of criminal or similarly disreputable behaviour is made of another Member in the course of other comments, I shall — if requested — give the Member accused a brief opportunity to reply. However, on other matters that relate to unparliamentary language and to the circumstances of personal statements we shall continue to follow the guidance outlined in ‘Erskine May’.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Would it not be a good thing for the House to consult Standing Orders and make provision, as in ‘Erskine May’, for a personal statement from a Member who feels aggrieved?
Several Members have pointed out that Standing Orders are not as complete as they could be. Members holding such views should draw them to my attention or to the attention of the Committee on Procedures. If they are drawn to my attention I shall notify the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures, Mr Conor Murphy. If they are drawn to the attention of the Committee on Procedures directly, I trust that it will deal with them appropriately and will bring them to the House for an appropriate decision.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a further point of order, Mr Speaker. I drew your attention to the fact that a member of the Ulster Unionist party had used the telephone number of the House in a newspaper article. When will you be able to make a ruling on that?
I hope to make a ruling at the start of business tomorrow at 10.30 am.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan): I beg to move
That this Assembly suspends Standing Order 10(2) and Standing Order 10(6) for Monday 18 December 2000.
Members will be aware that today is the culmination of many months’ work on the spending allocations for 2001-02 and on the indicative allocations for the following two years. I regret the timetable that we have had to adopt and I appreciate the difficulties that it has caused many people — not least the Committees, particularly the Finance and Personnel Committee. I am determined that better timetables and procedures will apply in future.
However, on this occasion and in these circumstances it has been necessary to eat into the Christmas recess to enable this debate to take place. This may be unsatisfactory, but it seems to me that the family-friendlier option is to conclude the debate today, as the alternative is a long debate tomorrow, which would be even less welcome.
For that reason I propose that we suspend Standing Orders to allow this important debate to continue after 6.00 pm if necessary.
I have received no requests to speak.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly suspends Standing Order 10(2) and Standing Order 10(6) for Monday 18 December 2000.
I wish to make some brief remarks on the conduct of the motion. First, in line with the decision made by the Assembly, there will be no limit on the length of the debate, save what seems reasonable to the Speaker. I trust that the Speaker will get a sense of Members’ feelings and of the stamina of the Minister who must respond at the end of it all.
That being the case, there will not be a specific time limit on Members’ interventions. We shall debate until 1.30 pm, suspend from 1.30 pm to 2.30 pm for lunch and resume at 2.30 pm with Question Time until 4.00 pm. We shall then resume the Budget debate and continue until its completion.
I have, however, been asked by the business managers to pay particular attention to Standing Order 17(7), which states that
"The Speaker, after having called the attention of the Assembly to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance or tedious repetition, may direct the Member to discontinue his/her speech".
Much will be said in the early part of the debate. I trust that Members who wish to intervene later will stay to listen to all those who speak at the earlier stage so that their interventions are not repetitious. I shall, in deference to the House and in particular to the business managers, pay particular attention as the debate continues to Standing Order 17(7).
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan): I beg to move
That this Assembly approves the programme of expenditure proposals for 2001-02 as set out in the Budget laid before the Assembly on 12 December 2000.
Today the Assembly will vote for the first time on a budget as envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. Guided by the Programme for Government, the Executive have agreed their programme of expenditure proposals for 2001-02 and have made some revisions as a result of scrutiny by the Assembly and its Committees. We had less time for the procedure than we wished, but now is the time to take the next important step. It is my privilege, on behalf of the Executive, to ask the Assembly to approve the proposals that I introduced last week.
Approving the Budget is one of the Assembly’s most important responsibilities. It is essential that, after mature debate, we discharge that responsibility on behalf of all our people. This will be our biggest step in moving away from the patterns that we inherited a year ago. From today we shall be setting a new direction and providing resources for public services under the guidance and management of the new institutions; services that will be guided by our programmes and priorities and not by anyone else’s.
