Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 11 December 2001
The Assembly met at 10.30am (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I wish to remind Members that a Statutory Rule which is subject to affirmative resolution becomes law once it is approved by the Assembly.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):
I beg to move
That the Local Government (General Grant) Order (Northern Ireland) 2001 (SR 395/2001) be approved.
This Statutory Rule is required in order to specify the district councils which are taken into account when determining the formula for distribution of the resources element of the general Exchequer grant. Members will be familiar with the financial support that the Department of the Environment provides for district councils in the form of this grant.
There are two elements to the grant: the derating element, which compensates district councils for loss of rate income due to the statutory derating of certain properties; and the resources element, which provides additional finance to those district councils whose total rateable value per head of population falls below a standard determined by the Department.
The grant available for the current financial year is £25·7 million for the derating element and £19 million for the resources element. That is a total of £44·7 million. These funds are distributed to councils in accordance with the statutory formula which is detailed in the Local Government &c (Northern Ireland) Order 1972. As part of the methodology for the distribution of the resources element of the grant, the primary legislation requires the Department to set a standard rate each year. Any council that falls below that rate is entitled to a share of the grant. Councils above that level are not entitled to the resources element of the grant. To determine the rate, data for selected district councils relating to gross penny rate products and population are applied. The formula is very complicated.
The legislation also requires that the councils taken into account, and the calculation of the standard rate, are specified in an Order that is subject to affirmative resolution. Article 2 lists the 15 councils for which data was used to determine the standard rate for distribution of this year’s provision of £19 million. Article 3 revokes the Local Government (General Grant) Order (Northern Ireland) 1997 and the Local Government (General Grant) Order (Northern Ireland) 1998. All district councils’ accounts for both years have now been certified, and the grants have been paid. The approval of this Order is a necessary part of the methodology for distribution of the resources element of the general Exchequer grant for 2001-02. I commend the motion to the Assembly.
Mr A Doherty:
It is right that we should express satisfaction, as the Order goes some way towards easing the burden on councils, particularly those smaller councils that would have suffered most from the earlier changes proposed to the general grant. We are grateful to the Minister of the Environment and the Minister of Finance and Personnel for making those resources available.
I thank Members for accepting the motion. I am grateful that I was not asked too many complicated questions, because it is a complicated subject, as far as the formula is concerned. I commend the motion to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Local Government (General Grant) Order (Northern Ireland) 2001 (SR 395/2001) be approved.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I remind Members that a Statutory Rule which is subject to confirmatory procedure becomes law once it has been laid before the Assembly. However, it ceases to have effect unless it is approved by the Assembly within a specified period. This Statutory Rule was made on 5 October 2001 and will expire on 28 December 2001 unless approved by the Assembly.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
I beg to move
That the Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2001 (SR 349/2001) be approved.
I am introducing the scheme to help in the conservation of fish stocks by seeking to reduce the catching capacity of the local fleet. Under the scheme, and with the co-operation and assistance of my Colleague, Mark Durkan, I am making available £5 million in decommissioning grants to Northern Ireland fishermen.
I shall highlight briefly the key aspects of the scheme, which have been the subject of full consideration by the Assembly’s Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and industry representatives. Launched on 5 October 2001 with a closing date for applications of 15 November 2001, the scheme was open to vessels over 10 metres in length that were registered as UK fishing vessels based in Northern Ireland since 1 January 2001; which had a licence authorising fishing in EC waters for any of the sea fish for which the UK has a share of EC total allowable catch; and which recorded at least 75 days at sea in each of the two calender years 1999 and 2000.
Vessels also had to be at least 10 years old, with a valid safety certificate, and they had to be in the same ownership at the time of application as on 1 January 2001. The scheme provides for grant aid to be awarded in respect of two classes of vessels — those targeting white fish stocks, which will attract three-quarters of available funds, and those primarily targeting nephrops, which will attract the balance.
Applications will be considered as part of a competitive tender process. A strike price mechanism will be applied to each class of vessel to obtain best value for money from the reduction of the fleet capacity. Successful applicants will be allowed to dispose of, or transfer, their fish quota entitlements to another vessel owner or to a fish producers’ organisation, and vessel owners have up to three years to complete the transfer. The principal means of disposing of decommissioned vessels will be scrapping; however, my Department will consider other methods. Interest has been expressed in the scuttling of vessels to create artificial reefs, and, if necessary, I will amend this Order to accommodate that method. However, I foresee environmental difficulties, which the fishing industry would need to resolve urgently.