The Executive have set out their objectives in the draft Programme for Government, and the Budget allocations have been framed with these objectives in mind. We intend to make a difference, and this Budget will make that difference to the lives of thousands of our people. We have made extensive provision for the key services upon which we all depend. We have available a total increase in spending that allows for likely inflation of 5%. That is a real opportunity to do more and to make real improvements.
I am determined to avoid hype today because I recognise that we must deal with spending issues realistically. We must, however, make the most of the significant additional money that we have to spend, comparing this year with next. I can cite a few examples of how we intend to make the most of that money. We have made significant new provision for student support and for the introduction of free travel for the elderly. We have made provision for safer railways and new trains — at last. As a result of the spending plans more money will be spent on the Health Service to tackle pressing needs and problems. We are investing more in our schools and further education colleges, in buildings and, more importantly, in staff, because it is our priority to raise standards in education. There are significant increases in the budgets for agriculture, the environment and social development. These will fulfil the needs of key services and will also provide significant employment; they will help too in delivering these services. The Executive’s proposals are designed to make improvements in all spending programmes.
We have also struck out in new directions, most visibly through the creation of the five Executive programme funds. It has been argued that these funds have merely delayed the allocation of money to Departments. That is to miss the point. We are determined to break with the past practice of paying lip service to co-operation between Departments. The funds will play a key role in ensuring genuine co-operation.
Every budget must strike a balance between the desirable and the affordable, and the Executive have worked hard to achieve such a balance. A significant real increase in spending will enable us to provide many positive measures and to make some inroads into our inherited problems. However, our needs are so extensive that we cannot deal with all the problems and backlogs at once. The Executive formed a judgement on this balance. We believe that it achieves funding for some key actions that we regard as priorities and that it offers good provision for all the key services for which the Assembly is responsible.
Last year I said that setting a budget would entail change for us all. We would no longer be advocates for one issue, or for one issue at a time, but would have to judge all the issues. That is clear from today’s discussion.
I am pleased to tell the Assembly that Commissioner Barnier has today signed the European Union community support framework. That is another important step towards completing work on the new programmes. We are very grateful to the European Union for the special support that it has provided. The Peace II programme is a unique and tangible commitment by the European Union to underpin the Good Friday Agreement.
When I introduced the draft Budget in October I promised that the Executive would listen carefully to the points that emerged from the scrutiny of these proposals in the Assembly and in the wider community. The revised Budget is proof that this promise has been kept. We have strengthened spending in many important areas. Of course, we have not been able to do everything that was asked — there are simply insufficient resources for that. Nor must we imagine that new services come without cost. If we wish to do more we must will the means to do more. That is why the Executive have kept the proposed increase in the regional rate, unpopular though that may be. Many Members have said repeatedly that we face hard choices, and this is one from which the Executive have not shied. Raising extra money from the regional rate — from those who can afford to contribute to our services — is necessary to deliver the improvements in public services that we all need and want.
I look forward to a vigorous, but responsible, debate on the Budget. That is what the voters who sent us here want and what democracy demands. When the allocations have been set, key procedures of the Executive and the Assembly for controlling spending will be brought into operation. They are designed to ensure that the money is used as effectively as possible.
I want to stress again how strongly we are determined to achieve progress by working with the relevant Committees and by taking account of all the points raised by Members. Mr Speaker, I commend this Budget to the Assembly.
Two amendments have been chosen and are on the Marshalled List. We shall now take the first amendment.
I beg to move the following amendment: At the end, add
"subject to a reduction of expenditure, as necessary, on the following spending areas —
North/South Body: Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights
North/South Body: Languages
North/South Body: Waterways Ireland
North/South Body: Trade and Business Development
North/South Body: Special EU Programmes
North/South Body: Food Safety Promotion
North/South Ministerial Council Secretariat
Civic Forum —
in order to reduce the increase in the regional rate from 8% to the current level of inflation".
Mr Peter Robinson and I move the amendment on behalf of our party.
I listened very carefully — as did, I am sure, all Members — to the Minister’s latest statement; I have listened carefully in recent weeks to several of his statements in the House and in Committees. We are all agreed, as no doubt are all those who have seen the Finance and Personnel Committee’s report on the Budget process, that we have not been given enough time.
This must be corrected. I welcome the Minister’s assurance that in future (if the Assembly has a future) more time will be devoted to this important aspect of expenditure and government. It is unacceptable that Members should be presented with over £6 billion of expenditure in important areas in all Departments and be expected to deliberate, consult and decide on it in so short a time.
We complained in the past about direct rule Ministers’ lack of consultation. In future, it will be unacceptable for the Minister to introduce budgets in the same way as this year’s and for the reasons that he gave.
I urge the Minister to do what he can in conjunction with Her Majesty’s Treasury to ensure that the calculation of the Barnett formula is changed. I know that he is considering this and that there is a problem with how the Barnett formula is calculated — it does not meet the needs of this part of the United Kingdom. An adjustment to it would help to provide extra expenditure to meet many of the needs identified by the various Assembly Committees.
Departmental running costs are highlighted in the Finance and Personnel Committee’s report. The Minister will be aware that the Confederation of British Industry and Assembly Members have highlighted the large increases in departmental running costs between 2000-01 and 2001-02. This increase in bureaucracy and administration could be pruned to ensure that more money is spent on capital and on delivering services.
I hope that this issue will be dealt with in future and I am confident that, without even waiting until next year, some Ministers are already looking for ways to prune expenditure so that services can be improved. Of course, we must bear in mind that there has been an increase in administration under this system of government, and the Minister drew the Committee’s attention to this. The need to increase the number of Departments from six to 10 has resulted in departmental running costs of £26·1 million for this financial year and the same again for next year. Over £52 million is being spent simply to accommodate 10 Departments rather than six. At the time, many of us pointed out that some of the departmental divisions were not being made for practical, pragmatic reasons but rather to ensure that there were enough jobs for the boys and girls and to cover the various party political considerations.
This £52 million of taxpayers’ money, which could have been spent on delivering services, is being spent on administration, bureaucracy and red tape. Over a year and a half ago, leading members of the Ulster Unionist Party promised us that reduced spending on quangos and on other public bodies would create enormous savings that would compensate for the increased expenditure on administration. We have yet to see those enormous savings.
A review of public administration and of Departments has been announced. However, that announcement was not made to the House. We have no details of what the review will comprise, because, despite repeated requests, the Minister has never told the House what implications it will have. We learned of it in newspaper reports and at press conferences, but Members have yet to hear details of the review so that it can be subject to questions and debate. The sooner that is done the better.
I shall now deal with the subject matter of our amendment. Throughout the questions after the Minister presented the Budget, after he presented the revised Budget, and again during the debate on the Budget itself, we heard heated argument. The Minister has clearly heard the widespread concern in the community — concern that has been echoed in the House — at the scale of the increase in the regional rate proposed by him and by the Executive.
I note that Sinn Féin is also to move an amendment to reduce the regional rate. I am very interested to know whether Sinn Féin agreed to the increase in the regional rate and to the allocation to the Executive programme funds when these were being debated in the Executive. We did not. We come to this House with clean hands, so we have every right to move such an amendment. However, I want to hear from the Minister exactly where Sinn Féin stands on the issue.
The rates issue proves that the notion of collective responsibility in this system of government is what we have always said it is — a notion. It does not exist. Every Minister does his or her own thing, and if anyone needs more evidence of that let him look at today’s proceedings on a key issue of government. We heard from the Minister that the Budget is a milestone, a major step forward for the Assembly. Nevertheless, one of the parties in the Executive is to move an amendment to change fundamentally the Budget that it agreed with the other members of the Executive. Other parties certainly have some explaining to do when they attack us. After all, we do not go to the Executive; our hands are clean on this.