Successful applicants will be expected to have decommissioned their vessels and surrendered all licences and entitlements before 31 March 2002. We aim to inform applicants of the result of their application before the end of the year, so that they have the maximum amount of time to arrange for the disposal of their vessel. The scheme is a key part of a £21 million aid package, which I am making available to the Northern Ireland fishing industry in recognition of the difficulties that it faces. Similar schemes have been introduced in England and Scotland. I commend the scheme to the Assembly.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Rev Dr Ian Paisley):
Local fishermen welcome the launch of the Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2001, and they wish it well in its progress through the Assembly. Of course they feel that the scheme suffers from many imperfections, which have been well documented and debated. I would like an assurance from the Minister today that she will work closely with the fishermen so that matters can be ironed out during the scheme’s application. I also welcome the fact that she has left open certain methods of doing away with decommissioned vessels.
As Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, I will discuss our formal deliberations with the Minister on the matter. The Committee was informed of the Department’s proposals for a decommissioning scheme in October 2000, and it discussed the issue with officials in March 2001. In April, the Committee obtained a copy of the draft regulations and sought the views of the two fish producers’ organisations. Their members are directly affected, and many hope to leave the troubled and seriously run-down industry. The Committee then met with the Minister to discuss the issues raised by the fishermen.
As the Minister knows, their main concern was that the draft scheme did not allow for track records to be retained for use by the remaining Northern Ireland fleet. The track record displays fishing quota units and is attached to a vessel’s fishing licence. Fishermen had asked that the fish quota from a decommissioned vessel be returned to the producer organisation of which that vessel’s owner had been a member. In that way, the quota would stay with the remaining Northern Ireland fleet. Officials from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development had assured them that that would be the case. The Committee agreed that that was essential to help sustain those vessels whose owners still wanted to fish.
Unfortunately, the Minister informed the Committee that despite that being the Department’s preferred option, according to legal advice the Department could not go down that road. Owners of decommissioned vessels would therefore be free to dispose of their track record to the highest bidder. There followed a period of further correspondence and meetings between the Committee and the Department. Although Members did not see the legal advice that was given, they were able to consider several policy papers. These were supplied on 5 July. The next day the Committee agreed that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should proceed with this rule. The Department consulted the fishing industry further during the summer, and the fishermen’s organisations raised more issues with the Committee.
The Committee met officials shortly after the summer recess and agreed to make several recommendations to the Minister, including the length of vessels to be included in the scheme and the use of certain statistics when considering applications from fishermen. The Committee was pleased with the Minister’s positive response, and the Statutory Rule was finally laid on 26 October. After formal consideration on 9 November, the Committee agreed to recommend that the Rule be confirmed by the Assembly.
More than 60 owners have applied to decommission their vessels. It is sad that fishermen feel that they have no option but to abandon their life’s work in that way, but it is also understandable. The savage quota cuts recently proposed by the European Commission represent yet another hammer blow to the industry.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Agriculture Committee, another Member appointed by the Committee and I will today go to Strasbourg to meet MEPs and Commissioner Fischler on this very important matter. The Minister has expressed her thanks for our attempt to lobby for her proposals. I trust that her advocacy, as well as our own, will meet with some success and that part of the dark shadow that hangs over the industry may be lifted. The scheme introduced by this Statutory Rule — assuming it is confirmed by the Assembly — will at least allow some owners to leave the industry with their dignity intact.
I know that the Minister, along with Members who have witnessed the troubles of our fishermen, shares our deep concern for the welfare of those men and their businesses. As the Chairperson of the Agriculture Committee said, this Rule will offer an opportunity for some people at least to leave with some dignity.
We have observed the plight of the fishing industry over the years, and we have seen how people have attempted to deal with the difficulties. On many occasions we have lobbied with the Minister and in Europe for a solution.
The quota system and the new quota levels have effectively strangled the fishing industry, particularly in my constituency. Many people see those quotas as being excessively severe, and share a sense of injustice. While we are conscious of the environmental impact of overfishing, and while we are concerned about the future of the industry, it is indeed arguable that the quotas are excessively severe. I wish those who are lobbying for improvement every success in their endeavours.
Can the Minister give us any further information on the implementation of the scheme? Does the Department have any further plans to deal with the problems confronting the industry?
Mr M Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. This is a serious problem. I welcome the Minister’s allocation of £21 million in aid for the decommissioning of boats. However, many people have been made redundant. Quota cuts on sole, plaice, herring and nephrops in the Irish Sea run contrary to scientific and fishing industry advice. Scientists specialising in the fishing industry proposed an increase of 90% in the Irish cod total allowable catches (TAC) of Irish cod, but the European Commission has restricted that to 10%.
Last year nephrops with a value of £8·5 million were landed from the Irish Sea, mainly for Northern Irish-based processors. A 25% cut will see the value reduced by £2·1 million. At the same time the value of whiting landed from the Irish Sea was £389,000. In other words, local fishermen are being asked to sacrifice at least £2·1 million in the name of rebuilding a stock that was worth 4·5% of the value of nephrops.
Despite being given the necessary evidence, and despite strong representation by UK Fisheries Ministers, the European Commission has refused to keep its commitments and restore the cut imposed on the out nephrops quota to 10%. There is no problem with the nephrops stock in the area 7 management area, which includes the Irish Sea.
Scientists have confirmed that there is a problem with their advice, in that it is retrospective. Therefore, their advice cannot take into consideration the additional technical conservation measures proposed and adopted by local fishermen from 1 January 2001. Those measures were designed specially to reduce discards of whiting and other stocks.
Fishing organisations believe that the EC’s judgement on quota management issues is being clouded by the personalities and ego trips of the few individuals involved. Evidence will show that stocks are high enough to allow fishing in the preserved areas. The European Commission has chosen to ignore the scientific evidence and continues to place fishermen’s livelihoods at risk.
Our fishing community has experienced years of decline and cutbacks, which have had a severe knock-on effect on our fishing villages and further afield. Coming from a constituency that has a fishing community, I have seen at first hand the devastating effect this has had on many people. Let us hope that we will soon see an end to the uncertainty, and that the industry can get back on track to a prosperous future.
I pay tribute to all those engaged in the industry — which is a tough profession — for their forbearance and endurance. I am happy to support the motion, as long as it adequately meets the needs of the fishing community. I ask the Minister to work closely with, and listen to, the fishermen.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and the key aspects of the scheme that she outlined. It has been pointed out by other Members that it has been a long-drawn-out process since we first met with fishermen to discuss their plight. The Committee and the Department have had a good working relationship on this issue, as we fully realised the serious situation that the fishing industry was in. It was sad to see elderly men representing the industry coming to the Committee and not knowing where they were going to turn. Would their families survive in the industry that their grandfathers and great- grandfathers had set up? We felt that they were faced with an impossible situation, because the bureaucrats in Europe were dictating their lifestyle.
Yes, there are disadvantages in the scheme. However, I must go along with the opinion of the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation that the need to proceed with decommissioning outweighs the scheme’s disadvantages. I welcome that line. They are the experts, and they probably appreciate that the fishermen cannot get 100% of what they were looking for. The advantages must be welcomed.
Another point is the possible reclamation of grant money paid in the last five years to fishermen who are decommissioning. I hope that a mechanism can be put in place so that any grant reclaimed from successful applicants is redirected into the industry. Ring-fence it, hold it, put it in savings, but get it back into the industry, rather than into some other Department or some unknown account.
The Chairperson said that it was ironic that on the day when we have firmed up some reasonably good news for the industry on decommissioning, we are now faced with the problem of the new quotas on prawns and haddock. The new demands that have been handed down from Europe must be challenged. This is D-day as far as the fishermen are concerned. I agree with the Committee’s decision to go and lobby the Commission and to support the Minister as best we can. We are united on the issue of cutbacks, and it must be fought tooth and nail.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
I thank the Members for their contributions. I assure the Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, Dr Paisley, that I will continue to work closely with the fishermen and consult them on all issues. The issue of scuttling of vessels is difficult, because of the environmental considerations. It would be difficult for the fishermen to scuttle their vessels in a way that would not damage the environment. However, I will examine it, and if a way can be found, I will deal with it in the legislation.
The Department would have preferred to retain the fixed quota allocation in the North. However, we did not have that option, as the legal advice indicated that it was not possible. I was pleased to respond to the Committee’s suggestions and make some minor amendments to the decommissioning scheme. I welcome the fact that members of the Committee will be going to lobby the Commission in Europe. The fishing industry is in a serious situation, and the proposed cuts are draconian. It will be useful for the Commission to understand that there is a united voice coming from all the parties in Northern Ireland in support of my attempts to ensure that the cuts are not as drastic as proposed.
Éamonn ONeill requested further information about schemes. I am pleased to announce that four schemes, in addition to the decommissioning scheme, will be open for applications from Monday 7 January 2002: improvement of facilities at Northern Ireland fishing ports, aquaculture processing, marketing of freshwater and marine products, and promotions.