The Minister said that the fact that his promises had been kept was proof that he had listened very carefully to Members. He also said that these are our priorities and no one else’s. Clearly, he takes full responsibility for the 8% rise in the regional rate. The parties that support him on this also take full responsibility. Responsibility for that decision lies with no one else.
Last year the Minister said that he had decided to roll forward the uplift of 8% in the domestic regional rate that was assumed in the 1998 comprehensive spending review. At that time, it was generally accepted that there was very little time available and very little room for introducing radical change into any aspect of the Budget. For that reason, the Budget went through an accelerated procedure without any amendments being made to inherited policy. However, it was strongly suggested that in this financial year there would be an opportunity to make changes. In fact, on 17 October Mr Durkan reminded the House that his proposals were
"not a set of hand-me-down Budget proposals simply rolling forward the plans inherited from the period of direct rule".
That may be largely true, but not with regard to the regional rate. The 8% increase is precisely the increase that direct rule Ministers had planned; and precisely the increase that was implemented by direct rule Ministers in the previous two years.
These increases were bitterly criticised by many elected representatives, especially those in local councils throughout the Province, who have struggled to keep the district rate increases as close as possible to the rate of inflation. They saw their hard work cast aside when direct rule Ministers imposed swingeing increases far above the rate of inflation. Nonetheless, the Minister and the parties that support him in the Executive are introducing another swingeing increase that will add enormously to ratepayers’ household bills.
Rates apply to all whether they are on high, middle or low incomes; rates are not a progressive form of taxation. People who are struggling to make ends meet and people who are working to earn an income for their families will be hit year after year with massive increases in their rates bills. We have had these increases for the last two years. On page 3, paragraph 1.9 of the Budget statement one finds that this is not the end of the story. The Minister says that the spending proposals in the draft Budget require the domestic regional rate to be increased by 8% and the non-domestic regional rate by 6·6% in 2001-02. The Executive have confirmed these proposals for 2001-02, and I am interested to know whether all members of the Executive were in agreement, given Sinn Féin’s amendment.
The spending plans should make people across Northern Ireland sit up and take notice. For years we are to have an increase of 8%. For 2001-02 it is proposed to have an increase at more than twice the rate of inflation; and the spending plans for 2002-03 and 2003-04 require the domestic regional rate to be increased by — guess what? — 8% and the non-domestic regional rate by 5·5% in both years. If Mr Durkan and those parties that support him in the Executive have their way, ratepayers in Northern Ireland, whether they are on high, middle or low incomes, will face a rates increase of 8% every year for five years.
Is this acceptable? We recently had a debate in the House on increases in electricity prices, after Northern Ireland Electricity imposed an increase of 8%. Outrage, concern and alarm were expressed on all sides of the House at this increase, as it will result in consumers in Northern Ireland paying the highest electricity prices not just in the United Kingdom but in Europe. Nevertheless, the Minister comes here today on behalf of those parties that support him in the Executive to lay before the House a proposal that would increase the regional rate by an inflation-busting 8%. This is on top of what has already been done — and there are more plans in the pipeline.
This is simply unacceptable. Numerous studies have shown that people in Northern Ireland are generally less well off than people in other parts of the United Kingdom and that the gross weekly income in Northern Ireland is £100 less than the UK average. I did not hear that argument from the Minister. His only justification was that the proposed expenditure cannot be maintained if we do not set the rates increase at 8%.
That goes without saying. However, the question remains: why has he picked 8%? Is it a coincidence that that figure was proposed and implemented by direct rule Ministers? No doubt the Minister will argue that we are slightly better off than council taxpayers across the water. However, I have already pointed out that we in Northern Ireland pay disproportionately higher costs for many services and essential goods than people in the rest of the United Kingdom do.