That represents a total funding allocation of £15 million, £11·35 million of which is derived from the European Union. The aim of the schemes to improve port facilities will be to encourage the provision of safe, modern and well-maintained harbours and infrastructure at Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority harbours.
The aim of the aquaculture scheme is to encourage the expansion of aquacultural production in Northern Ireland, to broaden the base of cultivated species, to exploit untapped market potential through the cultivation of high-value species and to increase quality through improved production methods.
The processing and marketing of the freshwater and marine products scheme is aimed at encouraging innovation and investment in the fish processing sector, to enhance market opportunities for primary producers and to increase the competitiveness of the participating businesses. The aim of the promotion scheme is to develop improved marketing structures and strategies by encouraging greater integration and collaboration among producers, processors and others in the fish processing and supply chain.
A total of £9·4 million will be made available to improve facilities at the ports, of which £7 million is European Union aid and £2·4 million is national aid. A sum of £1·2 million will be made available for the aquaculture scheme, £1 million of which is European Union aid and £0·2 million is national aid. Some £1·9 million will be allocated for the processing and marketing of the freshwater and marine products scheme, £1·6 million of which is European Union aid and £0·3 million is national aid. The promotion scheme will receive £1·75 million of European aid and £0·45 million of national aid — a total of £2·2 million.
I must correct Mr Mick Murphy’s interpretation of the figures. The total allocation for the various schemes is £21 million, of which £5 million is to be used for the decommissioning scheme. However, I agree that this year’s proposed cuts are a cause for concern, given that the industry has already suffered a great deal, especially as a result of the cod recovery plan.
Mr Murphy said that the Commission ought to ignore the scientific evidence. However, the Commission should, just this once, agree with the scientific evidence. The problem is that, in previous years, the Commission said that it had to act in accordance with scientific advice. When scientists advised the Commission to make cuts, it did so. This year, the scientists have advised us to increase the cod quota to 4,000, and I hold firm to that advice. The Commission, however, has proposed a swingeing cut. The same applies to quotas for other species of fish: scientific evidence indicates that there is room for an increase in the tack, yet the Commission takes the opposite view.
I want the Commission to be consistent. In the past few years, the Commission told us that it had to act in accordance with scientific advice to make drastic cuts. However, I cannot understand its position this year, because the evidence indicates that an increase in the quota is possible. It is ignoring the science and opting to impose cuts instead of increases.
I agree with Mr McCarthy that uncertainty abounds in the fishing industry, and there are many difficulties. He comes from a fishing constituency, so he will have first-hand knowledge of those difficulties. He has asked whether I shall ensure that the needs of fishermen will be adequately addressed in the decommissioning scheme. The scheme is a response to a request from the fishermen. I hope, therefore, that they can avail themselves of it. We have already received 66 applications for decommissioning. Provided that the strike price is agreed, we hope to be able to inform the successful applicants by mid-December. I expect that between 20 and 30 of those 66 applications will be successful.
I agree with Mr Bradley’s remarks about the difficulties fishermen face. The grant money about which he asked is EU money, and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has investigated the possibility of retaining that money. However, I regret to inform Mr Bradley that the Department was unsuccessful in doing so. It would have been nice to retain the money, but we have been informed by the EU that that will not be possible.
I thank Members for their contributions, and I thank the Committee for its co-operation in bringing the scheme forward. It was a complicated scheme and one with which the Department encountered several legal difficulties.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Fishing Vessels (Decommissioning) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2001 (SR 349/2001) be approved.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):
I beg to move
That this Assembly approves the programme of expenditure proposals for 2002-03 as set out in the Budget laid before the Assembly on 3 December 2001.
Today the Assembly will vote, for the second time, on a Budget as envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. The Budget sets out the spending plans that will deliver the commitments set out in the Programme for Government, which was agreed by the House after constructive debate yesterday. As I explained in my statement last week and in opening the Programme for Government debate yesterday, the Executive have had more time this year to ensure that their spending plans are based on informed and objective judgements.
The Assembly and its Committees have played a full and constructive role throughout the process, which began in June with the publication of the Executive’s position report. That position report provided Committees and the wider community with a long period in which to reflect and comment on the issues facing the Executive across all their major programmes and priorities.