Let us look at other issues. Northern Irish people pay more for fuel and transport than those in the rest of the UK and in the South, yet the Minister wants to add a massive increase in the regional rate to that burden. He is to some extent correct in saying that if we were to stick to the expenditure proposals in his Budget, he would have to increase the regional rate by 8%. Our amendment suggests a way in which he could obtain the necessary finance. In correspondence with the Finance and Personnel Committee, officials explained that if the increase in the regional rate were kept at 4%, revenue would be reduced by £8·9 million. If the increase were 6%, revenue would be reduced by £4·4 million. We have calculated that at a rate of inflation of 2·9% we would have to find approximately £12 million to reduce the increase in the regional rate from the proposed inflation-busting 8% to what I regard as a reasonable rate of increase — the rate of inflation.
Therefore we suggest that this money can be found by looking at the expenditure for the all-Ireland political dimension contained in Mr Durkan’s Budget. The increases outlined in his Budget are quite significant. For instance, the increase for the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission is from £400,000 to £600,000, an increase of almost 50%. The increase for the North/South language body is from £2·2 million to over £3·5 million, an increase of over 50%. Expenditure for Waterways Ireland rises from £1·3 million to £2·6 million, an increase of exactly 100%. Some £2·9 million is being spent on the trade and business development body, which was not originally included in the list of North/South implementation bodies. The money for the special EU programmes body rises from £300,000 to £600,000, an increase of 100%. Expenditure for the Food Safety Promotion Board rises by 50%, from £1 million to £1·5 million. In all, the total is £11·7 million.
Tourism, which was included by the Department and by the Minister in the list of North/South implementation bodies last year, has for some reason been omitted from this year’s list. Perhaps because its expenditure has risen from £0·5 million to £5·8 million. Therefore total expenditure when the secretariat costs of the North/South Ministerial Council have been included — and they come to well over £600,000 — approaches £20 million.
If the costs of the Civic Forum and the various other items designed to promote the political agenda of the Belfast Agreement are added, one can see where savings could be made. We have heard eloquent speeches from Members who believe that the regional rate should be reduced. Despite their eloquence, passion and argument, however, they failed to move an amendment. No doubt they will be pleased to support this amendment. I do not look in any particular direction when I say that, although I do look forward to hearing Mr Close.
In an attempt to pre-empt this argument, Mr Durkan said last week that none of the expenditure on North/South bodies and on the all-Ireland political dimension is new spending; that some of it had already occurred. I see that the First Minister has suddenly sprung to life and is nodding vigorously. Our amendment states that the expenditure should be taken from these bodies and put back into the pockets of Northern Ireland’s ratepayers. Essential work that is already under way should continue. That will be a matter for consideration for the Minister and for the Executive. However, if the Minister is trying to tell us that this will end work that is already going on, he is not speaking with any validity. Our amendment allows that necessary work to continue, while stripping away an all-Ireland dimension that was designed to promote a political agenda.
I am sure that the Minister — as the First Minster and others have tried to do — will say that in a budget of £6 billion the amount of money that we are discussing is very small; that it does not amount to much. They dismiss it as almost trivial. However, when we look for extra money to pay for essential services in various Departments we are told that hardly another penny can be squeezed out of the system. I remind the House that for every £1 million spent on advancing the all-Ireland political dimension of the Belfast Agreement, less money is returned to people through reductions in the regional rate. For every £1 million spent there are 200 fewer heart operations in Northern Ireland; 25 fewer homes built for the homeless; 300 fewer people with central heating in their homes; and 1,000 fewer adaptations are carried out in homes so that people with disabilities can live comfortably in the community. That is what we get for every £1 million. Think what the statistics would be if that were multiplied by the almost £20 million being spent to advance the political agenda of the all-Ireland "North/Southery" of the Belfast Agreement.