The Executive took careful account of the responses received, and the draft Programme for Government and Budget presented to the Assembly in late September sought to address those. Since then, the Executive have had a more formal eight week consultation. We welcome the positive way in which Statutory Committees and others have used that opportunity to question and analyse the many spending issues that we face. In that context, I pay tribute to the lead given by the Committee for Finance and Personnel, which has drawn together the views of all the Committees. That has been helpful to the Executive, and I am sure that Members will agree that it has been especially helpful to the Assembly.
I made a comprehensive statement on the revised Budget to the House last week. As only a limited amount of time is available for debate, I do not wish to take up an undue amount of time going over all those issues or going through the departmental allocations again.
However, I wish to emphasise a few key points. I hope that it is now clear that the Executive listen and respond to what they hear. Their consultation has not been shallow or perfunctory. We have heard what so many in the House, and in society, have had to say about the need to do more for the Health Service, and we have acted.
Including the Executive programme fund allocations that I announced last week and the new money announced by the Chancellor in his pre-Budget report, we are providing an extra £41 million over and above the amounts that were announced in the draft Budget.
We are also acting quickly by adding £8 million to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s budget this year instead of holding that amount back until 2002-03, as was indicated in the draft Budget. As a result, the allocation for health in 2002-03 will be £72 million higher than was envisaged in June’s position report and, in total, will involve an increase of £205 million, or 8·9%, in the current year’s figure. Although most of that money will be needed to cover rises in the costs of providing services, it will allow some £41 million of service development to take place in health and personal social services next year. That is out of a Budget that will total £2·5 billion.
Such resolute action shows the Executive’s determination to make a difference to the way in which society is governed and, more importantly, to the lives of its people. We will be forward looking but realistic as we plan for the future. We shall not be able to deliver the real improvements to achieve the quality of life that we desire, especially to those whose need is greatest, without facing up to some hard choices in future.
As I said last week, the devolved Administration had the good fortune to come into office when spending was growing rapidly. We cannot expect that to continue, and we need to be able to adapt our ways of acting to deal with a different situation. The Executive are determined to use next year’s spending review to make a clear and significant difference to spending on Northern Ireland’s public services. That will be a fundamental spending review, a root-and-branch analysis of where need is greatest and an opportunity to make our mark on the public services.
Last week’s statement gave rise to a range of important questions from Chairpersons of Committees and other Members. At the time, I sought to address those as fully as possible within the time constraints. However, two matters have since arisen that require further clarification. First, the Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development wrote to me as a follow-up to a question he raised after my statement. Specifically, he asked for an explanation of the adjustments that have changed the Department for Social Development’s expenditure limit. It was £450·5 million in the draft Budget and is £449·7 million in the revised Budget.
Three adjustments were made to the total for the Department for Social Development between the draft and revised Budgets. The first was the addition of £2·9 million of welfare-to-work funding that is a technical change in the presentation of the figures to reflect the fact that that expenditure now forms part of Northern Ireland’s assigned departmental expenditure limit, so it is within the resources that are allocated at the discretion of the Executive and the Assembly. Corresponding presentational changes have been made to other Departments’ totals.
Secondly, there is an increase of £1·6 million, which is the Department for Social Development’s share of the Executive programme fund allocations that I announced last Monday. Against those additions to its departmental expenditure limit, the Department for Social Development has identified a reduction of £5·4 million in the provision required for the Laganside Corporation. That change to Laganside Corporation reflects a technical change to the treatment and classification of aspects of its finances without altering its actual activities.
The Department for Social Development notified the Department of Finance and Personnel that £5·4 million less than had been allowed in the draft Budget was needed from the departmental expenditure limit to finance the planned level of activity. That reduction, reflected in the revised Budget, is due to a clarification by the Department for Social Development of the amounts required from the departmental expenditure limit to provide for Laganside Corporation’s planned activities.
To show such a reduction as a reduced requirement is in line with resource budgeting practice. It released spending power within the departmental expenditure limit for reallocation to other services, and did not reduce the spending power of either the Department for Social Development or Laganside Corporation.
The same technical correction applied in 2001-02 also, with £5 million being returned in monitoring rounds. However, in Budget presentations, it is normal practice not to include in-year changes such as the routine monitoring round reallocations in the comparative figures used in the Budget document.
Therefore, with the £5·4 million reduction applied in 2002-03, but not the £5 million reduction that is shown in the comparative figures for 2001-02, there is an apparent 9·9% reduction in that spending area. That is not the whole story, or the actual spending facts, as it is not possible to show every change in the Budget document. We consistently use comparisons that exclude monitoring changes, because that minimises distortions and provides the best like-for-like comparison between one year and the next, even if it gives rise to possible misinterpretations.