Others will want, no doubt, to add to and comment on what I have said. However, I want to commend this amendment to the House. Other aspects of the Budget concern us, and we shall raise them later in the debate. Members who genuinely desire to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are not penalised on top of the already high fuel and transport costs and the high and rising electricity and food costs can say to them today "We shall not penalise you further by raising your rates above the rate of inflation". Join with us in the Democratic Unionist Party in voting to have those rates reduced and in putting a stop to the North/South all-Ireland aspect of this Budget.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I beg to move the following amendment: At the end, add
"subject to a reduction of expenditure, as necessary, in the Executive programme funds to reduce the increase in the regional rate from 8% to the current level of inflation".
Nigel Dodds claimed that his party’s hands were clean; the truth is that its hands are wringing wet. Of course the DUP members of the Executive do not take their seats. However, after their Ministers have tried to get what they need for their Departments — and rightly so, for they represent everyone in the region not just their own party support — their Colleagues come here to attack everyone else. The Member for North Belfast, Mr Dodds, made a blatantly political speech that had nothing to do with the Budget, concentrating instead on the North/South Ministerial Council. That is a matter for the DUP, but I hope that this will expose the truth to everyone.
The DUP said nothing constructive. It says that we should remove everything from the North/South Ministerial Council, offering all the old chestnuts about cutting back on Government expenditure. However, it fails to suggest anything that might pass for a reasonable proposal. There is no acknowledgement that their Departments made considerable bids for funding for other projects; bids that they were unable to secure.
I move the amendment reluctantly, and it is with even greater reluctance that I suggest that the money be taken from the Executive programme funds. We regard it as a one-off means — for this year only — of reducing the rates increase. We are conscious that every Department made considerable bids for funding for much needed programmes that would benefit the whole community. We see the Executive programme funds as a means of drawing off money that has not yet been committed. I acknowledge that we could overload the programme funds so I move the amendment with great reluctance and stress that the measure should be for this year only.
The Minister readily acknowledged that circumstances beyond our control have ensured once again that we have only a relatively short time in which to scrutinise the Budget. My party appreciates the efforts of all the Ministers who have grappled daily with their departmental responsibilities while seeking to work together for the benefit of all Departments and all citizens. That important achievement should be welcomed.
I shall answer the question put by Nigel Dodds. My Colleagues were prepared to support the Budget in its entirety, including the rates increase; Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brún were very supportive of the whole Budget. However, after wider consultation and consideration, our party finds itself unable to support an increase above the rate of inflation; that is reasonable. Despite the DUP’s jibes, the Executive will not collapse because the parties that worked on the Budget have differences of opinion. I must therefore disappoint the DUP: any party in the Executive can hold a position that is contrary to that of others without causing a collapse.
Last week I welcomed the statement from the Minister of Finance and Personnel. He identified the consistent underfunding and neglect on the part of previous Administrations. British Ministers, who had no mandate here, flew in and out, setting Budgets unaccountably and producing inadequate and often discriminatory funding packages. Last week the Minister acknowledged the problem caused by deficient spending over the years and the inadequacy of the Barnett formula. I welcomed his comments; they once again made it clear that the Executive must vigorously pursue the question of how we are funded under the Barnett formula.
Members who have worked on councils will understand why the regional rate increase was inserted into the Budget: it was an attempt to match all Departments’ funding demands. However, after consideration, it is our view that such an increase would be an unfair burden on some sectors in the community, particularly the retail sector. There is no doubt that the massive hike in the rates in recent years has been very damaging to small businesses. That is why we do not want to support a rates increase above the rate of inflation this year.
We take the view that such an increase conflicts with the commitments that many of us have, including all the members of the Executive, to support the arterial routes, small villages, rural communities and small businesses. We must remind ourselves that the Minister has already committed himself to conducting a further rates review. This move would be precipitous at present and damaging to small businesses.
We move the amendment reluctantly. We want to acknowledge publicly the Trojan efforts of Executive Ministers — those of them who work together — in squaring the circle of meeting funding demands. We all appreciate that it has been a very difficult task. In that spirit, I want to move the amendment.
It may be of some assistance to the House if I remind Members that under section 64(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 votes on the draft Budget require cross-community support. I simply draw that to the attention of the House.