The Minister for Regional Development has written to me asking about the impact of the Chancellor’s decision to phase in the introduction of the aggregates levy. According to the Department for Regional Development’s own provisional assessment, that will lead to a reduction in the amount of levy that the Department will be required to pay, which will be approximately £2 million. As I indicated in the Chamber on 3 December, and as I advised the Committee for Finance and Personnel on 4 December, the Executive are content that the Department should retain that sum for use in the roads programme. The draft Budget included a specific addition of £7 million to help mitigate the impact of the aggregates levy on the roads programme.
It would be valid for the Executive to use the £2 million easement elsewhere, perhaps in the area detailed in the amendment. Unlike those who support the amendment to the agreed revised Budget, the Executive honourably concluded that we should sustain the agreed allocation for the Department for Regional Development as an important service. The amendment is a cynical gesture against the agreement. It has nothing to do with addressing the problem of fuel poverty and everything to do with undermining the agreement and necessary public services.
The North/South bodies are an essential part of the agreement. The Assembly and its institutions are interdependent. The creation of bodies to implement some public services on a cross-border and all-Ireland basis is a central and positive development that recognises the nature of the political and institutional settlement. It also recognises and pursues the mutual benefits of co-operation.
The Assembly is obliged, under international law and the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, to provide for those bodies as necessary public functions.
Far from cutting the budget for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, the Committee of the Centre has argued consistently for additional resources to enable that Office to fulfil essential services, including action on matters such as a children’s commissioner and the review of public administration. No doubt Mr Poots and other Members will contribute to the debate. When I presented the draft and revised Budgets, he complained that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister was not getting the allocations that it needed to carry out its services. The same Mr Poots will no doubt speak vociferously in support of the amendment, which seeks to further reduce that office’s allocation.
The Executive agreed an appropriate allocation for the Department for Social Development as part of the revised Budget proposals. From that allocation, the Minister must propose the Department’s priorities. It is striking that the warm homes scheme was not a proposal in the June position report by the then Minister for Social Development, Mr Morrow. It is clearly hypocritical for anyone now to pretend that it is the Department’s biggest priority. In last year’s December monitoring round, the Executive provided £2 million for fuel poverty in 2000-01, and that allowed the scheme to proceed in July.
It was the Minister for Social Development who chose to reduce the Housing Executive’s rent increase last year. That was his choice. However, it meant that less money was available for his Department’s budget, and not least for housing. In effect, we handed £2·8 million back to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because housing benefit covers 80% of Housing Executive rent. The Minister’s decision ensured that the Department would forgo money that could have been used for housing and programmes to alleviate fuel poverty, such as the warm homes measures.
The cuts to the North/South bodies’ budget that are proposed in the amendment would also ensure a real cut in necessary public functions. For example, if we deny funding to the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), the new Peace II programme cannot be implemented on time. Furthermore, SEUPB will be unable to carry out its necessary work on other programmes. It would be unable to respond to the needs, interests and concerns of the many groups that want to take advantage of such programmes and who await their urgent delivery. The development of North/South trade is of economic benefit to all parts of the island, and to this region in particular. It is right and proper that it should be pursued.
The amendments are interesting in that they show a possible change in the DUP’s position. The party previously sought to strike out the North/South bodies completely, whereas today’s amendment seeks to cap and squeeze their budgets. I shall listen with interest to the Members who support the amendment. It may be that they are adjusting their position somewhat on North/South bodies. I note also that there is no move against the food safety body in the amendments. I await with interest the full explanation as to why the DUP now deems that board to be immune from its previous objections to North/South budgetary provision.
The allocation to the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission is for a new interpretative centre at its headquarters in the Waterside area of Derry. DUP representatives have complained that that area has been denied the necessary investment of public resources. However, the DUP tables an amendment that will strike against investment in that very location.
The Waterways Ireland allocation is for new premises in Enniskillen, which will bring up to 70 new and secure jobs to the area. Enniskillen is in the constituency of the Member in whose name the amendment is tabled. Therefore, several contradictions and some confusion has crept into the DUP position. Members await explanations with interest.
The revised Budget is a responsible Budget from a responsible Executive, which is in the business of delivering good government, rather than playing partisan politics. The Budget has to signal a further shift in historical patterns of public spending in Northern Ireland towards local priorities set by local representatives in response to local needs, concerns, and initiatives. The revised Budget, agreed by the Executive, represents another significant milestone on the road towards stability and normality. It will make a difference where the need is greatest. I commend it to the Assembly.